Later this month, Pope Francis will arrive for his first visit to the US as pontiff, an event which has already started a media frenzy. Consider this “breaking” news headline from NBC, which takes what is in essence a procedural change and hypes it into the stratosphere:

And also from the Associated Press:

This is a change, but it’s temporary and not doctrinal — and likely not even much of a practical change:

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, theVatican 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.

That’s not quite true. The act of abortion creates what is called a latae sententiae excommunication, which roughly means “by the act itself.” It’s important to remember that excommunication is an intentional and serious break with the Church, and that usually comes latae sententiae anyway — people leave because they do not want to live by the Church’s teachings, not because the Church draws up formal documents of excommunication. In the case of abortion, how would they know about it in the first place?

So for most women (or doctors, too) who seek absolution for that particular sin, they are in a de facto state of excommunication, not a decree from on high. Acknowledging that means working with the bishop to confess, repent, and lift the state of separation between the penitent and the local church (diocese). For the next year, though, Pope Francis has given a dispensation to priests to handle that situation within the parish instead. That’s the only real change in this announcement, and it’s only for one year, at least for now. Frankly, it likely works this way in practice anyway, with the priest first hearing about the situation through confession and walking the parishioner through the process afterward. Abortion still creates a latae sententiae excommunication. [See update.]

And none of this should be terribly newsworthy anyway. The Catholic Church teaches that all sins can be forgiven through Christ for those who truly repent and intend to refrain from that sin in the future. That’s true of murder, abortion, and all sorts of other sins. That does not alleviate people from the temporal consequences of sin, but it does allow the truly penitent to offer up their sins to Christ and rejoin the path of salvation. The sacrament of reconciliation exists to bring those who stray back into communion with the Church.

John Allen at Crux explains this, and notes another interesting Year of Mercy offer from Pope Francis. He has given dispensation to recognize confessions in the Society of St. Pius X, a conservative schismatic group, which could help heal the rift between the Lefebvrists and the Vatican:

Rome has also held that priests of the society have been validly ordained, but they’re considered suspended because their ordinations came without proper papal authorization. As a result, they’re not technically authorized to carry out any ministries, including the sacrament of confession.

Francis, however, seems to have authorized them to do just that during the jubilee year, which may lead some to wonder if he’s effectively “suspended” their suspensions. …

The concession on abortion likely will be welcomed by many Catholic liberals who have long urged greater compassion for the women involved, while conservatives may cheer the opening to the Society of St. Pius X because they share some of the group’s concerns about the progressive reforms adopted at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

If what Francis wants is balance, however, he could get it in the form of blowback from both sides.

Some anti-abortion activists may wince at any step, however well-intentioned, which could be seen as reducing the level of moral seriousness the Church attaches to the act. (On the other hand, some may be grateful for the reminder that abortion actually triggers excommunication.)

Other voices, meanwhile, long have objected to the Vatican’s outreach to the Society of St. Pius X, complaining about the group’s troubled record on anti-Semitism and its generally disapproving attitude on matters such as inter-faith dialogue and religious freedom.

It’s an opening for discussion ahead of the Ordinary Synod, which will conclude the year-long debate over family issues and the need to reach out to those on the margins of Catholic family teachings.

Get used to lots of “breaking” news about Pope Francis over the next few weeks. And get used to discovering that it’s not really “breaking” at all, but another chance to explain Catholic teachings to the media.

Update: My friend Father Z’s post from June 2014 confirms that the procedural change on abortion is mostly an affirmation of what’s already taking place in all American dioceses, under a grant from St. John Paul II:

I am not aware of any diocese in these USA where the local bishop has not given his priests the faculty to lift the censure of excommunication for procuring an abortion (c. 1398), as well as the censure of excommunication for committing an act of apostasy (c. 1364).

If the chancery referred you to the priest nearest you, it is safe to assume that all the priests in that diocese have been given the faculty.

The priest who told you that St. John Paul II gave all priests this faculty may have either been confused, or unclear – St. John Paul, in promulgating the 1983 Code, gave bishops the ability to grant this faculty to their priests.