Earlier this year, Pope Francis announced an “extraordinary” Year of Jubilee devoted to mercy. Jubilee years, or Holy Years, have a long tradition in Christianity and Judaism and often focus on repentance and forgiveness. In Catholicism, ordinary Jubilee years happen about every 25 years, but every so often, an extraordinary year is proclaimed. A special feature of Jubilee years is the granting of perpetual indulgences in return for meeting certain requirements—mostly, confession and repentance. In return for meeting these requirements, one may bypass purgatory on death and go straight to heaven.
Why should readers of The Nation, or anyone who is not Catholic, care about Jubilee years? Because little of religious significance in Catholicism these days is free of some connection to secular life or broad ethical concerns. Conservative Catholic thought strongly influences US policy on family planning and abortion.
So, when on September 1, Pope Francis wrote to Archbishop Rino Fischella, the bishop overseeing the Jubilee year, which will begin on December 8, 2015, and run until November 20, 2016, and set out some provisions related to the “sin of abortion,” not only Catholics were interested in what he had to say.
The letter included an attempt at offering women mercy for the sin of abortion—a temporary change in church policy related to who could absolve a woman of that sin. Noting that forgiveness of sins—all sins—is available to those who are contrite and seek absolution, Francis “concede[d] to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” He added, “May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed.”
There’s been a flurry of media analysis of the letter, much of it suffering from a lack of understanding of the theology of sin as well as of church law. In the Catholic Church, is abortion always a sin—for both the woman and the doctor who performs it—and is a woman who has an abortion automatically excommunicated from the church? No—and it would be far more merciful if the pope called upon bishops and priests to make that clearer.
Theology and church law are complex. Not everyone who does something objectively considered a sin has subjectively committed a sin, including women who have abortions. Big sins, sins that might lead to excommunication, are hard to commit. Yes, abortion is one of those sins for which you might “automatically be excommunicated.” But for that to happen, you need to be an adult, you need to have known you can be excommunicated, you need to believe what you did was a sin, and you need to have said, “I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway.” Most importantly, if you were under duress, subject to pressure or coercion, you have not been automatically excommunicated and you probably did not commit a sin.
Some noted canon lawyers have gone so far as to say it is almost impossible for a woman to have automatically excommunicated herself by having an abortion because almost all abortions happen at times of great pressure. Even economic pressure, the inability to support a child, the fear of getting kicked out of the house or of being stigmatized would suffice to make excommunication impossible.