Here is the official letter of the Pope: issued 1 September 2015. In the letter the Pope calls abortion “profoundly unjust” and he states: “The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.” Next, the Pontiff grants to all priests the ability to forgive the sin of abortion, to anyone who is truly repentant, in Confession, during the Year of Mercy (only).
“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. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, 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.”
Anything in church law to the contrary of this decision of the Pope cannot withstand this decision. In other words, this decision overrides anything to the contrary.
The Year of Mercy extends from 8 Dec 2015 to 20 Nov 2016. Why do priests need to be granted this ability? Could they not always forgive any sin in Confession? The sin of abortion, when committed with knowledge of Church law, carries the penalty of automatic excommunication. If the person did not know about the law and the penalty of excommunication, then that person is not excommunicated, as Pope Saint John Paul II explained in Evangelium Vitae, 62:
The 1917 Code of Canon Law punished abortion with excommunication. The revised canonical legislation [i.e. current Canon law] continues this tradition when it decrees that “a person who actually procures an abortion incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication”. The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed.
Accomplices are also excommunicated, again, only if they knew of the law and its penalty of automatic excommunication. If the person guilty of abortion did not know of the law and penalty, then any priest could always forgive this sin, in Confession, if the person is repentant. If the person did know, and so is excommunicated, then ordinarily only Bishops and certain priests could remove the sentence of excommunication. However, for a penitent in danger of death, at all times in all cases any validly ordained priest at all can forgive the sin and remove the excommunication. If a person is not in danger of death, any priest is always able to forgive the sin, returning the soul to the state of saving grace, but the excommunication would need to be removed by a priest with that faculty (ability) or a Bishop, subsequently.
With this new declaration from the Pope, all priests will have the faculties, for the Year of Mercy, to lift this particular type of excommunication. But as for granting forgiveness to the sin of abortion, it has always been the case that any priest could forgive that sin, in Confession. The declaration for the Year of Mercy simply extends the ability to lift the sentence of excommunication.
Now some mass media outlets are claiming that the Pope is granting to all priests the ability to forgive the sin of abortion. That is not accurate. Priests have always had the ability to forgive all sins in Confession. The letter of the Pope only concerns lifting the excommunication. Also, some news stories claim that the Pope is granting to all priests the ability to forgive doctors who perform abortion. That is not accurate. First, anyone who performs or procures direct abortion must be repentant, including the resolve not to commit this sin again, in order to be forgiven. Second, a doctor could always be forgiven of this sin by any priest in Confession, if he or she is fully repentant. Third, the letter simply extends the ability to lift excommunication to all priests, and yes, this does include those penitents who have performed abortions as well as those penitents who had procured abortions.
See also my previous post: Automatic Excommunication for the Use of Abortifacient Contraception.
In the same letter, Pope Francis declared that during the Year of Mercy (8 Dec 2015 to 20 Nov 2016.), the priests of the SSPX are granted faculties to forgive sins: “I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.”
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