Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Recent reports in non-Catholic media have made some pretty wild claims about a small gesture that our Holy Father made. Pope Francs is extending to all priests the faculty to lift the excommunication that is (possibly) incurred when one obtains, pays for, or substantially assists in an act of abortion. The lifting of this excommunication can only be done by a priest in the confessional in the context of the Sacrament of Confession, in which he is also able to absolve the penitent, who must show contrition and a firm purpose of amendment.
The priest uses this (or a similar) formula:
May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require.
Some erroneous reporting on the Holy Father’s gracious gesture has included unsupportable notions. For example, one radio report I heard this morning said that Pope Francis has “lifted the excommunication” due to abortion. But of course this is a logically flawed conclusion. Why would the Pope give priests the faculty to remove an excommunication that he said was no longer even occurring?
The fact is, the Holy Father is reminding us that one can incur excommunication if he or she procures or substantially assists another in getting an abortion (cf. Canon 1398). I say “can” because the excommunication only occurs if one knew of the penalty beforehand and yet still procured an abortion, and if the abortion did not occur in an environment of grave fear or strong pressure (Canon 1323). As you can see, the conditions necessary for excommunication are not always or even usually fulfilled. The text in the absolution above makes use of the clause “as your needs require” since it is not always clear that the penalty was in fact incurred. As a caution, the priest can lift the excommunication using this language if he is not sure it was incurred.
But note that the Holy Father is not setting aside any legislation. Abortion remains so serious that it is one of the sins (along with apostasy, heresy, desecration of the Eucharist, etc.) that can incur automatic excommunication of those who proceed with one, knowing the penalty.
This is a teaching moment on the seriousness of the sin of abortion and therefore the need for repentance and the glorious mercy that pours forth from heart of Christ on those who do repent. Oh, the glory of the Lord’s mercy! But, it is accessed through repentance. No sin can be absolved nor excommunication lifted where there is no repentance. But where there is … let the grace flow!
Here in America, the gracious gesture of the Holy Father will not have a lot of practical impact, because in most American dioceses, bishops have for decades been routinely delegating this faculty to priests upon their ordination. My written faculties specifically authorize me to do this. I don’t know a single brother priest who does not have the faculty delegated to him. Hence there are no real changes here in the United States.
The fuller impact for us is the reminder to Catholics that abortion is a serious sin, but that God loves sinners and stands ready to forgive the repentant and begin the healing. I dealt with this topic in my most recent blog post here at the Register.
Somewhere in our culture we have developed the flawed understanding that mercy means that sins aren’t really sins or that God doesn’t really care about sin. It’s just the opposite. Mercy is necessary because there is sin. And my sins are so serious that the Lord had to die a terrible death in order to restore me and to apply His mercy to me. Oh, the horror of sin; Oh, glory of mercy!
Can we please have some logical sense in discussing these matters? Mercy does not deny that there is sin. It is needed because there is sin, and grace and mercy are our only hope.
Now off to confession with us all!