Some Background on Absolving Those Who Have Had Abortions, September 1, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Thoughts Provided to National Review Online
September 1, 2015


In response to Pope Francis’ letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella about the Upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy and the confusion and questions provoked among Catholics, members of the media, and others by his conceding to all priests “the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it,” I was asked to provide a clarification. Here’s what I wrote: 


Pope Francis’ action today changes very little if anything for priests and faithful, especially in the United States, but hopefully it inspires many who have had abortions or helped or encouraged others to have them to come forward to receive God’s mercy.

The reason why it changes very little is two-fold.

First, most priests in the US already have through their bishops what Pope Francis is extending to priests throughout the world: the faculty to lift the canonical penalty of excommunication from those who have had an abortion or have closely cooperated in another’s abortion aware that such an action bears the canonical penalty of automatic excommunication.

Second, very few people who have an abortion or closely cooperate in someone’s having one incur the penalty of automatic excommunication.

A little background in canon law might be helpful to understand more fully those reasons.

If someone has incurred the penalty of automatic excommunication for the sin of abortion, before a priest can absolve that sin and all other sins, that penalty (censure) would have to be lifted. If his bishop hadn’t given him the faculty to do so, then if someone confesses the sin of abortion, he would need to figure out whether the excommunication had been incurred. If it had been, then — outside of a danger of death situation in which every priest has the ability to absolve of necessary censures to make absolution possible — the priest would need to ask the person to return to the Confessional at a later time while he requests permission from the bishop to lift the censure so that he could then absolve the sin. A priest is trained to ask this permission in a way totally protecting the identity of the penitent if he himself even knows the penitent’s identity.

A priest occasionally has to ask for similar permission from the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary for other sins so grave they likewise incur automatic penalties, like the desecration of the Eucharist, or the less frequent occurrences of someone’s trying physically to attack the Holy Father, a priest’s breaking the seal of confession or attempting to absolve an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment, or a bishop’s having ordained someone a bishop without a papal mandate.

Once a priest receives the necessary permission to absolve the censure, he can do so in the confessional and then absolve the sin.

It’s rare, however, that someone who has had an abortion or cooperated closely in another’s having had one would have actually incurred the automatic excommunication, because one of the conditions for incurring it is that the person needs to be aware of the penalty before committing the sin, and frankly few are. Most have awareness of the sinful quality of abortion but few are conscious of a corresponding canonical penalty.

So even in dioceses and countries where the local bishops haven’t extended to priests their episcopal faculty to absolve the censure of abortion, most priests would already be able to give absolution to those who have had abortions since few — because of their ignorance of canonical penalty of automatic excommuniction — would have incurred it.

Hopefully the media’s attention to Pope Francis’ universally extending this faculty to the priests of the world for the Jubilee Year of Mercy will help people grasp better the sinful nature of abortion — which he wrote about movingly and forthrightly in his Letter announcing the extension of the faculty — but also the greatness of God’s will to forgive, for his loving mercy is always greater than our sinful misery. Heaven rejoices more for one sinner who repents, Jesus emphasized, and hopefully many of those who carry the wounds of the sin of abortion will hear the Pope’s appeal, respond to it, and come through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to experience a little of heaven’s greatest joy.

The relevant excerpt from Pope Francis’ letter is below: 

“One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. 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. May priests fulfil 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.”

RJL New Evangelization Talk in Boston II