Anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to Catholic news is well aware of the controversy that continues to grow out of the promulgation of Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. For those who have been living under a rock (or do not pay attention to Catholic news), Amoris Laetitia is Pope Francis’ response to the Synod on the Family. One of the main points of contention during the Synod was how to handle Catholics who have been divorced AND civilly remarried without a declaration of nullity and regularization of their current union - specifically with regard to reception of the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church does not now, nor has it ever recognized divorce as legitimate. Remember, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19:6). A valid and legitimate union cannot be dissolved, no matter what. In order for a marriage to be deemed invalid, one or both parties to the marriage must have some impediment which prevents them from appreciating the gravity of the sacrament ON or BEFORE the exchange of nuptial vows. This determination is made by the local Diocesan tribunal and verified by a court of second instance (a tribunal from another Diocese examines the case to make sure nothing was missed by the first tribunal). Does the Church acknowledge that situations may arise where, for the physical or financial security of one party, a civil and legal separation of assets may be necessary? Yes, of course. However, neither party to that union is free to marry again without first having that union declared null by the Church. Remember, “Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband, committeth adultery” (Lk. 16:18).
Without a declaration of nullity from the Diocesan tribunal, those who divorce AND civilly remarry find themselves in a state of perpetual adultery - a mortal sin. Just as a quick refresher, three criteria must be met in order for a sin to be mortal.
- It must be grave matter.
- The sinner must know it is grave matter.
- The sinner must have full consent of the will.
It is a grave sin, you know it is a grave sin, and you do it anyway. At this point, many people say, “Well, why don’t they just go to Confession? That will absolve their mortal sin.” Yes, the sacrament of penance does absolve mortal sin IF the penitent resolves, with the help of God’s grace, to refrain from committing that sin again. Remember the Act of Contrition? In the case of a divorced AND civilly remarried person, they are going to go back home to their adulterous union. As long as the irregular union exists, absolution cannot be granted.
The biggest area of concern with regard to Amoris Laetitia comes from paragraphs 301 to 306 which discuss “Mitigating factors in pastoral discernment” of irregular situations. Specifically paragraph 305, which states, “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 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.” While ignorance may lessen one’s culpability for sin, once one is no longer ignorant of the gravity of the sin, one is now “subjectively culpable” for the objective situation of sin.
The famous footnote (351) about which many theologians have raised concern, including Cardinals Burke, Caffarra, Brandmüller, and Meisner (the authors of the notorious dubia) states, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I [Pope Francis] want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47: 1039).”
The Church has always made exceptions in certain situations. For instance, the Church has always allowed those who are divorced AND civilly remarried to partake in a life of the sacraments IF they live a life of continence (as brother and sister). If a couple in this irregular union, on the other hand continues to live more uxorio (engaging in sexual relations), they cannot receive the sacraments. Pope Francis mentioned in Evangelii Gaudium, as cited above, that “the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.” How is permitting someone in a state of mortal sin to receive the Eucharist (another mortal sin) merciful? I can speak from experience, having been denied absolution and the Eucharist because of my own perpetually adulterous relationship, and having gone through the annulment process, I can say that my encounter in the confessional and the annulment process was the most pastoral and merciful experience I have ever had in the Church.
When I returned to the Church after eighteen years away, the priest could have simply said, “I absolve you of your sins, welcome home” and I would have probably gone on the rest of my life not knowing any better, continuing to pile grave sin on top of grave sin. The sins may not have been mortal, due to a lessened culpability because of my ignorance. However, it is not pastoral nor merciful to allow people to remain in ignorance - after all, one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to Instruct the Ignorant. Instead, I had a priest who cared about the state of my soul and told me the truth, even though he knew it was probably going to hurt. It was a long process. It took my wife and me nearly four years to go through the annulment process for my previous marriage, as well as hers. However, as I said above, it was the most pastoral and merciful experience I have ever had in the Church.
Where am I going with all this? Herein lies the problem. Sexual sin is sexual sin. Any sexual action which occurs outside the bonds of a valid marriage is sinful. Also, any sexual action which is not open to procreation is sinful. The main focus of Amoris Laetitia right now is reception of Holy Communion for the divorced AND civilly remarried who do not have a declaration of nullity and who have not had their union regularized in the Church. The certain cases stipulated in footnote 351 and questioned in the dubia concern those in irregular unions who are living more uxorio. The ambiguity which surrounds this footnote, along with Pope Francis’ refusal to answer the dubia, leaves the door open for possible reception of Holy Communion for those in active homosexual relationships.
There is absolutely no way that a homosexual union can be regularized in the Church. First and foremost, marriage is the lifelong union between one man and one woman (CIC 1055 §1). Secondly, the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children (Casti Connubii 17). Any union, which is not between a man and woman and does not have procreation as its primary end cannot be a marriage. As mentioned above, the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia leaves the door open to the possibility that a priest, in an attempt to be “merciful and pastoral” may determine, in his own opinion, that those in same-sex unions are one of those “certain cases.”
The Church has always taught that those who are in a state of mortal sin cannot receive Holy Communion. While I suppose it may be possible for someone to be ignorant about Church teaching regarding marriage and divorce (as the divorce rate is so high today - including in the Church), it is virtually impossible for anyone who is Catholic to be ignorant about Church teaching regarding homosexual relationships. Therefore, one who professes to be Catholic, yet is actively engaged in a homosexual relationship, is living in a state of mortal sin. He is choosing to decide for himself what is and is not sinful. Should one who is in a same-sex union choose to live in continence, then he would be more than welcome to receive Holy Communion, provided he made a full confession beforehand - just like one who is divorced AND civilly remarried. But living more uxorio in either situation is not permissible.
Paragraph 2357 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Furthermore, paragraph 2359 states, “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” With regard to Church teaching, whether on marriage or homosexuality, there is no need for special stipulations. Allowing special stipulations without clearly defining what those stipulations are can and will lead to abuse of such an allowance.
Throughout this article, I have emphasized AND when mentioning divorced AND civilly remarried people. The reason for that is many people think that simply being divorced is enough to bar someone from the sacraments, and that is not true. Since the Church does not recognize civil divorce, one who is divorced is still married according to the Church. So, as long as they are living in continence (not dating,“remarried,” or involved in any sexual relations), they are welcome to the sacraments.
Withholding the Eucharist from someone in a state of mortal sin is not meant to be “torture.” In fact, withholding the Eucharist from someone in a state of mortal sin is a work of mercy because the Church is not allowing that person to fall deeper into mortal sin through sacrilegiously receiving the Eucharist. There is a wonderful illustration in the Baltimore Catechism regarding who can receive Holy Communion. The illustration says, “Healthy people can eat: Souls without sin can receive Communion,” “Sick people can eat, but it is harder: Souls with venial sin can receive, but get less grace,” and “Dead people cannot eat: Souls in mortal sin cannot receive.” It is not unmerciful to deny Holy Communion to those in a state of mortal sin. Receiving Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin is itself a mortal sin - sacrilege. Sacrilege has many definitions, one of them includes, “the deliberate, invalid reception of the sacraments.” By denying the sacraments to those in a state of mortal sin, the priest is being as merciful as he can be. He is doing all he can do to prevent someone from falling deeper into sin.
Pope Francis talks about mercy all the time. Be merciful to the poor, be merciful to the marginalized, be merciful to the sinner. These are all great things. However, the mercy that Pope Francis emphasizes is the Corporal Works of Mercy, while putting less emphasis on the Spiritual Works of Mercy. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis, in his quest to be merciful is forgetting about two of the seven precepts of the Church: #6 To obey the laws of the Church concerning Matrimony, and #7 To participate in the Church's mission of Evangelization of Souls. The Church’s main mission in the world is the salvation of souls. While clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and giving drink to the thirsty is honorable, none of these actions alone will get souls into Heaven. St. James said, “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26), but works without faith are also dead. If we are physically feeding the poor, but not spiritually feeding them, we are only fighting half the battle.
Amoris Laetitia only addresses half of that battle. We are the Church Militant. We are constantly at battle with evil. Regardless of the sin, the confessional does need to be a place of healing. However, with major wounds or injuries, healing does not occur instantly. Medication may be needed, perhaps surgery, or physical therapy. Priests need to counsel and instruct the faithful when they enter the confessional. Priests have the right and duty to deny absolution if needed. After all, Jesus did say to the Apostles, “Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). Denial of absolution is not condemnation. Denial of absolution is the first step toward reconciliation. If I break my leg and go to the hospital, I will not be able to walk as soon as I leave. But the doctors will begin treating me in order to mend my broken leg. Likewise, if one is in a state of mortal sin that requires more than just the sacrament of penance, the priest should begin treating the penitent in order to mend their broken relationship with God.
The only way someone who is divorced AND civilly remarried can be admitted to the sacraments without a declaration of nullity and regularization of their union is to live in continence. There are no special circumstances. There was no need for a Synod of Bishops to discuss this topic. There was no need for a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Paragraph 1650 of the Catechism states, “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.” Amoris Laetitia opens the door for this and other teachings of the Church to be circumvented.