Rorate Caeli

The Instrumentum laboris and Catholic Moral Tradition in Extra-matrimonial Situations

Roberto de Mattei
Corrispondenza Romana
August 12, 2015

The Instrumentum laboris of last June 21st, 2015, offers all the elements to [help us] understand what is at stake at the upcoming Synod. The first consideration is about method.  Paragraph 52 of the Relatio Synodi of 2014 did not receive (as did paragraphs 53 and 55) the two thirds qualifying  majority necessary in the regulation norms for approval, but was inserted into the final document nonetheless. It was an obvious forcing, which confirms the plan to open the doors to the divorced and remarried, despite the opposition from a consistent body of the Synod Fathers, and above all, despite the contrary teaching of the Church. We are very close to a fine red line, that, however, no-one, not even the Pope, can cross.           

At his general audience on August 5th, Pope Francis said that “the divorced and remarried are in no way excommunicated and must not absolutely be treated as such: they are always part of the Church”.  However, it does not appear to us that the divorced and remarried are treated as excommunicates by anyone. We must not confuse the deprivation of the Sacrament of which they are subject to, with excommunication, which is the gravest of all ecclesiastical punishments and excludes one from communion with the Church. The divorced and remarried continue to be members of the Church and are bound to observe Her precepts i.e. attending the Sacrifice of the Mass and persevering in prayer (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1651).         

The indissolubility of marriage, however remains a Divine law proclaimed by Jesus Christ and solemnly confirmed by the Church in the course of Her history. The Church requires a state of grace for admittance to the Eucharist, normally obtained through the Sacrament of Penance. The spouses, divorced and remarried find themselves objectively “in manifest grave sin” (Code of Canon Law, n.915), or “in an objective state of mortal sin, a state that, if publically known, is aggravated by scandal”, (Preferential Option for the Family. 100 Questions and Answers Relating to the Synod, Edition, Filial Appeal, Rome 2015, no.63).  If the divorced and remarried have no intention of removing this permanent and public situation offensive to God, they cannot even approach the Sacrament of Penance, which insists on the purpose of intention of not falling into sin again. The figure of the divorced and remarried, as Cardinal De Paolis correctly noted “contradicts the image and the figure of marriage and the family, according to the image offered by the Church”.

 How to square the circle? For a global analysis of the Instrumentum laboris, I recommend the excellent analysis by Mathew McCusker, on the site “Voice of the Family” (

 For my part, I will limit myself to some observations on the document’s approach to the theme of extra-matrimonial cohabitation. 

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2390, says that the expression “free unions” (or cohabitation) “covers a number of different situations: concubinage, rejection of marriage as such, or inability to make long-term commitments. All of these situations offend against the dignity of marriage; they destroy the very idea of the family; they weaken the sense of fidelity. They are contrary to the moral law. The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion”.

The Instrumentum laboris suggests instead, that the idea of extra-matrimonial cohabitations are not intrinsically, but only “partially” illicit.  In cases where the decision of persons living together or those civilly married to proceed to a sacramental marriage is still in a virtual state or in its initial stage or not yet specifically defined, the Church is asked not shy away from the task of encouraging and supporting such a development. At the same time, something good can be done by showing, in a friendly manner, an appreciation for the commitment already made and acknowledging adherence to those elements proper to the divine plan arising from the relation of the person created by God and God the Creator.” (n.57).

In a word, this is about picking out the good which is present in evil, or rather, of not regarding as “absolute” any evil at all.  Here there is an implicit confusion between the ontological level and the moral one.  If on the ontological level only the good is absolute, while evil is always a deprivation of good, on the moral level, good and evil have a dimension of absoluteness which cannot be ignored. However, the document is even clearer in the next paragraphs. Cohabitations, it affirms, are not “bad” or intrinsically illicit, but “a lesser good” than marriage, of which they only lack the “fullness” (n.n.62-65).  In fact:

 “…the Sacrament of Matrimony is an indissoluble and exclusively faithful union between a man and a woman who are called to receive one another and welcome life, Christian marriage is a great grace for the human family”, but the Church “also ought to accompany those in a civil marriage or those living together in a gradual discovery of "the seeds of the Word" which lie hidden, so as to value them until the fullness of union in the Sacrament might be achieved.” (n. 99). “The choice of civil marriage or, in some cases, simply "living together" is very often not a result of prejudice or an aversion to sacramental union but instead linked to cultural or contingent situations. In many circumstances, the decision to live together is a sign of a relationship which wants to be built and opened to the prospects of personal fulfillment” (n.102).

That extra-matrimonial cohabitations are not retained illicit, is demonstrated by the fact that, in the  Instrumentum laboris, they are not condemned in anyway whatsoever. “The faithful’s attitude towards people who have not yet come to an understanding of the importance of the Sacrament of Marriage is expressed primarily in a personal, friendly relationship which accepts another as he/she is, without judging, and seeks to meet his/her basic needs and, at the same time, witnessing to God’s love and mercy” (n.61).

The Christian message ought to be preferably proclaimed in a manner which might inspire hope. A clear, inviting and open communication needs to be adopted, one which does not moralize, judge or control, but bears witness to the Church's moral teaching, while, at the same time, remaining sensitive to the circumstances of each individual” (n.78); in a manner open to dialogue and free from prejudice, especially in cases where Catholics, in matters of marriage and family life, do not live or are in no condition to live in full accord with the Church’s teaching” (n. 81).

What is absent from the text, even prior to any condemnation, is any form of judgment or moral evaluation. Yet we know that neutral or unjudgeable human acts do not exist. Every action can and must be evaluated according to the metre of truth and justice, as St. Paul teaches us to do (Romans. 1-25-32: 1 Cor.5, 9-19; 1 Tim, 1, 9).

The sociological and  non-evaluative  approach of the Instrumentum laboris is confirmed by the use of the term “irreversibility”, which in the Italian version is found twice, with reference to the situation of the divorced and remarried. In reality, the failure of the marriage–bond can be irreversible, but a state of habitual sin, which unmarried living together as husband and wife is, is never irreversible. Yet in the document, we read:

Before integrating persons who are divorced and civilly remarried into pastoral life, some recommend that: pastors duly discern the impossibility of abandoning their situation and the life of faith of the couple in the new relationship; […]and this work be done according to the law of gradualness (cf. FC, 34), while respecting the maturation of consciences” (n.121). “Concerning the aforementioned subject, a great number agree that a journey of reconciliation or penance, under the auspices of the local bishop, might be undertaken by those who are divorced and civilly remarried, who find themselves in irreversible situations” (123).

If the situation of the divorced and remarried is in some cases irreversible, it means that the moral situation in which they find themselves, in public, permanent, mortal sin is irreversible. Unless such a situation is considered not sinful, but virtuous.  It is this line that the Instrumentum laboris seems to suggest. Indissoluble marriage is shown as the Christian ideal, elevated, but achieved with great difficulty. In concrete life, civil unions may represent imperfect but positive phases of a life in common, which  cannot set aside the exercise of sexuality. Sexual union is not considered intrinsically illicit, but an act of love, assessable according to the circumstances. A sexual relationship loses its negative moral character, if the partners maintain it in a convinced, stable and lasting way… 

The Instrumentum laboris does not deny the Exhortation Familiaris consortio by John Paul II (November 22nd 1981) as much as it denies the Encyclical, Vertitatis Splendor by the same Pontiff (August 6th 1993) with which it seems to want ‘to close the book’.

Since the 1960s the new moral theories of authors like the Jesuit, Joseph Fuchs and the Redemptorist, Bernhard Haring have been diffused inside the Church. These writers, in the name of the primacy of the person over human nature, denied the absoluteness of moral norms, considering them merely as a need for self-realization (cfr. for example, Father Fuchs’ The Absoluteness of Moral Terms, in “Gregorianum” , 52 (1971) pp. 415-457).

From this personalism, which influenced Vatican II’s  pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (December 7th 1965), descends the errors of “proportionalism” “teleologism” and “consequentialism” explicitly condemned in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (n.n. 74 and 75). Against these theories, we have Ramon Garcia de Haro (The Christian Life, Ares, Milano 1995) and more recently, Livio Melina, José Noriega and Juan José Perez Soba (Walking in the Light, the Fundamentals of Christian Morality, Cantagalli, Siena 2008), who have written - in a more than convincing way –  reaffirming the doctrine of absolute morals, in which exist illicit acts  that cannot be justified by any intention or circumstance.  The sexual union outside of legitimate marriage is one of these. “These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum) specifies Veritatis Splendor - they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances” (n.80).

In his discourse to the Roman Curia of December 20th 2010, Benedict XVI reiterated  that an action evil per se, can never ever be allowed. In denouncing the pedophile crimes, the Pope found in them the ideological base of a “perversion of the concept of ethos. It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon the circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today.  Against them, Pope John Paul II, in his 1992 Encyclical Letter. Veritatis Splendor of 1993, indicated with prophetic force in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos, the essential and permanent foundations of moral action”.

From these words, the theories about lesser evils and situation ethics are pulverized. The discussion is all in this.  On one side we have the Catholics in conformity with the Magisterium of the Church, who believe in the objective and absolute nature of morality; on the other, we have the innovators who reinterpret ethics in a subjective and relativistic key, bending  them to their desires and interests.  This discussion has been going on now for more than fifty years, now everything is coming to a head.  

[Translation: Francesca Romana]