There has been a fair amount of confused and imprecise secular and religious reporting about the sin of abortion relating to a letter published on September 1, 2015 by Pope Francis in the upcoming Year of Mercy. This confusion has resulted in the following being offered to clarify questions that priests/confessors and penitents have had after reading news stories such as “Pope allows priests to absolve the sin of abortion.”
Part of the confusion is how the letter expresses what is conceded by the Holy Father during this upcoming Year of Mercy:
The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. 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 fulfill 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.
The Difference Between Forgiveness of the Sin and the Remission of a Penalty Imposed Automatically with a Sin.
A priest is unable give sacramental absolution to someone who has incurred an excommunication, in this case by the act of procuring an abortion. The remission of the penalty excommunication of abortion is reserved to the Diocesan Bishop, and it must be received before the absolution can be granted in Church law, meaning the Bishop (or someone he has so designated such as a “canon penitentiary” if one is appointed in a diocese) must be approached to remit the excommunication so sacramental absolution can be then offered. (Cf., c. 1357 of Code of Canon Law)
The priest must, therefore determine whether the excommunication has been received, according to the following circumstances, before proceeding to offer sacramental absolution.
What Is This “Automatic” Penalty of Excommunication Attached to Procuring an Abortion?
In the Code of Canon Law:
c. 1398: A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
A latae sententiae excommunication is one that is incurred automatically by the commission of certain grave sins. (This is different from a ferendae sententiae excommunication which must be declared/imposed by a competent authority.)
What is Required to Receive an Automatic Excommunication?
For the excommunication to be automatically incurred, the person/s procuring the abortion must do so under specific conditions (cf. cc. 1321-1325. 1327 of the Code of Canon Law):
1. Knowingly procuring the abortion (understanding that it is gravely sinful and knowing that it results in an automatic excommunication)
2. Willingly procuring the abortion (freely procuring the abortion knowing the moral consequences, free of grave force or fear and having the complete use of one’s faculties)
3. The abortion must have been procured (not merely considering it or attempting it)
4. Over the age of 16.
5. The excommunication can be incurred, not only by the woman who has the abortion, but others involved who, without their assistance, the abortion would not have been committed cf. c. 1329 §2).
In order to ascertain whether the automatic excommunication has been incurred, the priest confessor has the obligation to ask questions relating to whether it is the first abortion, whether the penitent understands the gravity of the offense, whether it was done in freedom, and whether the penitent knows the excommunication penalty is incurred with the commission of the act.
What Is Allowed in the Diocese of New Ulm?
In most places in the United States including the Diocese of New Ulm, the Diocesan Bishop has granted the priests in his diocese who have the faculties to hear confessions the additional faculty to remit the excommunication of the first procured abortion. By agreement of the Bishops of Minnesota, a priest with faculties to hear confessions in any Diocese in Minnesota can remit the automatic excommunication of the first offense of procured abortion.
But in most places in the world, this faculty to remit the automatic penalty of excommunication is not delegated as widely as it is in the United States, and it would be necessary to contact the Diocesan Bishop or the canon penitentiary who would normally be the only ones in a diocese to lift this excommunication.
Why Is There an Automatic Excommunication Imposed by the Church in the Case of Procured Abortion?
The Church imposes this as a penalty, not to be mean or vindictive, but first and foremost to underscore the gravity of the procurement of abortion. It is a way to teach and unequivocally emphasize the severity of killing the most innocent of lives. From the Second Vatican Council’s teaching in the Constitution Lumen gentium, no. 34, abortion and infanticide are called “unspeakable crimes,” and yet are so widely accepted in permissible societies.
Why has Pope Francis Allowed Priests to Remit This Penalty for the Year of Mercy, then?
The Holy Father is using the Year of Mercy to primarily encourage all pastors of souls (to bishops and priests) to emphasize and make available the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to remove, as much as possible, any barriers, even psychological, that would keep anyone from taking advantage of the mercy offered through this Sacrament or put off receiving the mercy of the Divine Physician that is offered through this Sacrament.
What Changes For the Diocese of New Ulm During the Year of Mercy In Relation to the Remission of Automatic Excommunication from Abortion?
During the Year of Mercy, beginning on December 8, 2015 until it concludes the following year, the Pope is allowing all priest confessors to remit the excommunication of all abortions, regardless of number. For priests of the Diocese of New Ulm, that means they do not have to approach the Diocesan Bishop during the Year of Mercy for the remission of the excommunication, as they would normally have to for any procured abortions after the first. When the Year of Mercy concludes, the priests of the Diocese will again have to refer to the Bishop for any penalty excommunications after the first relating to abortion.
Is There a Special Prayer That Needs To Be Said By the Priest Confessor in Remitting An Automatically Incurred Excommunication?
The Rite of Penance, in Appendix I, provides the following:
1. The form of absolution is not to be changed when a priest, in keeping with the provision of law, absolves a properly disposed penitent within the sacramental forum from a censure latae sententiae. It is enough that the confessor intend to absolve also from censures. Before absolving from sins, however, the confessor may also absolve from the censure, using the formula which is given below for absolution from censures outside the sacrament of penance.
The following formula, used on the occasion of remitting a censure outside the sacrament of penance, may be used on the occasion of remission of censures in the internal sacramental forum, prior to granting absolution from sin:
By the power granted to me,
I absolve you
from the bond of excommunication (or suspension or interdict).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The penitent answers: Amen.
Does the Year of Mercy Allow a Priest Confessor to Extend the Same Remission of an Automatic latae sententiae Excommunication to Other Sins that Would Incur a Similar Penalty?
No, the procurement of abortion is the only latae sententiae penalty given by the Holy Father to be remitted by all priests during the Year of Mercy, as he mentions it specifically in the letter he wrote, applying it only in the Year of Mercy and only to procuring an abortion but regardless of how many abortions have been procured, and not limited to the first one.
It does not include the remission of penalties for sins that are reserved to the Holy See.