Pope Francis is now allowing all priests to forgive the "grave sin" of abortion, placing an indefinite extension on the special permission he granted for the Holy Year of Mercy, which lasted from Dec. 8, 2015, until Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016.
In his Apostolic letter, which was released Monday, Francis wrote, "There is no sin that God's mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled," but added, "I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life."
Given the Roman Catholic Church's hardline position against abortion, it used to be that only bishops could hear a woman's confession, or delegate the task to a priest who specialized in such matters. However, in 2015, the pope allowed all rank-and-file priests to grant absolution for the sin.
The decision does not come as a surprise, given the Catholic Church's position on abortion has not changed. Instead, the special dispensation makes it easier for women who are — for myriad reasons — unable to meet with a bishop to be absolved of the "grave sin" and rejoin the Church.
"May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation," Francis wrote. "I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion."
And Monsignor Rino Fisichella, a top official at the Holy See, said Francis' words also apply to those who were involved in any way with an abortion.
"The sin of abortion is technically an expression that includes all the people who are involved in an abortion," he said during a news conference at the Vatican, according to ABC News. "Thus from the women to the nurse to the doctor and whoever supports this procedure."
"The sin of abortion is inclusive," he added. "Thus, forgiveness for the sin of abortion is all-inclusive and extends to all those who are participants in this sin."
The renewal of this special permission on abortion comes as some continue to voice concerns that Francis is moving to the left on a number of issues. On Saturday, the pope appointed liberal Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich as a cardinal. One Vatican reporter described the appointment as a "seismic shift," given Cupich's progressive views on abortion, divorce and gay marriage.
In addition, some Catholic leaders, including archconservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, have recently chided Francis for what they believe to be ambiguous statements on whether divorced Catholics who remarry can participate in Communion. Burke and others have said Francis is causing "confusion" by saying the issue can be left up to local priests because church teaching shows such Catholics are adulterers living in sin and, therefore, are not permitted to take the sacrament.