In his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera, published today, Pope Francis looks back on the Holy Year of Mercy, which ended yesterday, and announces some special decisions made for that year, which he wishes to continue. Among these is the faculty of all priests to absolve penitents from the sin of abortion. While this faculty was already given to priests of various countries, including the Netherlands, by local bishops, it is now a worldwide step. It is hoped, like it was when the Pope first announced it at the start of the Holy Year, that this makes it easier for people who performed an abortion or had one performed to come forward and receive the Lord’s forgiveness.
Abortion, as the Pope also emphasises in his Letter, remains a grave sin, and that means that there is a little more involved than only absolution. Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam and a doctor in canon law, explains things in a blog post today and refers to various canons from the Code of Canon Law:
“There is an excommunication attached to the committing of an abortion (c. 1398). The Pope does not expressly mention this. He only speaks about ‘absolving’, freeing from sin. Being freed from the excommunication is a requirement for receiving absolution and being freed from sin. Therefore, the words of the Pope implicitly include for all priests the faculty to lift the excommunication.
So a priest can absolve for abortion and this faculty can, in principle, be exercised everywhere in the world (unless a local bishop or vicar would, in particular cases, deny this (c. 967, par.2), but that will not happen often).
The Pope once again emphases both the serious nature of the sin of abortion and the need to approach those who have committed abortion with love: there is no sin that can destroy the mercy of God!”
There has been some criticism against the papal letter for its lack of clarity in this matter. Bishop Hendriks’ explanation would indicate that the ability to absolve the sin includes the faculty to lift the automatically incurred excommunication. A penitent person who’s sin has been forgiven in the sacrament of Confession, is therefore automatically free to participate in the life of the Church again, as he or she is no longer excommunicated.