He's already widely considered to be the most progressive pope in history, and now he's made another gesture to substantiate that belief. Pope Francis changed the excommunication rule for women who've had abortions, eliminating the requirement that they need permission from a bishop to lift their ban. Under the new policy, any priest can absolve the woman of her "sin" of abortion and lift her excommunication ban. Though this rule change is a significant step for the Catholic Church in terms of social progress, the fact that women still need to be "forgiven" for having abortions means it still has a long way to go.
According to the Catholic Church, abortion is a moral evil and any woman who has an abortion or anyone who helps a woman have the procedure is automatically excommunicated. While this belief still stands, Pope Francis has made it clear that he empathizes with women, acknowledging that many of them "believe that they have no other option." Pope Francis wrote in a letter published by the Vatican on Tuesday:
I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. ... I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.
However, the new excommunication rule will only apply during the Holy Year from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.
Dropping the requirement that only a bishop can absolve a woman's sin of abortion not only makes it easier for women to reverse their excommunication, but it's a gesture that could shift the social opinion of women who make this difficult decision. This shift in acceptance won't happen overnight, though. The Catholic Church considers abortion a grave offense and will still automatically punish anyone who procures one with excommunication, which is the most severe ecclesiastical penalty. Anyone who is excommunicated is prohibited from receiving sacraments and exercising ecclesiastical acts.
But as Pope Francis has illustrated, he is not afraid to defy tradition in favor of mercy. In a similar tone he has previously adopted for other contentious issues, such as gay marriage, Pope Francis also wrote:
The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us.