The Catholic Church continues to change shape at the hands of Pope Francis.
The pontiff declared on Tuesday that during the church’s upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, priests will be able to absolve sin for those who have had abortions. The authority, albeit temporary, is a continuation of the pope’s merciful approach to guiding the church and building global membership, especially among the young.
“I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal,” the pope wrote. “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”
He called on priests to forgive those who have procured abortions and seek forgiveness with a “contrite heart,” recognizing that some women feel as if abortion is their only option. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” he said.
The law of the Catholic Church declares abortion “a moral evil” and will not change under the new temporary policy, which is set to start on December 8. The Jubilee, also known as the Holy Year of Mercy, is a centuries-old tradition celebrating forgiveness that occurs every 25 or 50 years, unless the pope calls for an extraordinary event. The period ends on November 20, 2016.
The Vatican called the decision “clearly Pope Francis’ pastoral approach” and made clear that “forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects.” It also said that there is a chance the policy may continue after the Holy Year of Mercy ends.
Outside of the Holy Year of Mercy, Catholic doctrine requires automatic excommunication for anyone involved with an abortion, from the pregnant woman to the abortionist. Before this jubilee, a bishop needed to delegate a specialized priest to hear a woman confess to an abortion. Only he could then decide if her sin was absolved.
An exception to this rule occurs in the United States, where many bishops already allow priests to absolve women who have had abortions. When Pope Francis visits Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia later this month, Vatican officials say he will attempt to transcend the culture wars as the nation debates over Planned Parenthood’s morality. Fifty-one percent of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all cases, and nine-in-ten view Pope Francis in a favorable light.
Catholics for Choice, a religious pro-choice advocacy group, called Pope Francis’ move “pastoral, not political.” In a statement, President Joe O’Brien said the pope’s decision bridges “the gulf between what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics really do in their lives,” but does not necessarily mean Catholic women will flock to church in repentance.
“A long time ago, Catholic women around the world worked out that they can make moral and ethical decisions about sexual and reproductive issues,” he said. “Catholic women know that they can in good conscience disagree with the hierarchy and still be good Catholics in good faith.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, a group that has allowed priests to forgive women for abortions for three decades, called the move a “beautiful example of mercy and forgiveness.”
Reactions from anti-abortion organizations have varied, though the president of National Right to Life said the group welcomes the efforts to bring “healing and forgiveness to men and women who have participated in the death of an unborn child.”
Francis’ papacy has been defined by compassion for groups that have been traditionally ostracized within the religion. In August, he invited divorced people and children of divorced parents to return to the Church. He has pushed for a more inclusive environment for faithful gays and lesbians. In April, he declared, “more weight and more authority must be given to women,” as the “feminine genius” has gone untapped. He has also called the gender pay gap “pure scandal.”
As one of the world’s foremost influencers, Pope Francis’ recognition of the emotional toll of abortion is groundbreaking. His call for compassion has the potential to influence the attitudes of 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as other groups around the world that respect his authority and judgment.
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