Pope Francis shook up the Catholic world by announcing on September 1 that priests around the world will be authorized to forgive the sin of abortion when the church begins a “Year of Mercy” this December.
Under the present discipline of the Church, abortion is considered a “reserved sin” — one that can be absolved only by the bishop as the head of the particular church, or a priest who has been given special authority by the bishop. Pope Francis’ new ruling allows all priests to absolve the sin, without need for further authorization by the bishop.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that a person who procures an abortion incurs automatic excommunication, a penalty that often only a bishop can lift. Some experts in the Catholic canon law expressed confusion about the practical effects of the Pope’s announcement.
Sympathy with the Mother: Instead of the Aborted Child?
The proclamation is a major, historical departure from the approaches of previous pontiffs to the issue. Rather than condemning the evil of abortion and emphasizing that no situation can ever justify it, the emphasis by the Pope is that of “understanding” the plight of the mother and the situations that led to her abortion.
In his short statement, the Pope said he sympathizes with “women who have resorted to abortion,” believing that they have no other option. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.”
In fact, many Catholics have perceived this move as a seeming “lowering down” of the gravity of the sin of abortion, with more emphasis put on “understanding” the “painful and agonizing decision” undertaken by women who have had abortions, rather than the plight of the murdered unborn child.
Vatican and CBCP Damage Control
The Vatican, as well as many bishops’ conferences around the world, had to go into full damage control mode after the announcement, clarifying that the Pope did not really condone abortion. The Vatican’s subsequent statement emphasized that the church did not “condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects”.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) likewise issued an immediate statement, clarifying that “abortion remains a mortal sin”. ∎