Errors in the Filial Appeal Petition – part two

The full petition is here:

[continued from part one]

“13. We firmly reiterate the truth that divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage and who, for most serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, cannot satisfy the grave obligation to separate, are morally obliged to live as “brother and sister” and to avoid scandal. In particular, this means the exclusion of all displays of intimacy proper to married couples, as these would be sinful per se, and, in addition, would scandalize their own children, who would thus conclude that they are legitimately married, or that Christian marriage is not indissoluble, or that engaging in sexual activity with a person who is not one’s legitimate spouse is not a sin. Given the delicacy of their situation, they must be particularly attentive to the occasions of sin.”

Yes, the divorced and remarried who cannot separate must live chastely. However, the idea that a “display of intimacy” — apparently referring to public displays of affection, not sexual acts of any kind — is solely proper to married persons and is “per se” sinful is a ridiculous exaggeration. Mere affection, such as a hug or kiss or sitting with arms around each other is not sinful for unmarried persons (such as dating or engaged persons). And a sin is only “per se” immoral if it is intrinsically evil. The claim that mere affection (not sexual acts of any kind) are intrinsically evil outside of marriage is absurd, is not justified by a proper understanding of intrinsically evil acts, and is found nowhere in magisterial teaching.

The quote given to support this false claim uses the phrase “the acts proper to married couples” to refer to sexual acts, not acts of mere affection. So paragraph 13 severely distorts magisterial teaching on that point.

Scandal should be avoided, whenever possible. However, scandal is not an intrinsically evil act, but rather a bad consequence in the circumstances. Therefore, if scandal does occur when a divorced and remarried live chastely but remain together, they are not necessarily committing a sin.

Also, I am given to understand, from reading posts in online Catholic discussion groups, that some validly married Catholic spouses, especially those who have been married for some time, no longer have sexual relations. This situation is not rare. So it is entirely possible for a divorced and remarried couple to live together without sexual relations. It happens in valid marriages, and it can also occur in irregular unions.

“14. We firmly reiterate the truth that those divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage and who choose their situation with full knowledge and consent of the will are not living members of the Church, as they are in a state of serious sin that prevents them from possessing and growing in charity. Furthermore, we stress that Pope St. Pius V in his Bull Ex omnibus afflictionibus against the errors of Michael du Bay, also known as Baius, condemned the following moral opinion: “Man existing in the state of mortal sin, or under the penalty of eternal damnation can have true charity” (Denz. 1070).”

On the last point, the quoted teaching uses the term “mortal sin” to refer to what other magisterial documents call “actual mortal sin”. That is why they are under the penalty of eternal damnation, unless they repent. And that is why they lack the theological virtue of love (charity).

However, the petition instead equates objective mortal sin with actual mortal sin, and assumes that divorced and remarried persons have full knowledge and full deliberation. And that is a grave error on the part of the petition.

Also, the sin is not so much choosing a situation, as committing a form of adultery. Certainly, if any grave sexual sin (including adultery by the divorced and remarried) is committed with full knowledge and full deliberation, it is an actual mortal sin which deprives the soul of the state of grace and the virtue of love (charity). But the above paragraph ignores the fact that such persons might have a sincere but mistaken conscience, and therefore might not have full knowledge that their acts are gravely immoral.

How can this be? The Church has clear teachings on this subject. But one must ask the same question of the petitioners. How can it be that they put so many errors into the petition? How can it be that so many signed it, despite these errors? And how is it that so many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics are unrepentant from objective mortal sins, which are clearly contrary to the teachings of the Faith?

Well, we are fallen sinners, living in a complex fallen world. People sometimes fail to realize that their objective mortal sins are also actual mortal sins. I can’t be the judge of every divorced and remarried person. Some may be in the state of grace, and some may not be. But it is gravely immoral to pass judgment on them all, by assuming that none have a sincere but mistaken conscience and that all have committed their objective mortal sins with full knowledge and full deliberation.

“15. We firmly reiterate the truth that there is no halfway point between being in the grace of God or being deprived of it by mortal sin. The way of grace and spiritual growth for someone living in an objective state of sin consists in abandoning that situation, and returning to a path of sanctification which gives glory to God. No “pastoral approach” can justify or encourage people to remain in a sinful state, opposed to God’s law.”

The first sentence in #15 above is fine. But then the paragraph goes on to conflate objective mortal sin with actual mortal sin. In truth, if someone is “living in an objective state of sin”, they may or may not be guilty of actual mortal sin. And only actual mortal sin deprives the soul of the state of grace and deserves eternal punishment. Also, a person who remains in a sinful situation, due to a sincere but mistaken conscience, can still be in the state of grace and on the path to Heaven.

Then the last sentence of #15 is also fine. We who understand which acts are sinful should not justify or encourage any sins, especially grave ones.

“16. We firmly reiterate the truth that, since God is omniscient, revealed and natural law provide for all particular situations, especially when they forbid specific actions in any and all circumstances, branding them as “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum).”

The vast majority of teachers of Catholic ethics, including priests and theologians have NOT correctly understood and taught true doctrine on intrinsically evil acts, as presented to the faithful by the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So I sincerely doubt that the authors and signatories of the petition themselves have a correct understanding of intrinsically evil acts.

Moreover, the reason that intrinsically evil acts are immoral in any and all circumstances is NOT because God, being all-knowing, looked into every possible circumstance, but rather because the acts are wrong by their very nature. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention, regardless of circumstances, and regardless of other related acts. The petition does not mention intention, and this is troubling because one common error on intrinsically evil acts is to claim that intention can change the act, making it no longer intrinsically evil.

“17. We firmly reiterate the truth that the complexity of situations and the varying degrees of responsibility among cases (due to factors that may restrict the ability to make a decision) do not allow pastors to conclude that those in irregular unions are not in an objective state of manifest grave sin, and to presume in the external forum that those in such unions who are not ignorant of the marriage rules have not deprived themselves of sanctifying grace.”

The above quoted paragraph is an example of modern-day Pharisaism. It is like the sinful Pharisee praying in the temple, and his prayer is one of contempt and condemnation for the repentant publican.

The complexity of situations in this fallen sinful world, and the varying degrees of responsibility, due to factors that might make knowledge or deliberation less than full, do in fact, under clear and definitive magisterial teaching, make an objective mortal sin not also an actual mortal sin. And therefore, such persons have not been deprived of sanctifying grace by such sins.

The assertion to the contrary in #17 above is a grave error on morals. And while the objective sins of some persons are grave and manifest, the mere knowledge of “marriage rules” does not constitute the full knowledge and full deliberation needed for the sin to also be an actual mortal sin. For some Catholics, with a sincere but mistaken conscience, think that some teachings of the Church on marriage are wrong — just as the petitioners think that some teachings of the Church (as found in Amoris Laetitia) are wrong.

Indeed, a priest may speak to a couple, and may conclude that they lack the knowledge needed for their objective mortal sin to also be an actual mortal sin. He should also correct their ignorance and misunderstandings. But the correction of sinners is difficult.

We cannot be judges over souls, by assuming that all divorced and remarried persons are guilty of actual mortal sin and are not in a state of grace. God knows which souls are in the state of grace, and which are not. If anyone is not in the state of grace, may God bring him to it. If anyone is in the state of grace, may God keep him in it.

“18. We firmly reiterate the truth that, since man is endowed with free will, each knowing and voluntary moral act he does must be imputed to him, its author, and that, absent proof to the contrary, imputability must be presumed. Exterior imputability is not to be confused with the inner state of conscience. Notwithstanding that “de internis neque Ecclesia iudicat” (the Church does not judge what is internal – only God can do this), the Church can nevertheless judge acts that are directly contrary to the Divine Law.”

This phrasing is judgmental, condemnatory, and Pharisaical: “absent proof to the contrary, imputability must be presumed”. To the contrary, Jesus taught: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” [Mt 7:1]. And the Church teaches that “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.” [Gaudium et Spes 16].

The petition says: “Exterior imputability is not to be confused with the inner state of conscience.” Yet the petition does in fact confuse the two. The petition proposes to condemn persons who commit objective mortal sins, as if they had a conscience guilty unto actual mortal sin, by an exterior judgment alone. One cannot impute actual mortal sin and the loss of sanctifying grace to a person based solely on manifest grave sin, that is to say, a sin known in the exterior forum.

The Church judges all acts based on their objective morality (or immorality). However, she does not judge the conscience of particular individuals and whether or not they are in the state of grace — as the petition presumes to do.

“19. We firmly reiterate the truth that, in dealing with penitents, confessors should assist them to examine themselves on the specific duties of the Commandments, help them to reach sufficient repentance and to accuse themselves fully of grave sins, as well as to advise them to embrace the path of holiness. In so doing, the confessor is bound to admonish penitents regarding objectively serious transgressions of God’s Law, and to ensure they truly desire absolution and God’s pardon, and are resolved to re-examine and correct their behavior. Even though frequent relapse into sins is not in itself a motive for denying absolution, it cannot be given without sufficient repentance, or the firm resolution to avoid sin in the future.”

The burden rests primarily on the penitent, to ensure that his examination of conscience was diligent, and that he understands the eternal moral law as it applies to his own life and circumstances. The confessor can and sometimes should assist the penitent as stated above. But confession is not the primary place for a Catholic to learn about Church teachings on morality.

A confessor can deny absolution to a penitent, if the penitent is manifestly unrepentant. However, it is not true that the penitent must somehow convince the confessor of his contrition. In the absence of any evidence that contrition is lacking, the confessor is bound by the necessity of forgiveness for the salvation of souls to give absolution. The above paragraph speaks as if the confessor were to decide in each case if the penitent is contrite. But such a determination would be judgmental and presumptive. Only when a penitent is patently not contrite, should absolution be withheld — lest souls suffer the loss of eternal life because a confessor judged wrongly and denied the forgiveness that Christ was willing to give.

“20. We firmly reiterate the truth that divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage and do not separate, but rather remain in their objective state of adultery, can never be considered by confessors and other pastors of souls as living in an objective state of grace, able to grow in the life of grace and charity and entitled to receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, or be admitted to the Holy Eucharist, unless they express contrition for their state of life and firmly resolve to abandon it—even though, subjectively, these divorcees may not feel culpable, or not fully so, for their objectively grave sinful situation, due to conditioning and mitigating factors.”

This passage has the same problem as several others: objective mortal sin is equated to actual mortal sin. In truth, a divorced and remarried couple, whose first marriage was the valid Sacrament, commit adultery when they have sexual relations. However, there is no such thing as a “state of adultery”. A thief who steals every day commits the sin of theft every day, but he is not in a state of theft. A prolific murderer who kills frequently is not in a state of murder. And so on. Sin is a knowingly chosen immoral act, not a state.

A person can be in a state of refusal to repent from actual mortal sin. But in this case the state is the lack of habitual grace, due to impenitence. Even then, the state is not of the past sin, but of the continual refusal to repent.

As a matter of fact — and this is implicitly admitted by #20 above in its last sentence — a person who commits an objective mortal sin of adultery (or other grave sin) can possibly still be in the state of grace due to invincible ignorance or various mitigating factors (which cause the knowledge or deliberation not to be full). So it is contrary to truth to proclaim that no confessor or pastor of souls can ever acknowledge that fact: some objective mortal sins are not also actual mortal sins.

Absolution should be given by every confessor to every penitent who attempts a valid confession, unless the confessor sees in the penitent clear evidence of a refusal to repent from grave sin. Otherwise, souls might be lost by the refusal to forgive a sin that Jesus himself is willing to forgive. When confronted by the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her. But he did remind her that adultery is a grave sin.

This petition does not have the authority to order confessors to withhold absolution. In the confessional, the priest is the judge over souls, and it is his decision.

As for admittance to Communion, my preference for discipline is that, ordinarily, everyone who has committed any objective mortal sin must repent and confess before reception of Communion. I agree that the divorced and remarried, who are not living chastely, should decline to receive Communion. But priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion cannot judge each person who approaches and decide who should receive. It is of the internal forum, except for notorious cases.

“21. We firmly reiterate the truth that, as regards divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage and live openly more uxorio (as man and wife), no responsible personal and pastoral discernment can sustain that sacramental absolution or admission to the Eucharist is permitted, under the claim that, due to diminished responsibility, no grave fault exists. The reason for this is because their eventual lack of formal culpability cannot be a matter of public knowledge, while their outward state of life objectively contradicts the indissoluble character of Christian marriage and that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Holy Eucharist.”

Absolution must be given to all penitents who seek the forgiveness of Christ, unless they are manifestly unrepentant from grave sin. It is contrary to the mercy of Christ to assume a lack of contrition in the divorced and remarried. Perhaps the couple are striving to live chastely, and yet they fall into grave sin from time to time. The confessor in the confessional is the judge, and he can grant absolution or withhold it. The above petition has no authority over the confessor as the judge of souls in the confessional, to order him to forgive or to retain sins.

I would prefer a discipline in which anyone committing any objective mortal sin would not be permitted, ordinarily, to receive Communion, without prior repentance and confession. But Peter holds the keys. He can choose a stricter discipline, or one that is more loose. It is troubling, though, that the petition adamantly refuses Communion to the divorced and remarried, while remaining silent about the many other grave sins that are so common among Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics.

“22. We firmly reiterate the truth that subjective certainty in conscience about the invalidity of a previous marriage by divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage (although the Church still sees their previous marriage as valid) is never sufficient, on its own, to excuse one from the material sin of adultery, or to permit one to disregard the canonical assessment and sacramental consequences of living as a public sinner.”

If the prior marriage is not valid, then the current relationship is not materially (objectively) adulterous. However, sexual relations is only moral within marriage, and the second marriage, if it is only civil and the couple are Christians, would not be a valid marriage.

The term “living as a public sinner” seems to place more weight on publicly known sins, such as divorced and remarried sexual relations, as opposed to similar (i.e. grave sexual) sins that are not publicly known. And that is one of the errors of the Pharisees. Anyone who sins gravely should not go to Communion, ordinarily, before repentance and confession. Whether or not the sin is public does not change that rule.

“23. We firmly reiterate the truth that “Baptism and Penance are as purgative medicines, given to take away the fever of sin, whereas this sacrament [the Holy Eucharist] is a medicine given to strengthen, and it ought not to be given except to them who are quit of sin” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 80, a.4, ad 2). Those who receive the Holy Eucharist are indeed partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ and must be worthy to do so by being in the state of grace. Divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage, and thus lead an objective and publicly sinful lifestyle, risk committing a sacrilege by receiving Holy Communion. For them, Holy Communion would not be medicine but a spiritual poison. If a celebrant goes along with their unworthy Communion, either he does not believe in the Real Presence of Christ, or in the indissolubility of marriage, or in the sinfulness of living more uxorio (as man and wife) outside a valid marriage.”

Only persons who are in the state of grace should receive Communion. But one cannot know with certitude that one is in that state. So it is sufficient for the person to be a baptized Catholic Christian and not be conscious of unconfessed actual mortal sin. Reception of Communion, devoutly, forgives actual venial sin.

The celebrant of Mass does not generally know which persons are divorced and remarried. It is a ridiculous exaggeration to say that the priest who gives Communion to the divorced and remarried is guilty of one or another of the above-stated heresies.

“24. We firmly reiterate the truth that, according to the logic of the Gospel, men who die in the state of mortal sin, unreconciled with God, are condemned to hell forever. In the Gospels, Jesus frequently speaks about the danger of eternal damnation.”

The type of sin that condemns to Hell is actual mortal sin, not merely objective mortal sin. This distinction is blurred or lacking in many of the above paragraphs.

“25. We firmly reiterate the truth that the clear teaching of the truth is an eminent work of mercy and charity, because the first saving task of the Apostles and their successors is to obey the Savior’s solemn command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28: 19-20).”

Yes, but the petition above contains many errors, contrary to the truth of the Gospel. The petitioners are using this document to oppose the teaching authority of Peter, chief Apostle.

“26. We firmly reiterate the truth that the impossibility of giving absolution and Holy Communion to Catholics living manifestly in an objective state of grave sin, such as those who cohabitate, or the divorcees who have attempted a civil marriage, stems from the Church’s maternal care, since She is not the owner of the Sacraments, but rather the “faithful steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4: 1).”

Absolution and Communion can be given to the divorced and remarried, if the priest or confessor is convinced that the couple are living chastely, or are attempting to live chastely, even though they may fall into grave sin from time to time. Confession is for the forgiveness of sin, especially grave sin. If someone commits adultery and is repentant, the universal salvific will of God requires absolution to be given. It is blatant Pharisaism for the “manifest” or “objective state” of a divorced and remarried couple living in the same home to be equated to actual mortal sin and impenitence. It is possible to give absolution and Communion to them, in some cases. All that is needed is repentance and the firm resolve to avoid grave sin in the future.

“27. We firmly reiterate the truth that the doctrinal, moral and pastoral questions concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Marriage shall be resolved by interventions of the Magisterium and, by their very nature, preclude contradictory interpretations of that teaching, or the drawing of substantially diverse practical consequences from it on the ground that each country or region can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its tradition and local needs.”

And yet the petition itself contradicts this reiteration of truth, since it contains errors on morals and is being used to oppose the papal Magisterium. Though Amoris Laetitia does contain a few errors (far short of heresy), the petition contains many more errors, which are also more serious.

Conclusion: “we, the undersigned bishops, priests and Catholic faithful, consider it our duty and privilege to declare, with one voice, our fidelity to the Church’s unchangeable teachings on marriage and to Her uninterrupted discipline, as received from the Apostles.”

The petitioners are not really declaring fidelity to the Church’s doctrine and discipline, but only to their own misunderstanding of doctrine and discipline. The phrasing “as received from the Apostles” is particularly hypocritical, since the petition is being used to oppose the authority of the current successor of Peter, chief Apostle.


The petition proposes to correct some errors in Amoris Laetitia. In my opinion, Amoris Laetitia does contain a few errors. However, these errors do not rise to the level of heresy. And errors certainly are found in other magisterial documents. For example, the CCC contains an error on lying, even after being corrected for a different error on the same topic (in the first edition). The petition contains some useful clarifications and corrections regarding Amoris Laetitia. But it adds many more errors than it corrects.

Most alarmingly, the petition speaks as if it were an expression of the infallible teaching authority of the Church, when in fact it is not an expression of the Magisterium at all. So far from being infallible, the petition proposes more errors than Amoris Laetitia might possibly contain. The expression “we firmly reiterate the truth” seems to be a claim that the subsequent assertions cannot possibly be false. And yet the petition contains grave errors, which are far more serious than any errors found in Amoris Laetitia.

Peter holds the keys. If he closes, no one can open. If he opens, no one can close. If Pope Francis wishes to have a looser standard for reception of Communion, permitting all baptized Catholics, who are not conscious of actual mortal sin to receive, he can do so. If the next Pope wishes to have a stricter standard (such as I would prefer), admitting only persons who are not conscious of objective mortal sin, unless they have been to Confession, he can do so.

No matter how many signatories a petition may have, the authority of Peter is greater still.

“It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” — Fifth Lateran Council

“This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.” — First Vatican Council

Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam:

“7. Therefore, if the earthly power goes astray, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, [it will be judged] by its superior; and truly, if the highest [power] goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone. And so the Apostle testifies, “The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.” [1 Corinthians 2:15]”

“8. But this authority, even though it may be given to a man, and may be exercised by a man, is not human, but rather divine [power], having been given by the divine mouth [of Christ] to Peter, and to him as well as to his successors, by [Christ] Himself, [that is, to him] whom He had disclosed to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: “Whatever you shall bind,” [Matthew 16:19] etc. Therefore, whoever resists this authority, such as it has been ordain by God, resists the ordination of God. [Romans 13:2]”

No petition has the authority to overrule the Roman Pontiff.

Finally, I would like to point out that, if persons who commit the manifest objective mortal sin of adultery by being divorced and remarried may not receive Communion, then certainly also, under the same standard, persons who commit the manifest objective mortal sins of schism or of teaching heresy also may not receive.

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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5 Responses to Errors in the Filial Appeal Petition – part two

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    At the end of your comment on 19 you say

    Only when a penitent is patently not contrite, should absolution be withheld — lest souls suffer the loss of eternal life because a confessor judged wrongly and denied the forgiveness that Christ was willing to give.

    What happens if a Priest in Confession incorrectly believes a penitent is not contrite (perhaps because he has often confessed the same sin he is struggling with, such as masturbation), refuses absolution, and then the penitent dies…does he go to Hell?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Confessing the same sin, even many times, does not indicate a lack of contrition. But the Council of Trent infallibly taught that the confessor has the authority to “retain sins”, that is, to refuse absolution. The reason is that, if he were to give absolution when the penitent is not contrite, the Sacrament would not be valid. No contrition equals invalid absolution.

  2. Tom Mazanec says:

    What happens if a Priest retains a sin when the penitent IS contrite?

  3. Chris says:

    I’m not a fan of judging the Pope by any means and would never sign this document… but the laity have the right to “senses fidei”. So to disregard them and say their voice does not matter only the magisterium has the right to discuss these issues is not good. You also attack them a lot because they do not talk about the evils of pornography, sexually illicit behavior, and other mortal sins… the document is about marriage and it would not make sense to discuss that here. Finally as Pope Francis is our supreme teacher he should teach with clarity. Amorous Laetitia is confusing the faithful because of its ambiguity, and this petition is a reaction to that ambiguity. Don’t be so harsh on those who feel confused by this document…. because it is confusing to the lay faithful who were taught one thing and now are being told something else while claiming Church teaching on Faith and Morals can not, and will not ever be changed. God Bless

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