Pope says priests can forgive abortion—but there’s a catch

The most liberal Pope in history strikes again.


Mary Emily O'Hara


Published Sep 1, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 1:30 am CDT

What exactly is Pope Francis up to?

During his reign as top Catholic leader, Pope Francis has firmly established himself as the most liberal, modern Pope in history. He’s offered a hand of friendship to gay priests (“Who am I to judge?”) which is nearly unthinkable, given the Vatican’s political history. He’s talked back to climate change deniers. And now, the People’s Pope has addressed the issue that is perhaps the ultimate backbone of Roman Catholic belief: abortion.

In a letter from the Vatican published today, Pope Francis wrote that abortion is “an existential and moral ordeal” for the women who choose to have the procedure.

 I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. 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.

That’s Pope-speak for “if you had an abortion and are really, truly sorry about it, your priest can forgive you now so you can get into Heaven and stuff.”

While the statement might smack as paternalistic, condescending, and outright offensive to many women who have had abortions without a drop of moral agonizing, it’s a shockingly radical departure from the Vatican’s previous stance on the procedure.

The change of heart is likely due to pressure from Latin American Catholics, who protested in 2009 when a Brazilian Archbishop excommunicated the family of a nine-year old child who was given an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. In response, the Archbishop stepped down—but the Vatican quietly re-clarified its stance on abortion as an automatic trigger of excommunication from the Catholic Church.

The new stance is seen as a testing ground, as Pope Francis declared that the forgiveness policy would be operational during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, aka Holy Year. So women who are really, really, really sorry they had that abortion should line up now for one-stop forgiveness shopping—the coupon expires in December 2016.  

Illustration by Jason Reed | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Sep 1, 2015, 3:08 pm CDT