This is a revised and updated version of a post I wrote last year at the commencement of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
One of the headlines yesterday was that in his Apostolic Letter, Misericordia et Misera, Pope Francis had indefinitely extended the temporary authority of every priest to absolve the sin of abortion - the temporary authority that he had granted to them for his Jubilee Year of Mercy. This implies that priests did not have this authority before.
From the Letter:
I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.And here is one headline (from the BBC):
Pope Francis allows priests to forgive abortionBut while the original declaration and its extension have been hailed in many quarters as a sort of stunning development - an example of the Pope's new Church of Mercy in action - its actual effect in terms of the practical ability to obtain absolution for abortion was and still is . . . wait for it . . . zero.
As with many things surrounding this Pope, the reality is different from the hype.
Let's first be absolutely clear: before the Pope stepped in, all priests had the authority to pardon any sin, including abortion. This Pope did not grant them that authority. They already had it.*
The confusion is that there are certain sins that incur the canonical penalty of excommunication or excommunication later sentential - the excommunication is automatic or takes place by reason of the offense. Abortion has long been one of these sins, along with apostasy, heresy and five others, including physically attacking the Pope. Thus, while a priest could technically pardon an abortion or any other sin in the process of engaging in the sacrament, the potential penitent might not be able to receive the sacrament, as excommunication implies that the excommunicate cannot receive any sacraments including absolution.
It should be noted, however, that while excommunication is "automatic" it would only actually occur in a subset of cases meeting the requirements of canon law. A Catholic party to abortion - pregnant woman, doctor, husband or boyfriend - only incurs excommunication if, among other things, the party is sixteen or over, was not subject to physical force and knew (or was negligent in not knowing) that excommunication would result. It is arguable that the last clause would exempt many.
How might a penitent get the censure lifted in order to then receive absolution? Technically, he or she would have to go to a bishop, or to a priest who had been given the proper authority by a bishop. Here's the crucial point, however: in the United States, virtually all priests had previously been given such authority by their bishops.
In other words, in the United States, even before Pope Francis issued his two Letters, virtually every priest already had the authority to absolve the sin of abortion.
It is a matter of some debate how far this had been extended to other countries, and it's difficult to come up with a definitive answer on the question, as statistical lists on these sorts of things are not compiled. But I believe that the "tradition" of bishops designating this authority to their priests was widespread in English-speaking countries and may have been common in most of continental Europe as well. One source I spoke to claimed that it was pretty much the norm everywhere.
But even assuming there were places where it was not the norm - places where technically one still had to go to a bishop to get the censure lifted, canon law offered a "way out". According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, any priest may provisionally remove the censure if he judges that it would be "hard" for the penitent to remain in such a state until the censure was removed. Here, "hard" is usually interpreted as waiting more than 24 hours. In that sort of a case, one of the two - the penitent or priest - would then have thirty days to confirm this with a bishop or someone designated by him. And it should be noted that in the case of a priest contacting a bishop, the full anonymity of the penitent was allowed and expected.
To put it a different way, if you sought absolution on abortion from a priest who did not have the authority to lift the censure (in one of those possible places where he didn't), if the priest could not get you to a bishop or priest who had such authority within 24 hours, you would still be able to receive absolution.
I should say that as a matter of canon law, it still isn't clear whether the pope means to lift the automatic excommunication on abortion or merely grant all priests the ability to lift it. Nor is it clear whether either answer will apply only to abortion or to the other sins automatic excommunication is incurred, such as, say, striking the Pope.
After all this the reader may stop and ask, isn't this all too complicated? Shouldn't the Pope be commended for making it simple and transparent? The answer to this is that while the rules might have been somewhat complicated - it's taken me 1,000+ words to explain them - the practice was not complicated. If one had been a party to abortion, absolution had been readily or "easily" available - at least since 1983 and in many cases earlier.
The truth of the matter of course is that the real impediment to obtaining absolution for abortion has been the state of mind of the potential penitent - not desiring to obtain absolution from a priest, being afraid of it, ignorant as to its importance or whatever.
The Pope's involvement with the issue is in practice nothing more than a PR move.
One might claim that a PR move would itself not be a bad thing if it helped get more people to confession, especially for a grave sin such as abortion. But this Pope has never spent much time stressing the importance of actual confession, even in the context of discussing "mercy." Rather, we get general statements like this:
We will entrust the life of the Church, all humanity, and the entire cosmos to the Lordship of Christ, asking him to pour out his mercy upon us like the morning dew, so that everyone may work together to build a brighter future. Misericordiae Vultus.Confession has virtually disappeared as a regular or even occasional practice for most Catholics. One suspects that the Pope's quasi-New Age effusions are not helpful in getting anyone to confide their worst secrets to some old man in a priest's collar.
So, it's a PR move, but a PR move to stress the goodness and mercy not of God, but of this Pope, and to implicitly condemn the "old" or "traditional" Church (in other words the eternal Catholic Church).
"The old Church wouldn't forgive abortions. But now, under my leadership, things are different."
That's a lie.
*It was not always this way. Though priests have always had the general ability to pardon even the gravest of sins - i.e. murder - there used to be a subset of grave sins where absolution was remitted exclusively to the Pope or bishops. In other words, to get it you had to go to a higher up. The sin of striking the Pope, for example, was in this category. In the old days, you couldn't just walk into a confession booth and obtain absolution for that, though you could obtain absolution for "common" violence or murder. However, according to current canon law there are no sins in this category. Any priest may technically pardon any sin, including abortion.