In a letter from the Vatican on Tuesday, Pope Francis gave all priests discretion to forgive women who have an abortion.
The move is the latest in a series of groundbreaking declarations that the Pope has made — from calling for acceptance towards gays to acknowledging the urgency of global warming — pushing for a more inclusive church. In his letter, the Pope addresses what he describes as "the changed relationship with respect to life."
As has been typical of this Pope, he goes on to emphasize mercy over judgment:
I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.
Pope Francis went on to grant all priests permission to absolve a woman who had an abortion of her sin.
For places like the United States and England, this permission has long since been granted. But in countries like Italy, it represents a major departure from the norm.
Before the announcement, only a bishop, missionary or the chief confessor of a diocese was allowed to absolve someone of the sin (although bishops in the U.S. and Britain have delegated this to priests in the past). Still, abortion was considered so grave a sin that it was punishable by excommunication.
The announcement shook up the Catholic world.
"What's new is that Pope Francis, at least for the Year of Mercy, is universalizing this permission," Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest told CNN. "Just as notable is his pastoral, compassionate and understanding tone towards women who have had abortions."
Francis, the first non-European Pope in 1,300 years, has once again ruffled the feathers of conservative Catholics across the globe.
"We would be concerned that a too widespread permission could be misinterpreted as the Church softening its teaching on abortion that it is the taking of the life of an innocent human being," said John Smeaton, chief executive of Britain's Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, told Reuters.
The Pope's announcement comes less than a month before his visit to the United States, where a debate about funding for Planned Parenthood, one of the largest providers of abortions in the U.S., rages on.
"Pope Francis knows this is a hot-button issue for American Catholics, that it touches the rawest of nerves in this country," Candida Ross, a theology professor at Notre Dame University, told USA Today. "He knows how shrill the language can be here, and he is trying to reset the tone of the conversation before he arrives."
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