Update: At the end of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has extended indefinitely the special faculties he extended to all priests about forgiving the sin of abortion. What is that all about? (This post was first published before the Year of Mercy began):
After the pope's statement about forgiving abortion, some media reports have made it sound like the Catholic Church doesn't forgive abortion. People are asking, “Why can abortion only be forgiven during the Year of Mercy?”
Here’s a few facts to help clear up the confusion:
1. Abortion can always be forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, the Church makes every effort to encourage people involved in it to find healing and forgiveness. A wonderful example is Project Rachel. It is not the case that abortions will only be forgiven in the Year of Mercy.They can and are forgiven at any time when a person repents and confesses this. (That applies not only to women but also to men who pressure women, pay for, promote, aid and abet, or perform abortions, etc.)
2. Abortion is a sin. Because it is a grave matter and the Church hopes to discourage people from them, canon law says that procuring an abortion also incurs the penalty of automatic excommunication.
3. Forgiving the sin is one thing, and remitting the penalty of excommunication is another. Usually the penalty can only be remitted by the bishop. However, in the United States the bishops have given to all priests the faculty to not only forgive the sin when it is confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also to remit the penalty. This is to encourage people to have easier access to forgiveness and healing.
4. Bishops in other countries, however, may have decided to handle it differently. So in brief, the pope is saying that any priest all over the world will be able not only to forgive the sin in confession but also to remit the penalty. While the pope didn’t mention the penalty in his statement, presumably that’s what he meant. Most likely an official text will be issued to clarify the canonical aspects. Pope Francis said:
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. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
5. Also, the automatic penalty of excommunication for abortion doesn’t apply if:
a) the person did not know about it (that would probably exclude about 99% of all Catholic women who have had abortions from incurring the penalty)
b) the person was under the age of 17
c) the person acted out of force or fear
d) the person had an imperfect use of reason
(See this for more info on canonical penalties)
Bottom line: when you see headlines about what the pope said, realize that the journalist writing the story probably knows very little about the Catholic faith and is not getting it right. The best thing is to go directly to the source (Vatican website) and read what the pope actually said.
Finally, God is so merciful. Jesus said, "No one who comes to me will I ever reject." (Jn 6) His heart is overflowing with love and mercy, that heart pierced on the cross from which blood and water flowed out, the source of sacramental life in the Church.