Pope Francis speaks for the Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in the world. When he speaks, billions listen. In a letter marking the end of the “Holy Year of Mercy,” Francis has penned a startling new direction on the controversial subject of abortion. In his edict, the Pope has set a new stance on abortion that is a major shift for the Catholic Church on two levels.
1. All priests can now forgive abortion.
The Pope had initiated a temporary measure for the Vatican’s jubilee year. In the past, only those in higher levels of church hierarchy were granted the authority to forgive the act of abortion. The Pope wrote, “I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.”
2. Abortion is a “grave sin.”
The 79-year-old Argentine said he wanted to “restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life.” But, he continued, “there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with God.” Pope Francis has made a more inclusive and forgiving Roman Catholic Church a characteristic of his papacy. Still, Francis describes abortion as “a horrendous crime.”
I congratulate the Catholic Church on both levels. First, the Church has come to embrace the broad power of forgiveness, not limited by the measure of man’s sin, but broadened by the measure of God’s love. Second, to his credit, Francis has maintained the severity of abortion as the taking of the unborn life.
While we as believers must bring every ounce of effort to end the inhumane taking of the unborn life, we must do so with compassion. Henry Ward Beecher said, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” The Pope embraces that idea.
We must live by the words of Martin Luther, who preached, “Forgiveness is God’s command.” The God who forgives calls us to forgive – even the heinous act of abortion – or worse yet, partial birth abortion. To forgive the abortionist is not to condone the act. It is simply mirroring the image of God. The Pope is right. Abortion does not require a higher-up type of religious official to receive forgiveness – and abortion is still “a horrendous crime.”
Forgiveness goes to the heart of God’s greatest work. His highest desire is revealed by Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. “For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
Pope Francis’ new stance on abortion isn’t a matter of going soft on sin. It’s a matter of going big on forgiveness. The Pope is right on both counts – abortion is both horrendous and forgivable. The same can be said of every other sin in each of our lives.