Pope Francis today gave permission for all priests to absolve a penitent from the sin of abortion. The Holy Father’s proclamation was an extension of the permission granted during the Holy Year, namely the Year of Mercy. However, this move is a seismic shift for the Holy See and a move that is long overdue in permitting priests to provide absolution to a penitent that has procured or assisted in the procurement of an abortion. The Holy Father’s declaration clearly indicates in theory and in practice, right down to the parish level, that the forgiveness of the Father is not conditional nor should it be part of a hierarchical process for the penitent to be forgiven of the sins to which they are confessing. The sin of abortion was formerly classified as a reserved sin, namely one that required the permission of the Ordinary to permit the priest to absolve the penitent of the reserved sin. The likely return of the penitent to receive absolution from a reserved sin was slim to none. Pope Francis’ mandate today indicates a deep understanding of the notion of mercy and a deeper appreciation of the sacerdotal ministry and the intimate relationship that is maintained with the episcopate. Priests exercise their ministry as an extension of the ministry of the local bishop, they are both ontologically bound together through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Pope Francis’ permission to abrogate the need for a priest to seek the permission of the local bishop in order to absolve a penitent from the grave sin of abortion constitutes not just a deeper appreciation of the relationship between the necessity for forgiveness and mercy when ministering with penitents in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it also provides an implicit new understanding of the intimate relationship between the ministry of the bishop and the ministry of priests that participate in the bishop’s ministry as delegates of his High Priesthood.
When studying moral theology with the late Father Francis Meehan at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary just outside of Philadelphia, Fr. Meehan always maintained this adage,” Hate the sin, but love the sinner!’ Pope Francis’ declaration today finally gave force of law in addition to pragmatic pastoral sense to the adage. Fr. Fran Meehan was a student of Fr. Bernard Haering while he studied in Rome as both a seminarian and a student priest. Fr. Haering if he were alive today would celebrate the Holy Father’s proclamation as a reason to celebrate a great triumph in moral theology today for all of the priests that have struggled over the years to observe the laws that governed their priestly ministries in the confessional and the pragmatic application of pastoral necessities that often took parish priests into a questionable area when they at times absolved penitents from the sin of abortion, prior to the reception of the appropriate permission. Practicality and love of the penitent was the axiomatic principle at work for the priests that sometimes walked the tightrope when hearing the confessions of penitents that often anguished over the sins they had committed and knowing the process of asking permission from the local bishop to absolve the penitent when they returned (if ever) since the first confession. Significantly, Pope Francis clearly emphasizes that both priest and bishop are interrelated in their respective ministries, not just in the celebration of Eucharist, but in the administration and prudential celebration of all the Sacraments, especially that of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The New Testament provides us with numerous examples of Jesus forgiving those that confessed their transgressions to Him. Most poignantly the story of the woman at the well immediately comes to mind. John 4:1-42 outlined the dialogue that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well. He dialogues with her and after some discussion she admits her sins and he reveals Himself to her and she proclaims her faith in Him as the anticipated Messiah. She reveals her sins, she listens to His council and then proclaims her belief. The same is true of the returning penitent. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the penitent relies on the mercy of the priest, acting in persona Christi, (in the place of Christ,) they confess their sins and are given absolution by the priest during the celebration of the sacrament of forgiveness.
In Sacred Scripture, there is no need for a hierarchical process required to receive God’s forgiveness. Pope Francis’ actions today not only reiterate the actions of Christ in relationship to the penitential peoples he encountered during His earthly ministry, it further indicates the need for those in Holy Orders, namely priests and bishops to act in a collegial manner that is reflective of Christ’s actions in forgiving sinners. Today’s monumental decision by Pope Francis indicates to the entire Church and to the world that we are all called to forgiveness and mercy as we journey in faith towards our eschatological reunion with Christ in glory.
Hopefully, the actions of Pope Francis today that provides universal permission for priests to absolve from the grave sin of abortion will reconcile many wounded men and women that seek the Church’s forgiveness and were afraid to approach Her to ask for mercy.
Today, Pope Francis offers forgiveness of this grievous sin of abortion the mercy of forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation with their parish priest, without any delay or process. It is a great day to rejoice in the ministry of the Church and Her ministers.
Remember always, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner!” With Pope Francis’ exhortation and permission for priests to forgive the formerly reserved sin of abortion, it just became easier to indeed love the sinner.
Welcome home in Christian love and forgiveness of the Father.