VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis declared on Tuesday he is allowing all priests in the church's upcoming Year of Mercy to absolve women of the "sin of abortion" if they repent with a "contrite heart," saying he is acutely aware some feel they have no choice but to abort.
Reflecting his papacy's central theme of mercy, Francis said in letter published by the Vatican that he has met many women bearing "the scar of this agonizing" decision to abort. He said God's forgiveness cannot be denied to those who repent, and therefore he is giving all priests the power to absolve the sin in the Holy Year of Mercy, which runs Dec. 8, 2015 until Nov. 20, 2016.
The church views abortion as such a grave sin that, until now, a Catholic woman who wanted to repent for an abortion could not simply go to her local parish priest. Instead, her diocese's bishop needed to delegate a priest expert at dealing with such confessions, to hear the woman's confession, or reserved for himself the decision on whether to absolve such women.
Essentially Francis is making it possible for women to bypass this formalized process in the approaching special Year of Mercy.
In the United States, which the pope will visit on a pilgrimage this month, many bishops already allow priests to absolve women who have had abortions, while in some dioceses, bishops have reserved the decision for themselves, said the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America.
The pope's directive on Tuesday "reminds priests of the need for mercy, and it also takes a very pastoral tone toward woman who have had an abortion," Martin said.
In his letter, Francis made clear he isn't downplaying the gravity of abortion for the church, which essentially views abortion as equivalent to murder. Instead, he applied his vision of mercy to what is an intensely personal, often anguished choice for women.
"The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails," Francis wrote in a letter to a Vatican official promoting the church's evangelization efforts.
"Many others on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option."
Francis drew on decades of pastoral experience with rank-and-file faithful in his native Argentina, including as Buenos Aires archbishop.
"I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision," the pope wrote.
"I am well aware of the pressure that led them to this decision," Francis said. "I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal."
"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 pope said.
That is why he has decided to concede to all priests "the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it," he said.
In a statement following the pope's letter, the Vatican made clear that "forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects. The newness is clearly Pope Francis' pastoral approach."
In some cases, bishops turn to a special corps of priests, often drawn from the ranks of the Jesuits, like the pope, to serve as confessor to a woman seeking forgiveness for abortion.
Maureen Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University, noted that under some circumstances, a woman who has had an abortion is automatically excommunicated, if she wasn't under coercion or suffering from a psychological problem that affected her decision-making.
To be readmitted to the church, it's customary for the woman to be asked to perform some penance, such as making a pilgrimage, along with seeking absolution.
Some 30 million faithful are expected to come to Rome on Year of Mercy pilgrimages.