Recently the Holy Father, Pope Francis extended the facilities to absolve penitents from the sin of abortion to priests. This is a marked change to the procedural change to receive absolution from the local parish priest when a woman who had received an abortion had finally mustered up the courage to enter the confessional and confess to the grave sin of abortion. Prior to the Year of Mercy, absolution from the sin of abortion was one of the reserved sins, namely those that needed a local bishop’s permission for a priest to absolve a penitent from this sin. What normally happened was that during the session in the confessional, the priest would explain to the penitent that he needed to request permission to absolve the sin, and would request that the penitent return later for the priest to pronounce the form of absolution over the penitent after the permission of the local Ordinary granted his approbation. In most likelihood, the penitent left the confessional in a greater state of angst then when she entered the confessional, especially when she was told she needed to return for absolution from a sin that most likely took many years, if not decades to confess to a priest.
Pope Francis in his authority as Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church generously gave permission to all priests throughout the world the authority to absolve the penitent from the reprehensible sin of having an abortion. Pope Francis’ permission extends to the grass roots of the Catholic Church, namely the local parish and it is a permission that is long overdue. The local parish priest, on a regular basis experiences the effects of depraved and indifferent activities of penitents in the confessional during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In cases of providing mercy and forgiveness from the wicked sin of abortion, local priests were constrained from offering God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because of their own personal reluctance to offer the Church’s mercy to the penitent, it was the procedural norms that restricted absolution because of the need to request permission to absolve this heinous sin. The procedure also implied in part that the ministry of the priest was in the case of granting absolution from the sin of abortion judicially limited in the dispensing of the mercy of the Church in the reconciliation of the penitent to full communion with the People of God.
The exercise of the priestly ministry is an extension of the ministry of the local bishop, with whom all priests in a diocese are ontologically by the nature of their priesthood sharing in the Holy Orders of the local bishop who is quintessentially THE High Priest of a diocese. The local bishop, or Ordinary is the principle priest of the local diocese and all priests and deacons that serve in his diocese share in his Holy Orders, and de facto function in and through his authority and his fullness of Holy Orders which is the Order of Bishop. So, it is indeed through this logical process that prior to Pope Francis’ declaration and permission to enable all priests to absolve from the sin of abortion well based in canonical laws that specifically highlighted the juridical and sacramental supremacy of the role of nature of the office of the bishop. However, Holy Orders also provides that deacons and priests share and participate in the local bishop’s Holy Orders in a manner that includes both pastoral and sacramental aspects of the bishop’s priesthood. Priests as participants in the Holy Orders of the local bishop, and through their own sacramental ordination to the priesthood are ontologically united to their bishop, who is also through his Holy Orders linked to the Apostles and to the Bishop of Rome, who is the successor to the head of the Apostles. So, hierarchy indeed plays a pivotal role in the hierarchy of the Church and the administration of Her Sacraments.
Clearly, with a strong comprehension of both the theological relationship that exists between the ministry of the bishop and the intertwined ministry of the local priests that share in the local bishop’s ministry, Pope Francis made a papal judgement call and ruled on the side of mercy and forgiveness when it comes to permitting priests to administer absolution to sorrowful penitents after their confession of such a painful sin that resonates in the conscience of the penitent and separates her from the love, mercy and the forgiveness of the Church.
Uniquely, Francis’ action is a renewed understanding of the theology of dialogue in relationship to the needs of both the Church and its people. In the case of granting permission, universally to all priests to absolve from the sin of abortion, Pope Francis’ dialogue is rooted in the grass roots of the local parishes, the People of God and their most sensitive and innermost needs they seek from not a large institution of a monolithic Catholic Church, but their parish church, and their local priest. This common sense, dialectical approach to the relationship between the Church and her members has been heralded as the most basic premise of fostering the theological and sacramental relationship between Church and people, God and Church and the relationship between the faithful and God for generations. It was a fundamental principle that was included in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Gaudium et Spes,) as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council grappled with the proper wording to describe the methodology with which to extrapolate on the relationship between God and His Church, the Church and Her Members and ultimately, the faithful and God. Ultimately, the phrase, the People of God emerged from the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council as the preferred descriptive phrase to describe all the Church’s faithful. It seems clearly that Pope Francis through his restructuring of the Roman Curia and his small changes (such as the permission for priests to absolve the sin of abortion without the permission of the local bishop,) are indicative of the Church’s understanding of what the Second Vatican Council are beginning once again to congeal into the living and functioning reality of the pragmatism of Pope Francis’ papacy, which is reflective of the simplicity but intensely theologically pregnant teachings of the Second Vatican Council and its prognostications for the Church in the modern world, indeed the 21st century.
Catholic moral theology is again becoming intensely dialogic for one simple reason, it denotes a relationship. The relationship it indicates is the relationship between the People of God and their deity, namely our eternal Father, who is the fons (source,) of all forgiveness, love and mercy. The penitent in the confessional, seeking forgiveness and mercy is there because he/she wants to renew the dialogue of love and faith between themselves and the Church and ultimately God. Even the form of absolution used by priests and bishops when absolving the penitent recalls God and His mercy.
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. The penitent answers: Amen.
This is the dialogic approach to discovering our relationship with the Church, Her Sacraments and our relationship with God, the Father of mercies with whom the dialogue both begins and never ends. Pope Francis clearly understands the implications of Gaudium et Spes and the relationship the People of God have and want with the Church, the world, especially through the environment and most importantly with each other as collective co-participants in the continued life and ministry of the Church, with a final eschatology rooted not just in the present, but the glories of the life with the Father of mercies that is yet to manifest itself.