Victor Chininin Buele
A quick background paragraph must go first. I woke up this morning, thanked the Lord for a new day of life, and while catching up on the latest episode of the reality TV adventures of President-Elect Trump, I noticed a news story about the pope which CNN summarized as pope Francis granting the right to forgive abortion to every Catholic priest. http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/21/europe/pope-francis-absolve-abortion/index.html. Such a story sure woke me up. I published the following on my Facebook account after reading the whole article:
Father William Dotson, Associate Pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Parish in Wentzville, Missouri, and a long-time and dear friend of mine, was very kind to respond to my comment to shed some light on the subject. This longer response comes from a need to work through how words matter. Especially when we are dealing with the word forgiveness. He explained the story behind the reported story. For that I’m thankful.
“This story is a huge misunderstanding.” I thank Father Dotson for shedding light on the subject. It turns out that the media did not find a good way to summarize what actually happened in a way that actually would get someone to click on it. “Pope: Abortion Forgivable” makes for many more clicks. About a year ago I protested about a similar story where the Year of Mercy was announced by the pope about the same subject. Just like before, the pope was not addressing forgiveness of the sin but forgiveness of the ecclesiastical consequences, the ecclesiastical penalties of a sin like abortion (i.e., excommunication, etc.) Only bishops could forgive those penalties before the permission has been granted, and now your friendly neighborhood Roman catholic priest can extend this permission to forgive the ecclesiastical penalties of such a sin to anyone coming to confess this.
So, my temptation would be to summarize this as: “Pope says absolutely nothing of substance about healing after an abortion.” “Media takes advantage of obscure statement.”
But that would just contribute to the climate of non-meaningful dialog.
I have not taken my original post down as I would with an apology if I would have found my original statement to be wrong, unhelpful, or incoherent to the conversation. While CNN has been proven to be inaccurate in this story, my point was well summarized by what I read shortly before encountering that story in Tim Keller’s Hidden Christmas and quoted in my Facebook post. Nothing in Father Dotson’s response to my comment or in his own post about the subject have changed my original point. So, let me interact further with this.
While we both are starting at a point where we both acknowledge the sinfulness of abortion, we appear to diverge greatly on everything after that. But I do need to affirm this point of initial agreement lest we think this does not matter at all. Let’s say that Rosita walks into the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic and exerts her legal right as a United States citizen to have an abortion. On the way out she sees this short guy standing on a step ladder named Pastor Victor, and their eyes meet. And she does not get a look of judgement but one of compassion. It’s not an “I told you, so you filthy, ugly sinner. Now you are going to pay for not ‘choosing life,’ and I’m going to make sure you know it” moment. She just went through an incredibly difficult historical point of her life, and I don’t have any clue as to what lays before and after this moment in her life. The fence keeps her from further contact, but the boyfriend did not go in. He stayed outside listening to his loud music. As she walks to him she says hello to my children and my wife who are there praying. We don’t have funny signs nor are we seeking to violate the law. We are not in her face. But she loses it. It all becomes real. And she is broken. While she may have had a choice to do this, the consequences of this kick in. She believed the counselors and the literature that advised her that she had disposed a blob of tissue. But there she finds herself alone. Her feelings don’t match up with a mere biological disposal. You know, that loneliness that is not overcome just because she is sitting next to the man who paid for the procedure. The sadness she carries is an indescribable sadness. So she gets out of the car, and she finds Pastor Victor and Father Dotson standing by each other.
My priorities in such an encounter would be:
- To get my wife there to hold Rosita and comfort her.
- To listen to her. To take her away from there and give her a place to collect her thoughts and her emotions.
- To offer actual help. We will have to sort out how we can be a blessing to her as the church. We would find ways to welcome her and care for her. The Lord Jesus has taught us to have compassion on those who are lost–like sheep without a shepherd.
- To preach the gospel to her. Acts 8:35 gives us a model here of the loving command to tell her the good news about Jesus starting with this circumstance in her life. How does Jesus make you whole. How does Jesus carry you in his arms. How does Jesus through His church lead you to repentance and healing. How does Jesus give you hope, actual hope, of restoration. In other words, we are to preach of the calling and consequences of forgiveness of sins. We all, not just those who are in this situation, have sinned and fallen short. How could we not offer the same forgiveness we have experienced!
- Regardless of her response to the call of the gospel, to love her sacrificially, generously, and lavishly. We are not peddlers trying to see conversion as a financial transaction. It may be we are the only people in the world who are talking to her at the moment.
I would say that Father Dotson would say that these are his priorities as well.
The challenge is that he comes to the game with a very complicated ecclesiastical set of rules on his back that make such an invitation very difficult. If I am not misrepresenting him, forgiveness can only come through a Roman catholic priest (but Jesus did away with the need for a priesthood with the once-and-for-all sacrifice of his perfect life at the cross). Forgiveness cannot be separated from this Roman catholic structure. His response to my question implies that, though we have Vatican II trying to bridge this gap, we are still as far away as we were five hundred years ago. And what the pope is doing here is allowing for the local priest to do this rather than only the archbishop of St. Louis in our case.
So, I’m beyond thankful for his clarification and for not wanting to take a Facebook thread into the realm of confession, what the roman church calls the sacrament of confession. There are a number of verses from the New Testament as well as a plethora of teachings from Roman church history that will make his point for Father Dotson that there is a special gift and command to the Roman church to forgive sins. There are a number of verses from the New Testament that plainly make the point that the call of repentance and the forgiveness of sins are unmediated and are on the basis of Christ’s work alone. That discussion is a worthy one. It matters because the essence of the gospel is at play.
But today my point is a narrower one – every news outlet in America is going to report that (by implication):
- Christians did not think abortion was forgivable
- The good pope Francis has changed this and now the church is changing its bad ways and granting this forgiveness
- Since abortion is not bad according to our collective cultural norms, this is a giant leap forward for humankind in accepting abortion
- (Perhaps), see, abortion is not that big of a deal!
That will only increase this perception that Christians are idiots and need to get on with the times. Reality is that abortion, like every sin, is forgivable. But not because some guy in Rome says so. But because Jesus died for it. And he never leaves us there and alone to pick up the consequences on our own. When Matthew the evangelist reports the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” There was no ecclesiastical structure or stack of rules. Just a plain call to repent. And real forgiveness is at hand. I remember tricking all these priests while growing up. For academic and family reasons, partaking in communion at the catholic church was always a must. So, I, the clean-cut, goody-two-shoes rebel-who-pretended-to-be-a-good-boy always looked at these priests and delighted in saying, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been x weeks since my last confession.” I would list the respectable sins: skipping church, lying to my mother, not praying enough. And then I would deliver my carefully-crafted line, “And forgive me, Father, for any sins I may have left out in my examination of conscience, either by neglect or nervousness or whatever reason.” This line was always delivered to sound like an afterthought, a very humble and pious afterthought. This line hid the ugliness of my sin for many years. I knew it was detestable. It was so bad that I couldn’t even say it to the old priest who was hard of hearing. If I were waiting for a priest to deliver me from that, I would still be broken and actively destroying my life. Maybe I wouldn’t even be here anymore. But when that tall dude in college led me to actually pray in the Spirit, “Forgive me, Father,” to the Father in heaven through the merits of Christ alone and not my own, only then was my freedom found.
I cannot and will not stand by anything that puts obstacles in the way of forgiveness. And I will not stand quiet while people are led to believe that forgiveness is pointless.
Father Dotson himself writes, “This is not about forgiving sins but about ecclesiastical penalties, and is mostly a symbolic gesture, as priests generally already had this faculty.” That is the most scary thing I have read his month. And knowing that “President Trump” has been written this month, that should say a lot. Let’s be done with symbolic gestures and get to the real gritty business of seeking the lost and welcoming them. Jesus did not keep his holiness to himself. He radically affected every sinner who came to him. They were never the same. There is no mediator but Jesus – the separation between God and man has not been in place for 2000 years. Let’s get on with the times.
Healing is messy. Let the full, clean, crisp gospel shine forth have its right effect.
And I might just go see my friend Father Dotson after one of his morning masses and continue to talk. It’s good for the soul. Thank you for the comment.