Serving the Divorced and Remarried Well

The perils of using subjective standards in interpreting disputed sections of Amoris Laetitia indicates the pressing need for a new Vademecum to help guide confessors

Following Pope Francis’ release of Amoris Laetitia (AL), many in the Church expressed serious concerns that the Pope was, in effect, driving a dangerous wedge between Church doctrine and pastoral practice, as if you could uphold the indissolubility of marriage on the one hand, but be more accommodating to divorced and remarried couples [1] on the other, including permitting them to receive the Eucharist even if they didn’t live in “complete continence” (i.e., refrain from sexual relations).  This was constructively criticized as a marked departure of the Church’s perennial discipline that Pope John Paul II repeatedly affirmed during his pontificate, with the support of the future Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF]).

Pope Francis, the Church’s 1997 Vademecum and Gradualness

Some moral theologians have quietly argued that the Pope’s words could be viewed as consistent with St. John Paul II’s, in light of a Vademecum [2] for confessors to aid couples struggling with the Church’s teaching on contraception, which was issued by the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1997, i.e., during John Paul II’s pontificate.

After all, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis spoke about invincible ignorance or some other reason, e.g., being coerced, that could mitigate the subjective culpability of those who engage in objective grave wrongdoing, in this case adultery (nos. 298, 301-02, 305; cf. CCC 1735).  And the 1997 Vademecum noted the same with respect to married couples who contracept (3.7-9, 3.13).

In addition, Pope Francis mentioned briefly the moral principle of gradualness (AL 295), and the Vademecum does so in greater detail, noting that it “consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands” (no. 3.9, emphasis original; cf. CCC 1793).  Gradualness or gradualism is distinguished from the morally untenable “‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations” (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio [FC], 1981, no. 34).

In summary, as the 1997 Vademecum makes clear, gradualness is to help a penitent overcome any invincible ignorance, so they can embrace the Church’s teaching fully, with the same moral goal provided for married couples in which one spouse is coercively insisting on contraception.  Applied to the case of the divorced and invalidly remarried, that would mean always leading divorced and remarried couples toward living as brother and sister, i.e., completely refraining from sexual relations.  And also possibly, some would argue, allowing for a spouse or spouses to receive the Eucharist along the way, provided their confessor believed their ignorance or diminished freedom made them subjectively inculpable of grave sin, and therefore eligible to receive benefit from Holy Communion—albeit discreetly to avoid any public scandal.

And when they progress to living as brother and sister, in conformity with FC 84, canonist Edward Peters notes here and here that Canon Law provides that their reception should remain discreet/private, because the norms of Canon 915 refer to the objective nature of their “manifest grave sin,” which remains as a public reality, even though they are living as brother and sister privately, something which can’t be determined by a minister of Holy Communion. In these cases, I would recommend that such couples be pastorally encouraged to come forward during Mass to receive a blessing at Communion time, to affirm them in their decision to live as brother and sister. Other divorced and remarried couples can be encouraged to do the same, in the hope of their fully embracing Church teaching as well.

Arguing for Something More Expansive

However, as we can see from two recent implementations of Amoris Laetitia to which the Pope has given his approval, Pope Francis undoubtedly has something more expansive in mind.

In response to charges of heresy by some, Pope Francis will not and cannot change the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of a valid marriage between two Christians.  Nor, I would argue, will he attempt to formally amend the Church’s canon law prohibiting Holy Communion to those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” (canon 915).  Yet—and despite his good intentions—I charitably submit that the Holy Father is venturing down a rather precarious pastoral path, one that, if continued, threatens to seriously undermine 1) the Church’s teaching authority, including his own and that of the Church’s marriage tribunal system; 2) the Church’s teaching on marriage and family in particular, and 3) marriage and family life within the Church in general.

Bishops from the Argentinian region of Buenos Aires were the first to issue norms on Amoris Laetitia last month, and Pope Francis affirmed their guidelines resoundingly, saying, “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” 

The Argentinian Bishops say that, “whenever feasible,” couples who cannot separate for serious reasons, e.g., to provide for children, should be encouraged to live as brother and sister, with recourse to Sacrament of Reconciliation when they stumble in that endeavor (no. 5).  That is all good.

In “more complex cases” that include mitigated subjective culpability, e.g., “especially when a person believes he/she would incur a subsequent fault by harming the children of the new union,” the Argentinian Bishops add (no. 6), “Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).”  The Buenos Aires Bishops are unhelpfully vague here, but Father Raymond De Souza is likely correct in concluding that they are probably referring to relationships in which one person is either not Christian or not practicing the faith, and also threatening serious consequences, e.g., leaving a civilly remarried spouse and children if they do not consent to sexual relations.

Regarding these couples’ reception of the Eucharist, and aware of concerns of the public scandal of their doing so, the Buenos Aires Bishops state that “it may be convenient for an eventual access to sacraments to take place in a discreet manner, especially if troublesome situations can be anticipated” (no. 9).  More than being convenient, it would seem pastorally imperative, again assuming such couples were being led to live as brothers and sisters as the moral principle of gradualness would require, and provided that there were indeed mitigating factors re: their subjective culpability.

The Perils of the Internal Forum for Determining Marital Validity

More recently, Cardinal Agostino Vallini issued guidelines for the Diocese of Rome as its vicar general, which presumably have the approval of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, since Cardinal Vallini publicly proclaimed them, and also posted them on the diocesan website without papal correction. Veteran Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister reported on Cardinal Vallini’s guidelines, with extensive excerpts.

Cardinal Vallini makes some good points, including that the divorced and remarried should be welcomed and encouraged to participate in the Church’s parish life, including the liturgy—e.g., the choir, prayer of the faithful and offertory procession—and be supported by “pastoral worker couples.” 

Like the Argentinian Bishops, Cardinal Vallini encourages couples to live as brother and sister, similarly not precluding admission to the Eucharist to those for whom the decision to live as brother and sister “is difficult to practice for the stability of the couple.”

But then Cardinal Vallini—and by extension, Pope Francis—takes a fateful step, and it proceeds logically from the pastorally and theologically vulnerable guidelines of Amoris Laetitia.  He speaks about possibly allowing reception of the Eucharist for those couples in which “there is the moral certainty that the first marriage was null but there are not the proofs to demonstrate this in a judicial setting,” i.e., in a case before a marriage tribunal (emphasis added).

Who is to make this “morally certain” determination?  Given his role in the internal forum (i.e., the confessional), and after a long period of pastoral guidance, “it can be none other than the confessor, at a certain point, in his conscience, after much reflection and prayer, who must assume the responsibility before God and the penitent and ask that the access take place in a discreet manner.”

However well-intended are the reasons for utilizing the internal forum for this purpose, the subjective nature of the decisions made therein necessarily cannot be confirmed in the external forum, that is, a marriage tribunal.  And so the mainstreaming of this subjective standard will unmistakably open the door to ecclesiastical anarchy, as local priests and even the lay faithful seek to fill the resultant vacuum of authority regarding Church oversight.

For example, what divorced and remarried couple won’t find it difficult to live as brother and sister and thus find incentive to discern with “moral certainty” that their first marriages were invalid?  And this would presumably include the likely not infrequent cases of couples in which there are no mitigating factors of invincible ignorance or coercion.  And we shouldn’t be surprised if such couples expedite this subjective discernment process, seeking a more favorable diocese and priest, as needed, or perhaps making the decision on their own and choosing a parish in which they’re not as well-known to avoid concerns of scandal.

Or, if the number of these couples grow, and they’re assisted by well-intentioned priests who help them expedite the discernment process, perhaps their reception of Holy Communion might eventually become more public and welcoming under the pastoral aegis of a greater application of God’s mercy by parishes around the world.

And for validly married spouses who experience difficulties, might they not be more likely to seek a divorce when they come to their own “moral certainty” that their marriage is actually null, instead of persevering to resolve their marital difficulties?  Not surprisingly, Magister and Father Basilio Petrà, the president of the Italian moral theologians, anticipate similar outcomes if “the floodgates” are opened by these and similar implementations of Amoris Laetitia.

But internal-forum advocates will respond that acts of contraception are always objectively evil, whereas a good number of these couples may actually have been in invalid marriages and thus deserve this form of ecclesiastical relief.  Contraception is intrinsically evil, and marriage tribunals can possibly make errors in judging cases.  Yet, subjective evaluations are inadequate to resolve questions of marital validity.  Indeed, any imperfections of marriage tribunals are easily and clearly exceeded by internal-forum judgments, which have no objective standards that can be double-checked by impartial judges and also cannot be cross-examined by a defender of the marriage bond.  In significant contrast, internal-forum judgments will subject the Church to much harm, as noted.  Consequently, through its laws, the Church has to safeguard the ecclesiastical common good, which would be deleteriously impacted by the practical and varied reverberations of subjective internal-forum policies. 

Turning the Ecclesiastical Tide

Still, internal-forum advocates will persist, citing the CDF’s 1998 document “Concerning Some Objections to the Church’s Teaching on the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful”:

Others maintain that exceptions are possible here in the internal forum, because the juridical forum does not deal with norms of divine law, but rather with norms of ecclesiastical law. This question, however, demands further study and clarification. Admittedly, the conditions for asserting an exception would need to be clarified very precisely, in order to avoid arbitrariness and to safeguard the public character of marriage, removing it from subjective decision (no. 3c, emphases added).

Yet, here we see that the CDF—and by extension St. John Paul II—actually reaffirms the Church’s perennial position that issues of marital validity cannot be resolved by subjective decisions in the internal forum, precisely “to safeguard the public character of marriage.”  And more recently, in its “Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who Are Divorced and Remarried”, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts—in agreement with the CDF and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments—provides further affirmation of the Church’s perennial position, noting first that canon 915 is derived from divine law, namely St. Paul’s teaching on the perils of unworthy reception of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:27-30), and that changes to canon law cannot contradict that unchangeable, biblically based doctrine of the Church.

In addition, consistent with Peters’ prevously noted analysis, the Declaration adds that “manifest grave sin” refers to objective sin, since a minister of Communion would not be able to make judgments on a communicant’s subjective culpability.  

Pope Francis is certainly right in saying the Church must do more to accompany the divorced and remarried.  Yet, any efforts must be unambiguously faithful to authentic Church teaching and pastoral practice, for the benefit of all concerned, including supporting divorced and remarried couples if new evidence arises that might reverse earlier canonical judgments about their first marriages.  And encouraging them that faithful reception of the sacraments will not only aid them to bear their crosses, but bear them fruitfully.  That’s all legitimate mercy and accompaniment.  Cardinal Ennio Antonelli covers these bases well in new guidelines for the Archdiocese of Florence.

However, a new Vademecum, which should be written under the close supervision of the CDF, would go a long way toward normalizing the Church’s pastoral outreach to the divorced and invalidly remarried, which is needed.  It would help priests navigate difficult confessional waters well, and also serve as a bulwark against morally lax interpretations and applications that might otherwise prevail widely, given the current ecclesiastical climate.  After all, as the CDF concludes in its aforementioned 1998 document (no. 5), any love and mercy that is not grounded in the truth is not worthy of the name:

If at times in the past, love shone forth too little in the explanation of the truth, so today the danger is great that in the name of love, truth is either to be silenced or compromised. Assuredly, the word of truth can be painful and uncomfortable.  But it is the way to holiness, to peace and to inner freedom.  A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth.  In the end, only the truth can be pastoral. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32).


[1] The term “divorced and remarried” is used here, as in various Church documents, to refer to those who are invalidly remarried. We recognize that there are those Catholics who have divorced, obtained an annulment and thereafter remarried validly.

[2] A “Vademecum,” Latin for “to accompany me,” is a set of theological and pastoral guidelines for confessors to serve penitents better.

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About Thomas J. Nash 13 Articles
Thomas J. Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers and a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register. He is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church and The Biblical Roots of the Mass. He has served the Catholic Church professionally for more than 35 years, including as a Theology Advisor for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

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  1. Online text: “The Natural Law, the Marriage Bond, and Divorce”, by Dr. Brendan F. Brown | Catholic eBooks Project

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