Pope Francis has made it easier for women who've had abortions to be granted absolution during confession. The pontiff decreed that during the Jubilee year of Mercy starting December 8, any priest anywhere in the world can forgive the sin.
The church considers abortion a particularly grave sin; a "reserved sin," like attacking a bishop or desecrating the Eucharist, and Tuesday's announcement did not change that.
Reserved sins carry automatic excommunication, which means that the person is banned from all Catholic sacraments, including the sacrament of penance (confession).
Church law says that when a woman has an abortion she and all those who aided her, including doctors, nurses and spouses, are automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
If a woman (or an accomplice) confesses the abortion, an ordinary priest is not allowed to grant absolution, but has to ask the local bishop for permission.
But for the specific period of the Jubilee year -- December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016 -- the pope has removed that extra step, giving each priest around the world the faculty to grant absolution for abortion.
"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," Francis said in a letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of Jubilee initiatives.
"I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision," said the pope.
In May, the Vatican took the first step in this direction, announcing the creation of a special team of priests for the Jubilee called "missionaries of mercy," who would be granted the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion. But Tuesday's announcement goes further, making the absolution universally available.
"I think this is big and very positive news," said theologian Fr. Robert Dodaro, president of the Patristic Institute Augustinianum in Rome. "Pope Francis is showing enormous compassion for people in difficult situations. He has always been very strong on the sacrament of penance, and... he continues to develop what has been a strong theme in his papacy, which is that God is always ready to forgive, and we should not place obstacles in the way.