Love and the Rigidity of the Law

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

By Kenneth P. Serbin

As Pope Francis I announced this past week that he would allow priests to forgive the sin of abortion, a recently premiered American film gained increasing attention because of its non-dogmatic, even humorous treatment of the question of abortion. Normally only bishops can forgive an abortion, but during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy that Francis I declared for the period from December 8, 2015, to November 20, 2016, priests, too, could absolve individuals who have repented for their actions.

In a work of art seemingly incongruous with Catholic teachings, the film Grandma portrays the relationship between a feminist lesbian in her 70s and her 18-year-old granddaughter.

The grandma, Elle, is played by the veteran actress Lily Tomlin, a real-life feminist lesbian who in 2013 married her partner of four decades. Played by Julia Garner, Sage, the granddaughter, has decided to have an abortion because she doesn’t get along with her boyfriend and wants to attend college. Elle decides to help her granddaughter raise the money to pay for the procedure.

Just as the pope has sought to revivify the Catholic faith with a greater emphasis on tolerance and an appreciation for the complexities of life, Grandma presents abortion in its varied nuances, with an intelligent dose of humor offered by the cantankerous Tomlin (rumors of an Oscar nomination for best actress are already circulating).

In contrast with Brazil, where abortion is illegal and often dangerous, Grandma assumes the American woman’s right to choose (as guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973) and to be safe. However, it does not present abortion as an easy choice with no consequences.

“You’ve thought about it, right?” Elle asks Sage about the abortion. “Because it’s something you’ll probably think about, at least once, every day for the rest of your life.”

Indeed, the film later reveals that Elle herself had had an abortion as a young woman.

One might imagine priests inspired by both the pope and the film dialoguing with women (and others involved in the process) about abortion rather than strictly laying down the law.

The hard reality is that millions upon millions of Catholic and other Christian women in both Brazil and the U.S. have had abortions over the past several decades.

Brazilian and American Catholics have long acted far differently from what the hierarchy preaches with respect not just to abortion, but also to birth control.

Francis is making abundantly clear that he wants to be not exclusive, but inclusive.

The Jubilee of Mercy echoes powerfully with his now famous phrase spoken on his return to Italy after visiting Brazil — “Who am I to judge?” — in response to a question about his view on gay priests.

On the surface, this tolerant stance seemed to come under attack in the U.S. with the refusal of a county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision guaranteeing the right to same-sex marriage. On September 3 a federal judge punished her for contempt of court by sending her to jail — a strong message in support of the law. Davis based her refusal on her beliefs as an Apostolic Christian, a Protestant denomination.

The media characteristically have focused on the confrontation between Davis and the courts. What is truly striking, however, is that Davis so far is the only such official to disobey the law. The U.S. has more than 3,000 counties. The real news is that even though many people disagree with same-sex marriage, they are respecting the law and going about their daily lives as normal. The Jubilee, Grandma, and the Davis case all highlight the fact that religion, politics, sexuality, and human reproduction are as tightly intertwined as ever.

In this milieu Francis I is perhaps emerging as the first pope to tackle questions of gender. His emphasis on mercy in the case of abortion is also another opening position as the Catholic Church prepares for the October Synod of Bishops on the Family.

Although initial reports indicate that the synod could simply result in a reaffirmation of Church traditions, Francis could likely use the meeting, over which he will preside, to liberalize Church practices regarding the family such as allowing priests to give the Eucharist to divorced Catholics and extending a more welcoming hand to divorced individuals in general.

Liberal groups in the Church are pushing for even an even greater opening on questions such as same-sex marriage and the elimination of the official exclusion of open gays from the life of the Church.

Whatever path the Church takes, as long as Francis is pope we are likely to continue witnessing an emphasis on love over the rigidity of the law.

(Kenneth P. Serbin is the author of Needs of the Heart: A Social and Cultural History of Brazil’s Clergy and Seminaries, University of Notre Dame Press. The Portuguese-language version of this article was published in the September 6, 2015, edition of O Estado de S. Paulo.)


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