The pope has extended the Catholic Church’s forgiveness for abortion indefinitely.
In an apostolic letter dated Nov. 20, Pope Francis officially changed the church practice so that it now allows any parish priest to hear confessions from those who have obtained or performed an abortion, and to offer absolution.
The move comes as the Year of Mercy, or the Extraordinary Jubilee, comes to a close. With roots in the Old Testament, every 50 years, a jubilee year was designated as a time of forgiveness, as a reminder of God’s mercy, according to Jewish tradition. The Catholic Church calls one every 25 years, and Pope Francis designated Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016, as the Extraordinary Jubilee. During this time, the pope hoped followers would direct their attention “on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives. For this reason I have proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy as a special time for the Church, a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective,” he said in a Vatican statement.
In the new letter, Pope Francis restates Catholic doctrine that abortion is a grave sin that ends an innocent life.
“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,” Pope Francis wrote in the letter.
The move is largely symbolic. According to previous church rules, because abortion was considered both a grave sin and a crime (in the church’s eyes), only a bishop or someone he assigned to the task could hear the confession of someone who wanted absolution for having an abortion. In practice, however, parish priests were already offering absolution in the United States for years, according to Crux.
However, as part of the Year of Mercy, which began in December of last year and ended Nov. 20, women who’d had an abortion could gain absolution, or forgiveness of their sin, by confessing to any priest. The extension of forgiveness also applies to anyone who is involved in abortion work, such as doctors or nurses who perform the procedure.