In the wake of Pope Francis’ letter to the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization for the Jubilee Year of Mercy dated Sept. 1, 2015, there has been much discussion about abortion and the penalty of excommunication. Clearly, the Pope’s intention is to promote mercy and provide hope to those who would like a second chance. It would be helpful to read that section of the letter here:

“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails…. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.

“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the sacrament of confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, 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. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.”

You correctly reference Canon 1398 (“A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”), but we should also note Canon 1329, which would include the accomplices to the abortion. The penalty of “excommunication” does not mean that a person has been “kicked out of the Church” or loses their baptism; the penalty of excommunication temporarily prohibits that person from receiving the sacraments or holding office in the Church until they have repented and amended their ways.

You ask, “Why is abortion listed as a cause for automatic excommunication while murder is not?” That is a very good question, since both are mortal sins of injustice against another person. I suppose the reason is because the Church truly wants to underscore the seriousness of abortion, because it is always the case that the unborn child is completely defenseless and completely innocent. In the case of murder, those conditions are not always the case.

When does the penalty not apply to the crime?

No one can incur the penalty of excommunication unless they are at least 18 years old and have full knowledge beforehand that there is a canonical penalty for the crime, and full freedom and full consent to procure the abortion must be present.

Rev. Francis Hoffman, J.C.D., is Executive Director of Relevant Radio. Follow him on his Facebook page “Father Rocky.”