Pope Francis Extends Priests’ Power to Forgive Abortions

November 30, 2016
Pope Francis addresses bishops in South Korea

Last week, Pope Francis announced that he will indefinitely extend the power of Catholic priests to forgive abortions.

The extension follows the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy—a practice rooted in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Originally occurring every 50 years, the jubilee was a yearlong reminder of God’s mercy, during which time debts were absolved and relationships were restored. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope can call an extraordinary year of jubilee at his discretion.

During the jubilee Pope Francis called from December 5, 2015 through November 20, 2016, congregants were urged to practice increased charity, forgiveness, and patience in their daily lives. Moreover, the special yearlong event allowed for priests to absolve certain sins that, in many religious orders, can only be forgiven by bishops.

In the Roman Catholic Church, abortion is considered a crime on par with physically attacking the pope and is grounds for automatic excommunication. The Church teaches that unless women confess and receive forgiveness from a bishop, they will not be granted eternal salvation.

Part of the goal of extending powers of forgiveness for abortion to priests is to encourage more Catholic women to seek absolution. Women who were too intimidated to approach their bishop or faced practical barriers to seeking out the bishop’s counsel might, the Church anticipates, feel more comfortable speaking with their local priest. In his letter announcing the extension of this particular power past the end of the jubilee, Pope Francis wrote that the change was necessary “lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness.”

He continued, “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”

Jesuit Priest James Martin hailed the pope’s announcement as “a significant one.”

“It’s another gesture of mercy and welcome from a pope whose hallmarks are mercy and welcome,” Martin told CNN. “He is trying to make it easier for people to be forgiven and feel forgiven.”

Some Catholics bristled at what they saw as Francis’s subtle critique of the contemporary pro-life movement, even questioning whether the pope is a true Catholic. Pope John Paul II coined the phrase “culture of life” in the 1990s, and it has since become a buzzword for pro-life activists. Francis, instead, called for a “culture of mercy” centered on “the rediscovery of encounter with others, a culture in which no one looks at another with indifference or turns away from the suffering of our brothers and sisters.”

“Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the church,” Francis said. “It constitutes her very existence.”

American organization Catholics for Choice welcomed the announcement, which president Jon O’Brien characterized as Francis taking “a much more pastoral, rather than political, approach to abortion.”

“Pope Francis’ real message today is perhaps not for women at all but rather for his brother bishops and priests who sometimes have seemed hell-bent on punishing Catholic women for their conscience-based decisions when they don’t comport with that hierarchy,” O’Brien said. “Perhaps Pope Francis is urging them to reconcile with women.”

Still, for Catholics who support women’s right to abortion, the pope’s language of “sin” can still be alienating.

“In comments on abortion, Pope Francis makes a connection to an ego-based, modern-day pursuit of freedom. Women’s moral discernment is dismissed as a shallow, selfish lifestyle choice,” Miriam Duignan wrote in Conscience, a Catholic magazine. “The pope’s commitment to social justice has not yet extended to recognizing the freedom and dignity of every woman as a fully developed individual with a conscience, rather than a separate species to be shepherded in one direction for the perceived greater good of all.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Pope Francis. Photo by Republic of Korea, Flickr Creative Commons.