Pope Francis’ highly publicized letter released Tuesday by the Vatican “is a big deal, but it’s not quite the big deal it looks like,” said the Rev. Bruce Miller, an expert in Church law who is the Judicial Vicar for the Diocese of Alexandria.
Many news outlets publicized the pope’s letter Tuesday to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, in which he wrote he would in this jubilee “year of mercy” starting Dec. 8 make it easier for priests of the Roman Catholic Church to “absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
“Abortion has never been unforgivable,” stressed Miller, but noted in some places forgiveness for such a grave sin, which can incur automatic excommunication, can be granted only by a bishop “who has not granted to priests the faculty to lift the sin as we have in our diocese.”
Miller pointed out some of the text in a section of the Diocese of Alexandria website relating to “faculties,” or authority, granted to priests in this diocese by Bishop Ronald P. Herzog.
There’s a section in which the bishop writes, “You may remit in the internal forum (confession) the (automatic) penalty of excommunication for abortion.” Later, he writes, “Whenever someone commits the crime of abortion ... a possibility exists that the penalty of automatic excommunication may have been incurred. This faculty allows you, as confessor, to remit the penalty when you absolve the sin.”
Miller said it is “rather common” for priests across the country to have authority from their bishops to exercise the same authority, but there are some areas where bishops alone can grant forgiveness for such a grave sin. Miller said the pope is granting that power to all priests during the jubilee “year of mercy.”
“The Holy Father,” said Miller in a text, “in a desire to express an abundance of the Father’s Mercy, wishes to ensure that the grace of forgiveness is extended to everyone through a good confession, especially of the grievous sin of abortion and its penalties in the church. The door has never been closed to them, it’s always been open. He’s just opening it wider.”
Miller added, “Those who have already confessed the sin of procuring a completed abortion in the past have truly been forgiven and absolved its penalties in the church. There is no need to return to confession. Be at peace.”