The furore caused by Misericordia et Misera is a damning indictment of those surrounding the PopePope Francis is not an expert in canon law. I do not think His Holiness would mind me putting it that bluntly. In fact I rather suspect that, given his personal style, he would happily agree. It is far from heresy to point out that a pope might not be a born canonical expert, anymore than it would be unreasonable to suggest that Donald Trump has no particular natural expertise in American constitutional law.
The Pope wears a number of different hats (three, if you take a look at the papal coat of arms) and he is sometimes speaking as a priest, sometimes a teacher, and sometimes as the head of a coherent legal society. The roles are not distinct in how they are exercised, or at least they shouldn’t be, and what he does, or wants to do, as one necessarily has a direct impact on the other two. It is the job of those around the Pope to take his instructions and turn them into a statement that is coherent pastorally, legally, and theologically; that’s the proper function of all those well-dressed monsigniori gliding around the Vatican. Unfortunately they let the side down badly this week and the results have been totally unnecessary confusion.
Yesterday Pope Francis released the apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera. In it he extended the special provision he made for the Year of Mercy which granted every priest the faculty to lift the censure for the grave crime of abortion. That at least was what it should have said. In fact Misericordia et Misera stated, as did the original letter for the Year of Mercy, that the Pope was granting all priests “the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion”.
Before trying to dispel the confusion which has, predictably and unnecessarily, grown up around it, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: the language of this statement is wrong – simply, avoidably and basically wrong. And while that is enormously frustrating, it is not the end of the world. It is, however, a damning indictment of those around the Pope who seem either unable or unwilling to ensure even a minimum of theological and canonical coherence in some of what is presented for the papal signature.