Papal Letter on Absolution for Abortion Means 'Forgiveness Is Possible'

Post-abortion healing ministries welcomed the papal initiative, but it also sparked some questions among the faithful.

A woman goes to confession at the Basilica of St. Mary Major`s during the during the Vigil for Life in March.
A woman goes to confession at the Basilica of St. Mary Major`s during the during the Vigil for Life in March. (photo: CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

SAN FRANCISCO — When Pope Francis announced that priests across the world would have the authority to absolve the sin of abortion during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the news drew applause from Mary Ann Schwab.

As the coordinator for Project Rachel, the post-abortion healing ministry in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Schwab regularly meets with women overwhelmed by guilt and grief following an abortion.

“The Pope’s action will make people aware that they can be forgiven, especially those whose guilt is so great they think it isn’t possible,” Schwab told the Register, noting that some women will only speak to counselors on the phone or ask for a priest in another parish, where they won’t be recognized.

“When people ask for our help, it is often to find emotional healing. That healing is not complete until they are free to accept the reality of their situation and go to a priest for the sacrament of reconciliation.”

Pope Francis announced that priests would have the power to absolve the sin of abortion for the Year of Mercy in a Sept. 1 papal letter addressed to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.

In his letter, Pope Francis reflected on the “tragedy of abortion” and recalled his meetings with “women who bear in their hearts the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”

“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,” he said.

“For this reason too, I have decided ... 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.”

He directed that “priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome, combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion.”


Media-Generated Confusion

The move reflected the Holy Father’s long-standing desire to reach alienated Catholics, and it was welcomed by Church leaders and apostolates that work with troubled women who have undergone abortions.

But the papal letter also puzzled U.S. Catholics who believed that priests already had the power to grant absolution for abortion, and led some  wonder whether their previous confession had been valid. Initial media coverage stirred more confusion by framing the Pope’s gesture as an attempt to offer mercy by downplaying the gravity of abortion. Further,  this country.

The headlines prompted a slew of questions from ordinary Catholics as well as canon-law experts.

Would U.S. priests only have the power to grant absolution for the sin of abortion during the Year of Mercy? Were past confessions during which penitents sought forgiveness for their abortion actually valid? And what was different about the sin of abortion that required this special action from the Pope?

After the letter’s release, Church leaders and canon lawyers sought to provide clarification. They began by noting that, while the Pope’s remarks were meant for priests across the world, in the United States local bishops had already delegated to priests the power to absolve the sin of abortion, and those who had confessed their involvement in this procedure had indeed received absolution.

“Pope Francis’ recent remarks on absolution for the sin of abortion demonstrate his commitment to all those in need of healing,” read a Sept. 1 statement from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

While media coverage of the papal letter gave the impression that absolution was not previously available to Catholic women who had undergone abortions, Archbishop Chaput noted that pastors in the Philadelphia Archdiocese had “been given permission to absolve the sin of abortion.”

He added, “But the practice has not been common in various other regions of the world.”


Canonical Context

Experts provided further context for the papal letter, noting that, in the eyes of the Church, direct involvement in an abortion is not only a grave sin, but a canonical crime that incurs the juridical penalty of automatic excommunication.

Excommunication bars a Catholic from taking part in the sacraments until the penalty is lifted.

U.S. priests have been given the power to remit the penalty when they hear the confession of a woman who has undergone an abortion or the confession of her boyfriend, spouse or parent who may have paid for it or exerted pressure on her to end the pregnancy.

Canonists also noted that many women may be exempt from the penalty of excommunication because they were too young, coerced by others or unaware of the gravity of this action.

Such matters are discussed in the confessional to shed light on the extent of the penitent’s culpability and to help form future choices.

Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life said the Pope’s letter serves as a crucial reminder that in the United States alone close to 30 million women have undergone one or more abortions, and many others might also bear responsibility for the killing of an unborn child.

After the papal letter was released, said Father Pavone, some Catholics contacted post-abortion healing ministries “to make sure their confession was valid.”

“If you went to confession and you got absolution, you are forgiven. There is nothing about this letter that should make you concerned,” Father Pavone told the Register.

Asked to comment on how priests address the issue of excommunication in the confessional, Father Pavone said it is typically handled in a sensitive manner, and the lifting of the penalty may not be directly discussed.

“Priests assure the person, before giving the absolution: ‘Anything that stands between you and God or you and the Church regarding this sin is now resolved,’” he said.

“That is important, because if they hear later about the penalty of excommunication, they won’t be troubled by that.”

During Priests for Life seminars, he added, “I always advise priests to make the person aware that this is a healing journey that should continue beyond the absolution.

“It is a healthy response to feel the pain of this loss. And the priest can explain, ‘When you feel that way, it doesn’t mean you aren’t forgiven.’”

Priests should encourage the penitent to take advantage of post-abortive healing though programs like Rachel’s Vineyard retreats, he said.


Healing Wounds

Yet even as Church leaders like Father Pavone sought to tamp down confusion sparked by the papal initiative, they strongly supported Pope Francis’ effort to make the sacrament of reconciliation more accessible to women wounded by abortion.

“This action in no way diminishes the moral gravity of abortion. What it does do is make access to sacramental forgiveness easier for anyone who seeks it with a truly penitent heart,” said Archbishop Chaput.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, urged women struggling with the pain of abortion to seek help.

“Recognizing the seriousness of the sin of abortion and the implications this can have for those involved, Pope Francis is making particular outreach to women, noting that many women were under great pressure and felt that they had no choice,” said Cardinal O’Malley in a Sept. 1 statement.

“My hope and prayer is that all those carrying the burden of an experience of abortion would turn to the Church and her sacraments and experience the Lord’s mercy and love,” said the cardinal, who also drew attention to post-abortion healing ministries.

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services at the  Archdiocese of Los Angeles, drew attention to the fact that the Church’s response to the grave sin of abortion reflects a desire to advance spiritual conversion and moral change.

“If we look at the law simply as a way of punishing people, we lose the point,” Father Fox told the Register.

“The law also guarantees that the persons will receive the kind of pastoral care that will help them mature spiritually and morally and find solutions that will help them avoid repeating their actions in the future.”


Sin and Forgiveness

While canonists continue to evaluate the particulars of the Pope’s directive, ordinary Catholics and the public at large have received a powerful reminder that abortion is a grave sin — and that the Church, through the sacrament of reconciliation, offers mercy to anyone seeking forgiveness.

In the United States, that papal invitation to reconciliation in the Lord comes at the very time that a series of undercover videos appear to show the sale of fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood and include graphic images of dismembered fetuses.

The videos have created a furor on Capitol Hill and disrupted a campaign by Planned Parenthood to remove the stigma of abortion. 

Now, Pope Francis has given the brutal impact of abortion new prominence.

Catholic University of America theologian Chad Pecknold described the papal letter as a “typical Francis move” in an interview with The Washington Post.

Pecknold referenced the nine undercover videos that have sparked debate on Capitol Hill and suggested that “a lot of Catholics threw up their hands and said: ‘Why isn’t the Holy Father saying anything?’”

Said Pecknold, “This is him saying something. He is saying: ‘Abortion is a grave sin.’”

But the Holy Father’s jubilee initiative went much further than that, directing all of the world’s priests to extend God’s mercy in the specific context of transgressions as grave as abortion.

In his letter, the Pope expressed his "wish that the jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened and thus testimony to it be ever more effective.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.