Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, holds his copy of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), during a news conference for the release of the document at the Vatican April 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Holy Communion is to be withheld from divorced-and-remarried Catholics in virtue of Canon 915 which, as has been explained countless times, does not
require Catholic ministers to read the souls of would-be communicants,
but rather, directs ministers to withhold holy Communion from those who,
as an external and observable matter, “obstinately persevere in
manifest grave sin”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2384
describes civil remarriage after divorce as “public and permanent
adultery” (something obviously gravely sinful), so, if Francis had
wanted to authorize the administration of holy Communion to
divorced-and-remarried Catholics (and he did not want to repudiate CCC
2384, 1650, etc.) he would have had to have wrought a change in the law contained in Canon 915.
To legislate for the Church popes usually employ certain types of documents (e.g., apostolic constitutions, motu proprios, ‘authentic interpretations’) or they use certain kinds of language (e.g., ‘I direct’ or ‘I approve in forma specifica’). Amoris laetitiae,
an “apostolic exhortation”, is not a legislative document, it contains
no legislative or authentic interpretative language, and it does not
discuss Canon 915. The conclusion follows: whatever Canon 915 directed
before Amoris, it directs after, including that holy Communion may not generally be administered to Catholics living in irregular marriages.
this conclusion, howeverand recalling that the burden of proving that
the law changed is on those who claimed that it changed, not on others
to prove that it hasn’tI can anticipate at least three rejoinders.
The first is easily dismissed.
Pope Francis wrote that “Each country or region, moreover, can seek
solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions
and local needs.” AL 3, and 199, 207. But of course developing local approaches to proclaiming universal
truths is a hallmark of “pastoral theology” (when that concept is
properly understood and not offered as cover for avoiding the demands of
Christian doctrine). Church documents often encourage local
initiatives, but they never authorize dilution, let alone betrayal, of
the universal teachings of Christ and his Church. Amoris might well have left itself open to regional manipulation (as Robert Royal has explained)
but Catholics committed to thinking with the Church will not develop
particular approaches to ministry among the divorced that betray the
common truth about the permanence of marriage.
A second rejoinder is, however, more complex.
In AL 301 Francis writes: “Hence it is can [sic] no longer simply be
said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state
of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” This presents a
more substantial objection to my conclusion above for, at first glance,
Francis seems to attack the very idea that the irregular situation
usually produced by a post-divorce civil remarriage is gravely sinful.
We need to consider this possibility carefully.
Setting aside whether any Church document ever
‘simply said’ what Francis implies above, one can agree that it would
be wrong to assert that “all” people living in “any” irregular situation
are necessarily “living in a state of mortal sin”. If even one person
living in an irregular marriage situation does so with no suggestion of
sinand I can think of many*Francis’ point, narrowly and literally
But Francis’ assertion here could mean something
more contentious, namely: that we can no longer assert that any
individual living in an irregular union could be “living in a
state of mortal sin”an assertion that would, I suggest, place Francis
in opposition to Church tradition. Let’s consider this possibility more
A) The phrase “living in a state of mortal sin” could be
understood as a short-hand way to describe many morally wrong living
situations, one that summarizes Church teaching that all Catholics must,
on pain of committing grave sin, abide by certain laws and teachings
regarding marriage and sexual activity. That is how all of the
canonists, moral theologians, and clergy whom I know, and most of the
lay Catholics in my circle, use the term. I think it consistent with the
Catechism of the Catholic Church. But,
B) The phrase
“living in a state of mortal sin” could also be taken as judging the
state of another’s soul based on their living arrangement. Whether
speaking from ill-will or from inaccurate catechesis, Catholics who
describe others (let alone all others) living in irregular
marriage situations as “living in a state of mortal sin”meaning by that
phrase that such persons have necessarily incurred the guilt of grave
sinshould indeed cease thinking and speaking that way.
So, if the
pope was thinking about those who use the phrase “living in a state of
mortal sin” to imply an ability to read souls, then his admonition that
one must not speak this way is quite sound, it does nothing to detract
from the Church’s view that post-divorce civil marriage is an aggravated
form of adultery, and it impacts not one jot or tittle of Canon 915.
But to construe the pope’s words here as denying that freely living in
an irregular marriage situation can be, as the Catechism
holds, gravely sinful, and that therefore Canon 915 is not applicable
to such cases, would be to attribute to the pope a conclusion at odds
with Church moral and sacramental teaching. That accusation should not
be casually made.
Finally, however, let’s assume that, however he expressed himself, the pope somehow really believes that few Catholics, perhaps none, living in irregular marriages are subjectively culpable for their state. Even that conclusion on his part would have no bearing whatsoever on the operation of Canon 915 because, as noted above, Canon 915 does not (and cannot!)
operate at the level of interior, subjective responsibility, but
rather, it responds to externally cognizable facts concerning observable
Yet a third possible rejoinder relies another eisegetical reading of Francis’ words.
Some think that AL fn. 351 and its accompanying text authorize holy
Communion for Catholics in irregular marriages. I would ask, recalling
that a matter of law is at issue, where does Francis do this? The pope
says that Catholics in irregular unions need the help of the sacraments
(which of course they do), but he does not say ALL of the sacraments,
and especially, not sacraments for which they are ineligible. He says
that the confessional is not a ‘torture chamber’ (a trite remark but not
an erroneous one). And he observes that the Eucharist is not a prize
for the perfect (thank God), but a powerful spiritual medicine, which it
isunless it is taken unworthily or in violation of law, a
caveat one may assume all Catholics, and certainly popes, know without
having to say it.
Bottom line: sacramental rules are made of words, not surmises. Those who think Amoris
has cleared a path to the Communion rail for Catholics in irregular
marriages are hearing words that the pope (whatever might be his
personal inclinations) simply did not say.
* Example: One who was
baptized Catholic but raised without knowledge of that fact, is
(incredibly) bound by canonical form and thus, if married outside of
form, he or she would be, by definition, living in an irregular
union. It would be ludicrous to refer to such a person as “living in
sin”. I can offer a dozen more fact patterns that would duplicate this
[This post originally appeared on the "In the Light of the Law" blog and is reposted on The Dispatch by kind permission of Dr. Peters.]
· Further reading - Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium