During his tenure, Pope Francis has used his authority to encourage "a widening of the church's mercy."
In his 3-1/2 years as pope, he has worked to emphasize a more pastorally-inclusive message to lesbians, gays, and transgender people, as well as the divorced, women, and oppressed minorities.
On Monday, he carried that message of mercy further, allowing all priests to offer absolution to women who have had an abortion.
The pope’s move to extend this authority indefinitely to priests removes what could be an intimidating institutional hurdle in many cases, observers say. But it also sends a message consistent with Francis’ papacy.
“I would like to think that its primary objective is trying to show a kind of generosity, and to say something about the universal ministry of the church that he, at least, would see as communicating the church’s compassionate and pastoral ministry,” says Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.
Last year, Pope Francis gave priests the temporary authority to extend God’s forgiveness to women who had undergone abortions. It was part of his call for the Year of Mercy – a rare “jubilee” year that popes typically convene only once every few decades.
On Monday, however, a day after the “extraordinary jubilee of mercy” officially came to a close, the pope announced that this special dispensation to Catholic priests would be extended indefinitely.
“Let us ask for the grace of never closing the doors of reconciliation and pardon, but rather of knowing how to go beyond evil and differences, opening every possible pathway of hope,” Francis told an audience of 70,000 gathered at the Vatican Sunday.
A change in the church
From the start, Francis’s papacy has been defined by an effort to emphasize pastoring over a rigid insistence on dogmatic teachings – an effort that has often riled many Catholic conservatives, especially in the United States, where abortion remains a sharp-edged political and theological topic.
And since the Catholic Church considers abortion a grave and serious sin, automatically excommunicating the woman who undergoes the procedure in most cases, the authority to absolve the sin and offer reconciliation is technically reserved for bishops and their surrogates, according to church law.
For the most part, American bishops have already given their priests the authorization to hear the confessions of those who have had abortions, says Professor Morrill, who is also a Catholic priest. In every parish he has served, from Alaska to Massachusetts to Georgia, his ministry has always included this authority, even under very conservative bishops.
“But it’s a wise pastoral move,” he says, “The pope realizes that by articulating this publicly, in a way that would get wide press attention, he can articulate clearly that any woman can approach any confessor or priest and be assured that she can receive absolution and forgiveness for having procured an abortion.”
On Saturday, during a service that elevated 17 new cardinals, including three Americans, the pope exhorted the church to reject “the virus of polarization and animosity” and the temptation to “demonize” those who are different.
On Sunday, he also told those gathered that the year of jubilee was a chance for Catholics to “rediscover the core, to return to what is essential” and at the same time to “rediscover the youthful, beautiful face of the church, the face that is radiant when it is welcoming, free, faithful, poor in means but rich in love, on mission.”
Signs of a backlash
Last week, however, a group of conservative bishops made public their concern over the pope’s welcoming, pastoral mission over the past few years – and especially his recent exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”
Led by US Cardinal Raymond Burke, a fierce critic of Pope Francis, these bishops asked the pope to clarify certain doctrinal questions, since they have ongoing doubts about whether the papal exhortation undermined the church’s authoritative teachings on sin and the permanence of marriage.
Cardinal Burke also suggested that if Francis did not offer a clarification, the bishops might make a “a formal act of correction of a serious error” – an action not taken for centuries, and close to accusing the pope of heresy, some observers say.
The pope, who did not respond to the bishops’ letter, responded indirectly last Friday to unnamed critics who he said view faith through the lens of “a certain legalism, which can be ideological.”
“Some people – I am thinking of certain responses to ‘Amoris Laetitia’ – continue to misunderstand,” Francis said on Friday. “It’s either black or white (to them), even if in the flow of life you have to discern.”
Beyond the clash between Francis’s emphasis on pastoring and conservatives’ concerns about the integrity of Catholic doctrine, however, the issue of giving priests the authority to forgive the sin of abortion faces a deeper practical concern.
“There’s the whole question: To what extent are Catholics even availing themselves to the sacrament of penance or confession at all?” says Morrill, citing the fact that, for decades, few Catholics ever go to confession, the popular term for the sacrament of reconciliation.
“Well, many Catholics might be thinking in the back of their mind, ‘Yeah, but I don’t need to go confess to a priest about anything,’ ” he says.
The pope emphasized that abortion remained a serious sin in his announcement on Monday.
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” the pope said. “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.”