November 21, 2016; CNN
Last year, NPQ reported on the “Holy Year of Mercy” proclaimed by Pope Francis, devoting special attention to his decision to allow all priests to hear confessions and offer relief from excommunication to women who had “committed the sin of procured abortions.” Until late last year, such authority was limited to bishops or, at a bishop’s discretion, priests specially trained and designated by each diocese around the world. Excommunication literally means the separation of an individual from communication or communion with the church. It does not remove one’s status as a Catholic; it simply means one is basically in exile from the church and may not participate in many Catholic sacraments and rituals.
As the Extraordinary Jubilee year came to a close on November 20th, the pope announced on Monday that the authority would be extended indefinitely. Francis is emphatic that this should in no way be interpreted as a change in viewpoint about abortion: “I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life.”
The change that Francis asserts and emphasizes comes in the next sentence: “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.”
This extension of priestly authority and these viewpoints on abortion are both consistent with the pope’s previous statements reported by NPQ that “I like to use the image of the field hospital: Some people are very much injured and are waiting for us to heal their wounds.”
The 14-page papal letter, Misericordia et Misera, or “Mercy with Misery,” is a phrase from the works of St. Augustine summing up the biblical story of the adulterous woman brought before Jesus in John 8:1-11: “Two are left, misery and mercy.” For the truly penitent soul that is in misery and seeking mercy, Francis’s letter means that healing relief through readmission to the church and the Catholic community (lifting of excommunication) will continue to be made available through a local priest rather that from a remote and (usually) unknown bishop.—Michael Wyland