Catholic priests may now grant absolution to penitents who confess to having procured an abortion.
Let me explain: Yes, abortion is still gravely wrong. Abortion–having one, performing one, or paying for one–is a mortal sin which separates one from God’s grace. But in the past, according to canon law, a priest who heard the confession of a post-abortive mother would be unable to grant absolution for that sin. Instead, he would be required to refer the case to his bishop. That same priest could hear the confession of a murderer or someone who committed another grave sin, and could immediately grant absolution if the sinner has repented; but abortion has been a sort of “super-sin” requiring a bishop’s concurrence before forgiveness could be granted.
Pope Francis changed that procedure in 2015, when he extended special permission to all priests to absolve the grave sin of abortion during the Year of Mercy. Now he has extended that special permission permanently. In Misericordia et misera, a new apostolic letter issued November 20 to conclude the Year of Mercy, the Holy Father writes that
“there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach.”
The apostolic letter’s title is drawn from the writings of St. Augustine, who recalled the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. Pope Francis explains the passage:
A woman and Jesus meet. She is an adulteress and, in the eyes of the Law, liable to be stoned. Jesus, through his preaching and the total gift of himself that would lead him to the Cross, returned the Mosaic Law to its true and original intent. Here what is central is not the law or legal justice, but the love of God, which is capable of looking into the heart of each person and seeing the deepest desire hidden there; God’s love must take primacy over all else. This Gospel account, however, is not an encounter of sin and judgement in the abstract, but of a sinner and her Saviour. Jesus looked that woman in the eye and read in her heart a desire to be understood, forgiven and set free. The misery of sin was clothed with the mercy of love.
The Holy Father writes, too, about the woman who approached Jesus as he dined at the home of a Pharisee, and who poured expensive perfume over his feet, bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair. The point of the parables is that there is great joy as they realize that Christ has forgiven them. Mercy gives rise to joy, because their hearts are opened to the hope of a new life.
The specific instruction which permits all priests to extend forgiveness following abortion can be found in Section 12 of Misericordia et Misera:
Given this need, lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary. 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. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.
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There is much more to ponder in this newest papal document, which calls on us to look always to Jesus, the radiant Face of God’s mercy.
Pope Francis extends the provision that the faithful who attend churches of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (SSPX) may validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins.
He calls upon Catholics worldwide to celebrate the World Day of the Poor, to be observed on the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time.
He invites Catholic parishes to devote one Sunday of during liturgical year to the Sacred Scriptures in a special way. “It would be beneficial,” the Pope writes,
“…if every Christian community, on one Sunday of the liturgical year, could renew its efforts to make the Sacred Scriptures better known and more widely diffused. It would be a Sunday given over entirely to the word of God, so as to appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and his people. Creative initiatives can help make this an opportunity for the faithful to become living vessels for the transmission of God’s word. Initiatives of this sort would certainly include the practice of lectio divina, so that the prayerful reading of the sacred text will help support and strengthen the spiritual life. Such a reading, centred on themes relating to mercy, will enable a personal experience of the great fruitfulness of the biblical text – read in the light of the Church’s spiritual tradition – and thus give rise to concrete gestures and works of charity.”
He invites all dioceses to join in the “24 Hours for the Lord” initiative, near the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Dioceses are encouraged to choose one or several churches which will open their doors for 24 hours, offering the sacrament of reconciliation and eucharistic adoration. In Rome, the “24 Hours for the Lord” opens with a penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica.
He hopes that every diocese will adopt a celebration like his November 13 Jubilee for Socially Excluded People, which welcomed the homeless and others who are often overlooked by society.
There is much on which to reflect and, for Catholic dioceses and parishes, much work to do, to continue our practice of extending God’s mercy in the world.