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The timing and strategy behind Pope Francis’ abortion forgiveness

Pope Francis announced that Catholic priests will be given discretion to forgive women who have had abortions across the coming year. Judy Woodruff discusses the change in rhetoric with Elizabeth Dias of TIME.

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  • Judy Woodruff: , he wrote:

    The pope’s statement on abortion today was a surprising move and seen by many as the latest in a series of steps he has taken to make the church more open and inclusive.

    Pope Francis announced that he will give all priests the discretion to forgive women who have had abortions. The pope said that could be done during the upcoming year of mercy, lasting from December of this year to November of 2016.

    In a letter “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented.”

    The pope’s words come just weeks before his first visit to the United States.

    Elizabeth Dias covers religion for TIME magazine, and she will be traveling with the pope. And she joins us now.

    So, welcome.

    So, as I understand it, Elizabeth, bishops have already had permission to grant forgiveness to women who have had abortions. What is significant about what the pope is saying?

  • Elizabeth Dias,

    TIME: You’re right, Judy.

    So, Pope Francis extended something that has been given to bishops, the power to forgive the sin in the Catholic Church of abortion to all priests all over the world. So, that really, in his mind, can speed up the process for opening the doors to widen whoever wants to come to the church and however else they can receive the gift of mercy, as the pope is calling it, throughout this jubilee year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What’s the significance of that? This comes, as we said and you just noted, just a few months before the so-called year of mercy.

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Put this in that context. What is he trying to do?

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Right.

    So, Pope Francis has been the pastor pope from the beginning of his papacy. He’s very focused on what issues people and families are facing around the world. And so it’s important to note this letter, when he announced this provision for abortions, it came after he talked about provisions for how do we bring people who are sick into the church, how do we open the doors for the elderly, for the incarcerated?

    So it’s really in this larger context of making sure that people who have experienced division and have been alienated from the church for a whole host of reasons, so that can change for them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it’s notable that this is specifically about abortion. And I was struck by the language. He says — and we quoted some of it — he said: “I am well aware of the pressure that has led women to this.”

    And he went on to say — he said: “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”

    How unusual is it for a pope to be writing like this?

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Well, his tone is something that has made him catch headlines ever since he has been named the pope. Pope John Paul II made a similar provision for allowing all priests to give this absolution about 15 years ago, but I think…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean for a short period?

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Right, for a short period of time.

    So, I think it’s certainly unusual in terms of their reaction that the pope garners, and I think he knows exactly what he’s doing here. He knows that bringing this up, especially at a key time, coming to the United States, that’s going to create waves and allow him to have other kinds of even bigger conversations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I noticed that Vatican officials made a point today of saying, this isn’t about changing church teaching, church doctrine.

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what are they trying to say?

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Right. Well, I think there is a lot of pushback against the media thinking, oh, my goodness, this pope is suddenly not Catholic.

    Well, that’s obviously not true. And so they’re trying to put this into context and help people who might not understand you can still be excommunicated or you are excommunicated for the sin of abortion. So that’s something that’s not changing, but making sure that people are aware of that, and knowing who the pope actually is and what he’s not doing is sometimes just as important as what he actually is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Elizabeth Dias, what do we expect the practical effect is? As you said, this is only a one-year period starting in December until next November. How many women — I mean, how many parishes do we expect…

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    You know, it’s a really good question. And I’m curious to see what women decide to come forward in this.

    And we should note, too, it’s not just for women who have had an abortion. It’s anyone who has procured an abortion. So, that leaves room open for medical providers, anyone else related. The pope was clear to just not put this as something that is just on women, which is also notable about how he sees the broader context.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how do we read this that it’s coming just a matter of, what, three weeks before the pope comes to the United States?

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Right.

    Well, I always — in covering the pope, he’s always doing something specific. So I know that this is in advance, you know, two, three or four months ahead of the actual year of jubilee, so he is setting the stage for that, and in advance of bishops — Synod on the Bishops on the Family, which is October.

    But you have to think he knows that abortion, sexual issues are hot-button topics here. And I almost wonder if taking that off the table, handling that before he comes, gives him more room to talk about other things that are on his mind, immigration, incarceration, climate change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Elizabeth Dias with TIME magazine, we thank you.

  • Elizabeth Dias:

    Thank you so much.

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