PopeWatch: Abortion and Forgiveness



Pope Francis has announced that for a year all priests may forgive abortions in the confessional.

Pope Francis shook up the Catholic world — again — on Tuesday by announcing that all priests around the world will be authorized to forgive the “sin of abortion” during the church’s “Year of Mercy.”

Traditionally, Catholics knowingly involved in the procurement of abortion, condemned as a “moral evil” by the church, are automatically excommunicated and may be forgiven only with permission from a bishop.

Under the new, temporary policy, Francis will essentially simplify the process and give all priests full authority to absolve Catholics with “contrite” hearts about the abortion.


This has been seized upon by the usual suspects who interpret it as the Pope going soft on abortion.  This is nonsense.  However, PopeWatch was confused by this since he assumed that all priests had this power already.  Certainly priests in this country have assumed they had this power.  Go here to view a post by Priests for Life about forgiving the penitent who has had an abortion.

Canon lawyer Ed Peters helps clear up the confusion, or rather illuminates the source of the confusion:

September 1, 2015

I am sorry to have written a long post on this matter. I did not have time to write a short one.

Abortion has long sat in the middle of a three-street ecclesial intersection, namely, those of Sin, Crime, and Sanction. The meeting of any two of these factors would make for a perilous perch but the confluence of all three is fraught with opportunities for confusion. At the risk of serious over-simplification, let me sketch the basic situation and then address Pope Francis’ comments thereon.

1. Abortion has always been recognized as a sin and a grave sin at that. Like other grave sins the path to reconciliation is basically by sacramental Confession.

2. Like some (but not all) sins, abortion has long been treated as a crime under canon law. As is true of other crimes, however, a host of legal factors must be considered in determining whether one who has become involved in the sin of abortion is also guilty of the crime of abortion. Not all persons sinning in this regard are guilty of the crime.

3. The canonical sanction levied against those canonically guilty of the crime of abortion has long been excommunication (a surprisingly complex institute), and latae sententiae (or, automatic) excommunication at that (ironically, a complex procedure for incurring and living under certain censures). I have long held that the automatic character of certain sanctions in the Church does more juridic and pastoral harm than good these days, but I won’t debate that matter here.

This already-complex intersection of sin, crime, and sanction has, I am sorry to say (sorry, because I think the canon law on abortion is too complex to meet some urgent pastoral needs facing us), been further complicated by at least two factors: first, an easy-to-overlook procedural change in the abortion crime norm itself, namely from 1917 CIC 2350 to 1983 CIC 1398, whereby the former express limitation that only “ordinaries” could lift the excommunication for the crime of abortion was dropped, introducing confusion as to whether and if so how the sin of abortion (which was too casually identified with the crime) could also be absolved by priests; and second, due to another easy-to-overlook change in the abortion canon (matre non excepta), a powerful argument exists (to which I subscribe*) that excommunication for the crime of abortion cannot be automatically incurred by pregnant women (as opposed to abortionists themselves) if the penal law of the Church is applied according to its express terms. Thus, upon noting that there are zero examples of women being formally excommunicated for their abortion, this second factor, if correct (and I think it is) means that no women (again, as distinguished from blood-soaked abortionists) have been excommunicated for abortion at least since the 1983 Code went into effect.

Now, given the inherent complexity of the law itself in this area, the disputes about that law among qualified experts, and the pervasive ignorance of canon law among rank-and-file faithful brought about by 50 years of ecclesiastical antinomianism, no wonder people are confused about what Pope Francis’ recent statement means. I’m confused, if perhaps less so than some others.

Francis writes: “For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” Canon law is not mentioned and we must parse such implications as best we can.

A) I think the pope’s statement reflects a mistaken assumption, common among those who were trained under the 1917 Code, that priests with normal faculties for Confession still cannot absolve from the sin (let alone from the crime) of abortion. I and others, however, hold that all priests with faculties can absolve from this sin. The pope’s comments resolve this debate admirably (at least for the period of the Jubilee Year) as I happen to think it should be resolved.

Go here to read the rest.

More to explorer


  1. Since people seem to hang onto Francis’ every word, maybe this global news will smack one or two people into realizing that abortion is a sin. The world has been telling everyone for almost 43 years that it’s just something people do. It’s odd to people who are devout, that other people have zero clue that abortion kills a baby. Strangely enough, though, there are non-Catholic Christians who were rending their garments at the announcement: Who is he to forgive sin? Only Jesus can forgive sin! Blah, blah, blah. Not one person had the wherewithal to say: “You know what? I have no clue what the Catholic Church teaches, I don’t care to know, so this is none of my business. Why are we talking about this?”

  2. My hope is that this news falls upon unrepentant ears. That those who haven’t sought to reconcile themselves to the Mercy of God will do so now! And not just the women who procured the abortion. The family, friends and aquantice’s that sold the idea as being a good one. They too need to seek the Mercy of God.

    Let this announcement be a start of many conversion’s or return to the Faith. Let us pray.

  3. Good for Pope Francis, though a voice in my head wonders–in anticipating the coming manipulation of doctrine,(as being subjected to the realm of “pastoral care”) in the synod–if there isn’t some additional purpose for it’s proclamation at this time.

  4. I was ignorant of the fact that only a bishop could grant absolution for the horrifying, mortal sin of murdering one’s unborn human creation of God Almighty.
    That assumes that the penitent is truly repentant, does penance, amends her/his life, etc.

  5. Another question: so the sin of murder (abortion) can be forgiven be Christ through the office of the local priest… But the Crime of abortion is to handled higher up… But in this country it is no longer reckoned a crime by the state. Is it still reckoned a crime in canon law?? What else in canon law might deal with criminality?

  6. Anzlyne asked, ” What else in canon law might deal with criminality?”

    See Canons 1364-1399. Can 1399 is a catch-all provision, “In addition to the cases established here or in other laws, the external violation of a divine or canonical law can be punished by a just penalty only when the special gravity of the violation demands punishment and there is an urgent need to prevent or repair scandals.”

  7. I’m just spitballin’ here, so, Sergeant McKlusky rules and all about ” just speculatin’ on a hypothesis” and all. I think the sin is you do it. The crime is you make a career out of helping other people do it. But like the good Sergeant said, “I know I don’t know nothin’.” So I wouldn’t care to follow the logic.

  8. Anzlyne asks, “what defines “crime” in the church as opposed to “sin””
    The sanctions that can be inflicted.
    “Can. 1311 The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions.
    Can. 1312 §1. The following are penal sanctions in the Church:
    1/ medicinal penalties, or censures, which are listed in ⇒ cann. 1331-1333;
    2/ expiatory penalties mentioned in ⇒ can. 1336.
    §2. The law can establish other expiatory penalties which deprive a member of the Christian faithful of some spiritual or temporal good and which are consistent with the supernatural purpose of the Church.
    §3. Penal remedies and penances are also used; the former especially to prevent delicts, the latter to substitute for or to increase a penalty.”

  9. Though I am no fan of the current pope, on the surface his pronouncment seems to be a good thing. This reminds the whole world that abortion is a mortal sin and it will encourage more woman to confess. Imagine a truly remorseful woman who gets up enough courage to confess the murder of her unborn child to her local priest, and then is refused absolution by said priest because he doesn’t have the authority to do it. Would she be likely to travel to the cathedral which may be hundreds of miles distant and make an appt. with the bishop? (I am ignorant as the whether the bishops sit in the confessionals on Sat. afternoons. )

    Abortionists and their staffs are a different story. The bishop should assign them and anyone who gives scandal to the church a suitable PUBLIC penance.

  10. Thank you for the answer Ernst ? I, like you, don’t know if your answer about motivation and mode is right or not, (sounds good); but it does address the question of “when or how is sin a crime?” Michael I see good information in your answer, tho it deals with parameters of church response to crime rather than what constitutes crime…
    Still muddling …

  11. Cam, excellent point which facilitates the process of reconciliation. My question is, if it does, then why is it only made an exception to the normal rules and why aren’t the rules altered to make it permanent? I imagine such would be desirable for the church in lieu of the casual manner in which this gravest of sins is acceptable to many Catholics….thus many more would come to regret it and be in need of reconciliation than in days past when this rule was originally created.

  12. CAM-
    the priest would have to get permission, without revealing her identity. National Review found a priest to explain how it’d work.
    A lot of bishops in the US already granted their priests permission for it.
    think like you’re evil, for a little while; abortion is a sin that frequently comes from hiding the sins of at least two people, and the same way it’s been made legal could be used to make it seem like not a big deal, and draw others– including the priests– into horrible wrongs. We’ve all heard of the possibly totally invented thing of “good, Catholic parents” pressuring their kids to have an abortion to hide that they’d been fornicating.

  13. Foxfier, thank you for the link; I am passing it on. Read it in it’s entirety and I found the gyn/ob doctors’ comments about their post abortion patients most interesting as well as those of the founder of Project Rachel. Driving through the South I see many pro-life billboards which heartens me. We need some for Project Rachel. Perhaps both across the street from PPH and other abortion clinics.

  14. I to was surprised that our parish priests could not absolve such sins …. the prior rationale unfortunately comes across as legalistic and not pastoral. I can only hope this extends beyond this jubilee.

  15. Anzlyne wrote, “it deals with parameters of church response to crime rather than what constitutes crime.”

    It is not the nature of the act, but its legal consequences that constitute a crime

    In any legal system, a “crime” can only be defined by the kind of sanctions it attracts; in the Canon Law, the same act or omission may be both a sin and a crime, just as in secular law, the same action may be both a delict (tort) and a crime. Thus, a thief may be punished at the instance of the public prosecutor, which makes it a crime and the owner of the goods may bring a civil action for restitution or a reparation in damages, which makes it a delict.

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