By Nancy O’Brien
BALTIMORE (CNS) – Pope Francis’ Sept. 1 announcement that priests worldwide will be able to absolve women for the sin of abortion will have little effect on pastoral practices in the United States and Canada, where most priests already have such authority in the sacrament of reconciliation. Priests in the Diocese of Jackson have had the authority for many years, but ,many hope secular media coverage of the announcement may lead some to seek reconciliation who had been reluctant in the past.
“It is my understanding that the faculty for the priest to lift the ‘latae sententiae’ excommunication for abortion is almost universally granted in North America,” said Don Clemmer, interim director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Latae sententiae” is a Latin term in canon law that means excommunication for certain crimes, including involvement in abortion, is automatic. Clemmer said it is “the fiat of the local bishop” whether to allow the priests in his diocese to absolve those sins and most bishops granted such permission when giving priests faculties to minister in their local church.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, confirmed that in a Sept. 1 statement welcoming what he called the pope’s “wonderful gesture.”
“Any woman who has had an abortion, any person who has been involved in an abortion in any way, can always seek God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation, if they are truly sorry for their actions.”
Several prelates, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, emphasized that Pope Francis’ action “in no way diminishes the moral gravity of abortion.”
“What it does do is make access to sacramental forgiveness easier for anyone who seeks it with a truly penitent heart,” he said.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said his “hope and prayer is that all those carrying the burden of an experience of abortion would turn to the church and her sacraments and experience the Lord’s mercy and love.”
Catholic moral theologian Charles Camosy, noted that the pope’s words about abortion and forgiveness bore a striking resemblance to the words of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.”
Addressing women who have had abortions, Pope John Paul wrote, “If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the sacrament of reconciliation.”
New teaching or not, Albany’s Bishop Scharfenberger expressed hope that women will take advantage of this opportunity.
“The real news is that there is no need to wait,” he said. “God is ready to forgive and heal now!”
By Nancy O’Brien