Story highlights

Policy change applies only in the Catholic Church's mercy year, from December 8 to November 20, 2016

Pope has not changed church view that abortion is "a moral evil"

The practical effects of the Pope's announcement remain murky

CNN  — 

Pope Francis shook up the Catholic world – again – on Tuesday by announcing that priests around the world will be authorized to forgive the “sin of abortion” when the church begins a “Year of Mercy” this December.

“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented,” the Pope said, adding that he has met “many women” scarred by the “agonizing and painful” decision to have an abortion.

Francis’ announcement will give all priests full authority to absolve Catholics contrite about their role in a procedure that the church considers a grave “moral evil.” In the United States, many priests already have that power, but Vatican officials portrayed Tuesday’s announcement as “a widening of the church’s mercy.”

“What’s new is that Pope Francis, at least for the Year of Mercy, is universalizing this permission,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America magazine in New York. “Just as notable is his pastoral, compassionate and understanding tone towards women who have had abortions.”

The Pope’s policy does not change church doctrine and applies only to the Year of Mercy, a centuries-old Catholic practice during which believers may receive special indulgences for their sins. The mercy year begins on December 8 and runs through November 20, 2016. Vatican officials said it is possible the pontiff will allow the abortion policy to continue in perpetuity.

In his short statement, the Pope said he sympathizes with “women who have resorted to abortion,” believing that they have no other option. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that person who procures an abortion incurs automatic excommunication, a penalty that often only a bishop can lift. Some experts in the Catholic canon law expressed confusion about the practical effects of the Pope’s announcement.

Edward Peters, a canon lawyer at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said Francis’ statement seems to assume that the “sin” of abortion and the “crime” of abortion are treated equally under church law.

But Peters said priests have been empowered to forgive the sin, which most often applies to women who have an abortion, since 1983, when the code of canon law was revised.

It’s the canonical crime of abortion, which Peters said more aptly applies to abortion providers, that would incur automatic excommunication and require a bishop’s intervention.

In an explanatory article, a consultant to the Vatican Press Office agreed that, under current church law “in many cases” an abortion “may be absolved as would any other serious sin.”

Encouraging mercy

What’s truly new about Tuesday’s announcement, continued the Rev. Thomas Rosica, is the “great pastoral approach and concern of Pope Francis.”

As such, the move seems to showcase a developing phase in Francis’ papacy, which began in March 2013. During the first two years, he changed the church’s tone by welcoming people on the margins, including gays and lesbians, divorced Catholics, the elderly, the poor and the sick.

This summer, for example, Francis said the church should take special care to embrace divorced Catholics. “No closed doors!” he told a crowd gathered for his weekly audience in Rome in August.

With the abortion announcement, Francis seems to be signaling a “third way” to govern the church around thorny issues. He’s not changing long-standing church practices, but he’s moving beyond rhetoric.

In particular, he’s empowering Catholic clergy to be more merciful, and at times more flexible in the enforcement of church rules. This year, when top bishops hold a large meeting on challenges to modern families, the pontiff may seek to take a similar approach to divorced and remarried Catholics.

August: Pope says Church should embrace divorced people

Abortion remains a grave matter

“It’s another signal that the Pope wants a church of encounter that journeys with people,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. “He recognizes the church is anchored in the Gospel when mercy trumps finger-wagging judgment.”

The pontiff’s announcement comes just weeks before he is scheduled to visit the United States, where he will land amid a fierce debate over the funding and morality of Planned Parenthood, a health services nonprofit that’s one of the nation’s largest providers of abortions.

Vatican officials say Francis will try to transcend the culture wars when he visits Washington, New York and Philadelphia this month, but his church here remains bitterly divided over the morality of abortion.

According to a new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 51% of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 45% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. In the hours after Francis’ announcement, Catholics on both sides of the debate were seeking to spin the popular pontiff’s remarks.

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