Pope Francis has indefinitely granted to all Roman Catholic priests the power to forgive abortion, a right previously reserved for bishops or special confessors.
The 79-year-old Argentine has made a more inclusive and forgiving church a hallmark of his papacy. His move represents a significant shift of the Catholic Church’s traditionally strict stance on abortion.
Francis made the announcement in a document known as an “apostolic letter,” published on Monday after the close of the Catholic Church’s “Holy Year of Mercy”.
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” he wrote.
“In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”
In Roman Catholic teaching, abortion is such a serious sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication, until it is absolved in confession by a bishop or designated chief confessor.
Although bishops in some dioceses in developed countries such as the United States and Britain had already delegated this authority to parish priests, the old practice was still in effect in most of the world.
Last year, Francis had already temporarily granted the power to all rank-and-file priests to grant absolution for an abortion for the duration of the Holy Year, which ran from Dec. 8, 2015 through Nov. 20, 2016.
His move now lets all priests absolve the sin of abortion on a permanent basis.
Last year, Francis had described the “existential and moral ordeal” faced by women who have terminated pregnancies, and said he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision.”
“May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation,” Francis wrote in his latest letter.