What’s changed so that all priests may forgive abortion

The Roman Catholic Church will allow priests all over the world to grant forgiveness for abortion.

This announcement came from Pope Francis at the end of the Jubilee of Mercy – a holy year dedicated to forgiveness.

When the holy year concluded on Nov. 20, Pope Francis made permanent the permission that he had provisionally given priests to forgive the sin of “procuring abortion” through the sacrament of reconciliation, more commonly known as “confession.”

Numerous questions were raised following the pope’s decision: Could priests not forgive abortions already? Or, is the pope softening the Church’s stance on abortion?

As a Catholic academic who studies the diversity of global Catholicism, I believe the pope’s actions are significant: The pope is ratifying a practice that is already in place in much of the Catholic world; he is also broadening the possibilities for Catholic priests to show care for the laity under their charge.

Abortion in Catholic canon law

The first thing to appreciate is that abortion has a complex place not just in broader Catholic understandings of sin, but in the Church’s complex legal codes.

It is also important to understand that in context of abortion the sin is “procuring abortion” – not just “abortion.”

It includes, potentially, not just the one who carries out the abortion, but also the woman who obtains the abortion (if she does so as a conscious act, freely, knowing that it is wrong or sinful) and others who aid and abet the process.

Throughout Catholic history there has been periodic debate over when “ensoulment” of the fetus occurs.

For example, and most famously, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the foremost shapers of Catholic doctrine in the period following the Middle Ages, argued that ensoulment actually occurs for boys at 40 days after conception, and at 80 days for girls.

Nonetheless, abortion itself has been routinely condemned, from early Christian councils in A.D. 305 to the present day.

In 1588 Pope Sixtus V attached the penalty of excommunication to abortion in his “Papal Bull,” an official letter from the pope. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have also all emphasized abortion as among the gravest of sins. Continue reading

Sources

  • Article by Mathew Schmalz, Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross, writing in The Conversation
  • Image: Newsline

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