Abortion is one of the sins that mandates automatic excommunication in the Roman Catholic Church, but for the Holy Year of Mercy that begins Dec. 8, Pope Francis says priests can, at their discretion, absolve women for terminating pregnancies, Reuters reports. "Many … believe that they have no other option," the pontiff said in a letter released today by the Vatican. "I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision." He then instructs priests to offer forgiveness to women who've had one and who have a "contrite heart," and as long as the priests relay "words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed."
The usual excommunication over abortion applies not only to women who receive one, but also for those who take part in providing one or help a woman get one, and usually only a Christian missionary or the "chief confessor of a diocese" can formally forgive a woman who's terminated a pregnancy, Reuters notes. However, when the church calls a holy year, or jubilee year, it's a time for sins to be remitted and pardons welcomed from God, per the National Catholic Reporter; jubilee years have historically taken place every 25 to 50 years since the year 1300, the paper adds. Pope Francis' jubilee year will end Nov. 20, 2016. No word if women who've had abortions will go back to being excommunicated after it's over. (The pope recently made a conciliatory gesture toward remarried Catholics.)