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The Reality of Restored Papal Authority
Pope Francis extends Catholic priests'
power to forgive abortion
by Tim Hume, Cristiana Moisescu and Daniel Burke, CNN
(CNN) Pope Francis has extended indefinitely the power of Catholic priests to
forgive abortions, making the announcement in an apostolic letter released
It continues a special dispensation granted last year for the duration of the
Year of Mercy -- which finished Sunday -- which gave all priests, rather than
just bishops and specially designated confessors, the power to absolve the sin
While the practical effect of Francis' announcement remains unclear, it draws
attention to the prevailing theme of his papacy: That the doors of the Church
must remain open, just as God's forgiveness and mercy extend to all those who
repent from sin.
That said, the Catholic Church's stance on abortion has not changed -- it is
still viewed as a "grave sin." But it makes it easier for women who have had
abortions to be absolved for their actions, and rejoin the church.
"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 states.
"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 letter continues: "May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and
comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.
"I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to
absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion."
Since the first century, the Catholic Church has held that abortion is a "moral
evil." The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that every human life "from the
moment of conception until death is sacred" -- and that any Catholic who
procures an abortion incurs automatic excommunication, a penalty that often only
a bishop could lift.
Saint John Paul II, whose papacy ran from 1978 to 2005, emphasized the
traditional Catholic view on abortion, describing it as "murder," and the church
has been a strong force behind pro-life groups worldwide.
According to canon law experts, John Paul already extended to priests the power
to forgive abortion in 1983 when he updated the code of canon law, but only a
bishop could lift the excommunication. But some bishops allowed priests to lift
the excommunication as well, creating a patchwork of practices and some
confusion among clergy.
Kate D'Annunzio of Rachel's Vineyard, a Pennsylvania-based group that ministers
to women who have had abortions, said Francis has "clarified" that now priests
have the power to do both: forgive and welcome women back into the church.
"We are extremely ecstatic that the Pope is recognizing that the decision women
have made has harmed them in so many ways, and they want to be reunited with the
"The Church has had the ability to forgive these women, but many of these women
had difficulty forgiving themselves. This outreach by the Pope is saying 'Don't
isolate yourselves, come back to the church.'"
Pope Francis initially introduce the church's clarified policies last year when
he said that priests around the world would be authorized to forgive the "sin of
abortion" for the duration of the Church's Year of Mercy, which ran from
December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.
The Year of Mercy is a longstanding Catholic tradition during which believers
may receive special indulgences for their sins.
"The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented," he said at
the time, expressing sympathy for women who had been through the "agonizing and
painful" decision to terminate their pregnancy.
Priest: 'Another gesture of mercy and welcome'
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America magazine
in New York, described Pope Francis' announcement as "a significant one."
Before the Year of Mercy, in dioceses in many parts of the world, special
permission from a bishop was required to absolve the sin of abortion, he said.
"In the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis extended that permission to all priests for
a year. Today he extended it indefinitely," he said.
"It's another gesture of mercy and welcome from a Pope whose hallmarks are mercy