Pope Francis will allow Roman Catholic priests to absolve women who have had abortions if they seek forgiveness during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
The pontiff said he will allow priests "discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it" during the special year, beginning December 8.
"I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision," he wrote in the announcement. "I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal."
Abortion is considered a grave sin by the Catholic church, and those who seek it are usually excommunicated. In normal circumstances, forgiveness can only be granted by senior church figures.
Deputy Vatican spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini told Reuters that "for now" the change would apply only during the Holy Year. The pope's letter did not mention people who perform abortions.
Pope Francis announced in March that the Holy Year, which runs until Nov. 20, 2016, was a way to promote inclusiveness, saying the church could "make more evident its mission to be a witness of mercy."
In a letter published online on Tuesday, he said: "The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us."
He also offered an olive branch to Catholics who worship with a breakaway group called the Fraternity of St Pius X. "I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the fraternity," he wrote.
John L. Allen Jr., a Catholic commentator and associate editor of the Crux website, said the pope's announcement should not be seen as a change to official teaching.
"Both abortion and defiance of papal authority are still considered grave sins" resulting in excommunication, he wrote. "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.'"
Allen said the temporary concession on abortion "likely will be welcomed by many Catholic liberals," but added that there could be "blowback" from conservatives.
Andrew Chesnut, professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the Francis' announcement "consolidates his reputation as the pope of mercy and as a master strategist in the effort to bring back lapsed Catholics into the fold."
"Ironically, his native Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics, has the highest abortion rate of any region on earth," Chestnut said. "Scores of women there and around the world have been compelled to leave the Church for committing what's considered a grave sin. His one-year jubilee also comes on the eve of his visit to the U.S., where abortion has been front and center for many American bishops."
Father Thomas J. Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church," said the pope's message was "consistent with his desire to stress on the compassion and mercy of God."
Reese added: "He has compared the Church to a field hospital, which cares for the wounded rather than berating them."
The Holy Year is one of the 1.2 billion-member church's most important events, and sees faithful make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites around the world.