Pope Francis to Allow Priests to Forgive Abortion
Pope Francis, who has defined his short tenure by taking on the most controversial issues from gay marriage to climate change, waded for the first time into one of the thorniest topics of his papacy Tuesday when he said priests can forgive the “sin of abortion” for women who are sorry about it.
In a letter published by the Vatican, the pontiff — who has been striving to build a more inclusive church — said priests will have the power during a special “Holy Year of Mercy” that begins in December.
“I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it,” the pope said.
The church considers abortion such a grave moral offense that anyone who obtains or aids in obtaining one is excommunicated. Priests normally need a bishop’s approval to grant absolution. The pope reaffirmed the church’s stance against abortion, acknowledging society’s lack of “sensitivity to welcome new life.” But he says some women don’t comprehend the implication of terminating a pregnancy or believe they have no other option.
“I think it’s very significant,” John Thavis, a former Catholic News Service reporter and author of The Vatican Diaries, said. “Pope Francis is making a bold statement. He is saying that there is no sin that can’t be forgiven.”
Jon O’Brien, president of the advocacy group Catholics for Choice, applauded Pope Francis for “trying to bridge the gulf between what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics really do in their lives.”
But the Vatican should not expect women to line up seeking absolution, he added. “A long time ago, Catholic women around the world worked out that they can make moral and ethical decisions about sexual and reproductive issues,” O’Brien said. “Catholic women know that they can in good conscience disagree with the hierarchy and still be good Catholics in good faith.”
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life, expressed support for the pope’s position.
“While some women find healing and are able to work through the grief of killing their unborn baby, there are still many who have not been able to reach that point,” Tobias said. “We welcome the efforts of Pope Francis to bring healing and forgiveness to men and women who have participated in the death of an unborn child.”
The abortion decision is the latest in a series of efforts by Francis that focus on opening up the church. Last month, the pope issued a call to embrace Catholics who have divorced and remarried, saying such couples “always belong to the church.” In March, he affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage but said the church could tolerate some forms of civil unions.
In Tuesday’s letter, the pope alluded to the power of God’s forgiveness when people are truly sorry for what the church views as their mistakes. “I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” Francis said. “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”
Father Thomas Rosica, an aide in the Vatican press office, emphasized the pope’s statement does not condone abortion nor minimize its impact. He noted that many bishops have granted priests permission to forgive the sin. “That people come to confession today to confess abortion and other grave sins is cause for us in the church to thank god,” Rosica said.
Thavis said he would not be surprised if the edict stays in effect beyond the Holy Year. “If this is meant to demonstrate the church’s mercy, it doesn’t make much sense that it would have an expiration date,” he said.
He added that he does not expect pushback from church conservatives, who have criticized Francis’ approach to gays and lesbians. “This does not say abortion is not a sin,” Thavis said. “The pope is clear on that. I can’t see a strong argument against forgiveness.”
The Holy Year begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 and will run through Nov. 20, 2016. Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the church’sPontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, said the focus of the Holy Year will be to follow the example of God, who asks Catholics not to judge or condemn but to forgive and love.
This article was originally published by USA Today.