(CNN) — Pope Francis rocked the Catholic world — again — on Tuesday by announcing that contrite women who have had an abortion can seek forgiveness from all priests during the church’s upcoming “Year of Mercy.”
Traditionally, people involved in the procurement of abortion, condemned as a grave sin by the church, are considered automatically excommunicated, and only a bishop can lift the ban. Under the new, temporary policy, Francis is essentially simplifying the process and giving all priests full authority to absolve abortions in the name of God and the church.
The pontiff’s announcement comes just weeks before he is scheduled to visit the United States and lands amid a fierce debate over the funding and morality of Planned Parenthood, a health services nonprofit that’s one of the nation’s largest providers of abortions.
Vatican officials say Francis will probably try to transcend the culture wars when he visits Washington, New York and Philadelphia this month, but his church here remains bitterly divided over the morality of abortion.
According to a new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 51% of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 45% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. In the hours after Francis’ announcement, Catholics on both sides of the debate were seeking to spin the popular pontiff’s remarks.
The Pope’s new policy, which does not change church doctrine, technically applies only to the Year of Mercy, a centuries-old Catholic practice during which believers may receive special indulgences for their sins.
“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” Francis said in a statement Tuesday. “Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option.”
“I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion,” the Pope continued. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.”
The church’s mercy year begins on December 8 and runs through November 20, 2016. Vatican officials say it is possible the pontiff will allow the abortion policy to continue in perpetuity.
The move showcases a new phase in Francis’ papacy, which began in March of 2013. During the first two years, he changed the church’s tone by welcoming people on the margins, including gays and lesbians, divorced Catholics, the elderly, the poor and the sick.
This summer, for example, Francis said the church should take special care to embrace divorced Catholics. “No closed doors!” he told a crowd gathered for his weekly audience in Rome in August.
With the new abortion policy, Francis seems to be signaling a “third way” to govern the church. He’s moving beyond rhetoric, but not quite changing long-standing church practices.
Instead, he’s encouraging the clergy to be more merciful, and at times more flexible in the enforcement of those practices. This year, when the church holds a large meeting on challenges to modern families, the pontiff may seek to take a similar approach to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Church leaders in the United States say many American bishops already allow priests to forgive abortions during the sacrament of penance.
“What’s new is that Pope Francis, at least for the Year of Mercy, is universalizing this permission,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America magazine in New York. “Just as notable is his pastoral, compassionate and understanding tone towards women who have had abortions.”
For many years, Francis — the first Pope from Latin America — was an archbishop in Buenos Aires, a city with a large population of poor Catholics. In his statement Tuesday, the pontiff said that he has met “so many women” who are scarred by the “agonizing and painful” decision to have an abortion.
“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented,” the Pope said.
Abortion remains a grave matter
“It’s another signal that the Pope wants a church of encounter that journeys with people,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. “He recognizes the church is anchored in the Gospel when mercy trumps finger-wagging judgment.”
Pope Francis’ decree does not change Catholic Church teachings about the gravity of the sin of abortion, which Church law calls a “moral evil.”