The following article was written at my request by reader Marco, based on his excellent comments about Amoris Laetitia in other posts.
Many claim that allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion would go against Divine Law. They claim that such a change would contradict Catholic dogma. I’m sure that it isn’t true, and I’ll explain my understanding in the following article.
For one, I would like to make things clear: the divorced and remarried, if they do not refrain from any sexual activity, commit adultery, and adultery is always an intrinsically evil act. Adultery is always, in and of itself, an objective mortal sin. The Holy Bible is very clear:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Corinthians 6:9-11)
But we cannot infer, from this truth, that adultery always implies subjective culpability. In other words, we cannot, and should not, say that adultery is always an actual mortal sin.
The difference between the objective mortal sin of adultery and the subjective sinfulness (or lack, thereof) of the adulterers (subjective sinfulness which, if not followed by repentance before death, condemns the adulterer to hell, as 1 Cor 6:9-11 clearly states) is the principal argument that has been upheld to show that there is no intrinsic relation between the indissolubility of a validly contracted marital bond and the reception of the Sacraments for people living in objective contradiction with said bond.
Is the fact that God’s law is objectively contradicted by divorced persons who have remarried a sufficient reason to exclude them from the sacraments? Pope Francis clearly thinks not, because, as was already said, the objective sinfulness of a situation does not necessarily translate into full subjective guilt for individuals, “it 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” (Amoris Laetitia, § 301).
Only the sin committed with full culpability excludes the sinner from Heaven and deserves eternal punishment.
The conclusion that Pope Francis draws from this reasoning is that access to the Eucharist must be determined by pastoral discernment on a case-by-case basis. In other words, he softens the rule by applying the distinction between objective sin and subjective culpability. An irregular marriage-situation can be objectively sinful (contrary to God’s law), but if those involved in it either do not have full knowledge of its sinfulness, or if their decision to remain in it is not sufficiently free, then they need not be subjectively culpable. In that case, there may be no obstacle for them to receive absolution and Holy Communion.
And make no mistake, the fact that adultery is always an objective mortal sin is clearly stated in Amoris Laetitia, the Pope alluded clearly to this fundamental teaching: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully so—a person can be living in God’s grace” (§ 305, my emphasis.).
The fact that Pope Francis bases his argument on the reasons why subjective responsibility may be lacking in persons who are divorced and remarried is evidence that he takes the objectively sinful character of second marriages after a divorce for granted.
In my understanding, it’s hard to say that a validly married person may lack the full knowledge, and it seems to me that the Pope’s attention is focused on the second subjective condition—deliberate consent. Subjective responsibility for an objectively sinful situation may sometimes be lacking because the freedom of the parties involved is restricted as a result of various factors or circumstances, such as “duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments,” “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors” (§ 302, quoting the Catechism).
When the Argentinian Bishops, for instance, in their guidelines endorsed by the Pope and declared by him to be of the “authentic Magisterium”, say that “especially when a person believes he/she would incur a subsequent fault by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351)”, they are clearly referring, I think, to relationships in which one person is either not Christian or not practicing the faith, and also threatening serious consequences, e.g., leaving a civilly remarried spouse and children if they do not consent to sexual relations (which is pretty obvious because a non-Catholic would not understand such a requirement and this would seem to him/her as an absurd intrusion in his/her private life, thus damaging the relationship).
In this case the person might not be guilty of actual mortal sin, for example, if the divorced and remarried Catholic:
1. For serious motives is not able to separate.
2. He/she intends to refrain from acts proper to spouses, even though he/she can’t do that for the reasons explained above.
3. He/she has received the sacrament of Penance with this intention.
If these conditions are met, the divorced and remarried need not need be in the state of actual mortal sin and he or she can be absolved and receive the Holy Eucharist, if he/she receives in such a way as to avoid scandal. And I would like to point out that there is no general invitation made to divorced and remarried to receive, so it remains clear that it is not normal, but an exception for them to receive.
Many people, even high prelates, argue that a softening of the Eucharistic discipline for the divorced and remarried would contradict the divine law, and they draw from this (wrong) premise the (wrong) conclusion that Pope Francis is at least a material heretic.
But what if we actually have a precedent? What if the Church already allows people in an objective state of grave sin (which would be actual mortal sin if the subjective conditions are met) to receive the Catholic Sacraments? In that case, it would be impossible to condemn them without condemning that previous practice at the same time. And the fact is, said precedent actually exists.
I’m talking about the permission for the Orthodox Christians to receive Catholic Sacraments without converting to the Catholic faith.
This permission is explicitly stated in the new Code of Canon Law (1983), where Canon 844 § 3 says:
“Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.”
Now, this was by all means a “new” discipline, at least at that time, because the Church never considered schismatics, in 2000 years of history, eligible to Communion, unless they repented of their errors and embraced the Catholic Faith. This practice of excluding them from catholic Sacraments was clearly stated in codex iuris canonici ( 1917) Can 574 § 2.
“Canon 574 § 2: It is forbidden to minister the Sacraments of the Church to heretics and schismatics, even though they are in good faith and ask for them, unless they have first renounced their errors and been reconciled to the Church.”
And for a very good reason: it has been dogmatically taught that the schismatics are excluded from the Heavenly Kingdom, if they die in their errors (with the full culpability of actual mortal sin).
“It [the Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.” (Cantate Domino, Council of Florence, Session 11).
The same teaching was repeated in Lumen Gentium § 14 as well
“Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”
These condemnations are just as serious and infallible as the ones stated in 1 Cor 6:9-11 and reported at the beginning of this article, and imply that the schismatics, just like the adulterers, cannot be saved if they are fully guilty of their sin and they persist unto death in their sin without repentance.
Now, the current Ortodox Christians are certainly not guilty of the sin of leaving the Church, but they might be guilty of the sin of refusing to enter in it, the sin of refusing to embrace the Catholic Faith, the sin of persisting to remain in a schismatic Church. They are, at least, material schismatics, and this sin would condemn their souls to Hell if they realized the truth of the Catholic Faith and still decided not to convert (Lumen Gentium is very clear, talking about people who “would refuse to enter or to remain in it”, and so was the Council of Florence). Just like an adulterer who knows that he is sinning and can stop sinning (in this case he/she would be guilty of actual mortal sin because the two subjective conditions would be met) cannot be saved if he decides to persist unto death in said sin without repentance.
Then why does the Church allow Orthodox Christians to receive the Catholic Sacraments, even though their situation is, objectively speaking, a very dangerous one, knowing that if they realize the truth and still decide not to convert they shall not be saved?
Since these Christians are in a public state of material schism and material heresy, why doesn’t canon 915 exclude them from Eucharistic Communion?
The reason is that, thanks to their good faith, they might be in the state of Grace, which would allow them to be joined with the Catholic Church, although in an invisible way, and be saved.
We know that Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus is a catholic dogma, as I have clearly shown by quoting the infallible teaching from the Council of Florence. But that doesn’t mean that someone needs to belong to the Church in a visible way. Someone may reject the Church outwardly and still belonging to her, if his/her refusal is done in good faith. Every person who is in the state of Grace belongs to the Catholic Church, visibly or invisibly.
I’m not aware of any even semi-authoritative account, but suggest that the presumption is made that they are not culpable for their schism or heresy, and that this is a common and public presumption. In my understanding:
1. It is common knowledge that Orthodox are sincerely convinced of their position rather than moved by bad will, so their receiving Communion on their own request causes no great scandal with respect to the obligation to seek and adhere to the true Church.
2. There is no general invitation made to non-Catholics to receive, so it remains clear that it is not a norm, but an exception for them to receive.
1. If the non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches ask on their own for the Sacraments.
2. If the non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches are properly disposed.
3. If they are not able at the time to cease from the public schism, as that would be contrary to their convictions in conscience.
4. If they are well-disposed, having confessed any grave sins they are aware of and intending to avoid them in the future, etc.
If these conditions are met, they can receive the Catholic Sacraments, even though they remain in a state of material schism and heresy.
The point I’m making, at the end of the day, is that the Orthodox are in an objective situation of grave sin and they can be saved only thanks to their good faith, certainly not because their decision not to convert to the Catholic Faith is good and legitimate in and of itself. If they are deemed eligible to receive Catholic Absolution and the Eucharist, it is evident that even the divorced and remarried can be eligible to the Sacraments, if they benefit from mitigating factors reducing their guilt.
After all, the good faith of the Orthodox, which allows them to receive Catholic Sacraments and be saved, involves mitigating factors, and the divorced and remarried might be in the state of Grace as well due to mitigating factors such as lack of knowledge (unlikely, if they are validly married) or lack of deliberate consent (this is more likely for the reasons stated above).
It is plainly absurd to state that the divorced and remarried are intrinsically ineligible to receive Catholic Sacraments and, at the same time, claiming that unrepentant schismatics might be eligible. And it is plainly wrong to state that allowing the divorced and remarried, on a case by case basis, to receive the Sacraments, implies the legitimization of adultery, because it is tantamount to stating that allowing schismatics to receive Catholic Sacraments on the basis of their good faith implies the legitimization of their schism. Of course that is not true. Recognizing that a sinner doesn’t carry the full culpability for his sin in no logical way implies a legitimization of his sin.
My conclusion: claiming that Pope Francis is allowing and legitimizing adultery because he endorsed the Argentinian Bishops’ guidelines implies that the Church legitimized the sin of schism when She allowed, under Pope Saint John Paul II, the Orthodox schismatics to receive Catholic Sacraments.
So the papal critics are in a pinch, because they cannot logically condemn Pope Francis without, at the same time, condemning said discipline regarding the schismatics, which is from Pope Saint John Paul II. They simply can’t. It cannot be simply stated, for the reasons explained above, that the Church’s former legislation on the reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried was, in its entirety, a necessary consequence of the nature of Eucharist and marriage, and thus irreformable. Otherwise we would be applying a deplorable double standard, where the sin of schism “is not that big of a deal” and the sin of adultery is that big of a deal, when it is clearly not the case, since we know that the unrepentant guilty schismatic goes to hell just like the unrepentant guilty adulterer and that both of these sins are very grave.
We cannot say that adulterers are intrinsically ineligible to Communion and, at the same time, say that unrepentant schismatics, people who want to remain in the errors of their schismatic Church, might receive. For this would imply that we believe schismatics can be subjectively innocent while at the same time we believe that the divorced and remarried are always subjectively culpable, and this would be a grave form of rash judgment. Or, alternatively, it would imply that we believe refusing to convert to the Catholic Church is not, in and of itself, a grave sin, and this would be downright heresy, since it is dogmatically stated that every man and woman has the duty to convert to the Catholic Faith.