Catholic World Report
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April 22, 2016
The most controversial section of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation is fraught with problematic arguments and dubious moral theology—and gives the German bishops all they want.
(CNS Photo)

For Catholics who feel weary about the abuse that the Christian family has lately suffered at the hands of militant secularism, Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) has many encouraging things to say: e.g., its forthright assertion that “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse” the truth that “the conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature’” (AL, 80; cf. 222); its ardent rejection of the killing of the unborn (no. 83); its unapologetic affirmation that every child has “a natural right” to have a mother and a father (no. 172), and its needed treatment—the lengthiest in any papal document of the last 50 years—of the importance of fathers for children (no. 175).

But though the text says many true and beautiful things about “love in the family,” Chapter 8 (entitled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”) allows—and seems intentionally so—for interpretations that pose serious problems for Catholic faith and practice.

I focus here on five such problems:

1) The way it presents the role that mitigated culpability should play in pastoral care

2) Its inconsistent notion of “not judging” others

3) Its account of the role of conscience in acquitting persons in objectively sinful situations

4) Its treatment of moral absolutes as “rules” articulating the demands of an “ideal” rather than binding moral duties on everyone in every situation.

5) Its inconsistency with the teaching of Trent

1. AL’s treatment of subjective factors limiting responsibility

Catholic moral theology has spoken about the importance of pastors being sensitive to factors limiting a penitent’s subjective guilt in order to help penitents assess their true guilt retrospectively, i.e., to help them look at what they’ve already done to assist them to judge rightly about their culpability, so they can repent and be forgiven and deal with those factors and begin freely to choose rightly.

Chapter 8 introduces a significant change in the role that mitigating factors play in pastoral care. Pastors are directed to assess subjective culpability as a way of “discerning” what kinds of ecclesial participation, including sacramental participation, are appropriate for people who are going forth from the confessional. It focuses on assessing mitigated guilt for directing prospective action leaving in place the factors that mitigate guilt, so people may continue to sin without ever becoming responsible enough to sin mortally.

Example 1:

300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. [note 336]1

The term “pastoral discernment” is used throughout chapter 8, but its meaning is not consistent. Here it refers to the “personal discernment” of the divorced and civilly remarried. They are encouraged to assess their own subjective culpability in order to determine what kinds of ecclesial participation are appropriate. The text says that since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences of the “rule”—meaning consequences of violating the rule— may apply differently in different cases. “Rule” is AL’s term of choice for the objective demands of the Gospel for marriage.2 “Consequences” refer to the moral and ecclesial implications of violating the norm against adultery, namely, that one is guilty of grave sin and should not go to Holy Communion.3

The text will be read by many “remarried” spouses as meaning that they themselves can “discern” that, because of the complexity of their “concrete situations” (e.g., it is wrong to leave the kids and/or the new “spouse” and stressful to live as brother and sister, etc.), they themselves lack such a “degree of responsibility” as would have the consequence that they are guilty of grave sin and ought not to communicate.

The text goes on to speak about the ‘accompanying’ role of pastors:

300. Priests have the duty to ‘accompany the divorced and remarried in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop’.… What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which ‘guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church.’ (emphasis added; internal quote from Relatio Synodi, 2014)

Pastors are encouraged to assist individuals, who are objectively committing adultery, to judge what hinders their fuller participation in the sacraments.

Pastors will interpret this in conflicting ways. Those who are committed to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice will interpret it to mean accompanying remarried divorcees in their process of repenting for their sins, ordering their relationships according to the Gospel (at very least, ceasing to engage in non-marital intercourse), and reintegrating into the sacramental life of the Church. Others, however, will interpret it to mean assisting remarried divorcees to arrive at the judgment that since they lack sufficient responsibility, nothing hinders the possibility of fuller participation, provided they go through the formality of getting their pastors to agree with their judgment.

Example 2:

302. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability”. For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. [note 345]4

After identifying factors capable of diminishing moral culpability, the text sets forth a sound principle of moral theology, namely, a judgment that an individual is objectively in violation of a moral norm does “not imply a judgment” about that person’s culpability. But the text goes on to apply the norm in a problematic way:

I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”.

Notice the text switches—without signaling it is doing so—the meaning of “pastoral discernment” from first-person singular “personal discernment” to third-person observation of past action.

Here the text restates for pastors the mirror process of “personal discernment” stated above. Because people “find it very difficult to act differently” than they do, pastors “must take responsibility” for applying the “general rule” differently in different cases. The text implies that mature “pastoral discernment” may include acquitting individual consciences to return to Holy Communion without requiring the individuals to order their relationships according to Jesus’ teaching.

But finding it “difficult to act differently” is not alone a sufficient reason not to invite remarried divorcees to extricate themselves from objective adultery. It is safe to say that most all of those who are in this situation will find it difficult to act differently. But Jesus gives us sacramental grace precisely so that we can do with his help what we find very difficult to do on our own.

It is disturbing that the text never mentions the universal moral obligation held and taught since the Apostles for separated spouses to abstain from non-marital intercourse.

2. AL’s problematic treatment of the act of “judging”

Chapter 8 insists on the “need to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (no. 296). This is, of course, sound advice and should be taken seriously by all involved in pastoral work. But at the same time the text seems also to insist that it is precisely in light of a consideration of such complexity that pastors can judge that persons are in good faith when they decide to remain in their irregularity.

But if we shouldn’t—and indeed can’t—render a judgment of condemnation on another person’s state of soul, then we shouldn’t and can’t render a judgment of acquittal either. But chapter 8 implies that pastors can have adequate certitude that a person lacks subjective culpability and so can free them to participate in the sacraments. No. 299 even refers to the divorced and civilly remarried as “living members” of the Church. The common understanding of a “living” member is a baptized person in grace.

But how can a priest judge that such people are in grace without judging? Pope Francis insists, and rightly so, that we mustn’t judge. But judgment is not only about condemning; it also means acquitting. The presumption here, and throughout the chapter, is that pastors can in fact render a judgment of acquittal on consciences so the people in irregular unions can move forward. But if we cannot and should not judge the souls of others, then we can neither condemn them by saying they are certainly guilty of mortal sin, nor can we acquit them saying they are not subjectively culpable for choosing grave matter. We cannot judge.

If pastors can’t judge souls, what are they to do? They should accept a person’s assessment of his own soul. If pastors pick up indications of mitigated culpability, they should gently help the person to see these factors, then charitably inform him about Jesus’s fuller teaching on marriage (i.e., they should engage in conscience formation); the pastor should then find out if the person is resolved to live according to Jesus’ teaching as understood by the Catholic Church; if the person says “no”, or “I can’t”, the pastor says, “Well, I cannot tell you whether you are in serious sin by refusing to accept the Church’s teaching, for I cannot judge your soul. But even if you are truly in good faith, I cannot judge that you may rightly receive the Holy Eucharist, because I cannot know that, and my telling you that might well encourage you to rationalize ongoing mortal sin and result in your eternal damnation. Moreover, as Saint John Paul II teaches, ‘if [you] were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (Familaris consortio 84). In this way, pastors would truly put into practice Pope Francis’ Gospel admonition to “judge not”. But these paragraphs give little encouragement to this interpretation.

3. AL on conscience

Chapter 8 states:

303. We can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. [1] Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. [2] It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. (bracketed numbers added)

“Conscience” in this text refers to two types of moral judgments: first, a judgment of what the moral law demands of me (i.e., “conscience can … recognize” that one’s situation violates the demands of the Gospel); and second, a judgment on one’s moral strength to act accordingly (i.e., “[conscience] can also recognize … what for [me] now is the most generous response”).

The text places the two in direct opposition. An individual’s conscience may both: [1] judge that some action does not correspond to the overall demands of the Gospel; and [2] judge that God is asking them to perform that action. In other words, God can be “asking” someone to live in a life-state in which they are objectively violating grave matter.

Traditionally, a penitent who understood the demands of the moral law, but was too weak to conform his actions accordingly, ordinarily would be struggling with one of two things: a compulsive condition (in which freedom no longer could be exercised) or a quasi-compulsive condition (in which freedom did not seem to be erased, but where strong emotion led an individual to fall habitually into some sin). In the second case, a good confessor would gently acknowledge the influence of strong emotion, inform the penitent of the possibility that “full consent of the will” was not given, while at the same time—because the confessor couldn’t know with certitude whether it was or was not given—lovingly accept the individual’s sincere repentance of what may have been mortal sin, and offer him absolution.

Here there is no implication that free will is being erased, or even that an individual is struggling with a quasi-compulsive condition. One simply “recognize(s)” he can’t follow the Gospel because of the “concrete complexity of [his] limits”. And this judgment (this ‘recognition’) trumps the first judgment on what the Gospel demands.

But can an individual come to “moral security” before God that his ongoing commission of an action in grave matter is guiltless (“I am certain I’m not guilty for what I’ve done, am doing, and will continue to do”)? Can a priest render such a judgment on another’s conscience and so acquit him to continue willing objectively gravely sinful acts?

The term “objective ideal” at the end of the passage will be read by many as removing them doubly from the obligation not to act: once because an ideal is only an ideal, and once because what is objectively applicable may not be subjectively applicable, i.e. applicable to me in my circumstances and state of will.

4. AL treats moral absolutes as rules that articulate the demands of an ideal.

Example 1:

Rules and discernment

304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail” (ST, I-II, q. 94, a. 4). It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

We know from the context that the “general rule” in line two is Jesus’ command against remarriage (adultery), and “actions” in line one are of those who are violating that command. Chapter 8’s picture is that the “general rule” sets out an ideal that people ought to strive to reach, but that judgments of conscience, which take into account unique conditions that are perceived rather than understood, identify what God wants here and now. But since nobody else’s unique conditions are the same as mine, no judgment of conscience can be generalized to constitute a rule.

To support this picture, the text refers to a passage from Aquinas, which argues that when we move from general principles to matters of detail, “practical rectitude is not the same for all.” The obvious implication is that the norm against adultery does not bind equally for all.

But Aquinas certainly does not have the norm against adultery in mind when he speaks about the “failure” of general principles (“encountering defects”). We know this because we know he does not consider the norm against adultery a general principle, but rather a concrete moral absolute. Aquinas’ definition of adultery (II-II, q. 154, a. 8c) is very specific: “adultery is access to another’s marriage-bed”, i.e., engaging in sexual intercourse despite the fact that at least one of the acting persons is married to someone else. This is not a general norm, such as “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is specific and concrete and Aquinas expressly teaches that it is binding even when by adultery one could save the country from tyranny. Aquinas’ example of a “defective” norm is: “goods entrusted to another should be restored to their owner.” He says this generally binds, but if one intends to use the goods to fight against one’s country, and that one asks you to return his goods, it could be unreasonable to restore them. This is because the norm “one ought to restore goods to one’s owner” is not a moral absolute. Aquinas says again and again that affirmative precepts/obligations, such as the only precept/obligation mentioned in q. 94, a . 4, bind only semper sed non ad/pro semper, whereas negative moral norms such as that against adultery bind semper ET ad/pro semper. The norm, “a married person ought never engage in intercourse with anyone but his valid spouse” is of the latter type; it is specific and absolute. Aquinas would never say that under certain circumstances this norm is defective. Therefore, the passage from Aquinas has been used out of context and against Aquinas’s own consistent moral teaching.

The text goes on to say that “pastoral discernment” can never be elevated to the level of a “rule” lest it become “intolerable casuistry”. If all this meant is that pastors should be mindful of and sensitive to people’s concrete situations when speaking about the objective demands of discipleship, who could object? But it seems to be saying that good pastoral care doesn’t set forth absolute moral norms as binding here and now. This at least is what will be understood by the “remarried” (who were told in no. 300 that their “personal discernment” follows precisely the same course as their pastor’s). And worse, they’ve already been instructed that discernment of past culpability is applicable to discernment of one’s present moral obligations in relation to here and now choices of the same object as was chosen in the past.

What’s missed throughout chapter 8 is any discussion—or even any mention—of the truth that adultery is intrinsically evil. Even if a person chooses it without subjective guilt, the act is bad/destructive/harmful to all involved. Assisting people to understand that intrinsically evil acts are really bad for them was one of John Paul II’s central points in Veritatis splendor (which is never once mentioned or cited in AL5): “The different commandments of the Decalogue [including the 6th] are really only so many reflections of the one commandment about the good of the person, at the level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a spiritual and bodily being” (no. 13). He says: “The commandments of which Jesus reminds the [rich] young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods” (VS, no. 13). The pope explicitly states that the 6th precept of the Decalogue expresses “with particular force the ever urgent need to protect…the communion of persons in marriage” (ibid.). Moral absolutes, he says, prohibit “certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil”; they “do not allow for any legitimate exception” (VS, no. 67). The actions they single out are “irremediably evil acts”; as such and in themselves “they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person” (no. 81).

Chapter 8 takes for granted that the acts of intercourse of the divorced and remarried are a problem in the sense that they are contrary to the general rule that articulates the ideal. But at the same time, they are not adulterous in the sense of being sinfully extra-marital. While not ideally married to their present partners, the divorced and remarried are not just unmarried, but are de facto to some extent spouses.

Example 2:

305. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end [note 351]6. Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.

In this passage, the German bishops get all they want.

It is true that because of invincible ignorance, people can be living in grace while choosing objectively gravely immoral objects. But even if a pastor could know they are in such ignorance, he would have a duty in charity to help them get out of their objectively sinful situation.

But the passage does not presume that the sinner is in invincible ignorance or that the pastor supposes that. The passage supposes that people who are objectively committing adultery can know they are “in God’s grace”, and that their pastor can know it too, and that their judgment is right because it approves what is in fact what God is asking of them here and now, which is not yet the ideal. The pastor must help them find peace in their situation, and assist them to receive “the Church’s help”, which (note 351 makes clear) includes “the help of the sacraments.”

So, again, the German bishops finally get what they want. Divorced and civilly remarried couples are in complex situations, sometimes without guilt. Pastors should help them discern if their situation is acceptable, even if it is “objectively” sinful, so they can return to the sacraments.

More than this, all those who dissented against the Church’s teachings of moral absolutes get what they wanted. For those so-called absolutes are now non-binding ideals, and people who think that contracepting, etc., are okay for them here and now are doing what God is asking of them in their complex situations.

Another equally important point needs to be made about this process of acquitting consciences. The internal forum is only internal for priests. The divorced person is at liberty to speak about what goes on in confession. If priests acquit divorced and remarried persons to return to the sacraments without reforming their lives, some of these individuals will certainly shout from the rooftops: “I can go to communion”.

This is precisely why John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio: “If these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (FC, 84). Why would it lead to such confusion? Because the Church not only teaches by what she says, but by what she does. If a green light were given to invalidly married persons to receive Holy Communion—and we know that the civil marriages of Catholics are invalid because at very least they lack proper form—if priests give this green light (which would constitute an ecclesial act), this would teach that marriage is not indissoluble. How could it be indissoluble if the Church says that second unions are valid? The acts of the Church’s pastors will undermine the revealed truth of the indissolubility of marriage.

Example 3:

The logic of pastoral mercy

307. In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur… A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown.

308. At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances – psychological, historical and even biological – it follows that “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear”, making room for “the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best”. I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”. The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Jesus “expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated”. (emphasis added)

Notice that the Gospel’s requirements for marriage are repeatedly referred to as an “ideal”. The text says the Church should propose the “ideal”; it even says that being “lukewarm” in proposing it would be “lack of fidelity to the Gospel”. But it never suggests, or even hints, that choosing contrary to the Gospel’s teaching is a violation of the Gospel.

We are a million miles from Veritatis Splendor and its one allusion to “ideals,” precisely VS’s code-word for (or compact summary of) everything that encyclical and the tradition has opposed in relation to teaching de Decem Praeceptis:

Only in the mystery of Christ's Redemption do we discover the “concrete” possibilities of man.  “It would be a very serious error to conclude... that the Church's teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”. But what are the “concrete possibilities of man”? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption.  Christ has redeemed us!  This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ's redemptive act, but to man's will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God's command is of course proportioned to man's capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit”. (VS, 103; italics in text)

AL 307 says that showing “understanding” to couples in “exceptional situations”—i.e., who are living in violation of the Gospel’s teaching, albeit perhaps without guilt—does not mean “dimming” the “ideal.”

The implication is that the command of Christ is merely an ideal; pastors are called upon to propose the ideal; but we mustn’t give the impression that the ideal is a concrete command of God for everyone. But VS 103 flatly opposes this whole approach. Jesus has not left us dominated by lust. “Christ has redeemed us!” He’s made it possible for us to live the “entire truth” about marriage. John Paul II insists again in FC 34 that the faithful “cannot look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.”

Number 308 then admonishes pastors to an “awareness” of “mitigating circumstances”, which, it says, should prompt them to accompany with patience those who fall short of the “ideal”. This would not be a problem if the text taught clearly what the “ideal” entailed, and admonished pastors to assist those who fall short to be reconciled with Christ by repenting of their sins. But the content of the “ideal” is never mentioned in AL.

It was by John Paul II: “[remarried divorcees must] take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples” (FC, no. 84).

Number 308 goes on to criticize those who desire a “more rigorous” approach, one that “leaves no room for confusion” (recall earlier AL criticized the rigorous as “thinking that everything is black and white, [who] sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God” [no. 305]). Number 308 implies that those who favor the “more rigorous” approach violate the expectations of Jesus (by “looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune”).

The “more rigorous” approach is undoubtedly the traditional exclusion of the divorced and civilly remarried from reception of Holy Communion.

5. Inconsistency with the teaching of Trent on grace

301. Hence it is can 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. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.

Again, the “rule” is the norm against adultery articulated in the sixth precept of the Decalogue, which Jesus says is violated by one who divorces his spouse and marries another (cf. Mt. 5:32, 19:9; Mk. 10:11-12; Lk. 16:18). Here chapter 8 teaches that someone who knows full well the “rule” (and is by hypothesis justified in Trent’s/Paul’s sense) can “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (emphasis added). This seems to contradict the defined doctrine in Trent on Justification, canon 18: “If any one says the commandments of God are impossible to keep, even by a person who is justified and constituted in grace: let him be anathema.”

It might be replied that no. 301 is addressed to pastors and is about mitigation, not objective possibility, not subjects in their deliberations about possible options.  But in fact it is addressed to everyone, and no. 300 has identified “responsible personal and pastoral discernment” as proceeding on the same logic and as extending to personal discernment of possible present options, a logic that 301 is just unfolding.

What AL is ignoring is the adequacy of grace to enable people to respond to the overall objective demands of the Gospel.


1 The note reads: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”

2 See no. 301 where “rule” clearly refer back to the “demands of the Gospel”

3 Note 336 makes clear that participation in the sacraments is one of the forms of participation in play in this passage.

4 The note references the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who Are Divorced and Remarried (June 24, 2000), no. 2. AL references the text to help overcome the potential judgment excluding remarried divorcees from Holy Communion. But the Pontifical text is saying just the opposite. The relevant passage reads:

“The Code of Canon Law establishes that ‘Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion’ (can. 915). In recent years some authors have sustained, using a variety of arguments, that this canon would not be applicable to faithful who are divorced and remarried…. [These] authors offer various interpretations of the above-cited canon that exclude from its application the situation of those who are divorced and remarried. For example, since the text speaks of ‘grave sin’, it would be necessary to establish the presence of all the conditions required for the existence of mortal sin, including those which are subjective, necessitating a judgment of a type that a minister of Communion could not make ab externo; moreover, given that the text speaks of those who ‘obstinately’ persist in that sin, it would be necessary to verify an attitude of defiance on the part of an individual who had received a legitimate warning from the Pastor….

“The reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion. In the concrete case of the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried, the scandal, understood as an action that prompts others towards wrongdoing, affects at the same time both the sacrament of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. That scandal exists even if such behavior, unfortunately, no longer arouses surprise: in fact it is precisely with respect to the deformation of the conscience that it becomes more necessary for Pastors to act, with as much patience as firmness, as a protection to the sanctity of the Sacraments and a defense of Christian morality, and for the correct formation of the faithful.

“Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance. The phrase ‘and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin’ is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are: a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability; b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church; c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.”

5 The encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Aug. 6, 1993) was the last papal document to be addressed to these issues, and is known to be an unprecedentedly serious effort to expound the Church’s understanding on moral norms from the apostles until today.

6 The note says: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.”

About the Author
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E. Christian Brugger  

Dr. E. Christian Brugger is the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C. He has a forthcoming book with Catholic University of America Press on the indissolubility of marriage and the Council of Trent.

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