Any Catholic priest can grant forgiveness to a woman who has had an abortion, Pope Francis announced Sunday.
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” he wrote. “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.”
The Rev. James Bretzke, a Jesuit professor at Boston College, said Pope Francis likely planned the extraordinary jubilee year — which he declared outside the normal cycle that calls for a jubilee every 25 to 50 years — as a test run for a permanent change on abortion.
Before the Year of Mercy, abortion was in a class of sins considered “crimes,” which required a higher authority than a priest to absolve. A woman might have to confess her sin to a bishop, for example, rather than her parish priest.
These crimes are mostly very uncommon sins — violating the communion wafer, revealing what was said in confession and physically attacking the pope are all on the list, Bretzke said. Abortion has been the outlier since the list of crimes was first standardized in canon law in 1917.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had long said that any U.S. priest could hear confessions of abortions, but other countries did not make an exception for abortion. Bretzke said that when he taught in the Philippines, he learned that bishops authorized each priest to forgive only so many abortions and then stop.
Even in countries where absolution was available, Pope Francis’s declaration a year ago helped publicize to Catholic women that they could confess. Bretzke said he heard a confession this year from one woman whose priest told her in the 1980s that she could never be forgiven for her abortion. “This woman lived for decades with this unforgiven sin,” he said. When the woman heard about Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy, she went to Bretzke to seek absolution at last.
In his letter Sunday, Francis also extended another controversial idea that he tested during the one-year jubilee. He had allowed priests from the breakaway sect Society of St. Pius X to hear confessions during that one year, despite the fact that they differ from the church by rejecting the modern revisions from 1965’s Second Vatican Council.
On Sunday, Francis said that Catholics can still receive absolution from these priests, and he trusts that the priests will work toward being in “full communion” with the church eventually.
The 7,230-word letter, laid out as a teaching on biblical passages in which God shows mercy to sinners, contained many other suggestions, such as devoting one Sunday a year entirely to biblical readings in church to remind parishioners of the importance of Scripture, and creating a World Day of the Poor to remember the need for greater charity.
Bretzke noted the phrase “culture of mercy” that Francis used in the letter, saying it struck him as a response to Pope John Paul II’s description in 1995 of a “culture of life” and “culture of death.”
“People would tend to put their opponents in the ‘culture of death’ camp,” Bretzke said. “When you see ‘culture of mercy,’ it doesn’t have a companion term. Culture of legalism? Culture of hardheartedness?”
There’s no direct opposite to mercy, and that’s on purpose, Bretzke surmised — a subtle way to slow down the polarization of those with differing beliefs.