For the Year of Mercy the Holy Father has given to all priests the faculty to absolve from the censure that is incurred by the crime (not just sin) of successfully procuring an abortion. This has created a bit of discussion and speculation.
NB: In most dioceses – in fact, I think all – in these USA, priests have this faculty already. There are some places in the world where this is not the case.
The law says that diocesan bishops can lift the censure of excommunication if it is incurred (and there are precise criteria required to incur the censure of excommunication). However, the law says that diocesan bishops can delegate their authority to confessors (priests with the faculty to receive sacramental confessions) to lift the censure. Remember that procuring an abortion is both a sin and a crime. Forgiving the sin is one step and forgiving or lifting the censure is another step.
Why would the lifting of the excommunication be reserved to a bishop? Why are some censures reserved? To teach. There are some sins and crimes that are more serious than others. By reserving some censures to a bishop, or to the Holy See itself, the Church is teaching about the gravity of those sins.
Abortion is more serious than, say, defrauding a worker of his wage. Therefore a bishop, not just a simple priest, is involved (directly or through the intermediary of a confessor) with the penitent’s reconciliation with God, Church, neighbor and himself.
Some sins and crimes strike at the very heart of the Church and her mission. Some are so damaging that they are reserved not to a bishop but to the Holy See itself. For example, throwing away or selling the Blessed Sacrament or giving it to someone for evil purposes is a crime (not just a sin) that incurs a censure that not even a diocesan bishop can lift on his own authority. The confessor must ask the Holy See’s Apostolic Penitentiary (which handles internal forum matters) for the faculty to lift the censure. Breaking the Seal of Confession is another such crime that strikes at the very heart of the Church. Consecrating a bishop without permission from the Roman Pontiff is another such crime.
But I am now going beyond the scope of the interview I want you to hear.
For more on the Year of Mercy and the abortion issue, take a few minutes to listen to an interview at Vatican Radio that my friend Chris Well did with a professor at the Pontifical University “Sacro Cuore” in Rome, Fr. Robert Gahl.