The media is buzzing with news about Pope Francis' decision to extend to all priests permission to forgive the sin of abortion and reunite the penitent with the church and its sacraments during the Year of Mercy. Not surprisingly, some of it is slanted and/or incorrect. The pope is not relaxing the teaching on the immorality of abortion, but changing a disciplinary practice in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Church teaches that anyone who undergoes a completed abortion commits a grave moral evil, and anyone who performs one, helps procure one or assists at one cooperates with a grave moral evil. Those who do so deliberately and freely with knowledge of its serious consequences commit a mortal sin which disrupts their relationship with God and separates them from the church and its sacraments. Recent popes beginning with John Paul II have noted that fear, coercion, economic and social factors may lessen a person's culpability for the sin, but not the moral gravity of the offense.
There are two aspects to the sin of abortion - restoring our relationship with God and being welcomed back into communion with the church and its sacraments. Here are Bishop O'Connell's words on this subject:
Canon Law states that "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs an automatic excommunication (c. 1398)." This law pertains to all who deliberately procure an abortion or who deliberately cooperate or assist in its procurement. The Church considers abortion so serious a sin that it attaches a penalty of automatic excommunication to its procurement. There are two realities involved: (1) the sin of abortion itself and (2) the penalty of automatic excommunication attached to it. Abortion as described here is considered a "reserved sin;" that is, its absolution (the sin) and the lifting of its attached penalty (the automatic excommunication) requires the permission of the bishop, requested by the confessor confidentially as "a case or instance" without ever revealing the identity of the penitent involved. The confessor asks the penitent to return to confession after his receiving permission from the bishop to absolve the sin and lift the penalty and he imparts absolution (of the sin) and remission (of the penalty).
Pope Francis has eliminated the need for recourse to the bishop during the Holy Year of Mercy ordinarily attached to the procurement of abortion. All priests, therefore, may absolve the sin and lift the penalty of those confessing the sin with true contrition without first requesting the permission of the bishop.
In the Diocese of Trenton, some years ago, as permitted by Canon Law, Bishop John Reiss extended that same faculty to all priest confessors in the Diocese of Trenton without restricting it to any period of time. That permission was never withdrawn and is still in force. The Holy Father's extension of this provision does not represent anything new or not already in practice in the Diocese of Trenton.
I was informed by Bishop Reiss of this privilege at my ordination and am blessed to have been able to be part of the joyful reconcilation when a woman or a man seeks the merciful graces of the Sacrament of Penance.