October 22, 2015
The Diocese of Tulsa offers the following as a clarification on Pope Francis’ recent statement allowing priests to absolve the sin of abortion without having recourse to the local bishop for the removal of the attached penalty of excommunication.
Several weeks ago Pope Francis announced that during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, all priests throughout the world would be empowered to offer absolution for the sin of abortion.
In considering this, we have to remember that Pope Francis is dealing with a worldwide Church and that the situation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is not always the same as it is in the United States. This has created a good deal of confusion here in the United States because unlike the bishops in many other countries – including even much of Europe – American bishops have given priests the faculty to forgive abortion for more than 40 years and so this change by Pope Francis does not affect us in the least.
Priests receive faculties from their bishop to exercise their sacramental ministry, which is an extension of the ministry of the bishop himself, who can grant unrestricted faculties or can restrict them in some way. In the case of the sacrament of Reconciliation, there are some sins that are so grievous that historically the faculty to absolve those sins was reserved to the diocesan bishop. One sin that was so grievous as to carry with it the additional penalty of excommunication was the sin of abortion (canon 1398).
Starting in the 1970s, most bishops in the United States and Canada began to grant their priests the faculty both to absolve directly the sin of abortion and to remove immediately the penalty of excommunication. This has been the case in our country ever since.
So in a way, this decree of Pope Francis will bring the pastoral practice of the rest of the world into conformity with what has already long been the practice here – with one difference: in the United States priests will retain the faculty to forgive the sin of abortion even after this Holy Year of Mercy draws to a close. The Church’s primary and most important mission is the salvation of souls and the sacrament of Reconciliation brings Jesus’ healing to anyone who sincerely repents and comes to him for forgiveness.