Pope extends power to forgive abortion to all priests

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VATICAN CITY, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Monday extended indefinitely to all Roman Catholic priests the power to forgive abortion, a right previously reserved for bishops or special confessors.

Francis, who has made a more inclusive and forgiving Roman Catholic Church a characteristic of his papacy, made the announcement in a document known as an "apostolic letter" after Sunday's close of the Church's "Holy Year of Mercy".

He said he wanted to "restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life" but "there is no sin that God's mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with (God)".

RELATED: Pope Francis holds Vatican mass for prisoners

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Pope Francis holds Vatican mass for prisoners
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Pope Francis holds Vatican mass for prisoners

Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass in front of a thousand prisoners, prison chaplains and volunteers in St. Peter's Basilica on November 6, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican.

(Photo by Andrea Franceschini/Corbis via Getty Images News).

Pope Francis leaves at the end of a Jubilee mass for prisoners in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

Pope Francis, framed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini's colonnade, delivers the Angelus noon prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. The pontiff held a special Jubilee Mass for prisoners in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday, telling them "we have all made mistakes" and urging them to never give up hope in God's mercy. He later called on political leaders to respect the dignity of inmates and offer them amnesty whenever possible.

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis celebrates a Jubilee mass for prisoners in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

A Swiss Guard on duty as Pope Francis celebrates a Holy Mass in front of a thousand prisoners, prison chaplains and volunteers in St. Peter's Basilica on November 6, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican.

(Andrea Franceschini/Corbis via Getty Images News)

Pope Francis delivers the Angelus noon prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. The pontiff held a special Jubilee Mass for prisoners in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday, telling them "we have all made mistakes" and urging them to never give up hope in God's mercy. He later called on political leaders to respect the dignity of inmates and offer them amnesty whenever possible.

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis celebrates a Jubilee mass for prisoners in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

Pope Francis celebrates a Jubilee mass for prisoners in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

Pope Francis leads a mass for the Jubilee of Inmates, on November 6, 2016 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. One thousand prisoners -- including some lifers -- take part in a special event at the Vatican this weekend, along with 3,000 family members, prison staff and volunteers. The prisoners from 12 countries will had yesterday the opportunity to confess and walk through the 'Holy Door' at Saint Peter's Basilica, a Jubilee tradition by which Catholics can ask forgiveness for their sins.

(VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis leads the Holy Mass for Jubilee of Prisoners in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Vatican on November 06, 2016. One thousand prisoners take part in a special event at the Vatican, along with 3,000 family members, prison staff and volunteers. The prisoners from 12 countries had yesterday the opportunity to confess and walk through the 'Holy Door' at St. Peter's Basilica, a Jubilee tradition by which Catholics can ask forgiveness for their sins.

(Photo by Giuseppe Ciccia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Pope Francis leads a mass for the Jubilee of Inmates, on November 6, 2016 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. One thousand prisoners -- including some lifers -- take part in a special event at the Vatican this weekend, along with 3,000 family members, prison staff and volunteers. The prisoners from 12 countries will had yesterday the opportunity to confess and walk through the 'Holy Door' at Saint Peter's Basilica, a Jubilee tradition by which Catholics can ask forgiveness for their sins.

(VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis celebrates the Holy Mass for the Jubilee of inmates, at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016.

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis leads a mass for the Jubilee of Inmates, on November 6, 2016 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican. One thousand prisoners -- including some lifers -- take part in a special event at the Vatican this weekend, along with 3,000 family members, prison staff and volunteers. The prisoners from 12 countries will had yesterday the opportunity to confess and walk through the 'Holy Door' at Saint Peter's Basilica, a Jubilee tradition by which Catholics can ask forgiveness for their sins.

(VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis leads the Holy Mass for Jubilee of Prisoners in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Vatican on November 06, 2016. One-thousand prisoners took part in a special event at the Vatican, along with 3,000 family members, prison staff and volunteers. The prisoners from 12 countries had yesterday the opportunity to confess and walk through the 'Holy Door' at St. Peter's Basilica, a Jubilee tradition by which Catholics can ask forgiveness for their sins.

(Photo by: Giuseppe Ciccia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Francis had already temporarily granted the power to all priests to give what is known as "sacramental absolution" for abortion during the Holy Year, from Dec. 8 to Nov. 20, but the solemn tone of his words in Monday's letter suggested that change would last for at least the rest of his papacy.

"I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended ...," he said.

RELATED: Abortion policy by country

In Roman Catholic teaching, abortion is such a serious sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication, until it is absolved in confession.

In the past, only a bishop or a designated chief confessor of a diocese could grant absolution for an abortion.

Although bishops in some dioceses in developed countries such as the United States and Britain had already delegated this authority to parish priests, the old practice was still in effect in most of the world.

In a document last year, Francis described the "existential and moral ordeal" faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision".

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

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