VATICAN CITY — Saying nothing is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, Pope Francis told Catholics worldwide that he is allowing all priests to absolve the faithful of abortion – women and health workers alike – even while stressing that it is a grave sin in the eyes of the church to “end an innocent life.”

In an Apostolic Letter made public Monday, Francis said he was extending indefinitely the special permission he had granted to all rank-and-file priests during the just-ended Holy Year of Mercy.

“There is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled” with God, the pope wrote in the 10-page letter, signed Sunday, the day the Holy Year ended. But, he added: “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life.”

BEFORE, AN INTIMIDATING SCENARIO

Because the Roman Catholic Church holds abortion to be such a serious sin, absolution had long been a matter for a bishop, who could either hear the woman’s confession himself or delegate it to a priest considered an expert in such situations, a potentially intimidating scenario for many of the faithful.

In his letter, the pope appeared to acknowledge that. “Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness,” he wrote, “I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion.”

A top Vatican official, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, told a news conference Monday at the Vatican that the pope’s words applied to all those who were involved in an abortion – “from the women to the nurse to the doctor and whoever supports this procedure.”

“The sin of abortion is inclusive. Thus forgiveness for the sin of abortion is all-inclusive,” Fisichella said.

The pope is “absolutely not” lessening the gravity of the sin of abortion, Fisichella added in comments to Sky TG24.

Still, the head of an Italian anti-abortion group expressed concern that some priests might trivialize the sin of abortion. Gian Luigi Gigli, president of the Movement for Life, said women or health care workers who confess to abortion should be given penance in the form of volunteer work at the group’s centers that work to prevent abortion.

By permitting all priests to absolve the sin of abortion, Francis was further applying his vision of a merciful church called to minister to the problems of its flock, reflecting concerns he became familiar with while archbishop of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina. Last year, he wrote that some women who had abortions felt they had no choice but to make “this agonizing and painful decision.”

MERCY FOR ‘THE HUMAN FAMILY’

In his Apostolic Letter, Francis called on every priest to “be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.”

O. Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, noted that priests hearing the confessions of those involved in abortion had already been “a longstanding practice in the United States and several other countries.”

Thus, Francis is essentially “reminding us that the core message of the right-to-life movement is one of radical hospitality, mercy and unconditional love for every member of the human family, including mothers and fathers whose lives have been broken by abortion and who now seek forgiveness,” Snead said.


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