3 things you need to know about the Pope's decree on abortion
In an official letter issued Tuesday, the Vatican formally ushered in a “jubilee year of mercy,” which will begin December 8, 2015 and end November 20, 2016. Pope Francis offered words for the sick, the aging and the incarcerated — among others — but his decree on forgiveness for abortion is the most noteworthy.
In plain speech, the leader of the Catholic Church declared that, for the duration of the “jubilee year,” Catholic priests will universally be able to forgive “the sin of abortion” to those have had one, assisted with one, or performed one, so long as they are seeking absolution for their deeds.
What does it mean beyond the obvious?
1. Automatic excommunication can be commuted, for a year
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, confessing to abortion (or to assisting with one) can warrant the punishment of permanent separation from the Church. Canon law says it “...incurs an automatic excommunication (c. 1398).”
Excommunication is a difficult process. Baptized Catholics who denounce the faith must seek excommunication directly from their Bishop if they wish to sever all ties with the Church. Otherwise, they are still counted in the worldwide Catholic roll call.
There is something called “latae sententiae,” however, which means automatic excommunication, and it can only occur under certain circumstances. Examples include physically assaulting the Pope, throwing away the consecrated Communion wafers at Mass (or hoarding them for sacrilegious use), committing formal apostasy, and, of course, confessing to having or assisting an abortion.
Note that murder does not count.
While the Church acknowledges both murder and abortion as mortal sins, it felt that abortions, because of their frequency, warrant special attention. But it is rare for an abortion to result in automatic excommunication, as only bishops could issue them. Moreover, there’s a clause in canon law that says such offenses are only punishable if the person understands the “graveness” of the sin. But none of that matters for the next year. Thus, the excommunication threat likely scared more Catholics away from confession rather than bringing them to it.
The Pope’s decree cuts that concern, and allows local priests to perform absolution for the contrite.
2. It reaffirms forgiveness as one of the Church’s chief purposes
“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” the Holy Father wrote in his letter Tuesday. “Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that 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.”
Pope Francis goes on to call it an “existential and moral ordeal” and a “profoundly unjust” situation. But in order to understand that injustice, he continues, there must be forgiveness.
“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented,” he said, emphasizing that the repentance must be sincere. “For this reason too, I have decided...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.”
“May priests fulfill 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.”
3. Individual Archdioceses already allow for abortion forgiveness. The Pope’s decree extends it to all — even Philadelphia.
“In the Diocese of Trenton, some years ago, as permitted by Canon Law, Bishop John Reiss extended that same faculty to all priest confessors in the Diocese of Trenton without restricting it to any period of time,” Bishop O’Connell of Trenton wrote Monday to clarify the Pope’s letter's significance and application. “That permission was never withdrawn and is still in force. The Holy Father’s extension of this provision does not represent anything new or not already in practice in the Diocese of Trenton.”
Individual archdioceses, at the behest of their bishops, can extend this grace at will. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput has also granted priests the right to do so in Philadelphia. After Tuesday's decree, Chaput issued praise for the decision.
"For many years now, parish priests have been given permission to absolve the sin of abortion here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Chaput said. "But the practice has not been common in various other regions of the world."
So for one year, Catholics in Philadelphia must be absolved for a confessed abortion, whether they directly committed them or simply drove someone to the clinic to get one.