The Catholic Church has long shunned the use of contraceptives and condemned abortion as a “moral evil.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, human life is sacred “from the moment of conception until death” and any woman who has an abortion will be excommunicated from the Church – a penalty only a bishop could remove.
As the Holy Year of Mercy comes to an end, however, Pope Francis has decided to grant all Catholic priests the power to absolve women of the sin of abortion – a permanent extension of his original announcement made in 2015.
The “Year of Mercy” is an old Catholic tradition during which followers may receive special absolution for their sins.
“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,” wrote Francis in an Apostolic Letter released this Monday. “There is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled.”
Traditionally, a Catholic woman seeking forgiveness for the sin of abortion had to visit a bishop, who would either hear the woman’s confession or delegate the task to a priest familiar with such situations.
“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,” wrote Francis.
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin,” he added, “since it puts an end to an innocent life.”
Francis calls abortion an “agonizing and painful decision” and his decision meshes with his vision of a church that is more merciful to women.
“May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support, and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation” for those who have had abortions, wrote Francis.
The tangible effects of Francis’ announcement may be unclear, but the decision highlights the prevailing theme of his progressive papacy: that the doors of the Catholic Church are wide open to those willing to repent.
“We are extremely ecstatic that the Pope is recognizing that the decision women have made has harmed them in so many ways, and they want to be reunited with the Church,” says Kate D’Annunzio of Rachel’s Vineyard, a Catholic group in Pennsylvania that works with women who have had abortions.
“The Church has the ability to forgive these women, but many of these women had difficulty forgiving themselves. This outreach by the Pope is saying, ‘Don’t isolate yourselves, come back to the church.”’
Since the beginning of his papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has worked to form a more merciful and forgiving stance towards previously demonized groups including gays and divorcees.
“It’s another gesture of mercy and welcome from a Pope whose hallmarks are mercy and welcome,” says Jesuit priest and magazine editor Rev. James Martin.
Editor’s note: Could this be a change in direction for the Catholic Church? Given the magnitude of the sin in the Church’s view, its tough to consider anything but the hard line. By Church doctrine, to be forgiven one must be repentant for the sin. Does the Pope believe women who have abortions regret their decisions? Somehow I believe there is more to this story.