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Media coverage of pope's gesture on confession causing confusion

Sep 2, 2015

Yesterday, Pope Francis announced that during the Year of Mercy, which runs from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016, he is granting 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.” You can read a Catholic News Service stories here and here that explain it in greater detail.

Unfortunately, largely due to the complicated meaning of that gesture in Church law, some of the media coverage has been terribly inaccurate and has ended up causing confusion and pain — including for some of the very people this gesture was intended to help.

Some have wondered if Pope Francis is trying to “change” Church teaching on abortion. Others have wondered if, before this holy year, abortion was somehow an “unforgivable sin” — and if it will be so once again after the year is over. Worst of all, some people who have been involved in abortions and confessed it may be wondering: “Was my confession valid? Am I forgiven? Have I been excommunicated all this time, and I didn’t even know it?”

So here are some points to remember:

  • People who have been involved in abortions and have gone to confession should be at peace. The church supplies mercy here. However, if you are troubled in conscience and wish to have further clarity or peace of heart, you should feel free to bring it up with a priest in confession.
  • Pope Francis is not changing, is never going to change and in fact cannot change Church teaching on abortion. He said so himself in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, where he reiterated this while also echoing the mercy of the Church toward those who have had abortions: “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’ It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”
  • Penalties in Church law are applied “strictly,” meaning that there are many mitigating factors that would lead to it not applying. For instance, the penalty of excommunication would not apply to people who, through no fault of their own, didn’t know a penalty was attached to the crime of abortion or who acted under a state of grave fear. It’s still a serious sin that needs to be confessed, but there was no excommunication attached.
  • For many dioceses in the United States, including the Diocese of Duluth, priests have already been given this faculty by their bishops. So in the Duluth Diocese, things will be no different during the Holy Year than they already were.
  • For anyone who is truly penitent, forgiveness of this sin and the lifting of the penalty of excommunication has always been available in the Church and always will be. The main point of such a penalty in Church law is to bring people to conversion. This gesture of Pope Francis simply makes that process simpler and easier for people who need it.
  • Always remember: The whole point here is mercy — forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God and the Church and with each other. That is not a “conservative” thing or a “liberal” thing, it’s a Gospel thing, so it’s the Church’s thing. To read more about the Year of Mercy, here is the papal bull announcing it.
  • One of the hallmarks of Pope Francis’ ministry is his emphasis on mercy, and one of the overlooked aspects of that is his emphasis on confession — on the “sacrament of forgiveness” where, whatever our sins, we can go to find mercy and healing. That is a call we all can heed.
— Kyle Eller