It is being seen as one of the biggest shifts by the Catholic Church in decades.
In Catholic Church teaching, abortion is such a grave sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication.
Previously, only high-ranking clergy, like bishops, could formally forgive abortions.
But in a published letter, the Argentine-born pontiff says it will now apply to all priests.
“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,”
Pope Francis says he is well aware of the pressure some women were under to abort.
He adds he has met many women who “bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision.”
Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame in the United States.
Speaking to the US CBS network, she says it is a significant step forward for the Church.
“I think it makes reconciliation or forgiveness much more accessible to women in this situation. Previously, if a woman went to a priest and confessed that she had had an abortion, the priest would then go to a bishop or a missionary to ask whether or not he could actually forgive this. I think, in this case, what we’re seeing is more accessibility for the sacrament of forgiveness.”
But British journalist and theologian Margaret Hebblethwaite says the move shows how out of touch the Church is with the world’s Catholics.
“Absolutely. I think that is exactly the problem. And it’s not just on abortion. It’s true on divorce, it’s true on a whole multitude of issues — on contraception. It’s true on the treatment of women.”
But she says she thinks the decision could extend to changes in some countries where abortion is still a taboo.
“I think what it’s going to lead to is not any change in regarding abortion as wrong, but it’s going to lead to a more realistic appreciation of the fact that there are very, very many abortions. You have the rules going one way, and you have the practice going another way, and the Church simply has to come to terms with the situation of what’s happening in the world.”
The move is part of special measures to mark the Jubilee Year, which begins in December.
Candida Moss explains the significance of the upcoming milestone.
“The Jubilee of Mercy Year is actually a very important event in the 1.2 billion Roman Catholic lives. It usually happens every 25 or 50 years, and it has its roots in the earliest Church. The last Jubilee year was in 2000, so Pope Francis is really choosing to focus on mercy. It involves pilgrimages to religious centres, and it focuses on the forgiveness of sins and embracing God’s mercy. “
The change on abortion will apply only during the Holy Year.