SEOUL, South Korea — Pope Francis has generally avoided hot-button "culture war" issues like abortion, arguing that the church's doctrine on the sanctity of life is well-known and that he'd rather emphasize other aspects of church teaching.
But he made a strong, albeit silent anti-abortion statement Saturday during his visit to South Korea, stopping to pray at a monument for aborted babies in a community dedicated to caring for people with the sort of severe genetic disabilities that are often used to justify abortions.
Francis bowed his head in prayer before the monument — a garden strewn with simple white wooden crosses — and spoke with an anti-abortion activist with no arms and no legs.
He also spent an hour blessing dozens of disabled Koreans who live in the Kkottongnae community, founded by a priest in the 1970s to take in disabled children and adults abandoned by their families. There is still tremendous stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities in South Korea, and supporters of the Kkottongnae community argue that if it didn't take these people in, no one would.
Francis caressed and hugged each of the residents of the community, young and old, and seemed genuinely pleased when one of the elderly residents with cerebral palsy, Kim Inja Cecilia, presented him with an origami crane she folded with her feet.
South Korea banned abortion in 1953 with exceptions for rape, incest or severe genetic disorders. The constitutional court upheld the ban in 2012.
Activists, however, say authorities turned a blind eye to abortions for decades until cracking down in recent years due to South Korea's low birthrate, one of the lowest in the world. During the 1970s and 1980s, South Korea's government saw big families as an obstacle to economic growth and encouraged families to have no more than two children.
Francis referred to the "culture of death" afflicting South Korea during his homily on Friday. But generally, he has shied away from making headline-grabbing anti-abortion statements, much to the dismay of conservative Catholics who had been emboldened by the frequent denunciations of abortion by two previous popes.
In a 2013 interview with a Jesuit journal, Francis acknowledged that he had been "reprimanded" for not pressing the issue. But he said it wasn't necessary to harp about abortion all the time.
"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," Francis said at the time. "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
A day after the interview was published, though, Francis offered an olive branch of sorts to the more doctrine-minded conservatives in the church, denouncing abortions as a symptom of today's "throw-away culture" and encouraging Catholic doctors to refuse to perform them.
AP writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this report.
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