VATICAN CITY — Just when you think Pope Francis has nothing left up the sleeve of his cassock, he does it again. This time, the popular pontiff has announced that during the Holy Jubilee year beginning this December 8, priests will have the discretion to forgive penitent Catholic women for having abortions—one of the biggest sins of the Catholic Church.
In what has become classic Francis style, he apparently doesn’t care about the political ramifications of offering limited forgiveness for an act on which entire political campaigns are made and unraveled. Instead, he wrote in a letter to the president of the Pontifical Council of New Evangelization that priests ought to look deep to understand what leads a woman to abort her unborn child.
“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” said the pope’s letter. “Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option.”
“I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion,” Francis said. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. 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.”
By no means, of course, is the pope or the Catholic Church actually endorsing, condoning or somehow approving the ending of a pregnancy at any point after conception. That will never happen. On the contrary, by allowing Catholic women to be absolved from the sin, rather than automatically excommunicating them, as has been the practice, he ensures that they retain their faith. Or, more to the point, return to the pews.
At a time when more Catholics are leaving the Church than joining, keeping the faithful on the roster is vital. As we have seen time and time again, on issues like divorced and remarried Catholics, unwed parents, those who use birth control, those living in same-sex unions, Francis seems to be sending the same message that Catholics are welcome no matter how flawed they are or, it would seem, what sins they have committed. That mercy, above all, has been the key to the pope’s popularity.
Prior to this decree, the only way a woman could be forgiven for having an abortion was to go directly to the chief confessor in her diocese or the equivalent in certain situations. Now, instead of petitioning a higher prelate, any priest anywhere in the world can do this.
“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,” Francis wrote. “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.”
Writing in Crux Now, Vatican expert John Allen points out that the move will no doubt be twisted to suit both the pro-life and pro-choice movements. “Some anti-abortion activists may wince at any step, however well-intentioned, which could be seen as reducing the level of moral seriousness the Church attaches to the act,” he writes, adding, “On the other hand, some may be grateful for the reminder that abortion actually triggers excommunication.” The takeaway likely will be that Francis’s talk about mercy “isn’t mere rhetoric.”
While there is no statute of limitations on when the forgiven abortion took place, there is a catch. The offer of forgiveness is for a limited time only, starting when the Holy Jubilee kicks off on December 8, 2015 and ending November 20, 2016.