The Pope’s Confusing Position on Abortion

Pope Slim.001Catholicism has been known for its opposition to elective abortion. The Catholic church has stood against abortion in the sense that the church’s Canon Law states that one’s participating in abortion procedure results in his automatic excommunication from the church.1 However, since 1983 the bishop of the local diocese has had the right, according to Catholic practice, to remit the automatic excommunication or to delegate this right to priests under his charge2 This right has been widely used, according to Nicholas Cafardi, a professor of law at Duquesne University, who told The Wall Street Journal that priests will often ask someone who has participated in abortion, “‘Were you forced into this?’ or ‘Were you aware that abortion brings automatic excommunication?’ And if they discern that the automatic penalty has not been incurred, they forgive the sin on the spot and that’s the end of it.”3

Pope Francis has now said that during the upcoming “Year of Mercy” (December 8, 2015 through November 20, 2016), in the series of Holy Years of Jubilee, ordinary priests will be able to forgive the sin of procuring an abortion.4 This move has been hailed as a wonderful example of mercy, as one preacher said the Pope’s move shows a “great pastoral approach and concern.”5 Although some have said that the Pope’s policy “does not change church doctrine,” the political effect of the edict will be the suggestion that abortion cannot be so bad, because even the Catholic church is being more “flexible” on the issue.6

Like many papal edicts, Francis’ statement is confusing and misleading in light of what the Bible actually says. From a biblical perspective we may notice several things about this situation:

1. Catholics are correct to view elective abortion as sinful. God views babies in the womb as having the same right to live that grown people possess. The Holy Spirit chose the very same word to denote the born baby Jesus and the pre-born baby John (Luke 1:39-41 and Luke 2:12). Elective abortion is murder, and so Catholics are correct when they say that elective abortion is sinful (1 John 3:15).

2. No human being decides for God whether or when He forgives a sin. The Catholic church never should have been in the business in the first place. Catholics argue that the right to grant God’s forgiveness was passed from Christ through His apostles to subsequent Christians down to the present day.7 This position is incorrect. While Christians certainly must have a forgiving spirit toward one another (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13), it is a wholly other matter to grant God’s forgiveness to another. Peter and the other apostles did not have the right to decide for God whether He forgives sins. Rather, they followed the authority of God in teaching and applying Christ’s principles. People in the first century learned from the inspired apostles the terms according to which their sins could be forgiven. It has always been the case that, ultimately, only God can forgive sins (see Psalms 130:4; Isaiah 43:25; Daniel 9:9; Micah 7:18). Therefore no apostle, not even Peter, could personally forgive sins that were against God (see Acts 8:22).8 When Christians forgive sins today, they are applying biblical principles and not making decisions for God.

A passage often cited in support of the Catholic view is Matthew 18:18, where Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Yet the grammar of this passage clearly shows that the apostles would be binding law that already was bound in heaven. Matthew 18:18 is literally translated, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall already have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”9 The same grammatical construction is found in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23. Of such constructions, Wayne Jackson wrote:

There is a biblical idiom whereby one sometimes is said to actually do what he is merely authorized to declare. Note: … Pharaoh’s butler said regarding Joseph, “…me he [Joseph] restored unto mine office, and him [the baker] he hanged” (Genesis 41:13). Joseph did not actually restore the butler to his office, nor did he personally hang the baker. He merely announced, by prophetic insight, what the fate of these men would be. . . . Did God appoint Jeremiah to actually destroy and overthrow kingdoms (Jer. 1:10), or merely to declare their destiny? The answer should be obvious.10

3. There is no New Testament mandate for a year of special absolution. If a priest can forgive a sin from December 8, 2015 through November 20, 2016, then why may he not do it anytime he pleases? There is certainly no New Testament mandate for a special period of “jubilee” as there was in the Old Testament. (And in the Old Testament, the year of Jubilee did not have anything to do with forgiveness of sins [see Leviticus 25:11-54; 27:16-24]. It involved the redemption of land, but not redemption from sin’s guilt.) Unsurprisingly, there is already talk of the Pope extending the jubilee-specific regulation beyond the Year of Mercy.11


  1. Code of Canon Law, TITLE VI, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P57.HTM; cf. Colin B. Donovan, “Abortion – Excommunication,” EWTN Global Catholic Network, https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/abortio2.htm (n.d.). 

  2. William P. Saunders, “Straight Answers: Automatic Excommunication for Those Who Procure Abortion,” Catholic Herald, http://catholicherald.com/stories/Straight-Answers-Automatic-Excommunication-for-Those-Who-Procure-Abortion,6743 (1998); Daniel Burke, “Pope Francis Says All Priests Can Forgive Women Who’ve Had Abortions,” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/01/europe/pope-francis-abortion/ (2015). 

  3. “Pope to Make It Easier for Church to Forgive Women for Having Abortions,” The Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/pope-francis-makes-abortion-easier-to-forgive-in-year-of-mercy-1441111395 (2015). 

  4. Kevin Knight, “Holy Year of Jubilee,” Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08531c.htm (2012); Ed West, “Pope Francis Announces Extraordinary Jubilee Year,” Catholic Herald, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2015/03/13/pope-announces-extraordinary-jubilee-year/ (2015). 

  5. Burke, “Pope Francis Says.” 

  6. See Burke, “Pope Francis Says.” 

  7. E.g., Robert H. Brom, “The Forgiveness of Sins,” Catholic Answers, http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-forgiveness-of-sins (2004). 

  8. Cf. Jackson, “Can Man Forgive Sins?,” Christian Courier, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/763-can-man-forgive-sins (n.d.). 

  9. See A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 361; cf. Moisés Pinedo, What the Bible Says About the Catholic Church (Montgomery: Apologetics Press, 2008), 41. 

  10. “Can Man Forgive,” bracketed and parenthetical items in orig. 

  11. Burke, “Pope Francis Says.” 

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  • Jonathan

    Go back and do your homework again.

    From NBCNews:

    “The pontiff said he will allow priests “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the special year, beginning December 8.”

    • gccolley

      Thanks for pointing out that the Pope’s statement did not address those who assisted with abortion. One report I read had apparently reported this aspect incorrectly. Sorry for the confusion.

      • Jonathan

        I apologize for sounding snarky! I’m not defending the idea of priests absolving anyone, just pointing out the Pope emphasized contriteness.

- 2017