What’s new in pope’s letter on abortion?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Dear Father, the media has recently reported that the pope has allowed priests all over the world to absolve the sin of abortion, but not the sin of the abortionist who brings it about. I thought priests could always absolve any sin. What is new about this decision?

This news item has raised questions like yours in the minds of many people, so it is good to be able to clarify what the pope actually did.
The source of the media reports was the letter of Pope Francis to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, giving directives for the forthcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, which is to begin on 8 December this year. The pope’s letter is dated 1 September.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

What did the pope actually say?

With respect to the absolution of the sin of abortion, he 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.

“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.

“May priests fulfil 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.”

As is clear, the pope makes no distinction between the woman who has undergone the abortion and the abortionist and others who assist in bringing it about.

The Church has always intended by the word “procure” to refer to all those involved, both the woman herself and the abortionists.

Thus all who are involved in procuring the abortion who “with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” may be absolved.

But the question still remains: what is new about this directive? Priests have always been able to forgive the sins of those who seek forgiveness with a contrite heart.

This means all sins, no matter how grave.

There is no sin that cannot be forgiven, as long as the person is truly sorry for it.

What is special about the sin of abortion is that, in order to emphasise its gravity, the Church attaches the penalty of excommunication to it.
Canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law says: “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”
The words latae sententiae mean that the person procuring the abortion by that very fact is excommunicated.

Before a priest can absolve the sin of abortion, the excommunication must first be lifted and ordinarily this can be done only by the diocesan bishop or his vicars (cf. Can. 1355, §2).

In Australia for a long time priests have had the faculty to lift the excommunication themselves and absolve the sin at the same time.

It seems that with the pope’s new directive, all priests will now be able to lift the excommunication themselves and then forgive the sin, thus simplifying the process and opening wide the gate of God’s mercy.

When the pope says “notwithstanding anything to the contrary” he is no doubt referring to the above-mentioned provision of the Code of Canon Law, which does not allow priests to absolve the sin without first having had recourse to the bishop.

It should always be understood, in any case, that a person having an abortion would not incur the
excommunication if they were under the age of 16, were ignorant of the law forbidding abortion or acted under the compulsion of grave fear (cf. Can. 1323).

In view of this, many people who in fact have had abortions may not have incurred the excommunication.

So we give thanks to the Holy Father for granting this special grace for the Jubilee Year at the same time as we pray for those who have had abortions, that they seek forgiveness of their sin in this Year of Mercy.

And we pray for women who are considering having an abortion, that they give the baby in their womb the gift of life.