Errors in the Filial Appeal Petition – part one

The full petition is here:


The petition’s full title is: “Declaration of Fidelity to the Church’s Unchangeable Teaching on Marriage and to Her Uninterrupted Discipline”.

Even the title of the petition contains errors. First, the Church’s teachings on any subject might include infallible teachings, which are unchangeable (irreformable) as well as non-infallible teachings, which are changeable to some extent (non-irreformable). Not all teachings are unchangeable. And on marriage, the Magisterium has many teachings, some infallible and some non-infallible. Therefore, not all teachings on marriage are unchangeable.

Second, the petition implicitly proposes that its particular understanding and expression of that teaching is without any error. The petition does not speak as if it submits, to the judgment of the Roman Pontiff, one particular understanding of marriage. Rather, the petition speaks as if it were an expression of the infallible Magisterium. To the contrary, no number of signatures and no set of dignitaries in the Church can combine to overrule or pass judgment on the teachings of the Supreme Pontiff. Even an Ecumenical Council cannot overrule the current Pope. And no teaching of the Magisterium is infallible unless the Pope teaches the same. The teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium and the teachings of any Ecumenical Council both require the Roman Pontiff to agree to the teaching in question.

Third, discipline is not dogma. While dogma is an expression of unchangeable truth, discipline is a set of practices which are changeable and dispensable. All the Old Testament disciplines were dispensed by Christ and His Church (per the Council of Florence). And Christ gave to His Church authority over the New Testament disciplines. These disciplines can and have changed over time. The disciplines of the decretals were superseded by the first code of Canon Law (1917) and that Code was superseded by the second code in 1983. And even if a discipline were “uninterrupted”, it could still be changed. Discipline is not dogma. Whosoever treats discipline as if it were dogma is guilty of heresy.

Concerning Communion, the discipline on who may receive has varied in Church history. Hundreds of years ago, the usual practice in the Church was that most persons attending Mass did not receive holy Communion. This became so common that the Church made a rule, which has carried over to the current Code of Canon Law, that the faithful must receive Communion at least once a year, during the Easter season (Canon 920). So the discipline on Communion is not uninterrupted, and even if it were, the Church has the authority to change that discipline. Peter holds the keys.


The petition has tens of thousands of signatories. How many signatures would a similar petition obtain, if it said something like:

Declaration of Fidelity to the Church’s Teaching against Adultery, Premarital Sex, Contraception, Abortion, Pornography, Masturbation, Homosexuality, and Unnatural sexual acts in Marriage.

The answer is Not Many. The signatories are condemning the sins of other persons, while ignoring their own grave sins. Most Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics commit some of the above listed sins. These are also grave sexual sins.

In addition, most Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics do not truly submit their mind and will to the teaching authority of the Church. They believe whatever they like, often including multiple heresies. And yet they still receive Communion, and very few persons object.

It is blatant hypocrisy to adamantly and loudly object to one type of grave sin with regard to reception of Communion, while ignoring the many other grave sins, committed more commonly by Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics, without prior repentance and Confession.

It is just like the Pharisee in the Temple, who himself was guilty of grave sins of pride and refusal to love his neighbor, and yet who condemned the repentant publican. It is just like the crowd that intended to stone to death the woman caught in adultery, as if they themselves did not have any grave sins on their conscience.

And know this: when Jesus refused to allow the woman caught in adultery to be stoned, He thereby brought an end to the Old Testament discipline — established by Divine Revelation — of the Mosaic death penalty. The acts of adultery committed by some divorced and remarried persons (not all), do not require one and only one type of discipline in response. Peter holds the keys, and he makes the decisions. When Peter opens, no one can close, and when Peter closes, no one can open.

My theological position is that, ordinarily, anyone guilty of any objective mortal sin should not receive Communion, without prior repentance and Confession, including any and all of the above mentioned sins and any other grave sins. And anyone who hasn’t been to Confession within the last three or four months also should not receive Communion. But I submit my mind and heart to the decisions of the Roman Pontiff on doctrine and discipline.

Those who single out one grave sin, and ignore all the others, offend our Lord Jesus Christ by their hypocrisy. They are straining out one camel, and swallowing other camels (cf. Mt 23:24).

However, the absolute minimum for Communion is that the communicant be a baptized Christian, who is not conscious of unrepentant actual mortal sin. Is it ever acceptable, under the doctrine and discipline of the Church, for any Catholic Christian, who is conscious of actual mortal sin, to receive Communion, if he is repentant, without prior Confession? Yes. A priest who is repentant with perfect contrition is able to receive, under the teaching of the Council of Trent, if he is unable to confess to another priest prior to saying Mass. And this point proves that the doctrine of the Church, infallibly taught by an Ecumenical Council, permits reception of Communion in cases of grave sins without prior Confession, as long as the person is repentant.

Even so, the Church has the authority to tighten the discipline for reception, or to loosen it in certain cases. The only doctrinal limit is that the communicant must be baptized, and must not be conscious of unrepented actual mortal sin.

“1. We firmly reiterate the truth that all forms of cohabitation more uxorio (as man and wife) outside of a valid marriage gravely contradict the will of God in His holy commandments and, consequently, cannot contribute to the moral and spiritual progress of those involved or society.”

The Latin expression ‘more uxorio’ means ‘in the manner of a wife’. It implies that the cohabitating couple are sexually active.

Yes, sex outside of marriage is always gravely immoral.

However, it is possible — speaking in general now and not about the case of divorce and remarriage — for a couple to believe that have a valid marriage, and therefore to have sexual relations, and then later discover that their marriage was invalid. And this is the typical situation for couples granted an annulment. Does this imply that they sinned gravely, when, during the marriage that they each reasonably believed to be valid, they had relations? No, it does not. The situation is comparable to a person who asserts what he believes to be a truth, and later learns that the assertion was false. He was not guilty of the sin of lying, not even objectively. For his act was ordered toward the moral object of expressing truth, even though the act failed to attain that object.

Now, speaking of the divorced and remarried, a couple might mistakenly think that their second marriage is valid. Many Catholics today mistakenly hold to grave errors on matters of faith, morals, and salvation. So the couple might not be in a state of actual mortal sin, even if their acts are objectively gravely immoral. In such a case, the couple could be in the state of grace. Therefore, their love for one another, mistakenly expressed by cohabitation in an invalid attempted marriage, could contribute to their spiritual progress. And if so, then eventually they might come to realize the full truth about marriage, and correct their behavior accordingly.

The above stated position is similar to that of Pope Benedict XVI:

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” [Catholic News Agency]

Pope Benedict XVI opined that someone committing the grave sins of prostitution and homosexual acts could still make progress in morality, despite committing objectively grave sins. The same can certainly be said of a heterosexual couple who mistakenly think that their second marriage is valid.

How could they mistakenly think such a thing, when the teaching of the Church is clear? I ask the same question, again and again, about many different teachers of the Catholic faith, who repeatedly teach grave errors, in contradiction to definitive magisterial teaching. See my many past posts on this subject. And there are also many Catholics who discuss the faith online, who also have badly misunderstood Catholic doctrine. And yet all these persons receive Communion.

“2. We firmly reiterate the truth that marriage and the conjugal act have both procreative and unitive purposes and that each and every conjugal act must be open to the gift of life. Moreover, we affirm that this teaching is definitive and irreformable.”

There is a common popular error, a very grave error on marriage and sexual ethics, being spread by some teachers of Catholicism. The error claims that only the sexual act between a husband and wife must be unitive and procreative. These teachers condemn contraception ONLY within marriage. For they say that the requirement that sexual acts be procreative only applies to the marital act, and not also to sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

So when I read the wording of the above assertion (#2), which claims to be definitive and irreformable, I have to wonder whether its authors are implicitly asserting the error in question. Why did they write “conjugal act”, rather than the phrasing “sexual act” or “sexual intercourse” found in a number of magisterial documents?

It is also disconcerting for a petition, which is not issued as an act of the Magisterium, to claim that its wording and its expressed understanding is infallible. For the phrase “definitive and irreformable” always and only refers to infallible teachings. Perhaps the authors of this petition have misunderstood the infallible teaching of the Church on the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings of sexual acts.

“3. We firmly reiterate the truth that so-called sex-education is a basic and primary right of parents which must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home, or in educational centers they choose and control.”

The above assertion is a half-truth. Parents are (or should be) the primary educators of their children on life and relationships, as well as on morality — including sex education. However, the Church has the greater authority on any topic which pertains to faith or morals. And so an “educational center”, run by the Church, should not give parents full “control” over what is taught. The absence of any reference to the Church’s role in teachings on sexual ethics in the above firmly reiterated assertion is disturbing. It is as if the petition were issuing dogmas, rather than petitioning for something.

“4. We firmly reiterate the truth that the definitive consecration of a person to God through a life of perfect chastity is objectively more excellent than marriage, because it is a kind of spiritual marriage in which the soul is wedded to Christ. Sacred virginity was recommended by our Divine Redeemer and Saint Paul as a state of life that is complementary to, but objectively more perfect than marriage.”

True. I see no fault in #4 above.

“5. We firmly reiterate the truth that the irregular union of a cohabitating man and woman, or that of two individuals of the same sex, can never be equated to marriage, deemed morally licit, or legally recognized, and that it is false to affirm that these are family forms that can offer a certain stability.”

When we Catholics are a minority within sinful secular society, we cannot reasonably expect to control the laws. In a pluralistic society, unfortunately, some grave sins are not only legally permitted, but also have the favor of law and culture. As believers in truth, we must always seek to bring society ever closer to the fullness of truth taught by Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

The petition has no authority to decide whether these types of morally illicit relationships are a family, in any sense, or to decide if they offer a certain stability. I would opine that it is not contrary to Catholic doctrine to make the mild assertion that these relationships are, in some broad sense, a type of family, and that they offer a certain stability. More important is the truth that the persons involved may well have sincere but mistaken consciences, and therefore they may be in the state of grace. If so, then they truly love their neighbor, and their relationships, though objectively gravely disordered, may still contribute to their path of salvation.

A same-sex couple, who are sincerely mistaken on the moral questions at issue, can be in the state of grace, can have true selfless love for one another, and can die in the state of grace, even if they never correct their sincerely mistaken conscience.

I wish that everyone would know the fullness of truth by means of the Catholic faith in this life. But it is not an absolute requirement for salvation.

I should point out that the petitioners can morally faithfully disagree with Pope Francis on the point about family forms and stability. However, they are not justified in treating their own position as if it were definitive and irreformable, that is to say, infallible. The infallible teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium can be misunderstood, in this life, even by Saints, and all the more so by sinners.

“6. We firmly reiterate the truth that the irregular unions of cohabitating Catholics who never married in the Church, or divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage, radically contradict and cannot express the good of Christian marriage, neither partially nor analogously, and should be seen as a sinful way of life or as a permanent occasion of grave sin. Furthermore, that it is false to affirm that they can be an occasion made of constructive elements leading to marriage, for in spite of any material similarities they may present, a valid marriage and an irregular union are two wholly different and opposite moral realities: One is according to the will of God, and the other disobeys it, and is therefore sinful.”

Yes, all sex outside of marriage, even within a union approved by civil law or culture, is gravely immoral. However, I think the above statement is exaggerated, and makes unsupportable assumptions. A man and woman who are divorced and remarried may mistakenly believe that they have a valid marriage. And so their relationship may have some elements in common with a valid natural or supernatural marriage.

The Church permits the divorced and remarried to live in the same household, without sexual relations, if they have a grave reason, such as the good of the children. So it is not at all fair to say that such a situation would be “a permanent occasion of grave sin”.

“7. We firmly reiterate the truth that irregular unions cannot carry out the objective demands of God’s law. They cannot be deemed morally good or be recommended as a prudent and gradual fulfilment of the divine law, even to those who seem not to be in a position to understand, appreciate or fully carry out this law’s demands. The pastoral “law of gradualness” requires a decisive break with sin, together with progress towards the complete acceptance of God’s will and His loving demands.”

I agree with the above statement, except that (as I’ve already pointed out) persons who have a sincerely mistaken conscience, can be in the state of grace, despite their objectively irregular union and despite objective mortal sins. And they may, over time, gradually increase in grace, so that they make a “decisive break with sin”.

“8. We firmly reiterate the truth that, in the deeply personal process of making decisions, the natural moral law is not a mere source of objective inspiration but rather God’s eternal law. The conscience is not the source of good and evil, but a reminder of how an action must comply with a requirement that is extrinsic to man, namely the subjective and immediate intimation of a superior law, which we must call natural.”

True. But today the Church is in a dire situation. Most Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics have objective mortal sins in their lives, either sexual sins or sins of heretical beliefs. Many Catholic teachers are teaching false ideas which are gravely contrary to Catholic doctrine. And many Catholics are spreading false doctrines online. So why are the divorced and remarried the only ones being rebuked for their objective mortal sins? Does not the eternal moral law apply to all Catholics (and of course to all other persons) equally?

“9. We firmly reiterate the truth that a well-formed conscience, capable of discerning rightly in complex situations, will never reach the conclusion that, given the person’s limitations, his remaining in a situation which objectively contradicts the Christian understanding of marriage can be his best response to the Gospel. To presume that the weakness of an individual’s conscience is the criterion of moral truth is unacceptable, and incapable of being incorporated into the Church’s praxis.”

And yet the petitioners themselves have a conscience so weak that they believe they have the role to teach and correct the Pope. And many of them reject the magisterial teaching that each Pope has the divinely-conferred gift of truth and a never-failing faith. Their own understanding of Catholic doctrine is substantially flawed on serious matters. Yet they propose that no one can have a sincere but mistaken conscience on marriage.

It is true that the right conscience of a well-catechized Catholic Christian will rightly discern that the only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life. But it is also true that many prominent Catholic Christian teachers have rejected that teaching on sexual ethics, and substituted various other schemes, in order to justify contraception, abortifacient contraception, and unnatural sexual acts within marriage.

“10. We firmly reiterate the truth that people cannot look at the Sixth Commandment and the indissolubility of marriage as mere ideals to strive after. Rather, these are commands from Christ Our Lord, which help us with His grace to overcome difficulties, through our constancy.”

The vast majority of Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics commit grave sins against the Sixth Commandment (which sins include all sexual sins as well as the sin of contraception), without repentance or confession. And yet the petitioners raise no objection to their weekly, and sometimes daily, reception of Communion.

Fallen sinners are called to keep the commandments of the eternal moral law and especially to avoid all grave sins. But we know that many sinners fall into grave sins, and therefore need to go to Confession before Communion. In one sense, these commands are “ideals”, for the sinners who are struggling to keep the commandments might fall many times before freeing themselves from these sins. However, we all have sufficient grace, at all times, to avoid every actual mortal sin.

The Sixth Commandment is broken whenever married persons commit unnatural sexual acts, or use contraception for any reason, or use pornography, or commit any other grave sexual sins. And it is broken whenever unmarried persons commit any sexual acts. Yet the petitioners seem to have no concern for the vast number of cases where Catholics commit such sins, never go to Confession, and continue to receive Communion.

“11. We firmly reiterate the truth that the conscience which admits that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the Gospel’s demands for marriage cannot honestly conclude that remaining in such sinful situation is the most generous response one can give to God, nor that this is what God Himself is asking from the soul at this time, since either conclusion would deny grace’s almighty power to bring sinners to the fullness of Christian life.”

True. But why is this only applied only to the divorced and remarried? The lines for Communion are long, and the lines for Confession are short.

“12. We firmly reiterate the truth that, despite the variety of situations, personal and pastoral discernment can never lead divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage to conclude, in good conscience, that their adulterous union can be morally justified by “fidelity” to their new partner, that withdrawing from the adulterous union is impossible, or that, by doing so, they expose themselves to new sins, or lack Christian or natural fidelity to their adulterous partner. We cannot talk of faithfulness in an illicit union that violates God’s Commandment and the indissoluble bond of marriage. The thought of loyalty between adulterers in their mutual sin is blasphemous.”

I disagree with the claim that the thought in question is “blasphemous”. The mere thought, even if it were mistaken, of loyalty between persons who are objectively committing a mortal sin, perhaps with a sincere conscience, is not blasphemy.

Also, persons in irregular unions, who have a sincere but mistaken conscience, can express true love for their partner and a type of faithfulness, despite their objectively grave sins. If they do not realize that their acts are sinful and that their relationship is contrary to God’s will, they might still be in the state of grace and on the path to Heaven.

And it is also the case that most Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics are unrepentant from objective mortal sins. Yet, if these are not also actual mortal sins, they might still retain the virtue of charity. For example, many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics use contraception in their valid marriage. Despite this grave sin, they show love and faithfulness toward their spouse. Their grave sin does not preclude cooperation with grace in other areas of life, nor is an objective mortal sin always also an actual mortal sin.

So where is the petition to correct the majority of communicants who are unrepentant from other objective mortal sins? Why does the petition focus only on the sin of the divorced and remarried, and other irregular unions?

[continued in part two]

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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