Pope Francis has announced that for the Church’s Year of Mercy beginning in December every priest is now authorized to forgive the sin of abortion. Prior to this change, Catholics who had had an abortion or helped procure one had to go to their local bishop in order to be welcomed back into the church (abortion is one of the few sins that results in automatic excommunication). Each bishop was given the discretion to allow the priests in his diocese to exercise this authority, however, and many bishops throughout the world had already allowed this.
As a result, Francis’s decision is not so much the pontifical earthquake it’s been made out to be: CNN claimed the pope “shook up the Catholic world,” which is a pretty heady way to classify what is, in effect, a streamlining of the church’s regulatory configuration (and for just one year, at that). The mainstream media, of course, is never so inept at its job as when reporting on religion, so they’re at least on par with this latest development in the Catholic Church.
Now for the Real Shocker
While the media was busy screwing up the latest religious scoop, they largely glossed over an even more striking and startling development: in addition to allowing all priests to forgive the sin of abortion, Francis also extended confessional faculties to an unexpected group of religious figures: “Interestingly, Francis on Tuesday also made a move that may appeal to some conservative Catholics by including priests with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X among those empowered to offer indulgences during the Holy Year.”
Were the media more knowledgeable of both Catholic doctrine and Catholic history, this particular development would be getting far more attention than Francis’s welcome but still rather anodyne dispensation regarding abortion. The Society of St. Pius X is a kind of breakaway faction of Catholic dissidents who reject the teachings of Vatican II and many of the subsequent developments that it brought about. SSPX still practices the Tridentine Mass, a pre-Vatican II style of liturgy and a ceremony so aggressively ornate that John Adams declared it to consist of “everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination.”
As Pope Benedict XVI affirmed, SSPX “does not possess a canonical status in the Church” and “its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church.” For confession, SSPX ministers have had no authority: until Francis’s decision, they have had as much canonical ability to hear confessions as does the laity.
Francis’s concession is thus rather amazing. The ability to hear confessions in the Catholic Church is reserved solely to priests who can validly exercise the sacrament, and extending it to the priests of SSPX is, so far as I am aware, unprecedented. It would be somewhat similar to the president of the United States issuing an executive order temporarily permitting the vice president to grant pardons. It’s just not something that’s done.
The More Forgiveness, the Better
As a pastoral matter, I actually find both of Francis’s decisions encouraging. One of the church’s foremost animating principles is forgiveness, and anything that extends the legitimate scope of the church’s reconciliatory authority is good news. It will be wonderful if Catholics who have procured an abortion will feel encouraged to confess their sins because of Francis’s new rule. It will also be great if the temporary restoration of SSPX’s confessional abilities results in more absolutions.
Nonetheless, it is a very unusual development. Francis may not have “shook up the Catholic world” with this, but he has definitely given it something to think about.