Pope Francis declared on Sept. 1 that he is allowing all priests in the church’s upcoming Year of Mercy to absolve women of the “sin of abortion” if they repent with a “contrite heart. Francis said he is aware some feel they have no choice but to abort.
Francis, in letter published by the Vatican, said he has met many women bearing “the scar of this agonizing” decision to abort. He said God’s forgiveness cannot be denied to those who repent, and therefore he is giving all priests the power to absolve the sin in the Holy Year of Mercy running Dec. 8, 2015, until Nov. 20, 2016.
The church views abortion as such as sin that, until now, a Catholic woman who wanted to repent for an abortion could not simply go to her local parish priest. Instead, her diocese’s bishop needed to delegate a priest, expert at dealing with such confessions, to hear the woman’s confession, or reserved for himself the decision on whether to absolve such women.
With the declaration, Francis is making it possible for women to bypass this formalized process in the approaching special Year of Mercy.
Francis made clear he isn’t downplaying the gravity of abortion for the church, which essentially views abortion as equivalent to murder. Instead, he applied his leadership vision of mercy to what is an intensely personal, often anguished choice for women.
“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” Francis wrote in a letter to a Vatican official promoting the church’s evangelization efforts.
“Many others on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option.”
Francis drew on decades of pastoral experience with rank-and-file faithful in his native Argentina, including as Buenos Aires archbishop.
“I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that led them to this decision,” Francis said. “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,” the pope wrote.
“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,” the pope stressed.
He said that is why he has decided to concede to all priests “the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
In a statement following the pope’s letter, the Vatican made clear that “forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects. The newness is clearly Pope Francis’ pastoral approach.”
The Rev. Harry Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said on Sept. 1, “Pope Francis’s decision to refocus the church’s energy towards mercy starts as a nice thought grounded in compassion, but quickly turns to more shame for women. The compassionate, pastoral approach is to recognize that women have abortions for many reasons. Neither the pope nor any of us can fully understand a woman’s decision because we do not stand in her shoes. What a woman really needs from her clergy is someone ready and able to have deep pastoral conversations about her decision. The pope should equip his priests with the tools to listen to a woman’s story instead of offering occasional absolution.”
At the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, executive director Jessica González-Rojas said, “What is significant here is that the pope, as a faith leader for millions, recognizes the need to talk about abortion, which one in three women will experience in her lifetime. Yet these comments fall short in reflecting the realities of women’s lives, and the viewpoints of many Catholics. Despite ongoing prohibition by church doctrine, Catholic Latinas support access to reproductive healthcare, with 90 percent of married Catholic Latinas using a modern form of contraception and a majority of Latino/a voters — including many Catholics, supporting access to safe and legal abortion services.
“Moreover, these statements perpetuate the notion that a person who has ended a pregnancy must be ashamed and contributes to culturally pervasive and deeply harmful abortion stigma. As an organization committed to Latina health and reproductive justice, we reject any attempt to impose judgement or shame on someone based on deeply personal decisions about health, pregnancy, and whether to become a parent.”
Editor’s note: This story will be updated with additional reaction to the announcement from the Vatican.