Abortion may still be a “grave sin” in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but Pope Francis just softened up his policies a little bit.
In a letter made public by the Vatican today, Pope Francis declared that ordinary priests will be able to forgive those who received abortions for the foreseeable future. Until this point, only bishops could officially absolve such a sin.
While the Church intended to give low-level priests the power to absolve abortions only temporarily, Pope Francis has now announced that he will allow this practice to go on indefinitely, “lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness.”
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” wrote the pope. “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. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.”
This change extends the Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy — a worldwide, across-the-board loosening of rules to allow for redemption — which ran from last December until this past Sunday.
Until the Year of Mercy began, the Roman Catholic Church had long required that only bishops can forgive abortions, due to the seriousness of the sin. Depending on the region, however, bishops would sometimes delegate the responsibility to trained priests. In the U.S., for example, bishops allowed their priests this power at the latter’s own discretion.
“Forgiveness has always been available — albeit through more formal channels,” said Candida R. Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, to NPR. “That message wasn’t out there because the rhetoric that accompanies abortion is so elevated that it eclipses the Church’s teaching on forgiveness and mercy.”