Pope lets priests absolve abortion during Holy Year

Pontiff also recognises confessions made to irregular Society of St Pius X.

Pope Francis has given all priests discretion during the Catholic Church's Holy Year of Mercy to forgive women who have had abortions and are repentant, although the Vatican has underlined that the "gravity of the sin" remains.

The pope has at the same time restored the power of absolution to the priests of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X (SSPX), founded in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

In Catholic teaching, abortion is viewed as such a grave sin that it is grounds for automatic excommunication, and in most countries absolution can only be given by diocesan bishops or specially-appointed clergy.

The Vatican's deputy spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini said that "for now" the policy change would apply only during the Jubilee year (8 December 2015-26 November 2016). Benedettini also pointed out that parish priests in the US and the UK are already authorised to forgive abortion.

In a concession to conservatives, Pope Francis also announced in a letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the pontifical council for evangelisation and the coordinator of the special Holy Year of Mercy, that confessions made during the Holy Year to priests of the traditionalist Tridentine Mass SSPX fraternity will be recognised. In 2009 Pope Benedict refused to recognise the canonical legitimacy of SSPX and the fraternity is still officially considered “in schism” with Church doctrine.

The conservative fraternity of priests was established in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in response to what he viewed as the "errors" of the Second Vatican Council. In 1988 he consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II, leading to excommunication of all five bishops, but these sanctions were lifted in by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

Since then the Vatican has continued its negotiations to heal the schism with the traditionalist society which is best known for its defence of pre-Vatican Two practices such as the Tridentine, or Latin, Mass. Granting the Lefebvrists faculty to hear confessions is seen as the Vatican's latest step in healing the rift between both sides.