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Pope Francis’ Letter On Mercy And Abortion, Explained

Pope Francis released an apostolic letter Sunday which, among other things, authorized Catholic priests to lift certain canonical discipline surrounding women who have had abortions.

The letter, “Misericordia et Miseria” (Mercy and Peace), was released in connection with the end of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a liturgical year established by the pontiff that concluded Sunday. Francis hoped the Catholic clergy and faithful would dedicate the year to growing stronger and more effective in the practice and experience of mercy.

In his letter, the pontiff writes:

Given this need, lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary. I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.

Fr. Thomas Petri told The Daily Caller News Foundation it is not accurate to say this letter has authorized Catholic priests to absolve the sin of abortion, as priests have had this prerogative in most parts of the world for quite some time. Petri is academic dean at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

“All priests can forgive every sin, including abortion, and have been able to do so since 1983,” he told TheDCNF. “And virtually all priests have been able to lift the excommunication for abortion since 1983. And, to make it even more clear, it seems to me exceedingly rare that a woman would actually be excommunicated for an abortion.” (RELATED: Vatican Urges Catholics Not To Scatter Ashes Of The Deceased)

He explained that it is important to distinguish between the sin of abortion and the penalties attending the crime of abortion (which is typically excommunication.) The church attaches the status of “crime” to certain grave sins; and while abortion is among them, a person who commits the sin of abortion is not necessarily subject to the penalties attending the crime of abortion.

Commission of a crime in the canon law requires the presence of a whole host of factors in addition to a particular sinful act. One canon law expert in Rome notes that women who commit the sin of abortion are rarely, if ever, penalized for the crime of abortion.

Typically, only a bishop can lift an excommunication for the crime of abortion, but Petri noted that the great majority of bishops throughout the world have delegated this power to the priests under their supervision.

“In the United States, and in many places throughout the world, bishops have conceded to their priests the authority to lift that excommunication,” he said. “So now, the Holy Father is simply saying that all priests have that authority by his concession.”

Petri is also a missionary of mercy, a special class of cleric established during the Jubilee Year.

“The purpose of the missionaries of mercy was to be the Holy Father’s ambassadors of mercy,” he explained. “We have been invited to various dioceses to give retreats, to preach at conferences specifically about this concept of mercy. In addition to that, the Holy Father granted missionaries of mercy faculties to lift excommunications for crimes that were reserved for the Holy See alone.”

Throughout the year of mercy, Petri said many women who had abortions came to him or his brother priests, fearing they had been excommunicated, or were still in a state of sin, despite the fact they had already received absolution in the sacrament of confession.

“Many women have come to us wondering ‘Did I go to the right priest? Did he have the approval to forgive me of that sin?'” he said. “It has led to a little bit of neuralgia among some post-abortive women, and there’s really no need for that.”

Given the complexity surrounding canonical discipline in this area, he told TheDCNF some confusion among journalists and lay Catholics is understandable.

“In this case, especially because the documents and the discipline of the Code of Canon Law are very specific, where some of these documents we’re seeing are somewhat ambiguous and I would say confusing, it’s not surprising that a lot of reporters have not understood the fine subtleties and distinctions of Catholic canon law and practice.”

He also said journalists should be leery of filtering these documents through a political lens.

In the pages of the Washington Post, Fr. James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College, speculated that this letter signals the pontiff hopes to remove abortion from the class of offenses considered “crimes.” The appellation is applied to a limited set of grievous sins which includes desecrating a consecrated host or breaking the holy seal of confession.

Petri also said that the letter finds its fullest expression in the broader context of the Jubilee Year, which he characterized as a “wonderful success.”

“Certainly as Americans I think we’re a little hesitant to give mercy or to receive mercy — we often consider it something that’s condescending. But of course, the good news of the Gospel is that that’s exactly what mercy is. It’s God condescending to us, and that we live and move and are forgiven and flourish because of his mercy, and so therefore, because we receive his mercy, we ought to give his mercy.”

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