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It is unsurprising that Pope Francis has extended the faculties of all priests to absolve the sin of abortion beyond last Sunday. The decision is entirely consistent with the pastoral emphasis of this Pope, with his proven intent on loving the sinner while hating the sin.
In September 2015 he announced that, as part of the celebration of the Year of Mercy, he would permit priests to absolve women of the sin of abortion until November 20th, Sunday last, when the Year of Mercy ended.
That permit has not been concluded.
Until this time last year abortion incurred the penalty of automatic excommunication in the Catholic Church for the women involved, meaning her sin could only be absolved by the Pope, a bishop or a priest specially appointed to do so.
Such is its gravity as sin in the eyes of the Church.
Excommunication is the most severe ecclesiastical penalty imposed by the Catholic Church. But excommunicants remain Catholic because of baptism and are still obliged to attend Mass, but are deprived of all sacraments except Confession/Sacrament of Reconciliation.
They are also forbidden from employment with or from holding any position of authority in a diocese or parish and, should they die, may not have a Catholic burial.
However, in allowing priests absolve abortion, Pope Francis is by no means diminishing its gravity as sin. He makes this clear in his Apostolic Letter, Misericordia et Misera, (Mercy and Misery) published to mark the end of the Year of Mercy. “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” he says.
But, he adds, “in the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father”.
This is very much of the Francis style with its overt preference for compassion and forgiveness over rigid implementation of a narrow interpretation of church teaching.
He stresses this in the document, pointing out that forgiveness is the essence of God’s love. “None of us has the right to make forgiveness conditional. Mercy is always a gratuitous act of our heavenly Father, an unconditional and unmerited act of love,” he says. “Consequently, we cannot risk opposing the full freedom of the love with which God enters into the life of every person.”
Anticipating criticism from the usual suspects he rejected suggestions that his emphasis on mercy is at odds with church dogma. “Remaining only at the level of the law is equivalent to thwarting faith and divine mercy,” he says.
It is such thinking that allowed for the creative fudge in his 2015 document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which seemingly left the door open for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion depending on the particular situation.
“The experience of mercy enables us to regard all human problems from the standpoint of God’s love, which never tires of welcoming and accompanying,” he says in Misericordia et Misera.
It has been estimated that as many as 120,000 Irish women have had abortions over the past almost 50 years, since 1967, when it was legalised in the UK. Many are now grandmothers.
Most would have continued to practice as Catholics in the Ireland of the 1970s, where 91 per cent attended weekly Mass, and since. For many such women, and probably others of the next generation, who cherish their religion the words of Pope Francis can only bring consolation.
Similarly, where those Catholic professionals, partners, and friends, who assisted in such abortions, are concerned.