Pope Francis has declared 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."
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 agonising" decision to abort.
He said God's forgiveness cannot be denied to those who repent, and thus is giving all priests the discretion to absolve the sin in the Holy Year of Mercy running from December 8 until November 20.
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, an expert at dealing with such confessions, to hear the woman's confession.
Francis is making it possible for women to bypass this complicated process and confess directly to any Catholic priest, who can grant absolution if he determines the woman is contrite.
The pontiff said having an abortion is "an existential and moral ordeal". He added: "I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision."
The comments draw on Francis' decades of pastoral experience with rank-and-file faithful in his native Argentina.
"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.
He 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".
Francis made clear he is not downplaying the gravity of abortion for the church, which essentially views abortion as equivalent to murder.
Instead, he applied his leadership 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 realising the extreme harm that such an act entails," Francis wrote in a letter to a Vatican official.
"Many others on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option."
In a statement following the pope's letter, the Vatican made clear that "forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimise its grave effects. The newness is clearly Pope Francis' pastoral approach".
In some cases, bishops turn to a special group of priests, often drawn from the ranks of the Jesuits, like the pope, to serve as confessor to a woman seeking forgiveness for abortion.
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 towards woman who have had an abortion," Rev Martin said.
Maureen Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University, noted that under some circumstances, a woman who has had an abortion is automatically excommunicated, if she was not 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.