Amoris Laetitia on Sin and the Sacraments

Certain few passages in Amoris Laetitia are being singled out for harsh criticism.

Paragraph 298

298. The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”.[329] There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”. Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family. The Synod Fathers stated that the discernment of pastors must always take place “by adequately distinguishing”, with an approach which “carefully discerns situations”. We know that no “easy recipes” exist.

The divorced and remarried are in various situations. I’ll give some examples:
* Divorced and remarried but seeking an annulment for the first marriage. If the annulment is obtained, their new union can become the Sacrament of Marriage.
* Divorced and remarried, and the first spouse passes away. Again, their new union may become a valid marriage.
* Divorced and remarried, struggling to live as brothers and sisters, staying together for the sake of the children. If they fall into sin by having relations, they can go to Confession and then receive Communion — as long as they are repentant and trying not to sin.
* Divorced and remarried, but now separated, while maintaining some friendship with their former partner and some shared responsibility for the children.
* Divorced and remarried, but the first marriage (to an unbaptized person) was only a natural marriage. The Pauline privilege allows the first valid natural marriage to be dissolved, so that a second marriage, which is the full Sacrament of marriage, can take place.
* Divorced and remarried, and unrepentant; they have rejected the Church’s teaching on marriage and chastity.

Pastors should strive to bring this last category to repentance. The other situations are irregular, but if the persons are repentant, or if they are at least trying to give up these sins, they can have some participation in the Church’s life.

Some commentators are objecting to this passage: “a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” The “proven fidelity” does not imply that the adulterous second union has marital fidelity. It means that, if the couple can obtain an annulment, they might form a successful marriage with their current partner. And notice that the Pope adds, in this example, that the couple have an understanding that their union is irregular, i.e. not a valid marriage, and that they have some sense of trying to avoid sin.

This represents the type of couple that a pastor can encourage to greater faithfulness to Church teaching, to separate or to live as brother and sister. The “generous self-giving” and “Christian commitment” indicate that these persons are cooperating with actual graces, and therefore may more easily be brought to repentance.

In the case of a spouse who is not divorced and remarried, but is divorced because of unjust actions on the part of the other spouse, such a person is not guilty of grave sin and should be welcome in the parish.

In the case of a divorced and remarried, where the spouse is “subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”, obtaining an annulment may be possible. Then the new union can become a valid marriage.

After discussion different irregular situations, which clearly may include some culpability for those persons, the Pope asserts clearly his support for traditional Church teaching on marriage: “It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family.”

Footnote 329

John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), 84: AAS 74 (1982), 186. In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).

The situation discussed here (“in such situations”) is a divorced and remarried couple. The first thing the Pope says is that many of these couples know and accept the possibility of living without sexual relations. A divorced and remarried couple can remain together, refrain from relations, go to Confession, and then receive Communion.

Then the Pope notes that some of these couples assert — their assertion, not his — that abstaining from sex is difficult. Yes, I’m sure that it is. One difficulty is faithfulness. We can anticipate that, in many cases, one spouse is more dedicated than the other to the teaching of the Church that they may not have sex since they do not have the valid Sacrament of marriage. So there is a problem of temptation to unfaithfulness of that other spouse. Another difficulty is that the couple might drift apart, might argue more, might have a worse relationship because of the difficulty of refraining. And this can adversely affect the children.

Pope Francis loosely quotes Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, on the problems of danger to faithfulness and the disharmony to the family, when spouses do not have marital relations. Gaudium et Spes is speaking about valid marriages, where the couple does not have relations because they have serious reasons to avoid having any more children, at least for a time. But the concept still applies. It is a footnote about the difficulty faced by divorced and remarried couples, who have decided to repent and to live by the Church’s teachings.

Why is this passage even a problem? Pope Francis did not say they should have sexual relations. He did not say that the Church should approve of their remarriage. He did not justify adultery for the sake of a harmonious non-marital union. His critics are drawing unwarranted and uncharitable conclusions. But I know from having had many discussions with my fellow Catholics online that if these critics themselves were treated the same way they are treating the Pope — drawing uncharitable conclusions from what they say — they would be outraged.

Treat others as you would have them treat you. And treat the Pope at least as well as you yourself expect to be treated. Shouldn’t the Pope be treated with greater respect than you, since he is the Vicar of Christ? The arrogance of treating the Pope with such a lack of charity is astounding. Stop complaining about things that the Pope NEVER ACTUALLY SAID.

Paragraph 301

301. For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised. The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. 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. As the Synod Fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision”. Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well; in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: “Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues”.

The Pontiff is here discussing the distinction in moral theology between objective mortal sin and actual mortal sin (also called material sin and actual sin). Divorce and remarriage, absent an annulment, with sexual relations, implies adultery, if the first marriage was a valid Sacrament, and the second union is not. Therefore, sexual relations for that couple is objective mortal sin. However, actual mortal sin requires more than an objectively grave sin, it also requires full knowledge and full deliberation. It is ignorant and arrogant to assume that all persons who commit objective mortal sin, on a continuous basis without apparent repentance, are guilty of actual mortal sin and are not in a state of sanctifying grace.

Now I would opine that the divorced and remarried should not receive Communion, because they are guilty of objective mortal sin. And the same rule should, in my view, apply to EVERYONE. If you are unrepentant from objective mortal sin, you should not receive Communion. And this includes the most popular sins today: sex outside of marriage, unnatural sexual acts in marriage, contraception, abortifacients, masturbation, pornography. It seems clear that many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics commit such sins, without repentance or Confession.

In addition, adhering to heresy, or committing a sin of schism, are objective mortal sin. Very many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics are guilty, at least objectively, of adhering to heresy. And if they do not realize that these ideas are heretical, they are at least guilty of negligence in learning the Faith. Then, too, many Catholics go online to promote heretical ideas, while claiming that these ideas are Church teaching, or sound theology. And yet they receive Communion.

Many Catholics are now objecting to Pope Francis, to the extent of the objective mortal sin of schism. And yet they receive Communion — while complaining that the divorced and remarried cannot receive due to objective mortal sin.

Worse still, the vast majority of Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics NEVER go to Confession.

I can only conclude that the vast majority of Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics should not be receiving Communion. So it is disturbing to me when I hear persons speaking as if only the divorced and remarried are sinning or erring by receiving Communion. Most of those making that complaint are themselves also disqualified from reception of Communion.

[Matthew 7]
{7:1} “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
{7:2} For with whatever judgment you judge, so shall you be judged; and with whatever measure you measure out, so shall it be measured back to you.
{7:3} And how can you see the splinter in your brother’s eye, and not see the board in your own eye?
{7:4} Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter from your eye,’ while, behold, a board is in your own eye?
{7:5} Hypocrite, first remove the board from your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.

I see no substantial doctrinal errors in Amoris Laetitia, and nothing that contradicts any past infallible teaching. I also see no new definition of doctrine, so the contents present no newly-defined infallible teaching. Amoris Laetitia contains non-infallible teachings, as well as some discussion of possible decisions and general guidelines on discipline.

Many conservative Catholics wish that Pope Francis had taken a harsher approach to the divorced and remarried. But he holds the keys, so he can decide as he sees fit. One cannot use one’s own interpretation and understanding of traditional Church teaching to play judge and jury over the Pope, and issue a sentence of condemnation. Your own understanding can err. The conservative Catholic subculture, in its majority opinions, can err. The Pope is the head of the Church on earth, and you do not have the role of judging him.

Most of those criticizing Pope Francis are thoroughly ignorant of Church teaching and Catholic theology. They are not qualified to decide any questions of doctrine or discipline. And yet they arrogantly assume that whenever the Pope’s words are contrary to their own understanding, the only possibility is that the Pope has erred. Humility and prayer is the remedy here, not long explanations of each sentence spoken or written by the Pope.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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