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Ask the Register: forgiving the sin of abortion?

Q. I heard that Pope Francis now allows priests to forgive the sin of abortion. I don’t understand. Are priests usually unable to forgive some sins?

A. There was a great deal of confusion about an announcement Pope Francis made last week. 

The Holy Father announced that during the upcoming Year of Mercy (December 8, 2015-November 20, 2016) priests would have a new faculty, or permission, regarding abortion. This was widely reported as permission to forgive the sin of having or performing abortion.  But that was a bit confused.  Here are the facts:

Procuring, performing, or facilitating an abortion has always been a grave sin, because abortion ends a human life.

In the Catholic Church, procuring or performing an abortion can also constitute a crime in canon law, the Church’s disciplinary laws.  The sin is a different reality from the crime, but in some circumstances, committing the sin of abortion is a canonical crime, by which some who perform or procure abortion might incur the penalty of excommunication. 

Excommunication is a penalty applied in the Church—it does not sever the relationship with God in the same way mortal sin does. Instead it impedes full participation in the Church’s life—which can, of course, impact a person’s saving relationship with God.

To incur excommunication, a person who procures or performs an abortion must be Catholic at the time of the sin, must be at least 16, must be aware of the Church’s penalty for abortion, must intend to end a human life, and must do so in full freedom. These requirements are far more than the requirements for sin, and therefore, it is likely that many people who commit the sin of abortion do not commit the canonical crime of abortion.

However, some people do commit the canonical crime of abortion, and a confessor is obliged to understand when that might take place. Because of the serious nature of the crime of abortion, he must contact the bishop for permission to remit—or forgive—the penalty when the canonical crime of abortion has taken place.

The sin of abortion can always be forgiven in the confessional. And if a confessor does not mention the canonical crime of abortion to those for whom he forgives the sin, it is almost the certainly the case that in his judgment, although the sin was committed, the canonical crime was not.

Pope Francis’ decision was to allow confessors to remit the penalty for the crime of abortion, in addition to the sin, during the Year of Mercy.

The media reported many things about this, most of them wrong. As a consequence, many people have been concerned that past sins have gone unforgiven, or that the Church does not wish to forgive sins.  This could not be farther from the truth. The Church always wishes to extend the mercy of God to everyone who seeks it.  Pope Francis’ announcement was a technical matter, which was understood mostly by priests, bishops, and specialists. It does not impact the lives of most people, even those who have committed the sin of abortion.

The message of Pope Francis’ announcement is the same message the Church has always proclaimed— that God loves us abundantly, and that even in the face of grave sin, the Church is waiting to reconcile us to the power of his love.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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