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Pope Francis emphasizes forgiveness for women who have abortions

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Pope Francis announced Tuesday he was opening a special, temporary “mercy” window to make it easier for women who have abortions and confess to get back into the full good graces of the Roman Catholic Church. The move set off immediate debate over whether Francis had actually changed church practice or had said something symbolic — and what that symbolism might be.

In a letter, Pope Francis expressed empathy with women who have abortions, calling theirs an “agonizing and painful decision.” During the upcoming “Jubilee of Mercy” year, he wrote, all priests would be empowered to “absolve the sin of abortion” for those who seek forgiveness with “a contrite heart.” The Mercy Year starts Dec. 8.

The pope’s comments sparked discussion and confusion before the workday had even begun in the United States over what current church law and practice actually are and – as has become common with this off-the-cuff Francis – what the pope was really trying to do.

Pope Francis will give all priests discretion to formally forgive women who have had abortions and seek absolution during the "year of mercy." (Video: Reuters)

Do priests actually turn women away from confession? Was he trying to emphasize the Church’s willingness to forgive or was he trying, as his U.S. trip approaches, to remind a nation debating Planned Parenthood’s role that he finds abortion just as problematic as environmental degradation and ignoring the poor, issues he’s best-known for?

Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University, said the letter was a “typical Francis move” in that it was emphasizing mercy rather than judgment on a topic. Also, with videos related to Planned Parenthood practices surfacing, “a lot of Catholics threw up their hands and said: ‘Why isn’t the Holy Father saying anything?’ This is him saying something. He is saying: ‘Abortion is a grave sin’.”

[Hispanics look to Pope Francis to lift debate on immigration with U.S. visit]

Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien said that the tone of the letter was “less political and more pastoral” on abortion than those of Francis’ two predecessors. “The fact that this guy would try to make an effort to say, on the issue of abortion, we can sit down together, it doesn’t change the injustice of the hierarchy’s position, but I think that’s profoundly important,” he said. However, he noted that many Catholic women around the world support abortion access and said the letter showed “a blind spot” in terms of respect for women.

However it wasn’t clear what the concrete impact of the pope’s letter would be and where. The letter set off attempts to delve into complex church law and the actual responses of priests around the world when a woman who has had an abortion confesses.

Priests already have the right to hear confessions of all sins, and to absolve Catholics who confess. However some sins are also considered crimes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops public affairs office said in an e-mailed statement, and come with a penalty that historically and technically couldn’t be removed except by higher-ranking clergy, like bishops and chaplains. Abortion is one of these crimes under Catholic teaching.

However, the bishops’ conference said, most U.S. bishops have “routinely granted” priests the right to remove the penalty and let the confessed woman return to good standing.

In other words, most women wouldn’t know of this additional layer of canon law because the process has been essentially streamlined and they are absolved once they confess.

Requests to the bishops’ conference and the Vatican asking for information on any country where priests can’t return to full standing women who abort and confess weren’t immediately returned.

It wasn’t clear how the pope’s letter might affect practice. However, most pope-watchers seem to agree that Francis was trying to make a statement – but opinions differ on what he was saying. Catholics on the more liberal side heard him downplaying the church’s view of the sin of abortion by advertising the availability of confession and forgiveness. Conservatives saw him putting a spotlight on abortion and on the need for Catholics to deal with the issue through their priests and the sacrament of confession.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English language spokesman for the Vatican, said, “the newness is clearly Pope Francis’ pastoral approach.”

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a sin that could be grounds for excommunication.

“I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal,” Pope Francis wrote in his letter to the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, according to the Vatican. “What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”

The Mercy Year that starts in December is one of the “jubilee years” called by the church every 25 or 50 years since 1300, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

In his statement, Francis also addressed another hot-button issue – the status of priests of the Society of St. Pius X, a controversial breakaway group that rejects the Catholic teachings of the Second Vatican Council as “modernist errors,” according to its Web site. The traditionalist group rejects the teachings of ecumenism and relations with Jews; one of its bishops, Richard Williamson, made news when he became a vocal Holocaust denier and was expelled.

The group has not been considered “in communion” with the church as a result and on Tuesday, Francis said St. Pius priests could hear confessions during the jubilee year. The move was celebrated by some more conservative Catholics who are sympathetic to some of the group’s criticisms of Vatican II and its commitment to traditional forms of worship.

The Society of St. Pius X is “symbolic of the whole question of continuity between the First and Second Vatican Councils’ approaches to the modern world,” Pecknold wrote.

American Catholics’ views on abortion are split, with 53 percent of white Catholics saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 41 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll. Among Hispanic Catholics, however, 43 percent say it should be legal in all or most cases and 52 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Views on abortion are also divided depending on how often respondents attend services, according to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. While 35 percent of Catholics who attend religious services weekly say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 59 percent of Catholics who attend monthly or less give that response.

Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, said Francis was “resetting the tone” around abortion in advance of his U.S. visit.

“I think this is him seeking a middle ground, an equilibrium where he’ll say something that’s Catholic in soft tones,” she said.

Francis’s comments will be getting even more attention than usual this fall, not only because of his high-profile U.S. trip — which includes a historic address to Congress and one to the United Nations– but also because of a major meeting he’s organized in Rome in October that could result in changes in church practice and doctrine around the family.

(This story has been updated several times.)

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