The Church recognises the tragedy of abortion
Pope Francis has asked priests not to withhold God’s mercy to women who have had abortions and who seek forgiveness for it during the Church’s upcoming Year of Mercy.
The pope, in a letter addressed to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, Archbishop of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, said that: “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.”
The pope also said: “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.”
But is this really the headline grabbing story some are suggesting it is? Not quite. So what has changed, if anything? Well, the big (and only!) change comes in the shape of who can forgive a woman who has procured an abortion. Normally this is a matter for the local Bishop but the pope, in his letter, is allowing priests to do this. That’s the change heralded in the pope’s letter. Nothing more. Indeed it's an even more insignificant change when you consider that Bishops already have the power to delegate such a power to priests in their diocese. The net effect of the change is that absolution may be given on the spot in the confessional without the need for the priest to approach the Bishop about the matter.
Church teaching on abortion has not, and will not, change. The Church believes that all human life, from the moment of conception until natural death, must be protected. Since the very beginning the Church has denounced abortion as a moral evil, a teaching it states in the Catechism is ‘unchangeable’. The Church teaches that abortion willed either as an end or a means is gravely contrary to the moral law. It also states that formal cooperation in an abortion ‘constitutes a grave offence’.
In terms of the consequences of procuring abortion the Church is clear that such an offence ‘incurs excommunication latae sententiae’ (immediately on commission of the offence), yet it is the text that follows which is of most interest. The Catechism states that ‘the Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society’.
In essence, the Church is open to the possibility of forgiveness for someone who has procured abortion, subject always to the Code of Canon Law which sets out the circumstances when a person cannot be guilty of a grave offence or who is guilty but with diminished responsibility for their actions. An example of this would be a person who is unaware (through no fault of their own) of the Code of Canon Law or who was forced to commit the grave offence through fear.
This actually fits in perfectly with something else the pope said in his letter to Archbishop Fisichella (the bit the mainstream media are leaving out): “The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. 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.”
The Church has, and always will, provide those involved in abortion with the opportunity to confess their sins and have those sins forgiven. This will always be the case and it is not true that the Church is suddenly offering women the chance of forgiveness for abortion during a one year 'window of opportunity', as has been reported by some media outlets. The Church’s doors are always open to those seeking God’s forgiveness. In that sense what the pope is doing is nothing radical. However, his timing is interesting, getting the world talking about abortion at the same time as the Planned Parenthood scandal.
It is also worth noting that, contrary to popular misconception, excommunication is, along with the other two censures of the Church (suspension and interdict), not so much a punishment but a medicine for the wellbeing of the soul. It is ordered to help the person, not punish them.