Pope Francis issued a letter this morning that has caused quite a stir in the media. (It’s not long; go ahead and read it.) In the letter, the Holy Father said that, as part of the Jubilee of Mercy, all priests would be given “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it.” The relevant section of the letter reads as follows:
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. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
Many in the media are wondering if this announcement signals some sort of tectonic shift in the Church. Many Catholics are wondering something different, namely, how is this news?
The Holy Father’s letter is quite beautiful: the passage about women who have had abortions is particularly tender and moving. Still, the section I quoted above could be read several ways since the language is not canonically precise. A clarification will surely be forthcoming. In the meantime, it’s worth making a few points which might help us to understand why this is both “big news” and “nothing new” at the same time.
First, a canonist friend tells me that Eastern Rite Churches do have “reserved sins”—certain sins, such as abortion, which, because of their gravity can only be absolved by the bishop. So the Pope’s decree most likely means that, at least for the duration of the Jubilee, Eastern Rite priests can absolve the sin of abortion without further recourse to the bishop. That said, the Holy Father doesn’t mention Eastern rites specifically in his letter, so it seems unlikely that this is what he had foremost in mind.
The Latin rite also used to reserve absolution of certain serious sins to the bishop, but that was done away with last century. Today, in the Latin rite, all priests already have faculties to forgive serious sins, including the sin of abortion. However, allowing for certain mitigating factors, procured abortion can still incur a canonical penalty—namely, latae sententiae (i.e., automatic) excommunication—and that canonical penalty can only be lifted by the bishop.
Usually, at least in the United States, the local bishop delegates to his priests the authority to lift the canonical penalty for abortion themselves, so there is no need to go to the bishop once a sacramental confession has been made.
So the most likely reading of the Pope’s letter is this: the Holy Father is putting into effect for the universal Church—at least for the duration of the Jubilee—the policy that has been the norm in the United States for a long time: any canonical penalty incurred by procured abortion can be lifted at the same time that sacramental absolution is received.
In the grand scheme of things, the Holy Father’s is a small gesture; small but beautiful.
The media, for their part, seem both genuinely interested in this story and surprised that the Church is willing, let alone eager, to spread God’s mercy. Coverage has, at times, been slightly overwrought. CNN, for example, ran a story with this breathless lede, “Pope Francis rocked the Catholic world — again — on Tuesday by announcing that contrite women who have had an abortion can seek forgiveness from all priests during the church’s upcoming ‘Year of Mercy.’” Is it really news that the Church wants sinners to receive forgiveness?
But that’s part of the reason why I think this small news is also big news. If the world is so surprised to hear the Good News of God’s gratuitous mercy, isn’t that a wonderful thing? And isn’t it possible that some teeny-tiny part of the reason they haven’t heard it before is because we, who are responsible for proclaiming that Good News, haven’t always been the most credible messengers?
Maybe that, too.
Regardless, I, for one, am grateful that there’s mercy enough to go around.