Dear Father Joe: I read that, as part of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is allowing priests to absolve people of the sin of having an abortion or helping someone get one. Why can only bishops absolve some sins and what happens to all those people who were only absolved by a priest?
Thanks for this question! There has been a lot of talk about different things that our Holy Father has said and or done and this is one that really got messed up in translation.
The first step here is for me to establish something: Most of you reading this are Americans and, as Americans, what the Holy Father was addressing probably does not affect you. He was addressing a practice that is more common in countries other than ours.
We start with this – there are two effects to all of our sins: we damage our soul and we damage our relation-ship to Christ and his bride, the Church. When we go to confession, our sins are forgiven and the damage done to our relationship is healed.
However, while every sin for which we feel sorrow and that we confess in the sacrament of reconciliation is forgiven, we believe there are some sins that require a special act to restore the relationship. Abortion is one of these sins. If someone who knows abortion is wrong and still actively participates in it (procuring an abortion, helping someone else procure it, actually performs it), then that person has damaged their relationship with Christ and his Church in such a unique way that a special act on God’s part is required.
In the U.S., the custom tends to be that the priest, with the authority and permission of his bishop, restores that person to full communion right then and there in the confessional. When I was ordained in 1998, one of the first things Bishop Mengeling told me was that I was able to do so. This, however, is not the case in every country.
To be clear, anyone who confessed the sin of procuring or helping someone procure an abortion was absolved the moment they confessed that sin and received absolution – that was never in doubt. What our Holy Father did was address the issue surrounding automatic excommunication:
In this Year of Mercy, all who confess with a contrite heart and receive God’s love, mercy and forgiveness will not only be forgiven (as usual), but also be immediately and fully restored back into the Catholic family.
I’d like to use our remaining space to help us understand two things.
First, we are Catholics. There are more than 1.2 billion of us running about all over the globe. As Americans, we represent a small portion of that 1.2 billion – there are about 77 million of us. Because of that, our view of Catholicism tends to be rather small. We don’t know the key issues most Catholics face, and we tend to be shocked when Pope Francis says things that don’t apply to us or are rooted in his duty to address the needs of all Catholics.
Like any good pastor, Pope Francis is getting a ton of angst – but his critics come from corners of the world that don’t see the whole picture. I think we, as Americans, are a part of that problem. Think of it this way: More than two-thirds of Catholics live in the developing world rather than the First World, and that is expected to increase to three-quarters within the next few decades. Because of this, Pope Francis is going to address things we may not find particularly important or that even sound bad. What we need is trust that he is speaking and acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to minister to all God’s kids in our Church.
The second thing to keep in mind is we have a great problem as a Church right now: The media love our pope. This is new for us, and it’s a great blessing. The same newspapers and news sources that ignored beautiful, gentle and merciful things our previous popes said and did are now reporting almost everything Pope Francis says. Also, since they like Pope Francis and his mission, they are reporting a lot about him in what they understand to be a positive light. This is a unique blessing for us!
But what we are learning is that with this blessing comes a challenge. Our faith is rooted in ancient Judaism and is informed by philosophical constructs and ideas that are beautiful and complex. These things are not easily expressed in soundbites. So, there will be things the media just get ﬂat-out wrong. To be clear, I don’t think this is all part of a plot or anything as silly as that – I just think it’s a reality of people report-ing on a culture and spirituality and philosophy they don’t understand. With that in mind, I’m going to invite us to do two things whenever we hear news about a bold or unusual proclamation from Pope Francis.
First, go to Catholic media sources to check it out. I’d recommend the following as reliable and accurate: zenit.com, catholicnews.com, vatican. va and usccb.org.
Second, I’d invite you to ignore “agenda blogs.” As I’ve bemoaned in the past, there are a lot of blogs and sites out there that report on things with their own information and slant.
While these may or may not be good commentaries, I wouldn’t trust them as much as we can trust good, solid, reputable and non-agenda-oriented news services such as those listed above.
So, there it is, brothers and sisters. We live in exciting and blessed times. May we always trust in our Heavenly Father guiding and leading our Church – and may we follow with humble and obedient hearts!
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!