Here’s a wee note for the headline writer at the Guardian who said: “Vatican says World Youth Day is chance to confess abortion and rejoin church,” for the writer of the article that followed (which included such bloopers as calling this a “special” concession – their quote marks), and for all the other people who’ve leapt in to comment without checking their facts.
People who are excommunicated are still part of the Church. And people are able, and have always been able, to confess abortion and receive absolution throughout the year, right in their own diocese.
I know I’ve said this before, but excommunication is a medicinal penalty, designed to bring people back into full communion. It isn’t a cancellation of membership. If the article and blog writers had take two minutes to research even at the shallow end of the pool (the relevant Wikipedia article), they’d have ‘got’ that:
In Roman Catholic canon law, excommunication is a censure and thus a “medicinal penalty” intended to invite the person to change behaviour or attitude, to repent and return to full communion. It is not an “expiatory penalty”, designed to make satisfaction for the wrong done, still less a merely “vindictive penalty”, designed solely to punish.
Excommunication can be either latae sententiae (automatic, incurred at the moment of committing the offence for which canon law imposes that penalty); or it can ferendae sententiae (incurred only when imposed by a legitimate superior or declared as the sentence of an ecclesiastical court).
Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics and remain bound by obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist and from taking an active part in the liturgy (reading, bringing the offerings, etc.). However, their communion with the Church is considered gravely impaired. In spite of that, they are urged to retain a relationship with the Church, as the goal is to encourage them to repent and return to active participation in its life.
Excommunicated persons are barred from participating in the liturgy in a ministerial capacity (for instance, as a reader if a lay person, or as a deacon or priest if a clergyman) and from receiving the Eucharist or the other Sacraments, but are not barred from attending these (for instance, an excommunicated person may not receive the Eucharist, but is not barred from attending Mass). They are also forbidden to exercise any ecclesiastical office or the like. If the excommunication has been imposed or declared, stricter effects follow, such as the obligation on others to prevent the excommunicated person from acting in a ministerial capacity in the liturgy or, if this proves impossible, to suspend the liturgical service, and the invalidity of acts of ecclesiastical governance by the excommunicated person.
In the Catholic Church, excommunication is normally resolved by a declaration of repentance, profession of the Creed (if the offence involved heresy), or a renewal of obedience (if that was a relevant part of the offending act) by the excommunicated person, and the lifting of the censure (absolution) by a priest or bishop empowered to do this. “The absolution can be in the internal (private) forum only, or also in the external (public) forum, depending on whether scandal would be given if a person were privately absolved and yet publicly considered unrepentant.” Since excommunication excludes from reception of the sacraments, absolution from excommunication is required before absolution can be given from the sin that led to the censure. In many cases, the whole process takes place on a single occasion in the privacy of the confessional. For some more serious wrong-doings, absolution from excommunication is reserved to a bishop or other ordinary or even to the Pope. These can delegate a priest to act on their behalf.
In the case of someone who participates in an abortion (as medical staff, as family members or counsellors offering this as the only reasonable option, or as the parents of the person to be aborted), the excommunication is latae sententiae – occuring automatically at the moment of the abortion.
As the Wikipedia article says, most people who have been excommunicated reenter full communion with the Church by confessing their sins and receiving absolution. We call this the Sacrament of Penance (or reconciliation, or confession). It’s not a way of getting free counselling. It’s a Sacrament of the Church – a channel for Christ’s grace which heals the soul of the penitent. It requires contrition, confession, and some form of penance. The priest doesn’t forgive sins as an individual; on behalf of the Church he exercises the power to forgive sins that belongs to Christ alone, but that has been delegated to him by his bishop, who inherits that delegation from the apostles, who had it from Christ himself.
In some diocese, every priest has been granted the right to provide absolution for someone confessing involvement in an abortion. In other diocese, only certain priests are able to do so. In that case, if a person goes to another priest, he will usually ask the person to come back in another couple of days, and contact the bishop for the right to provide absolution.
For those scarred by abortion, the Catholic Church offers hope and reconciliation; not just at World Youth Day, but every day of the year, all over the world. And not just in specific programmes like Project Rachel, but in everyday parishes and communities.