Absolving abortion

Question: Pope Francis granted parish priests permission to absolve the sin of abortion. Why was this necessary? Can you explain why a priest was instructed not to forgive sins? Why should the woman be required to go to the bishop?

James Reaux, via email

Answer: Your question requires some distinctions to answer it clearly. It is not that a priest cannot absolve the sin of abortion. The issue concerns lifting the excommunication that may be incurred when one procures abortion. If this penalty was incurred by the penitent, priests traditionally had to consult the bishop before lifting it and then absolving the penitent. It was not the case that the penitent herself (or himself) had to go to the bishop. It was the priest who was required to ask for the permission to lift the excommunication.

Canon 1398 says, “A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication.” This means that at the very moment the abortion is successfully accomplished, the woman and all formal cooperators in the act (e.g., the abortionist, nurses, those who pay for it) are excommunicated.

The penalty of excommunication is assigned this sin due to its serious nature. But for the penalty to apply, it requires that one was over 16, knew the penalty at the time of the abortion and was not compelled to obtain an abortion. Thus, not everyone who obtains or cooperates in an abortion incurs the penalty of excommunication. The priest will usually ask the penitent if they knew of such a penalty at the time of the abortion. Most do not.

Though abortion is very serious, it has become sadly common. To expedite granting absolution, most, if not all, American bishops had granted the faculty to lift the excommunication to their priests decades ago. While it is probably rare that most penitents from abortion incurred the penalty, priests usually will read the formula lifting the excommunication aloud or discretely. This is done out of caution and to cancel any doubts. The absolution is then granted.


Question: What factors do you ascribe to anti-Catholicism in our country?

Peter Tate, Long Beach, California

Answer: As with many sociological and cultural issues, there are likely many reasons and layers to the problem. Religiously, people were much more serious about their beliefs than most are today. And this instilled a conflictual interaction in the past.

Culturally, huge waves of mostly Catholic immigrants came to this land in the early 20th century. Many of them also were very poor and did not speak much English at first. Until that time, America was a largely Protestant country. People generally do not like change, and this was a huge one for America. Most of the conflict today stems from anger that the Catholic Church does not affirm the departure of our culture from moral and biblical norms. Given our size and influence, we are a special target of wrath from secular sources.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.