The article below is written by Jimmy Akin and available on his blog.
Pope Francis has just released a letter in which he made several announcements concerning the upcoming Year of Mercy.
This includes absolution for those who have procured abortion and the ability to go to priests of the Society of St. Pius X for confession.
These have raised a lot of questions, so here are 12 things to know and share . . .
1) What is the Year of Mercy?
Popes periodically dedicate a year to a particular theme. For example, Benedict XVI dedicated 2010 to priests and 2013 as a Year of Faith. Now, Pope Francis has devoted 2016 to the theme of mercy.
Designating such years are one of the ways that the popes call attention to particular themes and help people understand and live their faith more deeply.
The upcoming Year of Mercy runs from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.
It doesn’t coincide with the calendar year because it’s based on the Church’s liturgical year (which begins with Advent rather than January 1) and because it’s adjusted to begin and end with certain special days on the Church’s calendar (December 8 is the Immaculate Conception and, in 2016, November 20 is Christ the King).
2) What has Pope Francis said about the year and what are we supposed to do during it?
Pope Francis discussed the year at length when he announced it. You can read what he had to say here.
Pope Francis also discusses the year in a new apostolic letter, released on September 1, which you can read here.
In the new letter, Pope Francis talks about several opportunities for celebrating the Year of Mercy, including doing a pilgrimage in your diocese to gain an indulgence, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, praying for the departed, etc.
He also talks about priests absolving those who have procured abortion and going to priests of the Society of St. Pius X for confession.
3) What does “procuring” an abortion mean?
In ordinary speech, procuring means obtaining, but here the term is used in a somewhat special way.
In canonical terms, it is generally taken to mean cooperating in an abortion in such a way that, if you hadn’t done your part, the abortion would not have taken place.
It is generally understood that only those immediately involved can be guilty of procuring an abortion in the canonical sense.
Those more remotely involved (e.g., workers at the electrical plant that supplies the abortion clinic with power, politicians and judges who make bad abortion laws) are not involved in this way.
4) Can’t priests just absolve people who have procured abortions?
Not without something else happening. Here’s why:
Step 1: The Code of Canon Law provides an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication for those who procure abortion.
Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
Step 2: Excommunication prevents a person from receiving the sacraments.
Can. 1331 §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:
2/ to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
Step 3: The bishop (local ordinary) is the one empowered to remit the excommunication that procuring an abortion causes.
§2. If the penalty has not been reserved to the Apostolic See, an ordinary can remit a latae sententiae penalty established by law but not yet declared for his subjects and those who are present in his territory or who committed the offense there; any bishop can also do this in the act of sacramental confession.
Therefore, a person who procures an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication which prevents them from receiving the sacraments. Confession is a sacrament, therefore, they cannot be absolved in confession until the excommunication is lifted. The bishop (or a bishop) is the one who needs to get involved in order to lift the excommunication and allow the person to be sacramentally absolved.
Except . . .
5) Except what?
First, the Code of Canon Law provides a long list of things that can stop an automatic excommunication from taking effect. See here for more on that.
Of special note are these provisions:
§1. The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed:
4/ by a minor who has completed the age of sixteen years;
5/ by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;
8/ by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in ? can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present;
9/ by a person who without negligence did not know that a penalty was attached to a law or precept;
§3. In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the accused is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.
Many who procure abortions are under sixteen, very fearful, and do not know that there is an automatic excommunication for procuring an abortion, this canon provides multiple grounds on which many who commit the act do not incur the penalty attached to it.
In such circumstances, they can be absolved in confession without the involvement of the bishop.
Second, I am informed that—due to how widespread abortion is in America—most American bishops have given their priests ability to remit the abortion excommunication in confession, without having to consult the bishop first.
Third, see comments by canonist Dr. Edward Peters here.
6) What should a person who thinks they may have incurred an excommunication by procuring an abortion do?
If they did incur the penalty (which includes knowing that the penalty existed and procuring the abortion anyway) then they should go to confession.
If the priest needs to consult with the bishop, he will let you know. Otherwise, he will be able to absolve you immediately upon determining that you have repented of procuring the abortion.
Or, because of what Pope Francis has done, go to any priest during the Year of Mercy.
7) What has Pope Francis done?
In his apostolic letter, Pope Francis states:
I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede 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. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
By his apostolic authority, Pope Francis has thus granted ordinary priests the ability to deal with this situation in confession, without having to involve the bishop, during the Year of Mercy—as a special sign of God’s mercy and as an encouragement of those who have procured an abortion to repent and return to the practice of their faith.
For the rest of the article addressing the SSPX group, click here.