This morning, Pope Francis released a document indefinitely extending the power of priests to forgive the sin of abortion. The pope initially granted this power one year ago at the start of the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy, which ended yesterday.
Some outlets have twisted this news to imply that, with Pope Francis’s decision, the sinfulness of abortion has somehow lessened. For example, CNN’s homepage this morning led with the headline “Pope: Abortion is forgivable.” A Rewire piece on the topic claimed that the pope had “downgraded the level of sinfulness of abortion.” Meanwhile, the Independent asserts that “the measure represents a significant softening of the church’s stance on the issue of abortion.”
In reality, the Church’s stance on abortion as a moral evil hasn’t changed at all. “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” the pope’s letter notes. His decision to extend priests’ ability to forgive abortion doesn’t make it less sinful for a woman to make that choice or for a doctor to perform an abortion. Rather, it clarifies in formal teaching what was already in practice: God’s mercy is such that no sin, no matter how grave, cannot be forgiven.
Contrary to this understanding, the pope’s letter has also led some to believe that, before his decision, having an abortion was an unforgivable sin. In fact, his move was largely symbolic. Prior to the Year of Mercy, abortion was forgivable, but it was necessary for a person receive the sacrament of confession from a bishop rather than a regular priest. This was due to the fact that, under Church teaching, any Catholic who procures an abortion is automatically excommunicated, a penalty that only bishops, cardinals, or the pope himself can lift.
However, bishops are able to delegate this authority to priests, and in some regions such as the U.S. and Britain, priests have already been permitted by bishops to absolve the sin of procuring an abortion. The pope’s decision won’t actually change anything in the way that American Catholics seek and receive forgiveness for abortion-related sins.