Pope Francis said Tuesday that during a special “year of mercy” he’s designated that all priests would have the right to hear confession for abortion — a statement that immediately set off debate among theologians and canon lawyers over whether the pope’s comments were symbolic or reflected an actual change in Catholic Church practice.
In a letter, Pope Francis said he would allow all priests to formally forgive women who have had abortions and seek absolution during the Roman Catholic Church’s upcoming Holy Year.
The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a sin that could be grounds for excommunication. Women in the Catholic Church who have had abortions have been able to confess, but the pope has expanded the number of priests who can hear their confession during the upcoming year that will be considered a “year of mercy.”
In a letter to the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Pope Francis said the new rules would extend to women during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a special year for Catholics to receive blessing and pardon from God, a period that will begin on Dec. 8.
“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” Pope Francis wrote in his letter, according to the Vatican. “What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”
The Catholic Church has called jubilee years every 25 or 50 years since the year 1300, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The pope announced in May that he would be empowering “missionaries of mercy” to pardon women for having abortions. Francis is now emphasizing that all priests can forgive during this special year.
The pope also said that a Catholic who confesses during the year to a priest of the Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway group, will still be considered forgiven, writing, “This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one.”
As has become common with Pope Francis’ moves, the Vatican’s announcement prompted debate about what his real motivation was. Liberals saw him downplaying the sin of abortion by advertising primarily the availability of confession and forgiveness. Conservatives saw him bringing in a more traditional group and the power of priests.
Church officials tried to clarify what, in fact, was new. Technically, some said, bishops have to “give” the priests in their community the right to hear all confessions. It wasn’t immediately clear if there are any priests in the world who don’t have this permission, but the point Francis was making, a spokesman said, was to emphasize that it is available.
“Forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave sinfulness. The newness is clearly Pope Francis’ pastoral approach. Many bishops have granted priests permission to forgive the sin. The fact that this statement is coming from the Pope and in such a moving, pastoral way, is more evidence of the great pastoral approach and concern of Pope Francis. That people come to confession today to confess abortion and other grave sins is cause for us in the Church to thank God and to put into practice the mission of the good and merciful shepherd who came to seek out those who were lost,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English language spokesman for the Vatican.
Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University, agreed the pope was emphasizing mercy, not judgment.
“This is a typical Francis move in that way,” Pecknold said. “This is a dead serious sin, but I’m not going to emphasize the sin part,” he interpreted the pope as saying. He also saw the pope responding to the controversy in the United States over videos surfacing about Planned Parenthood. “With the whole Planned Parenthood thing, a lot of Catholics threw up their hands and said: ‘Why isn’t the Holy Father saying anything?’ This is him saying something. He is saying: Abortion is a grave sin.”
Most people, Pecknold said, wouldn’t care about the bureaucratic aspect of the pope’s announcements — who gives permission for what — but “I think he wants to make a very strong point about the need to confess the sin of abortion.”
American Catholics’ views on abortion are split, with 53 percent of white Catholics saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 41 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll. Among Hispanic Catholics, however, 43 percent say it should be legal in all or most cases and 52 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Views on abortion are also split among those who attend services regularly, according to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. While 35 percent of Catholics who attend religious services weekly say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 59 percent of Catholics who attend monthly or less say the same.
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said he doubts women are going to be lining up for confession anytime soon.
“It’s welcome that Francis is taking a different approach on the issue,” O’Brien said. “The fact that this guy would try to make an effort to say, on the issue of abortion, we can sit down together, it doesn’t change the injustice of the hierarchy’s position, but I think that’s profoundly important.”
Setting up a special year for forgiveness will probably not change Catholic attitudes on abortion, O’Brien said.
“I’m not seeing this as real change we need,” O’Brien said. “However, gestures are really important. Francis is big on gestures. The idea that he’s making a gesture sends a message to us.”
In his letter, Francis called abortion a “tragedy” that is “experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.”
“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father,” he writes. “For this reason too, 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 idea of the Catholic Church offering forgiveness to women who have had abortions is not new, said Charles Camosy of Fordham University. In his 1995 encyclical on “the Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II told women who have had an abortion they could seek God’s forgiveness. “If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
“If people think this is a Pope Francis thing, a mercy thing, it’s also a John Paul II thing,” Camosy said.
© 2015, The Washington Post
Read the full text of Pope’s Francis’ letter in English, published by the U.K.’s Catholic Herald