Has Pope Francis softened the Catholic stance on abortion?

A letter allowing priests to offer absolution for abortions, instead of only bishops, underscores a huge shift – but one that is likely more symbolic than practical or theological.

Gregorio Borgia/AP
Pope Francis greets the crowd at the Vatican on Sunday as he leaves at the end of a Mass on the occasion of the closing of the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica.

Pope Francis on Monday indefinitely extended to all priests the ability to grant absolution for abortions, a historic move for the Roman Catholic church, which has been decidedly against the practice for centuries.

On the surface, the move seems to be emblematic of a radical shift in church doctrine. Among religious institutions, the Roman Catholic church has one of the strongest official anti-abortion stances, opposing the procedure under nearly all circumstances. Abortion is considered a sin worthy of automatic excommunication, with only bishops technically having the power to reverse the penalty.

But as women's movements around the world have shifted political views on abortion, the church has not been immune. While pro-choice policies are resisted in many more conservative Catholic communities, many ordinary churchgoers and even church officials seem to be more willing to accept more permissive stances on abortion, out of line with official church policy. Many bishops, traditionally the only ones allowed to forgive abortion, for instance, have delegated that power to priests under them already, making the pope's edict more symbolic than practical in many regions.

The origins of Pope Francis' new policy actually began last year, during the church's Jubilee of Mercy, a year-long period of prayer for the remission of sins. Usually these jubilees occur every 25 years, but this one was extraordinary, announced by Francis only a few months before it began in December of last year. In the spirit of the year of mercy, Francis instituted a temporary policy allowing priests to give absolution for abortions, which was set to end last Sunday, the end of the jubilee year. Many church officials speculated at the time that he might extend the new policy permanently, according to CNN, and it now seems that prediction was correct.

"I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life," said Francis in the Apostolic letter released Monday by the Vatican. "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. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation."

The letter should not be taken as a fundamental shift in the church's official stance on abortion, Mathew Schmalz, an associate professor in the department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. But the letter does change things "in the sense that it refocuses attention on the individual relationship that Catholics have with their parish priest – who is usually their confessor. Pope Francis is affirming a more contextually sensitive approach to dealing with sin that places more discretionary authority in the hands of priests who, presumably, know more about the context."

In the United States, many priests have already been given the authority by the presiding bishop to grant absolution, reflecting many modern Catholics' attitudes on the subject of abortion. Nearly half of US Catholics think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to data from a 2014 Pew Research Center study. For women in areas with more permissive views of abortion, the letter will likely be a form of symbolic outreach, more than a practical change, according to analysts at Catholic news site Crux Now. 

Massimo Faggioli, a theology and religious studies professor at Villanova University, suggests that this show of support will likely resonate with many women in the US following the election of Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign pushed a hard-line stance on abortion.

"During the campaign President-elect Trump said that he wanted to punish women who had an abortion; now Francis is sending a different message, while not changing the teaching of the Church on abortion," Dr. Faggioli tells the Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Evidently, Francis does not think that punishing women is right and just, and does not think that women are the only ones who are morally responsible for abortions."

Rino Fisichella, a top Holy See official, reflected this view during a news conference at the Vatican, saying that the responsibility for an abortion should not be focused exclusively on the woman who elects the procedure.

"The sin of abortion is inclusive," Monsignor Fisichella told reporters. "Thus forgiveness for the sin of abortion is all-inclusive and extends to all those who are participants in this sin," such as doctors involved in the procedure. 

For Catholics in areas where more relaxed attitudes toward abortion are not as prevalent, the new letter could prove more controversial. Many conservative critics say that Francis is too soft on recognizing and punishing sins, in general, while progressives say his emphasis on a more merciful, forgiving church doesn't go far enough toward bringing Catholicism into the 21st century. But Francis' tenure as pope has been marked by several examples of outreach that have won him respect across a broad spectrum, such as an emphases on the environment, migrants, and the poor – although his statements on those topics have also earned criticism.

"In Francis there is a more realistic approach to the existence of real people, a less ideological take on moral issues that now are framed in the complexity of concrete situations," writes Faggioli. "Many priests have always done that, but not many bishops and popes: this is what upsets the opposition to Francis, that the pope dares speak like a pastor. Francis is not afraid to show that even the pope has a concrete pastoral experience that shapes his teaching."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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