Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed: "Adultery as a venial sin" -- and other absurdities of trying to defend the indefensible Francis Doctrine

Nathan rebukes King David for his Adultery (Eugène Siberdt)

Dr. Jeffrey Mirus on marriage and the Eucharist

by Dr. John Lamont

Dr. Jeffrey Mirus has recently published an article entitled ‘Not heretical: Pope Francis’ approval of the Argentine bishops’ policy on invalid marriages’*. The object of this article is to argue that Pope Francis has not asserted or endorsed heresy in approving of a recent document issued by some Argentinian bishops concerning the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. To justify this conclusion, Dr. Mirus makes a number of claims about moral behaviour and the discipline of the sacraments. 

These claims urgently need to be addressed.

This discussion of Mirus’s assertions will not consider the rights and wrongs of the Argentinian bishops’ document itself and the Pope’s endorsement of it. Nonetheless it should be noted that Dr. Mirus’s article is somewhat misleading on this subject, because it gives the impression that the only objectionable part of this document is the permission it gives for the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist. In fact the document in its paragraph 6 extends this permission to both absolution and reception of the Eucharist, and states that the divorced and remarried persons it refers to can grow in grace through these sacraments. This contents of this paragraph have been addressed by a group of Catholic scholars, who have drawn up theological censures of heretical and erroneous propositions that could be attributed to Amoris Laetitia and have asked the college of cardinals and the patriarchs of the Church to petition the Pope to condemn these propositions. These censures were sent privately, but were leaked to the media and are now publicly available. Paragraph 6 of the Argentinian bishops’ document endorses the propositions condemned in censures 6, 7, 11, 15, and 16 of the document sent to the cardinals, which are accessible here. The bishops’ statement thus has a broader scope than the issues addressed by Dr. Mirus, a scope whose extent can be grasped by considering their statement and the censures referred to above.

To do justice to this subject, it is necessary to consider the specific claims Dr. Mirus makes, and then address the general issues that underlie the question. The expression ‘divorced and remarried’ will be used for brevity in the rest of this article to refer to those Catholics who are divorced from their living spouse, civilly remarried to someone else, and do not either dissolve their civil relationship and cease all sexual relations with their civil partner, or else do not cease sexual relationships with their civil partner in a situation where dissolution of their civil partnership is ruled out by legitimate and unavoidable reasons.

Dr. Mirus’s assertions

Dr.Mirus’s article contains a number of mistaken assertions. Comment will be limited to the ones that are most significant for our subject.

1. ‘It is not incompatible with the Church’s doctrinal teaching on either marriage or Communion to argue that, under some circumstances, persons involved in invalid marriages ought to be admitted to Communion.’

The term ‘invalid marriages’ is misleading here, as it is generally used to refer to marriages entered into by Catholics in due form but later found to be invalid due to some diriment impediment whose existence was not recognised at the time the marriage was celebrated. It is not used to refer to persons who enter into a civil marriage with someone other than their spouse, which is the case being addressed here.
2. ‘I have repeatedly made the point that the rules governing reception of Communion are disciplinary, not doctrinal.’

This is incorrect. Whatever is contained in divine revelation is doctrine. This content includes disciplinary regulations, and therefore the fact that some rule is disciplinary does not imply that it is not doctrinal. Disciplinary regulations for the reception of the Holy Eucharist are set forth by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians ch. 11. Indeed, since the Holy Eucharist is a supernatural mystery not knowable by natural reason, how else could the basic disciplinary rules for its reception be known save through divine revelation? It thus cannot be maintained that the rules governing reception of the Eucharist are disciplinary and hence are not doctrinal. Familiaris Consortio 84 acknowledges the divinely revealed basis of the discipline of not admitting adulterers to Holy Communion: ‘The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.’

3. ‘I would argue that the following is the most likely scenario in which the presumption that only venial sin is involved may be reasonably justified:
  • 1. An invalidly married couple has had children together, who are still at home.
  • 2. Either the man or the woman recognizes the sinfulness of the “marriage”, regrets having entered into it, and desires now to do what is right (which in this case would be for the parents to live as brother and sister while still caring for their children as mother and father in the same household).
  • 3. The other party refuses to live as brother and sister.
  • 4. The other party says he (or she) will leave the family if sexual relations are refused.
  • 5. Hence the man or woman in question continues sexual relations, in effect under duress, to ensure that his or her children are not deprived of one parent.

  • In this case, the continuing sins involved in the irregular union on the part of the repentant spouse would seem to be venial—on the grounds that full consent of the will to the moral evil of continued sexual relations is lacking. The sins would be rendered venial by either a very real confusion about the best course or the compulsion inherent in the particular situation, or both.’

In this scenario the possibility of confusion about the best course is excluded ex hypothesi, since it is stipulated that the person in question recognises the sinfulness of the relationship. The question is thus whether full consent of the will to sexual relations is lacking. But this full consent is clearly stated to occur. The consent is the whole point of the scenario. The person in question is described as continuing sexual relations in order to prevent their partner in adultery from leaving. Acting for that reason means knowing what you are doing – continuing sexual relations – and choosing to do it in order to obtain a goal – the continued presence of the partner in adultery. Knowing what you are doing and choosing to do it in order to obtain a desired goal is what fully voluntary action consists in. There is no exculpating infringement of the will or lack of voluntary consent in the scenario. There is a fully voluntary choice to do a wrong action, made because doing the action has a result that the agent wants to obtain. Making choices of this kind is what sin is.

The general principles underlying Catholic discipline on the reception of the Eucharist by the divorced and remarried

The law that denies the Eucharist to divorced and remarried Catholics is intended to protect three goods: 1) the good of the individual concerned, who offends God grievously by receiving communion when in a state of mortal sin (cf. 1 Cor. 11:29); 2) the good of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, which is profaned by the unworthy reception of the Eucharist; and 3) the common good of the Church, which is damaged when people in a public state of sin receive the Eucharist and thereby cause scandal to the faithful. Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried cease to be subject to this law if they repent their sin, confess it and are absolved in the sacrament of penance, and refrain from sexual relations with their civil partner. Normally they must also dissolve their civil marriage and cease to live with their civil partner, but this requirement can be waived for serious reasons, such as the upbringing of children. The question at issue is whether Catholics who have not satisfied these conditions can be admitted to communion under some circumstances. (These conditions are specified by the law, but it is also the case that such Catholics must satisfy their duties to their actual spouses if they are to be free of mortal sin.)

The reason why these conditions are insisted on is that civilly divorced and remarried Catholics who do not satisfy them are adulterers and bigamists. Their status as adulterers is asserted several times by Our Lord himself in the Gospels (Luke 16:18, Mark 10:2-12, Matthew 5:31-2, Matthew 19:2-12; see also 1 Corinthians 7:10-11). The divine teachings condemn divorce itself as well as remarriage after divorce. The obvious meaning of these texts has always been taught by the Church as being divinely revealed. In addition, it is precisely the concession on divorce adhered to by the Pharisees that Jesus attacks as contravening God’s original intention for marriage.

With respect to the first two goods protected by this law, some have claimed that it is possible for the divorced and remarried to not be in a state of mortal sin because of individual circumstances that diminish their subjective responsibility, and that such people should be allowed to approach the Eucharist because of this lack of formal mortal sin. Amoris Laetitia 302 cites paragraphs §§ 1735 and 2352 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in this regard. But these paragraphs refer to factors that diminish or remove subjective responsibility for individual actions, not to factors that can remove subjective responsibility for a stable and persisting choice of a way of life. And in Catholic teaching and moral theology these factors have generally been understood as reducing or eliminating responsibility in the case of persons who are trying to follow the divine law but are impeded in doing so by the factors in question. The situation of the divorced and remarried addressed by Dr. Mirus and by Amoris Laetitia is however that of persons who have no intention of conforming to divine law, and who do so in full knowledge of that law (cf. Amoris Laetitia 301).

It is difficult to identify factors that would remove moral responsibility for a choice of a gravely sinful way of life and persistence in that way of life without partially or totally removing a person’s capacity to be a voluntary moral agent. Such factors have not been shown to exist, and would be extremely rare in the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics. They are not relevant to the discipline of the sacraments, which is framed for those who are capable of moral responsibility. The existence of such factors, which has not been demonstrated, cannot justify removing the current law.
Even if some individuals can be materially but not formally guilty of adultery and bigamy in a situation where they are divorced and civilly remarried, their situation could not justify violating the third good upheld by the law. This absence of formal culpability could not be a matter of public knowledge, because the factors that would excuse the persons concerned would include internal psychological components that are not publicly observable. The faithful would be presented with Catholics outwardly in the situation of adulterers and bigamists being admitted to communion. This would cause grave scandal by undermining faith in Catholic doctrine on marriage and purity, and in the justice of the Church and her fidelity to divine teaching. It would cause particular scandal and injury to the spouses of the persons so admitted to communion, who would see the Church publicly acknowledging that their marriage and the duties owed to them could be treated as if these did not exist.

The current law is thus based on essential demands of the good of the Church. It cannot be broken without injustice, and the Church hence does not have the power to alter it. In the light of the Scriptural testimony on this subject it is probable that this discipline originates with the Apostles themselves and is a component of Sacred Tradition.

*Available here.