Pope Francis will give all priests discretion to forgive women who have had abortions – a sin normally punishable by excommunication – if they ask for forgiveness during the Roman Catholic Church’s upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
Until now, a Catholic woman who wanted to repent for ending a pregnancy needed her diocese’s bishop to assign a priest deemed an expert in the subject to hear her confession.
But the pontiff said in a letter published by the Vatican that all priests will be allowed to grant absolution from Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016 – as long as he determines that the woman is contrite.
“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” he wrote. “Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.”
Francis described the “existential and moral ordeal” faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”
In the spirit of mercy that he announced in March, Francis, 78, a native of Argentina, noted that “the forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented.”
“For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, 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,” he wrote.
Francis has shown no intention of ending the church’s opposition to abortion – but has alarmed conservatives with his less forceful approach than his predecessors.
“This is by no means an attempt to minimize the gravity of this sin but to widen the possibility of showing mercy,” Vatican chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Reuters.
Jon O’Brien, president of the advocacy group Catholics for Choice, applauded Francis for “practicing what he preaches and emphasizing a more pastoral, not political, approach.”
Unlike Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Francis is “trying to bridge the gulf between what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics really do in their lives,” O’Brien told The Post.
Despite the Vatican’s announcement, O’Brien said he doesn’t believe women will be asking for forgiveness en masse.
“Catholic women know that they can in good conscience disagree with the hierarchy and still be good Catholics in good faith,” said O’Brien, who described Francis’ overture as a step in the right direction.
The president of the National Right to Life also expressed her support.
“While some women find healing and are able to work through the grief of killing their unborn baby, there are still many who have not been able to reach that point,” Carol Tobias said. “We welcome the efforts of Pope Francis to bring healing and forgiveness to men and women who have participated in the death of an unborn child.”
Catholics’ views of abortion depend largely on how often they attend religious services, according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in August.
Thirty-five percent of Catholics who attend services weekly say abortion should be legal in all or most states – while 59 percent who attend monthly or less say the same, the poll found.
Francis’ announcement comes on the heels of his declaration last month that divorced Catholics “always belong to the church” – and that the church must be one of “open doors.”
The Holy Year is one of the 1.2 billion-member church’s most important events, and sees faithful make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites around the world.
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