Pope Francis encourages compassion for women who have sought abortion

Priests will have the discretion to formally forgive women who have had abortions during the upcoming Catholic Church's Holy Year, Pope Francis announced Tuesday.

L'Osservatore Romano/AP
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass at the Vatican's Santa Marta hotel, Monday. In a surprising move, the pope relaxed the church's stance on abortion on Monday, granting priests permission to offer forgiveness to women who have had abortions if they are 'contrite.'

Pope Francis has called on priests to forgive women who have had abortions during the upcoming Roman Catholic Church's Holy Year, in a landmark decision towards an inclusive and more open church. 

But the right to absolve women who have had an abortion will apply only during the Holy Year – traditionally a time for remission and forgiveness – that runs from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.

"I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal," the pope said of women who've had an abortion, in a letter published Tuesday by the Vatican.

The pontiff added that he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”

In the message outlining compassion and mercy for the Holy Year, the pope said he knew that while, “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 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," he said.

In an effort to address concerns of conservatives within the Catholic Church who may be alarmed by the decision, the pope said priests should make sure those involved were aware of “the gravity of the sin committed.”

“This is by no means an attempt to minimize the gravity of this sin but to widen the possibility of showing mercy," Vatican chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said according to Reuters.

In Roman Catholic teachings, abortion is a grave sin and calls for automatic excommunication for those who procure it. Normally forgiveness for abortions is given by only selected clergy and missionaries.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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