POPE FRANCIS MADE HEADLINES EARLIER THIS YEAR for his announcements regarding marriage annulments and abortion. The pontiff handed down new regulations for priests to follow during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy in 2016, a jubilee during which Catholics are called upon to show Christ’s forgiveness to others even as they receive it from the Church. Pope Francis notes that his decision comes as a result of “th[inking] often about how the church can make more evident its mission of being a witness of mercy,” claiming that “we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.” Time observed that the pontiff’s declaration “prepares the Catholic Church for a year of intentional mercy designed to foster spiritual renewal.”
Beginning in December, Roman Catholic women worldwide will be able to approach their priests and receive absolution for past abortions, and, ostensibly, absolution for excommunication as well. Traditionally, Catholics who have had abortions must seek out bishops for forgiveness, though bishops — including many in the U.S. — have, at times, allowed priests to absolve these “reserved sins.” Pope Francis’ order extends this right to all Roman Catholic priests during the Holy Year of Mercy.
This is not the first time Roman Catholic priests have been empowered to absolve abortions. In 2000, the last Holy Year, Pope John Paul II gave priests the right, but, as The New York Times notes, “the message wasn’t [the same] because the rhetoric that accompanies abortion … eclipses the church’s teaching on forgiveness and mercy.” Pope Francis’ order is part of a larger mission to reach those who feel as if the church has abandoned them, including “the sick, the elderly, the deceased, and the incarcerated.”
The Vatican has been quick to note that Pope Francis’ declaration is not intended to make abortion acceptable in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. The language used — such as “the sin of abortion” and the like — makes this clear. Though it will certainly not appease those within the church who disagree with its teachings on contraception and abortion, many see the pontiff’s message as a sort of humanization effort, one designed to bring the church to the people, and to dispel the stigma surrounding something so commonplace.
Allowing priests to absolve abortion, while significant, is not entirely out of the ordinary. But Pope Francis’ new rules regarding the annulment of marriage are nothing short of revolutionary.
There is no such thing as divorce in the Roman Catholic Church. Those who wish to dissolve their marriages must seek annulments from church officials in order to have any civil divorce actions recognized by the religious institution. Additionally, anyone who remarries after divorce without first seeking an annulment is committing adultery in the eyes of the church and will be denied communion.
Seeking an annulment is a lengthy, expensive process, not unlike a civil divorce. Pope Francis’ reforms, as outlined in two Apostolic Letters, are aimed at shortening the annulment process and making it more affordable. Like abortion absolutions, annulments will be available from lower-ranking members of the clergy — in this case, the local bishop instead of the diocese — to lessen the ordeal.
Unlike the abortion provision, which applies only during the Holy Year of Mercy, the new rules governing annulments are designed to be permanent. Given that the changes in family life around the world — same-sex marriage and adoption, contraception, and abortion being only a few of the issues on the table — have been the subject of much debate in the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis’ pronouncement isn’t that surprising.
It is, however, quite timely. The Synod of the Bishops on the Family, a convocation of bishops where topics like family and evangelization are discussed, will reconvene in October. Attendees are poised to consider the issues mentioned above, among others. Although I would not advise holding your breath for any radical changes in policy or doctrine, it’s very possible that a shift in pastoral tone concerning some of these more controversial topics may be on the horizon. Pope Francis has certainly made such changes to the role of pontiff as he occupies it, and — though some would say he isn’t shifting far enough to the left — he’s progressive enough to make a few waves.
Catholics in the U.S. will likely be the least affected by Pope Francis’ new ordinances. Many American bishops already allow priests to absolve abortion. American Catholics “account for nearly half of the 50,000 annulment hearings around the world in 2014,” but it is for this reason that the diocese in the States have streamlined the process for their parishioners. The new declarations certainly won’t hurt any U.S. Catholics, but Pope Francis’ attentions are directed largely at the faithful living in Africa and Latin America, where resources are more scarce.
The Holy Year of Mercy begins with the Feast of Immaculate Conception on December 8, 2015 and ends at the Feast of Christ the King on November 20, 2016.