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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyPope Francis’ intervention relating to the forgiveness of the sin of abortion

Ever since Pope Francis invited the entire church to share in a Holy Year of Mercy, dedicated to help all Catholics experience in new ways the loving mercy and compassion of the Lord, we have been expecting a number of important initiatives of his part. As he has often noted, our role is to bring people to Christ, not to try and keep them away!

His first general initiative has been in relation to the sin of abortion. This has raised a number of practical concerns among certain people because persons were not always aware of the consequences of this act. Indeed, the pope’s action opens to door to a renewed catechesis on this tragic issue.

What Pope Francis did was to allow all confessors to absolve from the sin of abortion during the special Holy Year. This implies two steps: if the person had been excommunicated, then the excommunication must first be lifted. Then absolution from the sin itself can be granted by the confessor.

In Canada, in 1984, shortly after the Code of Canon Law came into effect, diocesan bishops granted to all confessors the right to absolve from the excommunication and also from this sin. The same practice prevailed in the United States. However, in many other countries, the bishops did not see fit to extend the faculty to priests, and reserved such matters to themselves, as the code foresees. The pope’s action, then, applies more particularly to these other situations.

Nevertheless, his gesture provides Catholics everywhere with an opportunity to reflect on a number of important pastoral issues related to abortion. Because of its seriousness when it is directly procured, the law adds an automatic excommunication on the mother who had the abortion, as well as on those who participated directly in it, or were necessary co-operators. This is not always well-known by the faithful at large.

However, before concluding that a woman who had an abortion is necessarily excommunicated, we must keep in mind the conditions spelled out in the church’s legislation for incurring an excommunication. There are three fundamental conditions, which apply not only in this case, but also to other most serious canonical crimes to which an excommunication is attached (such as violation of the blessed sacrament).  

The first is that there must be grave or serious matter. There can be no doubt that procuring an abortion is a most grave matter. This has been the consistent teaching of the church for centuries.

The second is that the persons involved are to be fully aware of the consequences of the act: if they did not know the consequences, then they do not incur the penalty. This is one application of the old saying: “Ignorance is bliss.”  

The third is that the person must give full consent to the action. It can be questioned in many situations whether a person really consented to the act, or acted out of great fear, shame, or other factors.

There are other additional factors mentioned in the code that must also be kept in mind: such as age, mental state, and the like, but these are external to the mind of the persons involved and are more easily verified.

Therefore, it follows that we must be most careful before making general statements in relation to the excommunication incurred for abortion.

But this brings us back to the pope’s gesture. By allowing women who have had an abortion to be absolved, he is implicitly waiving the excommunication during the Holy Year, because otherwise they could not receive absolution. This gesture of mercy does not in any way change the teaching relating to the gravity of abortion, but, rather, it focuses on the person who truly regrets her actions and seeks reconciliation with the Lord and with the church community.

The pope did not speak of co-operators and others involved, but only of the woman who had an actual abortion. Others would have to follow the normal canonical procedures in effect in the diocese.

So, this first of what will probably be numerous gestures will have significance for those who felt that they could not be forgiven for their sins. And, as the Lord said elsewhere: “Let those who are without sin throw the first stone.” We can take this opportunity to reflect on our own attitude of mercy and compassion toward others who appear to have slipped away from the loving embrace of the Lord.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa. This is a commentary on the pope’s recent letter on forgiveness.