Current Catholic teaching says those who have had or performed an abortion must be immediately excommunicated. Absolution can usually only be carried out by a bishop.

But the pontiff said in a letter that: ‘I have decided…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.

‘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 and sincerely wish to re-enter society and make their honest contribution to it.’

He called abortion a ‘tragedy’ which is ‘profoundly unjust’, but said the forgiveness of God ‘cannot be denied to one who has repented’.

‘May priests fulfil 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.’