Pope Francis has given all priests the power to forgive women who have had an abortion, saying the procedure was a “grave sin” but one that God’s mercy could wipe away for those with a repentant heart.
The move, announced in a letter to mark the end of the Vatican’s holy year of mercy, was a powerful reminder of Francis’s desire to focus his papacy on forgiveness, even as he faces an unprecedented backlash from traditionalists within the church who believe the he has gone too far on sensitive issues such as divorce, and now abortion.
Francis first opened the door for women who have had an abortion to be absolved by priests last year, in what was supposed to be a temporary measure during the year of mercy.
Traditionally, abortion was considered such a grave sin that only a bishop could absolve a repentant woman, or a priest given special permission by a bishop.
At the time, Francis defended his decision by focusing on the personal situations that force some women to get abortions, saying he was “well aware of the pressure that led them to this decision” and that it was an “existential and moral ordeal”.
Now, Francis has indefinitely extended priests’ right to grant forgiveness.
In the apostolic letter released on Monday, he wrote: “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must [state] that there is no sin that God’s mercy can not reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”
Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, based in the US, praised the move, and said it showed that Francis understood the deep chasm that exists between ordinary Catholics – who turn to abortion and birth control with the same frequency as people of other faiths – and their clergy.
While women have not been “queuing up around the corner of their church” over the last year in a desperate attempt to gain forgiveness, O’Brien said, Francis’s move was significant because it also appeared to represent an appeal to his fellow bishops and priests to look at the issue of abortion with less condemnation, and focus more on “reconciliation”.
Francis’s announcement is likely to agitate the Argentinian pope’s toughest critics, a group of four hardline cardinals who are pressuring him over a papal document on the family called Amoris Laetitia that implicitly opened the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion, and called on priests to show “discernment” on the matter.
The four cardinals, led by the American Raymond Burke, who is based in Rome, wrote a letter to Francis in September demanding to know where Francis stood on the issue and then released the letter publicly last week when the pope declined to respond.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Burke said that, without further clarity, he was considering taking a “formal act of correction of a serious error”, which church experts said was akin to accusing the pope of heresy.
In a subsequent interview in Avvenire, Francis said of his detractors: “They are acting in bad faith to foment divisions” and that some people misunderstand his position.
“It’s either black or white [to them], even if in the flow of life you have to discern,” Francis said.
John Allen, a Vatican expert and editor of Crux, a Catholic publication, said in a column the decision was nevertheless seen as a “major gesture of outreach to women and others” who have been involved in what Francis called a “very grave sin”.