With the publication today of the Apostolic Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis, Misericordia et misera, it seems A clarification may be necessary about what Pope Francis did with regard to the sin of abortion and the ability of priests to forgive this sin.
In the apostolic letter, the Holy Father writes:
Given this need, lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary. I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that 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. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation (12).
As Pope Francis notes, abortion is an intrinsically grave evil. Hence, to willing procure an abortion is mortally sinful. However, every priest can absolve a person of this grave sin and does not - and did not - need the permission of the Holy Father to do so (as was pointed out a year ago by many).
At the same time, however, the procuration of an abortion is also a crime under canon law: "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication" (canon 1398). Those who procure an abortion receive the censure of an automatic excommunication in order to emphasize the seriousness of this sin and crime. While every priest can absolve the sin of abortion, not every priest could lift the censure brought about automatically by the crime of abortion (cf. canon 1356 and 1357).
In the United States of America, the Bishops have given their priests the faculty (or, if you like, the permission) to lift this censure within the context of a sacramental confession. In much of the rest of the world, however, Bishops have not been so ready to grant their priests this faculty. Why, I do not know.
What Pope Francis has actually done is not grant priests throughout the world the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion (they could already do this), but rather the faculty to lift the censure of the automatic excommunication without recourse to their local Ordinary [Bishop, Vicar General, etc.].
It might seem a matter of semantics to some, but the difference is rather great and an imprecision in this matter has caused no small amount of confusion.
I think what Pope Francis has done is a very good thing and will help men and women who have procured an abortion receive the merciful love of God and reconciliation with his Church without a burdensome and uncomfortable that step that might have, in the past, felt like an unnecessary bureaucratic process.