Pope Francis has extended indefinitely the ability of all priests to absolve Catholic women of the "grave sin" of abortion, a power previously held only by bishops or specially designated priests.
The pope had originally granted temporary permission to forgive abortion to all rank-and-file priests during the Holy Year of Mercy, beginning in December of 2015 and ending on Sunday. On Monday, he extended that permission indefinitely, writing in the Apostolic Letter made public by the Vatican 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 God.
While Francis wrote of the importance of priests serving as a "guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation" for women who undergo the procedure, he was also careful to emphasize that the extension should not be interpreted as the church changing its stance on abortion, writing, "I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life."
Still, the indefinite extension – as well as the announcement in 2015 that priests would temporarily be allowed to forgive abortions – reflects Francis's vision of a more merciful church, an ongoing theme throughout his papacy. As Harry Bruinius reported for The Christian Science Monitor last year:
The move represents another example of what has become a hallmark of Francis’ papacy: promoting a more pastoral tone amid the culture-clashing issues of same-sex relationships, the status of divorced Catholics, and now abortion.
Although Catholic teaching condemns each of these in the strongest terms, Francis has often emphasized compassion and the need for the church to continue to minister to those Catholics who may not measure up to its moral teachings.
Conservative Catholics have bristled at some of these pastoral emphases, decrying what many perceive to be a more liberalized direction for the church – including Francis’ controversial encyclical on climate change.
But Monsignor Rino Fisichella, a top Holy See official, rejected the idea that the extension put abortion on the same level as lesser sins.
"There is no type of laxness here," he told reporters on Monday, as reported by NBC News.
Francis's original decision to grant priests the power to forgive abortions during the Holy Year of Mercy, while significant, did not mark a "doctrinal shift" for the church, Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., told NPR last year.
"Forgiveness has always been available — albeit through more formal channels," she said. "That message wasn't out there because the rhetoric that accompanies abortion is so elevated that it eclipses the Church's teaching on forgiveness and mercy."
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.