Analysis. Now that all Catholic priests can grant absolution to women for abortion, the conservative front is on a war footing.

Francis absolves abortion: Love is above the law

The Jubilee of Mercy officially ended last Sunday with the closing of the “holy door” at St. Peter’s Basilica. This door will be reopened at the beginning of the ordinary 2025 Jubilee. At the end of the Jubilee, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter (Misericordia et misera), which amends substantially the rigidity of the pastoral practice of the Roman Church on abortion.

From now on, in fact, as written in paragraph 12 of the document signed by the Pope on Sunday that was made public only Monday, “all priests, by virtue of their ministry” will have “the power to absolve those who have provided to others the sin of abortion.” Therefore, not only women who choose to terminate the pregnancy, but also doctors, nurses and all the social and health care personnel involved. Until Monday, all were liable to automatic excommunication (latae sententiae), and could only be absolved by a bishop or a priest specifically appointed by the bishop himself.

It is a measure that does not erase the “sin of abortion” (“abortion is a grave sin, because it puts an end to an innocent life,” Francis points out). There is no doctrinal change, but it introduces a deep pastoral and legal update. The change is so significant that the Vatican will change the Code of Canon law, explains Msgr. Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. Canon law “is a set of laws, every time the Pope issues a provision amending the postulates of the law, the article about that specific provision needs to be changed” (specifically canon 1398: “a person who procures an abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae”).

The criterion that guided Pope Francis — from the Gospel accounts of “the adulterer wife” and the “female sinner” forgiven by Jesus — is that “love” is superior to “the law” and that “none of us can attach conditions to mercy.” Therefore, “there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and destroy when it finds a repentant heart.” Including abortion.

Although the measure was not entirely unexpected — it makes permanent what had been already been allowed only during the Jubilee — it is certain that it will lead to substantial shocks within the Catholic Church, where the reactionary front is already on a war footing.

Just a few days ago, in fact, four ultra-conservative cardinals (including former archbishop of Bologna, Carlo Caffara), who during the Synod on family animated the fundamentalist front and opposed every opening, published a letter on the blog of the Vatican expert Sandro Magister, who increasingly behaves like the megaphone of the conservative opposition to Pope Francis. The letter urges the pontiff to clarify “five questions” of Amoris laetitia, the post-Synodal Exhortation containing moderate “case by case” openings, for example on the possibility of granting acquittal and access to communion for divorced and remarried individuals.

Now, with this new and more decisive action of pastoral renewal, the reactionaries’ objections will abound. Actually they will be definitely incendiary.

The apostolic letter of Pope Francis includes a second important measure, also initially granted for the Jubilee and now “extended for all time.” It extends the rights of ultra-traditionalist Lefebvre priests of the Fraternity of St. Pius X — who do not fully operate in communion with the Roman Catholic Church Rome because they never accepted the guidelines of the Second Vatican Council — to hear confession and provide “valid and lawful absolution” to the faithful.

It might seem a transformative operation by Pope Francis, to keep everyone happy, or not to upset anyone. Certainly there is an attempt to hold together all the pieces of the Catholic Church, including its contradictions.

Finally the celebration of the International Day of the poor on the last Sunday of the Catholic liturgical year. It was last Sunday, so this will be discussed next November.

Because, as Francis writes, mercy must have a “social characteristic” and “justice and a decent life will not remain empty words, but they are the real commitment of those who wish to witness the presence of God’s Kingdom.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!