News from Pope Francis has many scratching their heads about Catholic teaching on abortion.
The news came in a letter released Tuesday, in which the pope publicly addressed an archbishop who chairs a committee for what the Catholic Church calls “the new evangelization.” In it, he announced his decision “to concede to all priests … the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” (RELATED: No, Pope Francis Didn’t Call Capitalism ‘The Dung Of The Devil’)
Headlines blared such as “Catholic priests can forgive women who have had abortions,” and, in the instance of MSNBC, the embarrassing misinterpretation “Pope says priests can allow this catholic sin.” But what does Francis’ announcement actually mean?
The decision comes alongside an upcoming “holy year” or “jubilee,” a yearlong celebration of a particular topic that the Church deems worthy of attention. Starting in December, the Church will be observing what Pope Francis has called the “Year of Mercy.” (RELATED: On His Pope-Iversary, Francis Wants Two Things: Pizza And Confession)
In conjunction with the Church’s emphasis on mercy, Francis will allow priests who hear confessions to absolve the sins of those who repent of abortion. Church law generally requires priests to receive permission to forgive that particular sin. Francis’ worldwide grant of permission will extend for the duration of the holy year.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Washington’s Catholic archbishop clarified the context of Francis’ action. “In many, many dioceses we already have this permission for priests,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl explained. So the Pope’s move is simply an expansion of permissions worldwide during the Year of Mercy.
“The Holy Father is saying, how do we deal with someone who has had an abortion? This is a reminder that we all need the embrace of God’s mercy.”
Reporter Rocco Palmo further clarified the move in an article on his blog, “Whispers in the Loggia.” The Church’s default stance is that a person who performs an abortion in awareness of the act’s moral gravity has automatically excommunicated themselves from the Church’s sacraments.
But as Palmo pointed out, the pope himself has said that “the tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.”
Priests generally have to obtain permission to bypass the discipline in individual cases, but blanket permission to forgive abortions already exists in much of North America.
The Catholic Church has always allowed for and encouraged repentance from any and all sins. The sacrament of confession, or penance, requires individuals to express contrition for the sins they have committed, confess their sins verbally to a priest, and perform an act of “penance” to “help configure [them] to Christ.”
The statement comes a few short weeks before Francis’ visit to the United States, which will include stops in New York, Washington and Philadelphia.
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