Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Dan Spinelli
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Political Science.
Just weeks before his historic visit to the United States, Pope Francis declared that, beginning in December 2015, the “sin of abortion” could now be forgiven through the sacrament of confession during the Church’s Holy Year of Mercy.  Putting aside differences in opinion regarding both whether a priest—as an earthly representative of Jesus Christ—can wipe the human soul clean of sins sincerely confessed and the controversial nature of abortion, forgiveness extended to all is a comforting thought. Thus, following this line of logic, shouldn’t it be good news that abortion can now be forgiven? Wait a second — was it not forgivable in the past? Did women who previously chose the path of abortion and asked for Catholic absolution, just…not receive it?
So begins a deep dive into an obscure section of Catholic canon law: the forgiveness of “reserved sins.” The Church determined in 1179 that certain sins are simply too devastating in effect or import to be forgiven by a regular priest in Confession. Instead, they required the decision of a tribunal — the Apostolic Penitentiary — and usually the consultation of the pope himself before granting absolution.  These crimes are generally specific in nature, and lean toward religious crimes rather than worldly ones. Crimes ranging from attempting to assassinate the pope to defiling the Eucharist, the bread and wine that Catholics believe turns into Jesus’ body and blood during Mass, will all earn reviews by the tribunal. Similarly, abortion, of which many conservative Catholics have long disapproved, is another sin often determined to be too grave for regular absolution. These crimes earn the individual a latae sententiae penalty, which automatically excommunicates her from the Church, unless a bishop or the Apostolic Penitentiary absolves the sin.  The determination of which sins merit latae sententiae reveals a troubling moral dichotomy in which cold-blooded murder can be uniformly absolved by an everyday priest, but abortion, whose relationship with murder remains highly controversial, cannot. The distinction almost defies common sense.
Luckily, some American and Canadian bishops are (marginally) ahead of the curve. “It is my understanding that the faculty for the priest to lift the latae sententiae excommunication for abortion is almost universally granted in North America," said Don Clemmer, interim director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Other bishops who have been interviewed stated that regular priests have been able to absolve the sin of abortion for the past thirty years. Thus, Pope Francis’ announcement bears greater impact upon the European and South American countries that have held more strictly to keeping abortion as a “reserved sin.” The Church’s Holy Year of Mercy retains still greater significance in lessening the shame of penitents who willingly seek mercy. However, some commentators think Francis’ gesture of “mercy” is more patronizing than humble. As Laura Bates writes in The Guardian,
“It is difficult to choose which aspect is more offensive to women: the assumption that abortion must always engender anguish and guilt; the all-male priesthood who will magnanimously pardon female transgressions; or the decision that this escape from excommunication will only be extended to those lucky sinners who come forward within the specified 11 1⁄2-month window.” 
So, does Francis’ call for mercy ultimately mean anything for pro-choice Catholics and other advocates of abortion? Well, fundamentally, no. As Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said, Pope Francis’ declaration “in no way diminishes the moral gravity of abortion.”  Moreover, this isn’t even the first time a pope has called for the absolution of confessed sins of abortion. Pope John Paul II did so back in 2000. While some liberal Catholics applaud Pope Francis’s desire to extend mercy to all people, especially on such a contentious issue, many others believe that as long as abortion continues to be considered a “reserved sin,” a troubling frame of morality remains for the Church hierarchy. From a broader perspective, empathy, mercy, and understanding should be the hallmark of the Church. Why then, does it make sense to limit the application of mercy to just one year?
 Burke, Daniel. "Pope: All Priests Can Forgive Those Who've Had Abortions - CNN.com." CNN. Cable News Network, 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 08 Sept. 2015.
 Squires, Nick. "Vatican Reveals Secrets of Worst Sins." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 15 Jan. 2009. Web. 08 Sept. 2015.
 O'Brien, Nancy. "Catholic News Service." Priests in U.S., Canada Can Already Absolve Women Who Had Abortions. Catholic News Service, 2 Sept. 2015. Web. 08 Sept. 2015.
 Bates, Laura. "Absolution for Abortion: The Pope's Offer Is Overdue but Doesn't Feel like a Step Forward." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.
 Nancy O’Brien, “Catholic News Service.”
Photo Credit: Flickr User Martin Schulz
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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