On Sept. 1, Pope Francis extended to priests worldwide the authority to absolve women for the sin of abortion as a part of The Year of Mercy, which begins on Dec. 8. The announcement was widely reported in the secular press as a major change in church practice. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., head of Canada's Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and English language media attaché to the Holy See Press Office, explains what is new—and what's not—in Francis' words.
1) Is Pope Francis the first to speak about abortion, forgiveness and mercy?
Pope John Paul II expressed the desire of the church to be a vehicle for concern and reconciliation to anyone hurting from an abortion decision. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, he reminds women who have had an abortion of God's love and forgiveness. "If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation."
At the end of The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II wrote these unprecedented, deeply moving words:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors that may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.
2) Do reserved sins still exist that can only be forgiven by a bishop?
An important change in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) from the 1917 Code is the disappearance of “reserved sins.” The 1917 Code allowed for the Holy See as well as a diocesan bishop in his own See to “reserve” absolution of certain sins. In the 1983 Code there are no longer any such reserved “sins” but a number of reserved cases which carry certain canonical penalties (i.e. “censures”) still remain. In most cases, the sacrament of reconciliation will involve only the absolution of a penitent of sin. However in some cases, the sin being confessed also carries with it an automatic, legal penalty (latae sententiae).
The confessor should keep in mind that the commission of some sins may also involve actions which carry certain penalties. Of these penalties, the confessor can remit some definitively, others he can remit “temporarily,” until the penitent has recourse to the proper authority, and some for which recourse to the proper authority must be made prior to remission. Even in these cases in which recourse must be made for remission of the particular penalty, the confessor can absolve the sin within the sacramental forum. In the case of danger of death the confessor can remit validly and licitly virtually all penalties (cf. CIC 976, 977).
It is also important to keep in mind that while the remission of the penalty may also occur within the context of the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, this juridical action of remission is distinct from the sacramental absolution of the penitent’s sins, even when the single prayer of absolution serves both purposes of sacramental absolution from sin as well as the remission of a canonical penalty.
Abortion is one of the most common type of latae sententiae case the priest is likely to hear in confession. If the sin of abortion is confessed, the priest should first consider whether the automatic censure actually applies. In many cases, in light of these sorts of considerations we could reasonably conclude that the penitent probably did not incur an automatic excommunication. Hence, there will not be any censure that needs to be remitted, and the abortion may be absolved as would any other serious sin.
3) What is unique about today’s message about abortion? What does it mean for us today?
Pope Francis has been a pastor and shepherd in Argentina for many years. He knows the pain and suffering of his flock, and is keenly aware of the tragic consequences of abortion. The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is another opportunity for him and for the church to offer people the gift of forgiveness and mercy, especially when it involves grave sins and accompanying alienation caused by sin. Abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973. Unfortunately large numbers of women know all too well the anguish and grief that can follow an abortion decision. These women recognize that what they did was wrong but mistakenly believe that they have committed an unforgivable sin and have become separated from their relationship with God. Thinking that they are unique in experiencing this type of suffering, they all too often silently endure the emotional and physical manifestations of this trauma alone.
The pressures exerted on many women to abort lead to “an existential and moral ordeal,” Pope Francis wrote in his letter today. “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. …When such a woman has repented and seeks absolution in the sacrament of confession, the forgiveness of God cannot be denied.”
Pope Francis urged priests to welcome to the sacrament women who have had an abortion, explain “the gravity of the sin committed” and indicate to them “a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.”
Although church law generally requires priests to have special permission, called faculties, from his bishop to grant absolution to a person who has procured or helped another to procure an abortion, Pope Francis said today that he has decided “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.”
As followers of Christ our response to abortion must be two-fold. We must never forget the child whose life is lost to abortion. Each child is valuable and precious in God's eyes, and in our hearts. At the same time we must recognize and address the very real need of women to find healing after an abortion experience. The Catholic Church, while never minimizing the grave evil that is abortion, has been at the forefront in offering hope for healing and reconciliation from the pain of an abortion experience.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one essential element in the post-abortion healing process. In this sacrament, the penitent is guided by the grace of Christ in a conversion that leads us back to the Father, overcomes the tragic alienation of sin and restores harmony. Effective pastoral post-abortion outreach is accomplished not only by priests and professional counselors, but also by every Christian responding with compassion and prayer for all people hurting from abortion. We must bring to light the very real pain of post-abortion trauma. It is important to let those suffering in silence know that they are not alone and that there is compassionate help available. Often, we may not know the secret that a neighbor, a family member, or a fellow parishioner holds, namely that he or she participated in the evil of abortion. Only by our willingness to "hate the sin but love the sinner," and the Spirit's gentle urging, may someone come forth to share this sin and begin the road to reconciliation and healing.
Here again is the abridged statement I have given to many who have asked for commentary on the Pope Francis’ words in today’s letter:
"Forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects. The newness is clearly Pope Francis' pastoral approach. Bishops have granted priests permission to forgive the sin. The fact that today’s 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 in a spirit of true repentance 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."