Wait, did Pope Francis just change Catholic doctrine on abortion? Or did he simply tell people to go to confession?

I'm not Catholic.

So I was befuddled when I saw this Associated Press news alert this morning:

I wondered: Can priests not forgive abortion under normal circumstances? Is abortion ordinarily an unforgivable sin for Catholics? (My apologies to tmatt for not paying close enough attention.)

In an email to GetReligion, a reader complained:

This is in the vein of "Breaking news! Pope Francis changing everything about the mean, backward Catholic church!" while Pope Francis reiterates the orthodoxy taught by all his successors. My head is exploding. May the truth reign in the hearts of all.

I started clicking links to see if I could make sense of this breaking news:

The full AP report provided important context:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis declared Tuesday he is allowing all priests in the church's upcoming Year of Mercy to absolve women of the "sin of abortion" if they repent with a "contrite heart."
Reflecting his papacy's central theme of mercy, Francis said in letter published Tuesday by the Vatican that he has met many women bearing "the scar of this agonizing" decision to abort. He said God's forgiveness cannot be denied to those who repent, and thus is giving all priests the discretion to absolve the sin in the Holy Year of Mercy running Dec. 8, 2015 until Nov. 20, 2016.
The church views abortion as such as grave sin that, until now, a Catholic woman who wanted to repent for an abortion could not simply go to her local parish priest. Instead, her diocese's bishop needed to delegate a priest, expert at dealing with such confessions, to hear the woman's confession.

Were the pope's comments symbolic? Or do they reflect an actual change in Catholic Church practice?

Washington Post religion writers Sarah Pulliam Bailey (a former GetReligionista) and Michelle Boorstein found theologians and canon lawyers divided on those questions:

As has become common with Pope Francis’ moves, the Vatican’s announcement prompted debate about what his real motivation was. Liberals saw him downplaying the sin of abortion by advertising primarily the availability of confession and forgiveness. Conservatives saw him bringing in a more traditional group and the power of priests.
Church officials tried to clarify what, in fact, was new. Technically, some said, bishops have to “give” the priests in their community the right to hear all confessions. It wasn’t immediately clear if there are any priests in the world who don’t have this permission, but the point Francis was making, a spokesman said, was to emphasize that it is available.
“Forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave sinfulness. The newness is clearly Pope Francis’ pastoral approach. Many bishops have granted priests permission to forgive the sin. The fact that this statement is coming from the Pope and in such a moving, pastoral way, is more evidence of the great pastoral approach and concern of Pope Francis. That people come to confession today to confess abortion and other grave sins is cause for us in the Church to thank God and to put into practice the mission of the good and merciful shepherd who came to seek out those who were lost,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English language spokesman for the Vatican.

Over at Crux — the Catholic news site powered by The Boston Globe — Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr. analyzed the pope's comments.

Among Allen's points:

First, it’s important to stipulate that this does not represent any change to official Catholic teaching. Both abortion and defiance of papal authority are still considered grave sins, triggering what canon law, the compendium of Church legislation, describes aslatae sententiae excommunication, meaning “automatic.”
In effect, what Francis has done instead of changing doctrine is to extend the range of mercy to anyone who seeks forgiveness with what he describes as a “contrite heart.”

So did the pope change Catholic doctrine? No. 

Did he tell people to go to confession? Yes. That has, of course, been a major theme of his papacy.

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