Pope Francis has granted all priests of the Catholic Church the faculty of absolving the sin of abortion, which several media outlets immediately misinterpreted as a “relaxing” of the Church’s stance on abortion.
The Independent, for example, stated that the measure “represents a significant softening of the church’s stance on the issue of abortion,” while a headline in the Italian daily Il Messaggero trumpeted that the Pope had “broken the taboo” of abortion. For its part, CNN declared that the Pope had said that “abortion is forgivable.”
In another piece, CNN floated the still more ridiculous hypothesis that the Pope’s letter “could be read as the pontiff reflecting on some Catholics’ decision to vote for Donald Trump.”
In point of fact, the Pope went out of his way to avoid just this sort of misreading of his intentions. “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” he wrote in the new letter Misericordia et Misera. “In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”
Earlier this week, Francis used particularly blunt language to describe the evil of abortion, calling it both a “horrendous crime” and a “very grave sin.”
In his Christmas message two years ago, the Pope compared the slaughter of millions of babies by abortion to the massacre of the innocents at the hand of King Herod, who sought to eliminate the newborn baby Jesus 2,000 years ago.
So, while Pope Francis has reiterated the iniquity of taking the life of an innocent unborn child, he has also wished to make it clear that there is no sin so great that God cannot forgive it. He has also sought to remove obstacles that might prevent people from seeking God’s mercy when they realize what they have done.
Since Catholics consider abortion a particularly grave sin, those who engage in it incur the penalty of automatic excommunication, and so the Church only allowed bishops and designated priests to absolve it. In actual practice, bishops routinely extended this permission to any priest of the diocese who asked for it.
A year ago, Pope Francis granted all priests the faculty of absolving the sin of abortion and lifting the excommunication attached to it for the duration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Now, he has made that measure permanent.
The real news here is interesting enough without twisting it into something else. For some, apparently, the temptation is too strong to resist.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome.