It’s toward the end of a nine-paragraph letter that Pope Francis addresses the thorny issue of abortion. He writes, “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”
Francis commands that in the coming Year of Mercy (December 2015-November 2016), all priests can hear confessions and absolve from sin women who’ve had abortions.
Francis’ reasoning is simple and straightforward, even if the topic is complex. “The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented,” he wrote.
It is news whenever the pope speaks on such hot-button topics, but in the Harrisburg Diocese it is nothing new.
“So, what the pope is saying is now the policy of central Pennsylvania is the policy of the whole world,” said Father Paul Schenck, the Harrisburg Diocese Director of Respect Life.
Bishops across the globe have the discretion to allow their rank-and-file priests to grant absolution to women who’ve had abortions. Since the 1990’s, Harrisburg priests have had that authority.
Francis’ edict circumvents bishops worldwide and directly grants the power to priests at the grassroots level. It even pushes priests out of the pulpit and toward the people, especially those feeling ostracized by the church.
“What the pope is doing is telling us as pastors that we are especially to make our way to that person who has felt like they can’t come back to the church, who’s afraid to come back to church. Are they condemned, are they excommunicated? The pope is saying, ‘absolutely not. We want to embrace you. We want you to know God’s loving forgiveness and that can be the beginning of healing,” Schenck said.
The secular debate over abortion typically centers on whether women should have a right to them. Amy Hill with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference says Francis’ edict focuses on the spiritual health of those who’ve exercised their legal right.
“So many women can find healing and conversion by coming back to God and seeking God’s mercy,” Hill said. “What a perfect thing for the Year of Mercy that Pope Francis is so focused on.”
It is the latest move by a pope trying to reach those on the margins, who may have felt shunned by the rigidity of Catholic doctrine. Francis has shown he’s unafraid to confront controversial topics and has, at times, made the more conservative in the flock uncomfortable.
“I’m a little more conservative, he wants to draw a more liberal crowd, I get it,” said Andrew Blasco prior to attending noon Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg. “You know, that’s being the pontiff. That’s his job. He needs to bring more people in, and the more people we can get into the Catholic church, I think, the better.”
But Catholic doctrinaires shouldn’t fret that Francis’ edict is in any way encouraging abortions. It doesn’t.
“Abortion remains a very grave sin against innocent human life,” Schenck said.
Planned Parenthood of Central Pennsylvania declined comment for this story.
Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia later this month.