Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Tuesday called on priests to pardon women who have abortions during the upcoming Jubilee year -- overruling hardline traditionalists within the Catholic Church.
"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," he said.
In a message outlining special measures for the Jubilee year starting in December, Francis said he knew that while "abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness" many others "believe that they have no other option".
The Argentine pontiff said he was "well aware of the pressure" that some women were under to abort, adding that he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonising and painful decision".
Abortion is considered a particularly serious sin and is punishable under Canon law by excommunication, by which those guilty are expelled from the Church and considered to be condemned to Hell in the afterlife.
- Queues for forgiveness? -
Catholics for Choice, a US-based pro-choice organization, said this was another positive example of Francis trying to bridge the gulf "between what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics really do".
"However, despite what Pope Francis has said, I do not believe that Catholic women will be queueing up to ask for forgiveness," the organisation's president Jon O'Brien said in a statement.
And limiting the period of forgiveness to one year "suggests that he still has a blind spot when it comes to women and what they want".
The Vatican had already said in May that abortion would be included among the sins pardonable during the Jubilee, but the original plan had been for a certain, limited number of priests to have the power to forgive.
Bishops are already able to authorise priests in their dioceses to forgive those who undergo or carry out abortions.
The hot-button topic has been the subject of increasingly fierce debate within the Church. In 2009 the Vatican drew heavy criticism after it supported a bishop who had excommunicated the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old girl who was given an abortion after her stepfather raped her.
Francis, 78, who has repeatedly urged the Church to show greater compassion, said priests should use "words of genuine welcome", as well as making sure those involved were aware of "the gravity of the sin committed".
O'Brien said the pope's message on abortion was likely "more for his brother bishops than Catholics in the pew".
- 'A daring double play' -
In his message, Francis also reached out to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a break-away super-conservative group which refuses to recognize church reforms and has been accused of being mired in anti-Semitism.
Vatican expert John Allen, writing for Crux, said by putting measures which will please both liberals and conservatives alike in the same package, Francis had performed "a daring pastoral double play".
"Putting these two olive branches into the same package could be seen as another effort by Francis at political equilibrium, reminiscent of his decision in April 2014 to beatify the late Popes John XXIII and John Paul II together, icons for the Catholic left and right respectively," he said.
The pontiff announced earlier this year a Jubilee year -- traditionally a time for remission and forgiveness -- which will run from December 8 to November 20 and be celebrated not only in the Vatican but in dioceses across the world.
To mark the Holy year, Francis also called for amnesty for prisoners in jails across the world who have repented.
"The Jubilee Year has always constituted an opportunity for great amnesty, which is intended to include the many people who, despite deserving punishment, have become conscious of the injustice they worked," he said.
Under Catholic tradition, pilgrims seeking forgiveness passed through holy doors present in four basilicas in Rome, which were usually kept walled shut, then opened for Jubilee years.
Francis extended the practice to the doors of all Cathedrals across the world.
For prison inmates, Francis said that praying "each time they cross the threshold of their cell" would "signify for them their passage through the Holy Door".