The headline reads, “During Holy Year, Pope Will Let Priests Forgive Women Who Had Abortions.” It’s from National Public Radio, and it summarizes a story that aired today about Pope Francis modifying Church sanctions associated with abortion.

“I don't understand,” wrote my former student, a Protestant. “So women who have had abortions in the past have not been able to be forgiven by God? This can't be true – not from the Scripture I read.”

Of course, my student’s instincts are correct: God can forgive any contrite sinner of any sin, regardless of Canon Law or access to sacraments or even membership in the Church. The key is the contrition – the “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451). When that sorrow for sin is mainly rooted in our fear of Hell or even just embarrassment, then we call it imperfect contrition, which prepares us to receive complete reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance – the ordinary sacramental means Christ instituted for the forgiveness of our post-baptismal sins (CCC 1484).

Yet, when our sorrow is truly motivated by love of God above all else – when we are profoundly grieved over having offended him whom we alone adore – then it can be perfect contrition. “Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (CCC 1452). And for those who are not conscious of the need for sacramental confession through no fault of their own – what the Church calls a condition of “invincible ignorance” – perfect contrition itself suffices for the forgiveness of even mortal sin in an extraordinary way. As Pope Francis writes in his Year of Mercy announcement, “The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented.”

So what’s going on with the automatic excommunications and the new provisions? It comes down to this: The sin of abortion is so serious that it also constitutes a canonical crime for Catholics – meaning it’s such an egregious offense that the Church has determined that it requires proportionately serious canonical sanctions. The sin of abortion has always been forgiven by God when those who obtained it or cooperated with it were truly contrite – that hasn’t changed. What has changed (temporarily) is the penalty side of the canonical equation. This is where it gets very complicated.

Canon Law designates procured abortion as an act that incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication – the barring of the faithful from receiving our Lord in the Eucharist among other things. What this means is that Catholics who seek out abortion or who help make it happen, and are adequately aware that their actions will get them excommunicated, are, in fact, excommunicated. Consequently, regardless of the degree of contrition such Catholic individuals experience following a procured abortion, they should not present themselves for Holy Communion or other sacraments until they’ve been reconciled with the Church – normally something accomplished in conjunction with a local bishop granting absolution.

What the Holy Father did in his recent pronouncement was to lift that episcopal requirement for the Year of Mercy, and so beginning December 8, all priests, and not just bishops, have the authority to grant absolution for the sin and the crime of abortion.

All that being said, you might expect my former student to ask another question: “Why have that episcopal requirement at all?” He wouldn’t be the only one asking questions. Given all the complexities involved, it’s “no wonder people are confused about what Pope Francis’ recent statement means,” writes Canon Law expert Dr. Edward Peters. “I’m confused, if perhaps less so than some others.”

I’d include myself in the latter category – the “more” confused – but I’d like to hazard a guess as to what Pope Francis is up to, and I think there’s a clue in his announcement letter. “A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life,” Francis writes. “The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.” That harm deeply affects the mothers involved, clearly, but also the dads, the siblings and grandparents, the abortionists and their staff, and beyond. Nobody engaged in this heinous practice goes unscathed.

Even so, the acceptance of abortion – both politically and culturally – continues to spread. To take but one example of this, consider the recently released Pew survey of American Catholicism. The survey highlights the fact that only 60% of Catholics in this country identify abortion as a sin – and Pew reports this figure as a sign that church-going Catholics generally support Church teaching!

Instead, this is clearly a sign of the exact opposite: the complete collapse of Catholic catechetics, at least as far as moral formation is concerned. If only six out of ten church-going Catholics will name abortion as a sin, then we have got some serious remedial slogging ahead – and the Holy Father has given those remedial efforts a boost by drawing so much attention to the issue. His lightening of abortion-related canonical sanctions has, in other words, a pedagogical benefit that goes well beyond its direct pastoral impact.

That impact is minimal in any case. As Peters and others have pointed out, there is so much ignorance regarding Church teaching, Canon Law, and morality in general, that the automatic excommunication has likely affected very few people – and very likely no abortion-seeking pregnant women at all – since it went into effect. Even so, the law as written – singling out abortion for automatic censure in contrast to other forms of killing that incur lesser penalties – serves as a stark reminder of just how abominable abortion really is: the slaughter of absolutely vulnerable and innocent human life.

Somehow, four out of ten Catholics haven’t gotten that message, but they will now. “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” Francis writes in his announcement, and his gesture of mercy to them is authentic and beautiful. In addition, the publicity surrounding that gesture is alerting the Church and world that the scarring atrocity of abortion must cease.

It’s a message we can’t help hearing loud and clear. Thank you, Your Holiness.