Reflections on Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia
The most controverted part of Chapter 8 is the passage in which Pope Francis states that “[b]ecause 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 such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end,” and further states in a footnote that “[i]n certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” He then makes reference in the footnote first to the Sacrament of Confession and then to the Eucharist. I offer the following in the hope that it will contribute to a better understanding of the Pope’s teaching in Chapter 8 of his Apostolic Exhortation, without pretending to completely resolve all problematic elements and without suggesting that the magisterial teaching contained therein is, in its every formulation, the last-word Gospel truth without room for clarification or fine-tuning.
With the aim of grasping the Pope’s teaching concretely, let us start with the situation of Latin American Catholics. In thispopulation, there is a low percentage of divorced and remarried Catholics, but there is a high percentage of marriages that are irregular because they were entered into in the absence of canonical form, that is, civil marriages (involving at least one baptized Catholic) that have never been convalidated in the Church. The pastoral problem that often presents itself in ministering to Catholics in this situation is not access to Holy Communion but access to the Sacrament of Penance. Priests who serve the Hispanic Catholic population not infrequently find themselves ministering to a penitent who is in a civil marriage, a circumstance which is sometimes adverted to by the penitent but other times must be elicited through judicious questioning. The normal pastoral response is to encourage the penitent to work towards resolving the situation, deferring or, if you will, denying absolution for the time being until the irregularity is close to being resolved (except in the exceptional case where an on-the-spot commitment to live as brother and sister seems realistic). The sound thinking behind this response is that penitents must be helped by the priest to make—and are only effectively helped by making—an integral confession, including a detestation of all serious sins for which the penitent has to repent. Since for a Catholic to live a conjugal life in a merely civil marriage is a serious contradiction of the objective truth about marriage, it is morally incoherent for priest or penitent to dodge this issue, even if the penitent feels sincerely sorry for other sins committed.
The approach just outlined is certainly the right one for cases in which a Catholic party to a civil marriage is freely electing to continue in a conjugal union without binding himselfthrough the irrevocable personal consent that can only be accomplished by marriage in the Church. As one priest friend (who has helped great numbers of Hispanics to marry in the Church) put it, “Anglos don’t marry in the Church because they don’t believe in the Sacrament; Hispanics don’t marry in the Church because they do believe in the Sacrament!” In such cases, as Pope St. John Paul II taught in Familiaris Consortio, the “physical donation”—outside the context of that total, unconditional commitment, unable to be taken back, which society calls marriage—would be a “deceit,” and such an offense in this grave matter would need to be repented of for a good confession to be made.
Nevertheless, ministering to Latin American Catholics in civil marriages with discerning mind and heart also leads to the discovery of many cases in which the spirit of fornication is not present but rather a conscience that is relatively innocent. The failure to marry in the Church is due not to resistance to the Sacrament of Matrimony or to a lifetime commitment but ratherto “cultural or contingent situations,” Amoris Laetitia (AL) 294, for example, extreme poverty that makes even a simple church wedding seem beyond reach, or the looming obstacle—sometimes subjectively viewed as insurmountable—of never having received First Holy Communion, or persistent difficulty in obtaining a baptismal certificate (owing sometimes to unhelpful parishes in the home country). Even in these cases,however, the common pastoral practice has been nonetheless to withhold the help of the Sacraments, in particular the Sacrament of Confession, for the sake of leading the penitent to rectify his irregular situation, however understandable or even justified it may have been up to that point, and also for the sake of maintaining public order in the Church and avoiding scandal—the leading of the faithful into error regarding the grave obligation to abide by the marriage laws of the Church.
The Pope, however, seems to be indicating that greater discernment is called for and that in some of these cases the help of the Sacrament of Penance might be warranted. Let’s take the case—not a merely hypothetical one for priests who minister to Latin American Catholics—of a penitent in a civil marriage who confesses the grave sin of abortion (another typical case is the confession of the grave sin of contraceptive sterilization, which through ignorance, fear, and strong pressure from health care officials, has become tragically widespread among Hispanic immigrants). Let us further suppose that the penitent does not seem to be gravely culpable for the entry into the irregular marriage or at least for its continued irregularity, either because of lack of full knowledge or lack of full consent of the will. In other words, while she must be helped to understand her grave obligation to rectify the situation going forward, the continuedirregularity might not be among the serious sins that in good conscience she has to repent of in order to make an integral confession. What about the need for a firm purpose of amendment in regard to future serious sin? Would that not apply to future conjugal relations, given that she has been informed of the invalidity of her marriage and of the seriousness of this matter? Assuming we are dealing with a case in which an immediate commitment to live as brother and sister is not realistic, can absolution be given? I think the teaching of the Pope indicates that it could be. But how is this consistent with traditional Catholic teaching?
It will be helpful here to highlight the authenticdevelopment of the Church’s teaching and praxis concerning conscience. On the one hand, we know that conscience is a reality that is often distorted today. One has only to think of the glossy pseudo-Catholic news journal by that title (I have no ideahow our College’s “campus ministry” got on their distribution list!), which is nothing more than a front to provide cover for Catholics wishing to justify dissent from the infallible moral teaching of the Church, especially regarding abortion and contraception. We might also recall the recent distortion of the Church’s teaching on conscience by an American archbishop around the time of the recent Synod of Bishops. At the same time, we need to a have a clear appreciation of what the Church really does teach about conscience. Conscience includes first of all the perception of the principles of morality (what the Church with St. Thomas calls synderesis); second, the application of these principles in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods; and thirdly judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1780. It is vitally important to enlighten people’s conscience and thus aid them with the perception of moral principles and also to some extent with their application. But it is also vitally important, for the sake of a person’s dignity and authentic freedom, that we let the natural operations of conscience run their course without pretermitting them. Having done what we can to help a man to form his conscience correctly, we must also leave him alone in his “most secret core and his sanctuary,” where “he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” CCC 1776. In particular, it is important that we give his conscience time and space to make its own judgment, for conscience is itself “a judgment of reason” whereby the human person himself recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.” Thus the Church, aided by thinkers such as Blessed John Henry Newman, perceives more keenly than before the legitimate primacy and inviolability of conscience, and this deeper appreciation has in recent decades come to be reflected in the Church’s discipline and practice in various ways.
Returning to the case before us of the penitent in an irregular marriage confessing the sin of abortion (or some other grave sin, such as direct sterilization or adultery), the priest must certainly inform her conscience and help her to see the grave lack that is due to her failure to comply with the juridical requirement of a marriage according to canonical form. But as Pope Francis notes, a subject may know the rule and yet have great difficulty in understanding its “inherent values.” AL 301. This is especially the case where the action or omission that violates the rule is not malum in se but malum prohibitum. In other words, marrying without canonical form is not against the natural law but against a positive ecclesiastical law, which in recent centuries has become universal in the Church, according to which a baptized Catholic can only marry validly in the presence of a witness duly authorized by the Church. We must help the penitent to see that among the principles of morality that she must in conscience apply to her situation is that, as a Catholic, she is bound to obey the Church, for whatever the Church binds on earth is bound in heaven. But this is not grasped as readily as the more fundamental precepts of the natural law itself, such as that prohibiting relations outside marriage. Morever, even the natural law principles do not “impose themselves a priori on the moral subject,” but rather the natural law gives “objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions.” AL 305. According to Pope Francis’ teaching, it seems that a priest could legitimately discern in particular cases that he is able to absolve a penitent in an irregular marriage who sincerely repents of a serious sin such as abortion, sterilization, or adultery, if the priest discerns that the penitent is not convicted in his conscience of grave sin with regard to conjugal relations in the irregular marriage.
It is worth noting that the problem of civil marriage in the Latin American context has been a seemingly intractable one for generations. A priest in my diocese, in his effort to help couples on the journey towards the Sacraments, and knowing that many are missing First Penance, First Holy Communion and/or Confirmation, had them focus first on preparation for those Sacraments. Once catechized and prepared, he allowed them to receive the Sacrament of Penance and then at a special Mass receive Confirmation and, on that one occasion only, Holy Communion, all this before some were even close to havingtheir marriages validated. I was critical of his approach as morally incoherent, and I still have a problem with it, but Pope Francis’ exhortation has made me less rigid in my judgment than before, as I recognize this priest’s approach as a sincere if misguided effort to awaken Latin American Catholics to the power of the Sacraments that they are living without.
Let us take a look now at the Anglo-American context, in which the secularism in our cultural landscape has produced a different kind of irregular-marriage “mess”. Many Anglo-American Catholics are only vaguely or dimly aware, if they are aware at all, of the canonical problem with their merely civil marriage. They may have an idea that they really ought to get their marriage “blessed” but do not understand that it is invalid. Many times, a Catholic gets married in a Christian ceremony to a non-Catholic at a time when he is lapsed from the practice of the faith, and so it does not even occur to him that he is bound, for the sake of having a valid marriage, to get a dispensation from the Bishop authorizing the non-Catholic pastor to witness the marriage. On other occasions, a Catholic attempts a Catholic marriage but unwittingly is married by a priest (perhaps an ex-Catholic priest) with no jurisdiction to validly witness the marriage. This is perhaps more common than is realized. I remember a casual conversation with a couple coming for Baptism class which uncovered the fact that they had been married by a “priest” who had offered his services through public advertising. On another occasion, a couple thought they had a Catholic marriage after “Mom’s friend at work” connected them with a priest who met them for pre-Cana at a diner and conducted the ceremony away from any Catholic parish. We can include here also the pastoral problem of the many marriages conducted by priests of the Society of St. Pius X without any delegation from the Bishop of the Diocese.
In these and other similar cases, the couple must certainly be made aware of the problem with their marriage. But what is to be done before it is regularized? Objectively, conjugal relations should await the marriage in the Church, but respect for the workings of conscience may lead a priest to tread delicately when counseling a couple in this area. What if they are having marriage difficulty and one or both are hesitating to convalidate? What if there is a fear that a cessation of marital relations, either by mutual accord or according to the decision of one of the parties, might contribute to the breakdown of the union, just when it might be on the point of being made sacramental? What if one of the two is convinced of the invalidity while the other is not? Keep in mind that, but for an ecclesiastical norm that was imposed (with good reason) in modern times, their personal consent, exchanged in good faithbut without a witness authorized by the Church, wouldnonetheless have bound them indissolubly in accordance with the natural law, and some may feel very much bound by their “I do” in light of that same natural law precept. They may feel bound as well by the precept of the marriage debt, according to which spouses are exhorted not to “refuse one another.”
In sum, it may take some time before both parties to the marriage can grasp the moral principles and their proper application, in such a way that they come to make a judgment ofthe wrongness of concrete acts of conjugal relations in the absence of a canonically valid marriage bond. In the meantime, it seems that a Catholic whose conscience has not yet formed a judgment of the grave wrongfulness of continued conjugal lifemight in some cases continue to receive the help of the Sacrament of Penance before the marriage is regularized, even in the absence of a mutual agreement to live as brother and sister. With regard to the Eucharist, Canon 916 forbids a person to receive the Eucharist if he is conscious of grave sin that has not been confessed. If a person has not yet become conscious of grave sin in this matter, it seems that a pastor might legitimately discern that he or she could continue to receive the Eucharist.
What is needed, as the Pope teaches, is a process of accompaniment that would discern the right response in each particular case. Pope Francis follows Pope St. John Paul II’s distinction between the error of “gradualness of the law”—according to which the law itself admits of gradations, and we can lower or water down the standards or demands that the Gospel itself makes—and the truth of “the law of gradualness,” a law of our nature according to which the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth.” AL 295. As the Pope states, “Given that gradualness is not in the law itself, this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.” AL 300.
Of course, Pope Francis’ allowance that couples in irregular unions might in some cases receive the help of the Sacraments is most problematic to the extent that it is applied to cases that involve a prior marriage. Here also, we would do well to keep in mind the shipwreck that litters the modern marriage landscape. Father Dwight Longenecker has pointed this out very effectively (see his April 9, 2016 blog), also giving concrete illustrations. One that sticks out for me is the case of “Bob,” a non-Catholic who was married in an almost certainly invalid marriage on the beach. Having entered into a subsequent marriage with Susan, a lapsed Catholic outside the Church, heeventually went through RCIA in a liberal Catholic parish where the priest waved a hand and said that Bob didn’t need to worry about “all that annulment stuff.” So Bob became a Catholic, and now he and Susan have six kids and a great marriage and are active members in the parish. Only after a conversation with apriest did Bob and Susan discover that they were in an irregular relationship. Bob has no idea where his first wife might be. Presumably his marriage to Susan outside the Church is invalidsince she was a baptized Catholic, and the marriage was apparently never convalidated by the priest when Bob came into the Church (and could not have been licitly without an annulment). However, in the unlikely event that Susan had formally defected from the Catholic faith before her marriage to Bob, then potentially their marriage is in fact valid, since prior to a 2011 ruling by Pope Benedict (going back to the old rule of “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” for marriage purposes), such a “former” Catholic was not bound to marry in the Catholic Church. In any event, assuming that an annulment can be successfully pursued, do Bob and Susan have to abstain from relations in the meantime, and if they do not, might they still be permitted to receive the Sacraments?
Sacramental realism certainly demands that the pastor help a couple like Bob and Susan to understand the objective truth of the absence of a true, invisible (as opposed to legal) marriage bond between them. Or if the current marriage is potentiallyvalid, as where the baptized Catholic party had previously defected by a formal act (very hard to do) or where both parties were non-Catholics at the time of the remarriage, then the pastor must help them see that only the Church has authority to declare that the prior marriage was invalid, such that a true bond was in fact formed at the time of the subsequent marriage. At the same time, one can certainly understand if the couple has great difficulty in assimilating this reality. What is needed, as Pope Francis says, is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. . . . this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity as proposed by the Church.”
I think of another case, which a solidly orthodox and traditional priest was dealing with in the internal forum—that of a woman whose prior marriage was to a man who was himself previously married, but the woman, an Asian immigrant, has no way of finding him or of proving the fact of his previousmarriage (which would of course have barred her marriage to him and thus leave her now free to marry). Assuming that there are no grounds for an annulment apart from the women’smarriage, what is she to do?
In my own experience, there is a great variety and complexity in the prior-marriage problems of the average parish(let alone all the other irregular-marriage problems). Most parishes struggle to handle properly all the different cases, whether from RCIA or from the pews. There is an unfortunate percentage of people who are baptized or received into the Church without prior-marriage issues being dealt with properlyor dealt with at all, whether because of the “wave of the hand”approach mentioned above or because of negligence or good-faith error. Then there are the Catholics who come back to the practice of the Sacraments without prior-marriage issues having been resolved, whether on their own out of ignorance or having been told that it was permissible. Actually, when these prior-marriage cases are carefully dealt with, it is remarkable howprovidentially often they can be resolved on some legitimate basis, whether through an annulment, a “privilege of the faith” decree to dissolve the marriage where at least one party was unbaptized, or a decree of ligamen where the prior spouse was himself previously married. In the meantime, couples are usually content to wait for the Sacraments, having already waited in many cases for years, even decades.
In my experience, the most delicate and difficult cases, as far as reception of the Sacraments is concerned, tend to arise where someone has already been receiving the Sacraments when the prior-marriage issue comes to light or is being dealt with for the first time. In such cases, my practice has been to have the couple in an irregular situation refrain from receiving Holy Communion until the marriage issue is resolved. At the same time, I have also encouraged abstinence from marital relations while awaiting the Church’s decision. This has seemed to me to be the proper course in order to uphold the truth of the marriage bond and to avoid scandal and safeguard good order in the Church. Although it is hard for the couple, we must trust in Divine Providence, knowing that truth is not opposed to pastoral charity.
But Pope Francis has stated that “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s practice in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” AL 303. What is he getting at here? I think that he is calling us pastors to be clear as to the objective truth of the matter but also to give more time and space for the workings of conscience. There is something vitally important about accompanying people in such a way that they can come to an awareness of their situation before God and to their own mature recognition of the rightness or wrongness of particular actions.
We should also recognize that, while there is no such thing as a true moral dilemma, there can be a difficult weighing of competing or even conflicting values in the person’s own conscience, which no conclusion that we impose a priori can substitute for. As in the case of simply irregular marriages, certain cases involving prior unions may actually involve some tension between the juridical norm of the Church and the natural law, especially where persons are “subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid,” AL 298, and thus perhaps subjectively certain as well that they are bound by the vows of their present conjugal union. We can and must help them to grasp the Church’s authority in these matters, particularly the truth, supported by canon law, that Catholics are bound to presume that a marriage is valid unless and until the Church declares otherwise. But this can be a difficult thing to inculcate in people, and we should recognize that they may in all sincerity take a long time in coming to see it. In the meantime, an understanding approach is called for in helping them discern the gravity of their situation and to grasp why they may not be able to approach the Sacraments.
We might be inclined to think that there is no harm in the pastor gently and charitably telling the couple what he sees asthe necessary end result of a correct operation of conscience andhaving them take his word for it. But the negative effect this approach can have in certain cases is perhaps underestimated. I specifically recall two cases in which I requested that divorced and remarried persons who were receiving Communionmistakenly but in apparent good faith (in one case, the pastor had actually overlooked the prior-marriage issue during RCIA) desist from receiving while their prior-marriage issues were being resolved. In both cases, even after the issue of the prior marriage had been resolved favorably—in one case by an annulment and in the other by a papal decree granting dissolution of the prior marriage (the husband had been unbaptized at the time)—the couple seemingly experienced great hesitation or difficulty in going forward with the convalidation of the marriage. Although I believe they complied with the request to stop receiving Communion, I think they may have been hurt or felt aggrieved even by the temporary loss of the Sacrament. It seems a rift had developed, whether between them and me or between the spouses themselves, perhaps in some way between them and the Church or even between them and Jesus—as if I was saying to them, “You and Jesus, go to your corners.”
What is needed—and what the Holy Father is calling for—is a “responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.” AL 300 (quoting the Synod’s Relatio Finalis). For this discernment to happen, “the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.” Ibid. But there is a concern that the Pope’s approach opens the door to distortion by those who do not have this love for the Church’s teaching. I would say in the first place that there are many liberal-leaning priests who are serving and ministering in good faith and with love for the Church and for the faithful. These priests will unquestionably be challenged by Chapter 8. One has only to look at the painfully searching examination of conscience that he invites divorced and remarried persons to make—actually, I think that all priests would be challenged to help couples make such an examination, for it requires at the same time tender familiarity and pastoral courage. Moreover, Pope Francis’ approach, even if it is “erring on the side of” mercy, is a far cry from Cardinal Kasper’s, because neither the couple nor the pastor is ever off the hook by being able to say they have already done their discernment or their penance and have now put concern about the irregularity behind them. Rather, “this discernment 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.” The goal is clear: full conformity to the Gospel and its demands, in truth and charity. This Exhortation represents an opportunity for responsible Bishops and pastors to curb the “internal forum” solutions that have become so widespread, solutions which often have not remotely followed the discerning approach that the Holy Father has outlined, and for couples to take an honest look at their situation instead of rationalizing on the basis of a false notion of autonomous conscience.
But what about those who are not in good faith, who wouldinstead use the ambiguities in the Exhortation as a pretext for introducing a relativistic ethic that allows the facile justification of seriously sinful situations and unworthy reception of the Sacraments based on a theology of dissent from the Church’s moral teaching? This has to be acknowledged as a real possibility, as the Pope himself has indicated that he is consciously eschewing a “more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.” AL 308. Is this not likely to do damage and cause division in the Church? In response, I would say: Let us not fail to read the signs of the times. The world and its culture of militant secularism are sliding precipitously towards ruin. The Church is ever more clearly going against the current, and even deliberate distortion of the Pope’s Exhortation cannot make it seem to provide more than a few tokens of obeisance to the god of this world. As the persecution of the Church grows ever more virulent, does it seem likely that those who have the spirit of the world, whether liberal or conservative, will be found clinging to her skirts? As St. Peter said it would, judgment begins with the household of God, and no one makes a fool of Him. Remember Ananias and Sapphira! Our part is to interpret and apply the present teaching of the magisterium as faithfully as we can, in continuity with the Church’s constant Tradition, and leave the rest to God.