Abortion and Excommunication

confession

During the recently concluded Year of Mercy, Pope Francis granted to all priests the ability to relieve the excommunication attached to the sin of abortion.  Previously, in some countries, only a bishop could relieve this penalty, and until it was lifted, sacramental absolution could not be granted to the person guilty of abortion.  In an Apostolic Letter entitled Misericordia et Misera (Mercy with Misery) issued on November 20, 2016, the pope has extended this ability to all priests beyond the Year of Mercy, until further notice.  The relevant statements are found in paragraph #12:

“Given this need, lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary. I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. 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. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.”

Recently, an Italian senator named Monica Cirinna, known for her pro-abortion and pro-homosexual activism, caused a bit of a stir by implying that Pope Francis was gradually liberalizing the Church’s position on abortion.  She claimed, “I am sure that he is going in the right direction.”  Strangely, Cirrano has additionally interpreted the pope’s recent statements to support her desire to punish medical personnel who refuse to perform abortions on moral grounds.  This is such a stretch as to be absurd, and it is an obvious attack especially on committed Catholics.

Pope Francis, although he does not speak against the sin of abortion as forcefully and frequently as many of us would like, nevertheless has plainly restated Catholic teaching on the subject.  As he asserts in the above document, “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life.”  In addition, abortion continues to carry the penalty of automatic excommunication.  This has in no way changed, except that the penalty may now be removed in the sacrament of penance by ordinary priests.

To grant all priests the right to give full and effective sacramental absolution to those guilty of abortion is not to belittle the gravity of the sin, nor to cheapen mercy, but only to emphasize the need for God’s forgiveness following such a grave act.  After all, the person confessing such a sin clearly recognizes its gravity and is repentant of it.  This is the very person that the Church wishes, not to push away, but to receive into her arms in order to strengthen through God’s mercy and restore in God’s grace.  Such is the purpose of the Church’s ministry of reconciliation, and the pope wishes only to make it more effective for those who prudently turn to it.

In spite of the warped interpretations and intentions of some, there is no change whatsoever in the Church’s moral teaching on abortion, nor can there be.  For it is a matter, not of the traditions of men, but of divine law.  The Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” means, “You may not murder an innocent person.”  No human being possesses the authority to change this law, for it is founded, not on merely human authority, but on divine authority.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

“Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion.  This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.  Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (#2271).

Yes, circumstances can some times mitigate the guilt of those involved in an abortion.  Conditions such as ignorance or extreme threats from others can reduce the mortal guilt of a person involved in this particular, or in any other, gravely immoral act.  This is just standard Catholic moral teaching.  But the objective act of deliberately killing a pre-born child always remains gravely immoral, and it continues to carry the penalty of automatic excommunication.  Circumstances cannot make morally right that which God has declared to be morally wrong.

 

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Vatican Interview on the Pope’s Letter

Vatican Radio, responding to the confusion over Pope Francis’ recent letter on the Year of Mercy, abortion, and confession, has posted an interview between Christopher Wells and  Fr. Robert Gahl, associate professor of ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce).  The following are some important excerpts.

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Has the Pope Changed Church Doctrine on Abortion?

“With this new concession, Pope Francis has reaffirmed traditional doctrine, practice, and law.  He has not changed Church teaching; he has confirmed it. For the Church, abortion is both a sin and a crime.  The Fifth Commandment prohibits taking innocent human life. And Canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law specifies that abortion is also a penal crime and that those who abort automatically incur the penalty of excommunication.  This means that at the very moment that the abortion is successfully accomplished, the woman and all formal conspirators are excommunicated.”

What are the Effects of the Year of Mercy?

“What the pope has done with this letter of September 1 is, he’s extended the faculty or the authorization of all priests around the world to release people, or to remit them, or to lift that penalty – release them from the penalty – that’s under law, and also to absolve them from their sin.”

And Outside the Year of Mercy?

“Generally, Church law, in order to emphasize, to teach the gravity of abortion, specifies that only local diocesan bishops have the authority to lift the penalty from this crime, and therefore allow people to come back to the sacraments after having committed the crime of abortion.  What Pope Francis has done is, he’s extended that authorization to all the priests, starting next December 8, 2015 until November 20, 2016 – so during the entirety of the Jubilee year.”

“It should be taken into account that, nonetheless, already many bishops have, with their own authority, delegated this responsibility to the priests in the diocese, especially in the west.  For instance, in England and Wales and most of the United States, most of the bishops have given this authorization already to the priests in their dioceses.  So there’s no need to wait until December 8.  Certainly, if anyone is carrying this burden of having participated in an abortion, they should immediately, as soon as possible, go to their closest priest and seek the forgiveness.  This is what Pope Francis intends for the Church.”

There Is No Reason to Wait

“Moreover, Pope Francis has asserted that God’s mercy indicates His omnipotence.  God is all-powerful; there’s no sin that is so big that God cannot forgive it.”

“So one ought not to delay.  This is the most important thing.”

“Through this concession, this letter of yesterday, Pope Francis is really teaching the gravity of abortion and the beauty of forgiveness and of the sacrament of confession.”

Summary

“This doesn’t establish a change in Church teaching.  The gravity, in fact, of the crime of abortion is sin, is reaffirmed by Pope Francis.  And at the same time, he’s extending God’s mercy to all people.  So it’s a gesture, a powerful gesture, of welcoming.”

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“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it..  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:18-19).

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:18).