Pope to allow all priests to forgive abortion during Holy Year

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Pope Francis will give all priests discretion during the Roman Catholic Church's upcoming Holy Year to formally forgive women who have had abortions, in the Argentine pontiff's latest move towards a more open and inclusive church.

In Church teaching, abortion is such a grave sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication. Usually only designated clergy and missionaries can formally forgive abortions.

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But from Dec.8 to Nov. 26, during an extraordinary Holy Year or "Jubilee" on the theme of mercy announced by Pope Francis in March, all priests will be able to do so, he said in a letter published on Tuesday by the Vatican.

In the letter, 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".

Francis is the first non-European pope in 1,300 years and has marked himself out for his tolerance regarding taboo topics. Although he has shown no intention of retracting the Church's opposition to abortion, he has alarmed conservatives by taking a less forceful tone than his predecessors.

"This is by no means an attempt to minimize the gravity of this sin but to widen the possibility of showing mercy," Vatican chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters.

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Deputy Vatican spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini said that "for now" the change would apply only during the Holy Year.

Usually only a bishop, missionary or the chief confessor of a diocese, known by the Italian term "penitenziere", can formally forgive an abortion, Benedettini said.

The pope's letter did not mention people who perform abortions.

The Holy Year is one of the 1.2 billion-member church's most important events, and sees faithful make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites around the world. It takes place every 25 years unless a pope decrees an extraordinary one to bring attention to a particular topic or need.

In his letter the pope also said Holy Year activities were open to adherents of the ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholic splinter group known as the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX).

The Swiss-based SSPX, which rejects some of the reforms made at the historic 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, defied Rome in 1988 by illegally consecrating four bishops, triggering their excommunication by the late Pope John Paul.

Pope Benedect lifted the excommunications in 2009 and made some concessions to the group. But one of the bishops, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, caused an uproar by denying the Holocaust.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella,; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)


See photos of the U.S. prepping for the Pope's visit:

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Pope to allow all priests to forgive abortion during Holy Year
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 21: A portrait of Pope Franics sits in a window near Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit on September 21, 2015 in New York City. The Pope will be making his first trip to the United States on a three-city, five-day tour that will begin in Washington on September 22, then travel to New York City and Philadelphia. The Pope will depart on September 27. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A man buys a souvenir medal with a picture of Pope Francis at a machine inside the Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York on August 28, 2015. Pope Francis will visit the US on September 22-27, stopping in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Rosaries with the image of Pope Francis are selling at the Catholic University of America, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, gift shop on September 3, 2015, prior to the visit to of the Pope on September 23, 2015. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A man shows a medal he bought with a picture of Pope Francis from a machine inside the Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York on August 28, 2015. Pope Francis will visit the US on September 22-27, stopping in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A statue and other items related to Pope Francis are for sale at the gift shop at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass at the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who introduced Christianity to California in the 18th century. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis bobble heads are displayed at a souvenir store in Washington, DC on August 27, 2015. Pope Francis will travel to the United States from September 22-27, stopping in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman poses for a photo next to a cut-out figure of Pope Francis at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass at the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who introduced Christianity to California in the 18th century. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Noah Rodriguez, 4th grade, answers questions from a reporter in the gym during a media preview at Our Lady Queen of Angels School on August 20, 2015 in New York. Allison will be among 24 children, who attend Catholic schools in New York, who will meet with Pope Francis during his September 25, 2015 visit to New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Allison Reyes-Rodriguez, 3rd grade, answers questions from reporters during a media preview at Our Lady Queen of Angels School on August 20, 2015 in New York. Allison will be among 24 children, who attend Catholic schools in New York, who will meet with Pope Francis during his September 25, 2015 visit to New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is seen on August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass at the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who introduced Christianity to California in the 18th century. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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