In Amoris Laetitia, the family is an opportunity, not a problem

The chief issue the Pope addresses is not divorce, but the fact that marriage is no longer perceived as good news.

(CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

On April 4, 2016 Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave an interview to Crux in which he ventured a guess at what Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia was going to be about. He predicted that it was going to be about marriage and not about divorce. Now that the document is public, one can easily see that he was right. The divorced and civilly remarried who ask for Communion do not present the principal problem for the Church’s pastoral care of the family, which is why Amoris Laetitia sets other priorities. The document does not treat families as a problem, but as an opportunity (cf. AL 7). Those who had expected an epochal revolution in the Church must without doubt feel disillusioned. Cardinal Kasper’s proposal has been rejected. Nowhere in the document does one find the explicit norms he had called for to regulate the access of the divorced and civilly remarried to Communion. Quite to the contrary, the Pope speaks out against what he calls an “intolerable casuistry” (AL 304).

Familiaris Consortio reaffirmed

What we find instead is a reference to Saint John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, which is one of the fundamental documents of the Church on the matter. In paragraph 84, Familiaris Consortio proposes the pastoral solution that has guided the Church’s discipline thus far, indicating the conditions under which the divorced and civilly remarried can approach the Eucharistic table. Though not cited in full, a part of this paragraph is explicitly reproduced in AL 298: “The Church acknowledges situations ‘where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate’” (AL 298 and FC 84). Inasmuch as the exception confirms the rule, by citing this text Pope Francis reaffirms the general rule of the “obligation to separate,” though together with John Paul II he can think of exceptions to this obligation, as, for instance, when the children’s upbringing could possibly benefit from the partners’ staying together. The question of which reasons exonerate from the obligation to separate will certainly require careful discernment.

In note 329 Pope Francis makes further reference to Familiaris Consortio 84, adducing its specific norm that in case the partners cannot separate, the divorced and civilly remarried—i.e., those living together as if they were married without being actually married before God—continue to live together according to the truth of their situation, namely as two who indeed are not married, observing continence. In this note the Holy Father mentions many people who point to the difficulties connected with this solution. He does not express himself on what he thinks about these difficulties referred to by the “many.” It seems that his main purpose is to find a merciful tone and show awareness of sociological and statistical realities. One can detect an implicit distancing from the “many” on the part of Francis when he adduces the manipulative interpretation that these “many” give of Gaudium et Spes 51, which evidently speaks of conjugal unions and not—as they suggest—of other forms of living together. There is certainly no intent to change the established practice, which had been confirmed also by Francis’ immediate predecessor Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis 29. To change this practice, evidently more would have been necessary than to mention in a footnote that some or even many think that observing continence is not easy and can possibly lead to the rupture of what is a non-marital union in the first place.

Hence by explicitly referring to the pertinent passage of Familiaris Consortio, Pope, Francis confirms the traditional praxis of the Church, based on the clear teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. In no part of Amoris Laetitia is it said that the divorced and civilly remarried can approach the Eucharistic table without the established requirement of living together as brother and sister. Familiaris Consortio 84 and Sacramentum Caritatis 29 therefore remain the perfectly valid points of reference for pastoral discernment. Hence, whoever accepts to Communion the divorced and civilly remarried who choose to ignore the requirement of continence acts against the Church’s discipline. Whoever teaches that these can receive Communion continues to go against the Church’s Magisterium. 

Conditioning factors and the help of the sacraments

In Amoris Laetitia the Pope gives ample space to the documents produced by the two synods he had convoked on the topic of the family, and he does not give the impression of wanting to go beyond them when it comes to changes in the Church’s discipline, let alone in her teaching. The most likely passage innovators could adduce for their purposes is no doubt paragraph 305 with its corresponding note 351: “Because of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin…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.” Then, we read in the note: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” The two sacraments he adduces immediately afterwards in this note are confession and the Eucharist.

Now in the light of preceding paragraphs, one may surmise that by speaking about those who, while living in objective situations of sin yet find themselves in the grace of God, the Pope has in mind persons with peculiar psychological conditions who are unable to take responsibility for at least some of their actions (cf. the discussion of the involuntary in AL 273). If, on account of obsessive compulsive disorders (AL 273 refers to “irresistible passion” and to the plight of drug addicts) or other pathological conditions, people do not have the dominion of their acts, they will be incapable of sinning. In this way, of course, their wrong acts do not become good, but continue to be as destructive as any sin. The issue is only that before God they may not be responsible for their destructive acts, to the extent that they were lacking freedom. Hence, they can be in the grace of God, though objectively speaking they commit acts that are gravely wrong.

Supposing, however, they have enough lucidity to commit at least some sins: can they go to confession and receive absolution for these sins, though they are incapable of acknowledging the wrong they do in other areas? Kleptomaniacs, for instance, may be gravely lacking in their purpose of amendment and in their will to do otherwise. They may not even know they are stealing; they may be unable to understand that stealing is wrong, or they may not have any hope of being able to do otherwise. Can a kleptomaniac receive absolution for a freely committed lie, though he does not even mention to the confessor that he keeps stealing? Can he receive Communion? Could these sacraments help him? These may be the questions the Pope is raising in paragraph 305 and note 351.

But one could also think of objective situations of sin in which people can receive the aid of the sacraments even if they do not suffer from any psychological condition and do have the dominion of their acts. One could think for instance of a woman who had a profound conversion experience and goes to a priest to do a confession that covers her whole life. She confesses and repents of many grave sins. From what the woman tells him, the confessor gathers that she has been taken contraceptives for almost all her fertile life. She is still taking them and is completely ignorant of the sinfulness of this kind of act. The confessor may legitimately discern that this is not the right moment to alert her to the moral gravity of contraception, since what she is dealing with right now are other sins that are still graver. He can give her absolution. By taking contraceptives she is in an objective state of sin. On account of her ignorance about the sinfulness of this act, for her, grave though it is, it is not a mortal sin. Receiving the sacrament of confession for her other sins, she is strengthened in her path to holiness and will in due time confront this remaining issue too with the help of her confessor. The case of the divorced and civilly remarried, however, is different than these cases the Holy Father is referring to. Here one is not dealing only with an objective situation of sin but also with a public one. Besides, it is a situation of sin that directly contradicts the very meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in a way that other sins do not (cf. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis 29).

There is also formal ground for doubting that Francis intends to change the given pastoral practice regarding the divorced and civilly remarried in this passage. The simple fact of the matter is that he does not mention the divorced and civilly remarried here. And the practice of not admitting them to Communion is intimately linked to Jesus’ own teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and has been well established by his predecessors and by the Tradition at large. Now we all know Pope Francis to be a courageous man, full of the parrhesia of the Gospel, and we also know him to be a true pastor. He will not be afraid to do what he deems beneficial for the Church, and he will also know that there is nothing worse for the pastoral care of the faithful than ambiguity. After all, our Lord himself said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Mt 5:37). One may thus safely assume that if he had wanted to change the Church’s practice in this matter, he would have said so explicitly and not by means of what some interpret as a suggestion to this extent in a footnote.

Discerning a person’s state of grace?

Another issue that invites further reflection is the Pope’s treatment of discernment. Francis points out that people encounter many difficulties and that there are mitigating factors on account of which “it can no longer be simply said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin” (AL 301). This is of course not a new teaching, but an established part of the Church’s Tradition and Magisterium. Thus, in Ecclesia de Eucharistia John Paul II writes, “The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience” (n. 37). When now Pope Francis points out that pastoral discernment must be dynamic (cf. AL 303), the text perhaps could have been clearer. It is not entirely evident what needs to be discerned. Is the Pope really asking pastors of souls to discern (and “discern” is really just another word for “judge”) a person’s state of grace? This would indeed be a novelty and a deeply ironic one at that. It would mean that the very Pope who most memorably asked, “Who am I to judge?” invites the Church’s priests to pass a kind of judgment on their penitents that the Church’s common doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, called by the name of “rash.” For Thomas, there are a number of conditions of a rash judgment, one of which is that “a person presumes to judge about hidden matters, of which God alone has the power to judge” (Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans, II, 1, 176). He explains that while God “has entrusted us with judging externals…he has reserved internals to himself” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, VII, 1). Thus St. Thomas speaks about the impossibility of judging another person’s state of grace. The Council of Trent even speaks of the impossibility of judging one’s own state of grace when it declares: “No one can know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God” (Decree on Justification, Chapter 9). Thus, so far the Church has always left the discernment of a person’s state of grace up to God, belonging, as it does, to the “internals.” She has instead limited herself to judging outward conduct or objective states of life.

The Church’s practice of not allowing the divorced and civilly remarried to receive the Eucharist unless they show an objective sign of repentance for having entered this union (the resolution to live in abstinence) does not amount to the verdict that they live in a state of mortal sin. It is a judgment on their state of life—as one that is in objective contradiction with the mystery of Christ’s faithful union with his Church that is celebrated in the Eucharist—and not a judgment on their soul, the condition of which only God knows. But if a negative judgment on a person’s state of grace is rash, why would a positive judgment on the matter not be rash as well? On what grounds should a priest be able to discern that persons who are habitually and publically unfaithful to their spouse are nonetheless living in God’s grace? How to measure the weight of possible extenuating circumstances, of social conditioning, of psychological limitations? Thus far, no instrument has been invented to measure empirically the presence or absence of grace, nor is it yet possible to determine case by case the measure of freedom with which a person performs an act that is gravely wrong.

What the Church can judge is the act itself. She can say that if persons perform a certain kind of act—adultery, murder, armed robbery, torture, pedophilia—with sufficient knowledge and a reasonable amount of freedom, then this act will make them lose the friendship with God, because such an act radically contradicts God’s very being as someone who is the faithful spouse of the Church his bride, who is the lover of life and the protector of the little ones. In other words, they commit a mortal sin. This is all that pastors of souls need to know and can know. Whether or not the adulterer, murderer, or torturer was in his right mind when he or she performed that act, whether or not these persons had the dominion over their acts when they acted, whether or not they truly separated themselves from God inasmuch as they were fully present to themselves in an act that is in itself hateful to God: all this God only knows. The priest in the confessional discerns the act, God discerns the heart.

Similar things need to be said with respect to the discernment of life situations. God only knows how much responsibility a person has for having entered a certain situation. The priest in the confessional can only know that a given life situation—for instance membership in a terrorist organization—is objectively contradicting God’s plan for that person, his or her calling to become a friend of God. If I am capable of performing choices, if I have the dominion of my acts and if I am able to take responsibility for my life, then I will have to choose between being the friend of murderers or the friend of God: how could one be the friend of a father and at the same time be the friend of those who kill his children? There is here an objective tension. There is an objective tension, too, between wanting to celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s faithfulness to his spouse and being in a situation in which I am habitually and publically unfaithful to my own spouse. Could I in either case, and indeed “in any objective situation of sin” still “be living in God’s grace,” love and “also grow in the life of grace and charity” (AL 305)? The Pope is quite radical when he answers in the affirmative: there can be “conditioning and mitigating factors” (AL 305), on account of which persons are not free and thus not responsible. But for another human being to measure, discern, or judge the degree of freedom with which a person is involved in such an objective situation of sin will be very difficult if not impossible.

Hence perhaps the Holy Father does not literally invite confessors to discern a person’s state of grace. Perhaps what is referred to is the discernment of different ways of integrating into the Church’s life people living in “an objective situation of sin” (AL 305). Thus the Pope writes, “Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits” (AL 305). No doubt discernment is possible and necessary when it comes to asking which offices or ministries could be opened up, for instance, to the divorced and civilly remarried, of course short of touching on moral or sacramental norms. 

A fundamental pastoral principle: strengthen marriages through education

It is true that we began our reflections by pointing out that Pope Francis did not want to put the reflections on divorce and remarriage in the focus of his text. Instead, literally at the center, that is, in chapters four and five, we find a profound reflection on love and its fruitfulness. The Holy Father reflects on St. Paul’s hymn to charity, as a way to overcome sentimentalism and to construct the Christian family on the solid Rock that is Christ.  Rather than propose a casuistry to resolve difficult cases, Francis wants to announce the Gospel of the Family. In doing so, he amply draws on St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, reflecting on God’s design for human love, thus actually going beyond the synods and remedying one of their greatest lacunas. Indeed we find in Francis’ document a rich treatment of some of the fundamental aspects of John Paul’s theology of the body, namely the significance of sexual difference, the indissoluble and faithful union between man and woman, and the fruitfulness of their love in their openness to life. The chief problem the Pope addresses is not the one of divorce, but the problem that marriage is no longer perceived as good news (cf. AL 34)

The apostolic exhortation confronts this problem with courage, attempting to open up new pastoral ways for proclaiming the good news of marriage and family for the life of the Church. Here Francis has individuated the way of education as central for the Church. The topic of education not only receives a dedicated chapter (chapter 7) but literally permeates the document. How is it possible, in the face of the affective analphabetism and the fragility of freedom that characterize our societies, to educate persons who are able to make significant life choices, who are able to commit their lives and say “forever”?  Here Francis lays out what is a most fundamental principle of healthy pastoral care: “Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown” (AL 307). The answer can only be in a renewed educational effort from the part of the family, the Church, and the different realities of social life. The document calls us to leave a casuistic logic and to put the question of education at the center of pastoral care.

·         Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium 

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About Stephan Kampowski 2 Articles
Stephan Kampowski is Professor of Philosophical Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute, Rome.