Pope will give priests discretion to absolve the 'sin of abortion'
Pope Francis will give all priests discretion during the Roman Catholic Church's upcoming Holy Year to formally forgive women who have had abortions, in the Argentine Pontiff's latest move towards a more open and inclusive church.
In the church's teaching, abortion is such a grave sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication. Usually only designated clergy and missionaries can formally forgive abortions.
But, from December 8 to November 26, during an extraordinary Holy Year or 'Jubilee' on the theme of mercy announced by Pope Francis in March, all priests would be able to do so, he said in a letter published yesterday by the Vatican.
In the letter, Francis described the "existential and moral ordeal" faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision".
Francis is the first non-European pope in 1,300 years and has marked himself out for his tolerance regarding taboo topics. Although he has shown no intention of retracting the church's opposition to abortion, he has alarmed conservatives by taking a less forceful tone than his predecessors.
"This is by no means an attempt to minimise the gravity of this sin but to widen the possibility of showing mercy," Vatican chief spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said.
Deputy Vatican spokesman Fr Ciro Benedettini said that "for now" the change would apply only during the Holy Year.
Usually only a bishop, missionary or the chief confessor of a diocese, known by the Italian term 'penitenziere', can formally forgive an abortion, Fr Benedettini said. The Pope's letter did not mention people who perform abortions.
The Holy Year is one of the 1.2 billion-member church's most important events, and sees the faithful make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites around the world. It takes place every 25 years unless a pope decrees an extraordinary one to bring attention to a particular topic or need.
Until now, Pope Francis has upheld church teaching opposing abortion and echoed his predecessors in saying human life is sacred and must be defended. But he has not emphasised the church's position to the extent that his predecessors did, explaining that by now the church's teaching on abortion is well-known and that priests "cannot be obsessed" with preaching only about "a disjointed multitude of doctrines".
In an indication of his 'mercy over morals' position he has established a new type of roving confessor, dubbed 'missionaries of mercy', who can absolve people of sins reserved to the Holy See, including abortion.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis has been accused by some US conservative commentators of Marxist sympathies given his frequent denunciations of economic systems that "idolise money over people" and the failings of the trickle-down economic theory.