Abortion and absolution: Addressing the confusion

To be clear: Pope Francis’ declaration on absolution is not a change in Church teaching on abortion.


On a day full of misleading headlines about Pope Francis, this one, from MSNBC.com, has to take the cake:

Uh, no.

Did whoever wrote this headline read the article? Did he or she confuse “absolve” and “allow,” two clearly different words with different meanings? I mean, I know they’re both two-syllable words that begin with “a,” but come on.

It took a couple hours, but the headline was eventually corrected on MSNBC’s homepage (it now reads “Pope says priests can forgive this sin”).

Pope Francis is sometimes criticized for imprecise or ambiguous statements that lend themselves to misinterpretation. I do not think this is what is happening in this case. While there may be underlying confusion about the canonical issues involved (more on that below), it should be clear from reading the Pope’s declaration, published today in anticipation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, that he is not minimizing the gravity of the sin of abortion. That major media outlets, out of ignorance or malice, can twist Pope Francis’ words—in some cases in direct opposition to what he actually said—should serve as a warning to everyone ahead of the Holy Father’s visit to the United States later this month. Always read what the Pope actually says. Never trust a headline on this!

Anyway, apparently it needs to be said that Pope Francis did not declare that priests can “allow” the sin of abortion. What he said is this:

For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence. (Emphasis mine.)

There has been a lot of confusion about this, most of it stemming from the fact that many Catholics were under the impression that priests were already permitted to absolve the sin of abortion. At the Register, Jimmy Akin does an excellent job of addressing this point:

Can’t priests just absolve people who have procured abortions?

Not without something else happening. Here’s why:

Step 1: The Code of Canon Law provides an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication for those who procure abortion.

Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

Step 2: Excommunication prevents a person from receiving the sacraments.

Can. 1331 §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:

2/ to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;

Step 3: The bishop (local ordinary) is the one empowered to remit the excommunication that procuring an abortion causes.

Can. 1355

§2. If the penalty has not been reserved to the Apostolic See, an ordinary can remit a latae sententiae penalty established by law but not yet declared for his subjects and those who are present in his territory or who committed the offense there; any bishop can also do this in the act of sacramental confession.

Therefore, a person who procures an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication which prevents them from receiving the sacraments. Confession is a sacrament, therefore, they cannot be absolved in confession until the excommunication is lifted. The bishop (or a bishop) is the one who needs to get involved in order to lift the excommunication and allow the person to be sacramentally absolved.

Except …

…First, the Code of Canon Law provides a long list of things that can stop an automatic excommunication from taking effect. See here for more on that.

Of special note are these provisions:

Can. 1324

§1. The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed:

4/ by a minor who has completed the age of sixteen years;

5/ by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;

8/ by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in ⇒ can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present;

9/ by a person who without negligence did not know that a penalty was attached to a law or precept;

§3. In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the accused is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.

Since many who procure abortions are under sixteen, very fearful, and do not know that there is an automatic excommunication for procuring an abortion, this canon provides multiple grounds on which many who commit the act do not incur the penalty attached to it.

In such circumstances, they can be absolved in confession without the involvement of the bishop.

Second, I am informed that—due to how widespread abortion is in America—most American bishops have given their priests ability to remit the abortion excommunication in confession, without having to consult the bishop first.

Canonist Edward Peters delves even further into the canonical distinctions between sin and crime in his analysis of the Pope’s declaration. He also explains why he believes automatic excommunication cannot actually be incurred by a woman who has an abortion, even apart from Francis’ declaration today, and makes the very important point that “there are zero examples of women being formally excommunicated for their abortion.”

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About Catherine Harmon 578 Articles
Catherine Harmon works in the marketing department for Ignatius Press.