Explaining the Year of Mercy “abortion forgiveness faculty”

italian confessional pilgrimsFor 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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. iamlucky13 says:

    I noticed he voiced the opposite reading of the law regarding excommunication of the mother from what Dr. Peters did recently. Fr. Gaul said the excommunication extends to the mother and all formal conspirators. Dr. Peters opined the excommunication does not, at least since 1983, if not before, cover the mother. Unless and until the question has been resolved, it seems safe to assume excommunication and ask not only for absolution, but also lifting of the penalty. Fortunately, this will be much easier in many dioceses during the year of mercy.

    I was still hoping for more clarification on the matter of the priest’s faculties regarding the sin vs. the crime of abortion, and I don’t think there was a response in the previous discussions on this blog:

    Does a priest with valid faculty for confession, but without a specific faculty granted by his bishop to lift the penalty for the crime of abortion, nor this privilege granted by the pope for the year of mercy, have the ability to legitimately absolve the sin of abortion?

    This podcast seems consistent with my current interpretation that even a priest without the faculty from their bishop or the Year of Mercy privilege to lift the penalty of excommunication can at least absolve the sin. Therefore, a person excommunicated for abortion or formal cooperation with the act could at least be rescued from danger of hell by the sacramental confession to a priest. The primary distinction would then be that they still can not receive communion nor serve as a lector, etc. until the bishop lifts their excommunication.

  2. arga says:

    I wish someone would explain the difference between a sin and a crime.

  3. To underscore what Fr. Z said under “NB,” my diocese felt the need to issue a statement on this matter. The main quote is from the bishop: “In our Diocese, all three of my predecessors and I have already given that special faculty to all our priests. Since 1957, any woman who has undergone an abortion and has confessed this sin in the past already has received the sacrament of divine mercy with full forgiveness for her sin and reconciliation to God and Christ’s Church.”


  4. Giuseppe says:

    A sin is a sin. It is acting against God’s will. If someone is truly sorry, regrets what they did, acknowledges that they should not have done it, and vows never to do it again, then they can be forgiven by a priest (with faculties to forgive). They will have to do a penance.

    The church lists several crimes in Canon Law. The word crime is never used. It is a ‘delict’. They are listed the Code of Canon Law, Book 6, Can 1364 through 1398. Crimes include things like abortion, murder, adultery, child abuse, profanation of the Holy Sacrament, a bishop’s consecrating other bishops without permission, a priest’s concelebrating with members of other denominations without valid apostolic succession, etc.

    Crimes are above and beyond sins. One may confess and atone for them, but there is a punishment attached to the crime beyond what a confessor might say. (An educated confessor should say to the perpetrator of the delict that he should speak with the ordinary.) The punishment might be a censure (excommunication or, for a priest, suspension of faculties) and/or expiatory penalties (corrective actions) and/or penances. Crimes are generally adjudicated, unlike sins which are forgiven, and some involve a trial. Some crimes go to Rome for trial; some are handled by the Bishop (or his designee.)

    Abortion is a crime with the sentence of excommunication. I disagree with Dr. Peters, and I think Canon 1398 is as clear as day, that a person who procures an abortion incurs excommunication.

  5. VeritasVereVincet says:


    My understanding–which could be incorrect as I am merely a reader–is that a crime is a sin that has a specific ecclesiastical punishment attached to it. All crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes.

  6. Patrick-K says:

    Even Breitbart spun this one into a “soft on abortion” angle: headline “Pope Francis Tells Priests to Pardon Women Who Have Abortions” (subheadline: “overruling hardline traditionalists”).

    I see this as the pope acknowledging that abortion has become so widespread that it presents a dire situation for many souls with regard to their salvation. Particularly for Catholics, the excommunication imposed is a very serious matter. So in response to this wartime situation, His Holiness has allowed priests to regularize the situation of such people in a way that only bishops previously would have been able to. (Necessary in view of the fact that there are only so many bishops who have only so many hours in a day.)

    Only someone spiritually dead would take that as some kind of relaxation of the Church’s completely unambiguous teaching on the grave sinfulness of abortion. If there is one thing that the Catholic Church has been able to communicate in the past 50 years, as vacillating as She might have been on almost everything else, it is the complete and total moral wrongness of abortion. You might be able to find a few geriatric nuns in support of it, but no one, at all, who has ever been elevated to the episcopate has ever supported abortion.

    So, again, if there is one issue you can point to and say, “Catholics never got that one wrong,” it’s abortion. And yet these libertarian media types try to attack the pope over a completely reasonable empowerment of priests to bring people back into the fold of the Church.

  7. Volanges says:

    My understanding is that the sin of abortion cannot be absolved by the priest if he cannot lift the excommunication — the fact of excommunication bans one from receiving any of the sacraments.

    As for whether or not the mother is excommunicated, there is a requirement that one must be aware that the sin incurs automatic excommunication in order to incur it. How many women know this? I’ve never heard one word against abortion in my parish church in the last 17 years. In fact, one pastor told me himself that when a family told him they were taking there 15 year old out for an abortion his response was, “Well, you have to do what’s best for the family.” How could anyone believe that these people were then excommunicated when they followed through with their plan?

  8. Volanges says:

    And of course that would be “their 15 year old.”

  9. cwillia1 says:

    In places where abortion is common a woman goes to a priest for sacramental confession. She repents, is absolved and since the priest has the authority delegated from the bishop the excommunication is lifted. Most likely the woman does not even realize that anything is happening beyond confession and absolution. She is probably totally unaware of the issue of jurisdiction.

    When the pope empowers all priests to lift the excommunication massive confusion results. From an internal churchy perspective this is a gesture of mercy. But the media distorts what is happening. People who have been restored to communion question whether their priest could or did do it when they confessed. Then knowledgeable people try to explain what is going on to whoever will listen. If they succeed, if people listen carefully to a complex explanation, they conclude that the church is wrapped up in legal technicalities. That this act of mercy is an empty gesture for public relations purposes.

    Again, this papacy sows confusion on all sides.

  10. JPK says:

    There are some canon lawyers who read the letter Pope Francis issued, and they said there is nothing in the formal letter that gives priests a 1 year period where they can lift the censor of automatic excommunication. Now I’m really confused. What should a bishop do other than ask the Vatican for clarification?

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