Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Pope, Abortion and Forgiveness

One of the headlines yesterday was that in honor of the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has granted to every priest the authority to absolve the sin of abortion, at least for the Jubilee year. The implicit subtext is that priests did not have this authority before. The relevant text is reprinted at the end of this post.*

While this declaration has 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 is . . . wait for it . . . almost zero.

Why do I say that?

Because priests could do it anyway.

Or to put it differently, as with many things surrounding this Pope, the reality is different from the hype.

Let me start to explain what I mean by going back a step. Technically, all priests today have the authority to pardon any sin including abortion. It wasn't 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. (Laugh away, non-Catholics, I find it a bit funny too.)

However, according to current Canon Law there are no sins in this category. Any priest may technically pardon any sin, including abortion.

But there is a catch. Currently there are certain sins that incur the canonical penalty of excommunication or excommunication latae sententiae--the excommunication is automatic or takes place by reason of the offense. Abortion is one of these sins, along with apostasy, heresy and five others, including physically attacking the Pope (once again, "common" murder is not included but striking the Pope is--laugh again, non-Catholics). Thus, while a priest could technically pardon an abortion, in practice that would be impossible in the case of the potential penitent being an excommunicate, as excommunication implies that the person 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 would the penitent get the censure lifted in order to then receive absolution? 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 have been given such authority by their bishops.

In other words, in the United States, virtually every priest already has the authority to absolve the sin of abortion.

It is a matter of some debate how far this has 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 presumably not compiled. My tentative conclusion is that the "tradition" of bishops designating this authority to their priests is widespread in English-speaking countries and may be common in most of continental Europe as well. One source has claimed that it is pretty much the norm everywhere.

Let's assume however, that there are places where it's not the norm--places where technically you still have to go to a bishop to get the censure lifted. Even here, however, current Canon Law offers 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 is 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.

The 24 hours requirement is why towards the top of this post I wrote almost zero instead of zero.

Here the reader may stop and ask, isn't this all too complicated? Shouldn't the Pope be commended for making it simple and transparent? (Though, we should note that the Pope has done this only for the Jubilee Year. After that we go back to the regular rules.) The answer to this is that while the rules might be somewhat complicated--it's taken me 1,000+ words to explain them--the practice is not. If one has been a party to abortion, absolution has always been readily or "easily" available, or, more accurately, has been available at least since 1983 and in many cases earlier.

The truth of the matter of course is that the real impediment is not some 24 hour waiting period that would apply in only a small minority of cases anyway, but 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 announcement was, to put it simply, a PR move.

Do not misunderstand. I do not mean to imply that that's necessarily a bad thing. Clearly, it would be a good thing--a hugely good thing--if it succeeded in persuading more people to seek absolution from the sin of abortion than otherwise would have. I admit to being skeptical here, however. Confession--or what is now called "reconciliation"--is regularly practiced by only a small minority of Catholics. That those who do not regularly practice it sort of "hold it out as a last resort" for grave sins such as abortion, is doubtful, I think.

This is not to blame laypeople. Most churches minimize the importance of confession and minimize the time allotted to it--"5:45-5:50 on Saturday evenings or by appointment". And in most cases these days you're not going into a booth and whispering anonymously to a priest behind a screen, you're expected to sit face to face with Father X--the nice fellow who shakes your hand at the end of Mass every week and knows your family--or perhaps walk together with Father X to a booth where you will then go through the motions of anonymity. To put the effect of this sort of thing in perspective, the Church officially defines masturbation as a mortal sin. Technically, you can go to hell for it, even if you do it once. According to the Church, you must obtain absolution for it. But how many people want to sit in an armchair across from Father X and tell him about that at 5:45 on a Saturday evening?

Some have argued that the Pope has been loud and clear in stressing the importance of confession. I do not think that is the case. While he does on occasion mention the importance of the sacrament, the context of it is such that its mention will go right past those who most need to be convinced of its importance.

Even if the Pope's announcement was a PR move in the cause of, say, stressing God's goodness or mercy in general, that too might be good. And there is precedent for it.

But those who are wise as serpents in these matters might look on it in another way: It's 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) of being, well, mean.

(I should note that the sub-headline to many stories on the Pope's announcement plays exactly into that--"traditionalists" were "dismayed" at the Pope offering an "easy out" to such a grave sin. Given the stress by traditionalists on confession, that's almost a complete inversion of the truth.)

If the Pope were truly interested in saving those who were prisoners of mortal sin, he would call all non-Catholics to convert (you need to be a Catholic, obviously, to receive the sacrament of absolution) instead of implying that it doesn't matter and condemning those who think it does--"proselytism is solemn nonsense...the most important thing is to journey together towards the good."

If the Pope were truly interested in reminding his flock of the necessity of confession, he would ask all Catholics to go and go regularly, and require that his bishops and priests make it more readily available. Announce it from the pulpit often, allot more time to it, put the confession booths back or stop storing hymnals in them and so on.

If the Pope were truly interested in offering absolution to those who were a party to abortion, he would implore them to see a priest today, not wait until the start of his own Jubilee Year on December 8.

What was that about a waiting period?

And if the Pope truly wants those who were parties to abortion to take their need for absolution seriously, he wouldn't have so obviously bent over backwards to qualify or minimize their culpability as he did in his letter (see below).

Mercy requires first recognizing the sin, not giving excuses for it. That's the point of mercy, after all. If you didn't do anything wrong (or anything really wrong), you don't need it.


*Here is the relevant passage from the Pope's letter, released yesterday:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. 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. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, 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. May priests fulfil 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 by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.


  1. Abortion is "just" murder. Murder has never been the "unforgivable sin." The book of Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 26 through 31 clearly outline the criteria defining "unforgivable sin."

    The book of Galatians, chapter 1 verses 8 and 9 clearly state that no Angel out of heaven -- much less any mortal man, regardless of his earthly title -- can negate scripture.

    So, of course God can and will forgive the "contrite" petitioner. As long as that petitioner is not guilty of "unforgivable sin."

    Murder/abortion does not fall into that category.

  2. Thanks for this clear exploration of what's happened. This is truly a mess. No matter what good intentions Francis had it's still a mess. The complete misunderstanding by "the world" on this is reason alone to wish it had not been done.

  3. Well said indeed. And perfectly true.

  4. Thanks for explaining this.

    I am postabortive and have volunteered as a speaker and retreat facilitator for Project Rachel for the last 12 years. Of the hundreds of women I have spoken with, not one was ever refused absolution for this sin.

    I think the intent of this is two-fold: 1. to cement the public image of Francis the Merciful and 2. to get the SSPX under his thumb so that he can weaken and subvert them.

    Next on Francis' agenda is the destruction the E. Orthodox Catholic rites which were touched by the wrecking ball of Vatican 2.
    A number of sedevacantists attend these chapels.

    Seattle Kim

    1. Re: no one was ever refused absolution. That's what I would have thought. It sounds like what you are doing is really great. Thank you for your work, Kim, from someone who has not done anywhere near as much. The Church was there for you and continues to be there for those who need it, despite everything. It was there for me, I'll tell you. That's why I get so angry when I see it being attacked--from without or within.

    2. If you want to know about the largest scale attack on the Church from the inside, read this on-line book written by the head of the Vatican noble guard during the reigns of Pius XII, John 23, and Paul VI. Nikita Roncalli: Counterlife of a Pope.

  5. Oops I meant "untouched" by Vat 2.

    Seattle kim

  6. The Bear is going to be non-cynical about this. The Pope is reaching out, promoting confession, and the Bear sees nothing but good flowing from this. If there is a PR element to it, it is for the good, and the Bear sees no evidence that it is being done out of ulterior motives. Good article.

    1. You are a. good and kind bear and I would like to pet your fur and give you a Seattle salmon to eat. But Bear, if you go to an SSPX confession, be prepared to confess the sin of attending the new Mass and accepting the heresies of Vatican 2.
      That's one of the many ironies of the pronouncement.

      Seattle Kim

    2. I have to for once completely disagree with you here. I think it's a scam, for the reasons given in my post. What he's doing is basically lying about the practices of the current Church. It's not true that you can't get absolution now. To repeat, if he really wanted to promote absolution, he would ask people to come in today. And he would emphasize confession, not his own Year of Mercy. What of those who die in mortal sin before December 8?