Pope Francis uses the AAS to approve of the Buenos Aires interpretation of Amoris Laetitia

Some commentators are making a lot of noise over the inclusion in the most recent publication of the AAS (Acts of the Apostolic See) of a statement that two documents, a papal letter to Msgr. Fenoy and the document of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region have raised the interpretation of the latter document to the level of the “authentic magisterium”.

“The Supreme Pontiff decrees that the two Documents that precede [this Rescript] are to be made known by publication on the Vatican website and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, as authentic Magisterium. From the Vatican Palace, on the 5th day of June in the year 2017.” [Church Militant]

Well, let’s take a look at those two documents, and see what all the fuss is about. Pope Francis wrote a letter to Monsignor Fenoy:

“I received the document from the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region, ‘Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia.’ Thank you very much for sending it to me. I thank you for the work they have done on this: a true example of accompaniment for the priests… and we all know how necessary is this closeness of the bishop with his clergy and the clergy with the bishop. The neighbor ‘closest’ to the bishop is the priest, and the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self begins for us, the bishops, precisely with our priests. The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations. And I am certain that it will do much good. May the Lord reward this effort of pastoral charity.”

“Finally, I would like to recall that Amoris Laetitia was the fruit of the labor and prayer of the whole Church with the mediation of two synods and of the Pope. For that reason I recommend a complete catechesis of the Exhortation that will certainly aid in the growth, consolidation, and sanctity of the family.” [PDF source]

So the letter to Msgr. Fenoy merely approves of the interpretation given to Amoris Laetitia in the document by the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region. And here is the full text of the Bishops’ Guidelines for the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires. Some excerpts of that document, with my commentary, follow.

“We deem it convenient, as Bishops of the same Pastoral Region, to agree on some minimal criteria. We present them without prejudice to the authority that each Bishop has in his own Diocese to clarify, complete or restrict them.”

So the first point is that each Bishop, in his own diocese, may clarify, complete, or restrict these guidelines. Thus, the approval of the above quoted document clearly allows individual Bishops to disagree, and to issue stricter guidelines for Communion. The entry in the AAS only reinforces the authority of individual Bishops to disagree on the looser guidelines for Communion.

“1) Firstly, we should remember that it is not right to speak of giving “permission” for access to the sacraments, but rather of a discernment process under the guidance of a pastor. This is a “personal and pastoral discernment” (300).”

“2) In this journey, the pastor should emphasize the fundamental proclamation, the kerygma, so as to foster or renew a personal encounter with the living Christ (cf. 58).”

The pastor (priest) does not give permission for access to the Sacraments. Rather, the individual must make a judgment of conscience (as Canon 916 says). And the Church, with Her two keys, that is to say, Her authority over doctrine and discipline, also makes rules for reception of the Sacraments and gives guidance when a decision of conscience is also involved.

Too often conservatives make the mistake of seeing access to the Sacraments in terms of rules, rather than discernment of conscience under the guidance of the Church. Certainly, the Church has the authority to make rules as well as issue teachings, on who may receive. But under magisterial teaching, apart from the particulars of Canon law (which can be dispensed when the Canon is per se of the law, and not also of divine law or revelation), the Church permits reception of Communion when at least the following conditions are met:

1. the person is a baptized Christian
2. the person is not conscious of unrepented actual mortal sin

These two conditions are the minimum for reception of Communion, although further conditions usually apply, such as that the person be a believing and practicing Catholic. Non-Catholic Christians are admitted to Communion under some narrow conditions. I also refer the reader to my past post, explaining rare cases where an unbaptized person validly and licitly receives holy Communion.

Canon 915, which applies regardless of whether the sin is an actual mortal sin or merely an objective mortal sin, and regardless of whether the person is conscious that their act is a grave sin, is not of divine law. It is not dogma, but a general rule, which has been modified by the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, in his document Amoris Laetitia.

Some parts of Canon law are direct expressions of the teachings of the Church on faith, morals, and salvation. Such parts are not per se of Church law, but are included in Canons in order to better integrate changeable regulations with unchangeable truths. But the parts of Canon law that are per se of the law, are certainly changeable and dispensable, by the authority of Christ and His Church. For consider that the disciplines of the Old Testament, received by the Israelites from God by Divine Revelation, were nevertheless dispensed by Christ in their entirety (as the Council of Florence infallibly taught). Thus, no mere regulation of Canon law is binding on the authority of Christ given to Saint Peter and his successors.

The error of many conservatives is to see rules as if they were immutable divine laws, as if a regulation were a dogma. In reality, all the dogmas of the Faith are infallible truths because they are expressions of the very Nature of God, who is Justice, Mercy, Love, and Truth by His very Nature. To treat a regulation, even a wise and prudent rule based on sound practices from time immemorial, as if it were divine truth, is to imply, wrongly, that God is rules and regulations, rather than Love and Justice.

“3) Pastoral accompaniment is an exercise of the via caritatis. It is an invitation to follow “the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and integration” (296). This itinerary calls for the pastoral charity of the priest who welcomes the penitent, listens to them attentively and shows them the maternal face of the Church, at the same time as accepting their righteous intention and goodwill in placing their whole life under the light of the Gospel and in practising charity (cf. 306).”

So the pastoral accompaniment begins with several things. First, the sinner is repentant, which is why he or she is called “the penitent”. And the penitent must have an upright intention and goodwill, and these things are judged by the light of the Gospel and true charity. Therefore, there is no room for the approval of grave sin. The person must be a penitent, with an upright intention.

If a divorced and remarried person examines their life in the light of the Gospel, with the guidance of a priest, then sexual relations in their current invalid union is seen as an objective mortal sin. This is necessarily implied by number 3 above.

“4) This path does not necessarily end with receiving the sacraments, but may lead to other ways of achieving further integration into the life of the Church: a more active presence in the community, participation in prayer or reflection groups, or giving time to church activities etc. (cf. 299).”

A sinner who is brought back to the Sacraments, via discernment, guidance from a priest, an upright intention, and sincere efforts to conform their life to the light of the Gospel and true charity, may also participate in the life of the Church in other ways, beyond merely receiving the Sacraments of Communion and Confession.

“5) Whenever feasible, and depending on the specific circumstances of a couple, and especially when both partners are Christians walking together on the path of faith, the priest may suggest a decision to live in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties arising from this option (cf. footnote 329) and offers the possibility of having access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if the partners fail in this purpose (cf. footnote 364, recalling the teaching that Saint John Paul II sent to Cardinal W. Baum, dated 22 March, 1996).”

The priest suggests to the couple living a second union (divorced and remarried persons) to live in continence. They remain together, living in the same domicile, but they do not have sexual relations. Why is this described as if it were only one option? In many cases, the couple in a second union (not a valid Sacrament of marriage) should separate. It is not necessarily better for the children, and there might not be any children (who are minors).

The option to remain together in continence is difficult. But if the couple are sincerely trying to refrain from the grave sin of sexual relations outside of a valid marriage, and they fall, they can confess and subsequently receive Communion. How many times can they sin gravely, repent, and be forgiven by God? Many time. Though, at a certain point, they may decide that this option is not feasible for them. Perhaps the temptation to sin is too great in that circumstance, given human weaknesses. So they might need to separate, if remaining together in continence is not feasible.

In some other cases, the couple might obtain an annulment for the first union, then validate their current union as is permitted under Church law. Certainly, they may then have marital relations in their second union, and may receive Communion.

So much of the conservative commentary on this topic assumes the simple case of two Catholic Christians, one of whom has a prior valid Sacrament of Matrimony. That is not always the case. The oversimplification of these situations, and the dogmatization of the preferences of the conservative Catholic subculture on the discipline of Communion, is leading many persons to wrongly oppose the Vicar of Christ.

Now, does the question of feasibility imply that some couples in an invalid union might have sexual relations, with the approval of the Church? No, it does not. However, my reading of the documents on this topic is that the holy Pontiff considers that some couples will have sexual relations, even though it is an objective mortal sin in their case. And his response is not to close and lock all the doors of the Church. Instead, he wishes these sinners — who are not so different from any of us — to seek out their priest, to consider the light of the Gospel, and to be open to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a path to Communion. Now this does not imply that Communion is available to the unrepentant, or to persons who are not even trying to avoid grave sexual sins. It is merely a way to reach out to sinners, who are not yet sufficiently repentant to receive Communion. They begin a path that hopefully will bring them to Confession and Communion, and to a life that avoids all grave sin.

“6) In other, more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.”

And now we come to the particular discipline for reception of Communion with which I disagree. The Roman Pontiff has the authority to permit reception in such cases as described above, an objective mortal sin that is not also an actual mortal sin. The situation is that the couple in the second union are committing objective mortal sin by sexual relations. They do not agree with Church teaching, which necessarily implies that they are sinning by sexual relations. They believe that they are not guilty of mortal sin for these acts. The priest understands that they may well lack the full culpability of actual mortal sin. And so, the priest gives them absolution in Confession and Communion.

Is the absolution valid? It may be, since conscience is the primary determinant of whether an act is an actual sin. Supposing that the mitigating factors make their objective sins not also actual mortal sins, and that the penitents are truly contrite, in so far as their examination of conscience finds and repents from all grave sins, then the absolution is valid.

This situation occurs very often in Confession. For the majority of persons receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation have committed objective mortal sins without realizing that these acts are gravely immoral. They have accepted heresies, without realizing it. They have committed sexual sins, mistakenly thinking that these acts are not gravely immoral. And the vast majority of Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics commit objective mortal sins and never go to Confession. Yet they receive.

The discipline proposed by the Pontiff is first and foremost the actual practice found in nearly every parish and diocese on earth. And if the Church did not permit Communion based on the conscience — often sincere but mistaken conscience — of sinners, then the vast majority of Catholics could not receive, would not come to Mass, and would soon fall away from the Catholic faith altogether.

I disagree with that discipline. I think that the Church, sooner or later, must adopt the discipline of giving Communion only to persons free from all objective mortal sin and those who have repented and confessed. It may be God’s will, for the present time, to extend mercy to as many souls as possible. But it cannot continue for too long. Soon, the Church will adopt the stricter rule, which prohibits Communion to persons who reject definitive doctrine or who are unrepentant from objective mortal sin. And then most Catholics will fall away, in the great apostasy.

“7) But we have to avoid understanding this possibility as an unlimited access to the sacraments, as if all situations warrant it. The idea is to properly discern each case. For example, special care is called for in “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or in “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (298). Also, when there is a sort of justification or ostentation of the person’s situation “as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (297). In these difficult cases, we should be patient companions, looking for ways of integrating them (cf. 297, 299).”

Even under the looser rule chosen by Pope Francis, the Sacrament of Communion is not available to all sinners in all situations, especially in those who justify their grave sins or flaunt them, as if objective mortal sin were not sinful at all, but were part of the Christian ideal. And this occurs also in cases other than the divorced and remarried. Many heretics and many persons who are guilty of other objective mortal sexual sins claim that their grave errors and grave sins are good and holy and approved by the Church. Such persons are forbidden to receive Communion, even under the lax discipline of Pope Francis.

In such cases, the priest seeks a way to bring the sinner to repentance, so that they can return to Communion and to communion with Church life.

“8) It is always important to guide people to stand before God with their conscience, and for this the “examination of conscience” proposed by Amoris laetitia 300 is very helpful, specifically in relation to “how did they act towards their children” or the abandoned partner. Where there are unresolved injustices, providing access to sacraments is particularly scandalous.”

Even in the Buenos Aires interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, the divorced and remarried are not all given access to the Sacrament of holy Communion. Grave sin is clearly presented as something that makes a person unworthy to receive. And while conscience is important in determining who receives Communion, objective sin is not irrelevant.

The only part of Amoris Laetitia and this interpretation that is problematic is when the objective mortal sin is discerned to be not also an actual mortal sin, because the person does not accept the fullness of truth in Catholic teaching. Should all such persons be prohibited from Communion? If so, then most Catholics could not receive.

“9) It may be right for eventual access to sacraments to take place privately, especially where situations of conflict might arise. But at the same time, we have to accompany our communities in their growing understanding and welcome, without this implying creating confusion about the teaching of the Church on the indissoluble marriage. The community is an instrument of mercy, which is “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (297).”

The Bishops call access to the Sacraments “eventual” because they do not propose that all the divorced and remarried, nor all others who commit objective mortal sin, should receive Communion. And they repeatedly express concern for avoiding scandal and creating confusion on the indissolubility of marriage. Thus, many of the accusation made against these documents is inaccurate or false.

“10) Discernment is not closed, because it “is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can ena­ble the ideal to be more fully realized” (303), according to the “law of gradualness” (295) and with confidence in the help of grace.

Above all, we are pastors. This is why we would like to welcome the following words of the Pope: “I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen [to the faithful] with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church” (312).”

There is little wrong with this liberal approach to bringing sinners back to Communion. The reason that it raised such a great outcry is that it goes against common faults found among conservatives: treating rules like dogma, denigrating the role of conscience, and implementing discipline too harshly on weak sinners. I have also been shocked and dismayed to find so many Catholic authors writing against the idea of mercy, making it seem as if mercy must be kept within severe limits and be subjugated to the letter of the law. Instead, mercy and truth are entirely One in God, and so the truths of dogma can never be applied in a way that is merciless.

[Edited to add: Every Roman Pontiff has the authority to loosen the discipline for Communion, even to the extent of permitting any baptized Christian to receive who is not conscious of unrepented actual mortal sin. The discipline of AL does not violate this minimum.]

Well, the conservatives will have their way. The next Roman Pontiff will implement a discipline that prohibits from Communion anyone guilty of any objective mortal sin, unless the repent and confess (with few exceptions). And then most Catholics will stop coming to Mass, stop donating money, and membership in the Church will be reduce to a small fraction of the current size. The Church will fall into a great crisis, and it will seem as if the Mass and the Church were disappearing. And then the tribulation will shake the faithful of poor sinners even more so.

I am not exaggerating or guessing at what will happen. Under the discipline proposed by conservatives, not only the divorced and remarried, but anyone committing any objective mortal sin would not be able to receive Communion. And that includes most members of most parishes.

You’ve been warned.

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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16 Responses to Pope Francis uses the AAS to approve of the Buenos Aires interpretation of Amoris Laetitia

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    If someone is willing to live in a state of Mortal Sin, why wouldn’t they be willing to commit the Mortal Sin of receiving Communion in such a state?

  2. domzerchi says:

    If someone doesn’t know something is a sin, why would he confess it? And in the off chance he did mention it in the confessional in a way that indicates he does not intend to reform his ways and is not even accusing himself of sin, why would the priest leave him in ignorance? Maybe other people use the confessional for things other than confessing, but I only mention things I think to be or suspect to be sins. I would presume the priest would be morally obliged to correct a person who for some reason used the confessional to inform the confessor that adultery is not a sin and so I cannot envision a circumstance where the scenario you describe is practically possible.

    I would think that a typical person in an an adulterous civil marriage who did not know he was sinning would also probably not use the sacrament of penance. He might receive communion sacrilegiously, in ignorance, because he doesn’t understand it and he sees everybody else receiving, but that isn’t primarily his fault, it’s his pastor’s fault for not preaching and teaching what the sacrament is.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I heard a sermon, years ago, long before Pope Francis, in which the priest discussed divorce and remarriage. He said that he has had many conversations with different persons who are divorced and remarried. He tells them what the Church teaches, and they say, “I know, father.” He tells them that they should not be receiving Communion, and they say, “I know, father.” People often know that what they are doing is against Church teaching, and yet it does not seem like a mortal sin to them. They think (wrongly) they are making the best decision in their situation.

      People often mention their situation in Confession. They might mention that they are divorced and remarried, and are having difficulty with their new spouse, or their previous spouse. It can come up. Or the person might say that they just don’t agree with Church teaching on divorce, or on other issues like contraception. It does happen that penitents know that they are committing objective sin, under Church teaching, and they don’t see it as actual sin.

    • Marco says:

      “It does happen that penitents know that they are committing objective sin, under Church teaching, and they don’t see it as actual sin.”

      But how can this be?

      If someone:

      1. Believes that the Catholic Church was founded by God and therefore she is unable to teach wrong on faith and morals.

      2. Knows that the Church forbids his sin.

      If these two conditions are met, how can someone be justified by his/her conscience and be free from actual mortal sin?

      I mean, an ortodox can be free from actual mortal sin because his Church justifies his second marriage (therefore making nearly impossible for him to have the necessary subjective condition to sin mortally with the remarriage), but a catholic?

      That’s why i said that a catholic in such situation can be free from actual mortal sin if he/she lacks the ability to act otherwise without further guilt (Amoris Laetitia 301) but i don’t see how a catechized catholic can have a sincere but mistaken conscience, unless the priest fools him and says to him that such sins are no longer sins.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Many Catholics believe that the Church is founded by God, but that She can err in various ways. Church teaching is that infallible teachings cannot err, and all other teachings (called non-infallible) can err only to a limited extent. But the teachings on these grave matters of morality are infallible (under the universal magisterium). Lots of complicated things can happen in the minds and hearts and lives of sinners, obscuring truth. So it is not so simple as you say.

  3. ToddV says:

    Hi Ron. One factual item – Canon 915 was not even mentioned in AL or his letter so it certainly wasn’t explicitly modified. It could only be de facto modified (indirectly through silence) not de jure. But since Canon law is positive law, it is hard to understand how it could ever be de facto modified rather than de jure. It can certainly be ignored which doesn’t seem like the right way to go about changing it(to put it gently). I wish Francis was more attentive to Canon Law and if he wants to change it, then change it (and make the case as well that it is not rooted in Divine Law). Thanks. I always enjoy reading your blog (although I tend to skip the detailed eschatological speculations)

  4. Matt says:

    It bothers me when a Catholic Priest gives Communion to a politician such as Justin Trudeau who must know that abortion is gravely immoral. Justin can’t claim that he does not see it as an actual mortal sin. Catholic priests need to be bold and stand up for the truth and deny Communion to politicians, especially.

  5. Hello Ron,
    It is my belief that most divorced and remarried would admit that their condition is sinful, but they would also claim that they can appeal to some form of extenuating circumstances so that their divorce and remarriage is somewhat justified. Just to name a few circumstances: the case of a woman being abused by her husband and being left alone with children. Pope Francis seems to imply in AL that some of these extenuating circumstances may reduce both the guilt and the perception of irregularity by the divorced and remarried. I believe he’s certainly not erring in his judgment. Still, when thinking how to apply AL in the context of my parish, where I am member of the local council, I would have tried to pass a specific path to rehabilitation to the sacraments that takes many things into account. STEP 1: a scrutiny of the condition of the divorced and remarried. Is he/she a good father/mother to the children born in the true sacramental marriage? What about the relationship with the divorced partner? STEP 2: a period of catechesis and involvement in charitable activities, with regular meetings with the priest. STEP 3: If and when the candidate couple is believed to be ready, a public declaration of their new chaste and brotherly relationship, possibly with a generic blessing. STEP 4: Regualar confession and communion, where any failure in withholding from sexual intercourse is treated like any other sin, with an attitude of love and mercy. Under this condition, since their promise to live a chastely life is public, they may fill any other role in the life of the Church, including godfather/godmother or catechist. In this case, they may become an example for the others.

    • Matt Z. says:

      That may be the ultra gentle approach, although I dont understand how one could admit they are sinning yet justify there situation or why they would get a blessing. I would give them Venerable Fr.John Hardons audio talks on the indissolubility of marriage or Venerable Archbishops Sheens book, Three to get Married and call it a day!

    • Tom Mazanec says:

      Mentioning Venerable Archbishop Sheen, Ron, is there any hope of getting him Canonized? There is, if I understand correctly, some weird problem involving the location of his body holding up the process. What do you know about this?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t know anything about that.

    • Dora says:

      It is hard for me to imagine this level of transparency for people’s private lives in today’s churches. Would a childless couple need to make a public declaration they were not using birth control to alleviate questions of why they remain childless? Part of the issue I see with the divorced and remarried is just whose business is it to know whether they sinned last Saturday night or not? To me, it is a matter only for the priests.
      Sometimes due to the time slot, I attend one of the local guitar Masses where two women attend together, a lesbian couple. Must I be privvy to every step of their “journey” which may evolve very rapidly from week to week, or perhaps instead drag on for many years? Since I am my brother’s keeper, maybe this is important, but I am also required not to judge.

  6. Camilo says:

    “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”. (AL 301).

    What does this mean? “or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin”. Can you give me an example? Thank you.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Many Catholics unfortunately think that, even if the Church is correct in Her teaching against certain sins, there might be exceptions for difficult situations. This is certainly not the case for intrinsically evil acts. But many Catholics — including many teachers of Catholicism — have various ways to justify intrinsically evil acts, in their own thinking, as if difficult circumstances or good intentions were sufficient to make an act moral.

      Some Catholics know that an act is gravely immoral, due to Church teaching, and yet it also seems like the right thing to do, at the time, to the fallen sinner in a difficult circumstance.

  7. Camilo says:

    So what does Amoris Laetitia mean in that passage? Amoris Laetitia seems to justify adultery in these difficult situations.

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, it doesn’t justify adultery. What it means has been discussed at length in my other posts on the topic. Persons who commit objective mortal sins might still be in the state of grace, due to factors that reduce culpability. So they might be able to receive Communion.

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