Pope Francis is reportedly planning to offer a special pardon of sins to women who have undergone abortions, along with the doctors and nurses who helped them with that choice.
As part of his upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, the pontiff plans to send specially trained priests as “missionaries of mercy” to Catholic parishes around the world. The army of priests will reportedly hear these women’s confessions and absolve them of the “sin of a procured abortion,” the Irish Times reports. The forgiveness can also be given to healthcare workers who perform abortions.
Official Catholic doctrine places abortion in a special class of sins that leads to excommunication, a banishment from the life of the church that is considered one of its most serious punishments. Usually, only bishops or the pope can offer forgiveness for these types of sins.
Don Clemmer, a spokesman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told HuffPost that "most of the US bishops have routinely granted to their priests the ability to remove the penalty of excommunication for abortion in the Sacrament of Confession out of a desire to be a source of God’s love in the sacrament." He added that he couldn't speak to how the church handles the practice elsewhere.
Pope Francis’ stance on the legality of abortion is in line with that of his predecessors, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II. During a Vatican meeting with doctors and ethicists last fall, Francis called abortion a “sin against God.”
But Francis has also placed a strong emphasis on mercy. In the past, he’s criticized church leaders for becoming “obsessed” with hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, instead of focusing on making sure the church is a “home for all.”
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, is in charge of organizing events for the Holy Year, which is slated to begin in December. He said that the priests chosen for this mission will have to “be patient” and have “an understanding of human fragility,” the Catholic Herald reports.
Leaders of the Catholic Church in America have been strong opponents of abortion rights for decades. Most recently, the USCCB filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case, who argued against mandatory health care coverage of drugs they believed were abortifacients.
Patti Miller, author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion In The Catholic Church, told HuffPost she suspects church leaders in the U.S. may not react favorably to the pope’s new plan.
“By my calculation, they’ve spent 40 years building up the idea abortions are non-negotiable things, that a woman can never do it,” Miller told HuffPost. “It gets to the heart of Francis’ papacy, his pastoral and progressive approach to forgiving people.”
In the pews, American Catholics continue to have mixed views on the issue. Forty-six percent of Catholics agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. About 47 percent believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
And despite the church’s official stance, Catholic women are still exercising their reproductive rights. According to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as all American women.
“The Catholic Church also officially prohibits contraception,” Miller said. “You can’t use contraception and you can’t get an abortion, so the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t have a lot of credibility here. It just doesn’t leave women with a lot of options.”
This article has been updated with a quote from the USCCB.