RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Pope Francis has announced that he will make it easier for the Roman Catholic Church to forgive women who've had abortions, at least for the next year. This will be part of what the church calls its special holy year of mercy, and it begins this December. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is following this story from Rome. She joins me now. Sylvia, what exactly did the Pope say?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, in a letter to the office that's organizing the holy year events, Francis announced new rules granting forgiveness of sins. Usually holy years takes place every 25 years, but this is an extraordinary holy year. And as you said, it's focusing on the concept of mercy.
In the letter, the pope says one of the most serious problems facing people today is what he called the widespread and insensitive mentality toward the sacredness of human life. He said some experience abortion with a superficial awareness as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Then he says that when a woman repents and seeks absolution, the forgiveness of God cannot be denied.
Now, keep in mind that for the Catholic Church, abortion is such a grave sin that it triggers automatic excommunication. And it's always been a very difficult and complicated process for a woman who repents to get absolution. But now the Pope will make it much easier by allowing all priests to have what's called the faculty to grant forgiveness in this case.
MARTIN: We should also point out, Sylvia, abortion really is an exceptional sin within the Catholic Church.
POGGIOLI: Absolutely. In fact, murder, serial rapists do not to trigger automatic excommunication. And I haven't been able to pin down a specific explanation, but my understanding is that the reason why the Catholic Church considers abortion so grave is that it says it's the taking of what the church sees as the most defenseless life.
Now, the Pope's letter does not mention people who perform abortions, so we don't know what their status is. But in his letter, he uses very respectful language towards women who have made that choice when he says he's well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision and probably referring to his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires where he spent a lot of time in the poor sections of the city. He says he's met many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.
Now, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said this is by no means an attempt to minimize the gravity of what he called the sin but to widen the possibility for showing mercy. And the concept of mercy is at the heart of this papacy. His own motto, in Latin, translates roughly - choosing through the eyes of mercy.
MARTIN: So what does this mean for Pope Francis's larger mandates, Sylvia? Is this, in some way, a gesture to the church's more liberal wing?
POGGIOLI: Well, it could be seen as that, but the letter contains, also, another important surprise move. He said that holy year activities will also be open to members of the ultra-traditionalist splinter group known as the Society of Pius X, which rejects many of the reforms of the second Vatican council of the 1960s. The Pope is saying that people who want, can go to confess to priests who belong to this traditionalist movement, and their absolution will be seen as legitimate. So you could say that there are two olive branches - one on abortion and one towards a traditionalist dissidence.
MARTIN: And we should emphasize, this change is only for one year, correct?
POGGIOLI: That's right - from December 8 this year to November 20, 2016.
MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome - thanks so much, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.