Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter in which the pontiff made permanent a temporary measure he instituted last year permitting priests to absolve penitents seeking God’s forgiveness for abortion. Some pro-lifers expressed concern that Pope Francis was lessening the gravity of the sin of abortion. Reading his letter and the Vatican’s officials comments afterwards, and not reacting to the headlines, demonstrates he is reinforcing the grave nature of abortion.

Last year, Pope Francis let priests give absolution to Catholics who confessed their complicity in abortion as part of the Church’s Holy Year of Mercy. As the year came to a close last month, he made the change permanent. Previously, only bishops and especially assigned priests could grant absolution for the serious sin.

Pope Francis states in his letter, “I want to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life.” It is so serious, he wrote, that women who procure abortions and health care professionals who take part in committing them require “reconciliation and God’s forgiveness” and therefore there should not be obstacles to receiving those gifts. He wrote, “there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”

The pro-abortion Catholics for Choice welcomed the move, but they seem to misunderstand what has occurred. They praised the change as a recognition that there is a chasm between the views and practices of many Catholics and the teaching of the Catholic Church. The need for reconciliation admits of an error, a wrong, a sin – not a choice. Rather than suggesting abortion is not a gravely serious matter, Pope Francis reminds the faithful that is something we must confess. He has made doing so easier.

Notre Dame ethicist O. Carter Snead was closer to the mark than the Pope’s critics, when he said that the new rule demonstrates the “core message of the right-to-life movement is one of radical hospitality, mercy, and unconditional love for every member of the human family.”