Abortion is considered a terrible sin and a justification for excommunication by the Catholic Church.
Typically, only senior Church officials (like bishops) have the authority to formally forgive women who confessed to having abortions. With this announcement, the Pope temporarily extended that power to all priests.
The change will only last for the duration of the "Holy Year of Mercy," which begins December 8 of this year and lasts until November 20, 2016.
In a letter surrounding this announcement, the Pope highlighted the importance of mercy and compassion. He wrote,
I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.
The sentiments behind this announcement typified Pope Francis' approach to many controversial issues for the Church.
He arguably exhibits a more tolerant and progressive outlook than some of his predecessors and other religious leaders regarding many issues, particularly in terms of his stance toward the LGBT community.
As NBC News highlights, the Catholic Church has 1.2 billion followers around the world. Accordingly, the Pope wields significant authority.
Even if he doesn't fundamentally alter Church doctrine, it's evident many feel he's changing the way the Church views and interacts with the world for the better. Current presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is a huge fan of Pope Francis.
Correspondingly, many on Twitter applauded this new announcement surrounding abortion. However, some also highlighted it doesn't necessarily signify a progressive or liberal stance on the issue outside of the Church.
The pope did something good today http://t.co/wghg2x3diN pic.twitter.com/Ds4UScAKiX — Ben Dreyfuss (@bendreyfuss) September 1, 2015
Abortion does not require forgiveness, @Pontifex, much less contrition before priests (men only) who claim to be representatives of God. — Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) September 1, 2015
Regardless of one's personal opinions on these developments, Pope Francis' decision is unprecedented in terms of the history of the Church.
The Pope's statements also come just a couple weeks before a planned visit to the United States, a country where abortion remains an incendiary and highly-politicized topic.
It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of response this generates in the future.