|Pope Francis has given all Roman Catholic priests the power to forgive abortion, a right previously reserved for bishops or special confessors in most parts of the world.
Francis, who has made a more inclusive and forgiving church a characteristic of his papacy, made the announcement today after the close of the church’s “Holy Year of Mercy”.
He said he wanted to “restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life” but “there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with (God)”.
Francis had already temporarily granted the power to all priests to give what is known as “sacramental absolution” for abortion during the Holy Year, from December 8 to November 20, but the solemn tone of his words in today’s letter suggested that the change would last for at least the rest of his papacy.
In Roman Catholic teaching, abortion is such a serious sin that those who procure or perform it bring automatic excommunication on themselves as they are knowingly committing a sin the church considers grave.
In the past, only a bishop or a designated special confessor could grant absolution for an abortion and lift excommunication.
Although bishops in some dioceses in countries such as the US and Britain had already delegated this authority to parish priests, the old practice was still in effect in most of the world.
“Not only is this a change in church policy, it changes church law,” said Father James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College.
“I think it’s very significant in the context of Pope Francis’ theme of his pontificate, which is going to go down as the pontificate of mercy; he sees mercy as absolutely the key.”
At a news conference at the Vatican, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who oversaw Holy Year activities, said the new norms applied to all Roman Catholics involved in an abortion, including the woman and medical staff.
Fisichella rejected suggestions that some people could see the move as putting abortion on the same level as lesser sins.
“There is no type of laxness here,” he said, repeating the pope’s words that while abortion was very grave, there was no sin that could not be touched by God’s mercy.
In a document last year, Francis described the “existential and moral ordeal” faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision”.
During the weekend, the pope also spoke out against an “epidemic of animosity” against people of other races or religions was hurting the weakest in society, striking a note of caution against the rise of populist nationalism.
Little more than a week after Donald Trump was elected the next US president, buoying anti-immigrant parties in Europe and elsewhere, the pope noted “how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant or a refugee become a threat, take on the status of an enemy.
“An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs. An enemy because of the colour of their skin, their language or their social class. An enemy because they think differently or even have a different faith,” he said at a ceremony to induct new cardinals.
While not naming any country, Francis appeared to refer to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes that surfaced during the US campaign and since the election.
The US Justice Department is investigating reports of intimidation and harassment in schools, churches and elsewhere since the election.
One of 17 new cardinals appointed by the pope, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, said the pope was “very much aware of the fact that if that (animosity) is not checked, it is very contagious and it can spread quickly, it can be like a wildfire”.