I came across a new aspect to the same old outrage against the Church. In response to a special outreach of mercy, the Archbishop of Turin announced that women who had procured abortion could be reconciled with God and the Church by having excommunications lifted in a much easier way than normal (ordinarily, this is a case reserved for the bishop or a priest he designates) by granting these facilities to all priests hearing confessions during the time that the Shroud of Turin is on display.
Excommunication is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as:
1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them. In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.
It is a penalty for cases which are so serious, that the Church wants to bring to their senses the severity of the wrongdoing. The action of the archbishop prevents a backlog and encourages women who have had an abortion to get right with God by removing some of the steps that are ordinarily required.
However, this encouragement actually seems to outrage some Catholics as a sign of “being judgmental.” I’ve seen things on Facebook, for example, where people are trying to contrast Jesus and the Catholic Church, saying that Jesus is loving and doesn’t judge while the Church is acting like the pharisees. It’s rather wearying because it seems that these people have fundamentally missed the point of what mercy is and why the Church says some things are sins, and assigns certain penalties to them (like excommunication in some cases).
What they want is not easier ways to be reconciled with God—they want the Church to say that “X is no longer a sin.” It’s basically the personification of what H. Richard Niebuhr called, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."
Such people misunderstand what the Church is doing through her teaching and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sin is not an arbitrary designation by the Church that “you can’t do that!” Calling something a sin is pointing out that it is an act that goes against what God calls us to be. God’s call in both the Old and New Testament is not “do what you want to do.” It is warning them to repent because that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 3:2). It is calling people to change their ways:
3 Say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return to me—oracle of the Lord of hosts—and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. 4 Do not be like your ancestors to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Turn from your evil ways and from your wicked deeds. (Zechariah 1:3-4a)
So, when sin is committed, the person needs to repent… to turn back to God and away from what keeps them apart from Him. The term is metanoia (μετάνοια, change of mind or heart, repentance, regret). As St. John Paul II puts it:
2. When God seeks out the rebellious son who flees far from his sight, he does so with particular insistence and love. God traveled the tortuous roads of sinners through his Son, Jesus Christ, who, bursting onto history’s stage, is presented as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). Here are the first words he says in public: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 4:17). An important term appears which Jesus will repeatedly explain in words and deeds: “Repent”, in Greek metanoeite, that is, make a metanoia, a radical change of mind and heart. It is necessary to turn away from evil and to enter the kingdom of justice, love and truth which is being established.
The trilogy of parables on divine mercy collected by Luke in chapter 15 of his Gospel is the most striking depiction of how God actively seeks out and lovingly awaits his sinful creature. Through his metanoia or conversion man returns, like the prodigal son, to embrace the Father who has never forgotten or abandoned him. [Audience of Pope John Paul II. August 30, 2000. John Paul II. (2014). Audiences of Pope John Paul II (English). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.]
So, yes—God is loving and merciful. But if a person refuses to turn back to God and reject the evil which separates him or her from God, they are in fact refusing God. If we will not make a radical repentance to God, turning away from evil, we will not be saved.
Once we can understand that sin is conflict with God, not an arbitrary rule by the Church, and once we understand that the proper response to sin is repentance and turning back to God, then the Catholic Church with her Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes a conduit of God’s mercy and not a “judgmental act.” We as Catholics profess the belief that the Church is established by Christ to carry on His mission here on Earth. That includes giving the answer to the question of what one must do to be saved (Matthew 19:17 and Acts 2:37-38). The Church is not opposing Christ when she teaches that certain behaviors which are popular today are actually sins. She is playing the role of the watchman in Ezekiel 3:17-21, where God warns:
17 Son of man, I have appointed you a sentinel for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. 18 If I say to the wicked, You shall surely die—and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives—then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. 19 If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their sin, but you shall save your life.
20 But if the just turn away from their right conduct and do evil when I place a stumbling block before them, then they shall die. Even if you warned them about their sin, they shall still die, and the just deeds that they performed will not be remembered on their behalf. I will, however, hold you responsible for their blood. 21 If, on the other hand, you warn the just to avoid sin, and they do not sin, they will surely live because of the warning, and you in turn shall save your own life.
God desires the salvation of all. But some things do keep people away from God. The Church is called to teach the people to observe what He has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20 and John 20:21-23). The Church teaching is not “legalism” or “Pharisaism.” The Church is a guide leading one on the to God. Refusing to follow that guide and going off on a different path is not going to bring a person to God. It is going to lead to ruin that is neither the fault of God nor the Church.
It is important to remember that mercy is not a “feel free to sin without fear of judgment” card. Sin is real, and God will punish the sinners who refuse to repent at the final judgment. Mercy is in the fact that God will never turn away the repentant sinner. If we turn back to God, He will forgive us. There’s no limit to His love and His willingness to forgive—but if we refuse to be sorry and seek to make a change, then we are refusing that forgiveness.
The Church is not an obstacle to God, and is not in opposition to God’s mercy. Certainly, there can be members of the Church who look down on the sinners, and certainly the Pope wants to eliminate this mindset (see THIS for example). The Church needs to make sure there are no unnecessary demands that discourage the sinner from repenting and turning back to God. But the Church will never tell people that it is now OK to sin.