Rorate Caeli

Important Guest Essay: "The Meaning of Amoris Laetitia According to Pope Francis." - by Dr John Lamont

The meaning of Amoris laetitia according to Pope Francis

John R. T. Lamont

            The teaching of the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia has been the subject of a great deal of debate since the promulgation of that document. Various interpretations of this teaching have been presented, and the differing interpretations have been used both to denounce the document as heretical and to defend it as in harmony with the teaching of the Church. Pope Francis has recently acted to clarify the meaning of the most contentious section of Amoris laetitia through a statement in the October 2017 issue of the Acta apostolic sedis, the journal that publishes the official acts of the Holy See (the title of the journal is generally abbreviated as AAS). The meaning and consequences of this clarification are of the first importance, and need to be carefully and accurately examined.

The meaning and authority of the AAS statement

            The statement in the AAS has three components: i) a letter from Pope Francis to the bishops of the Buenos Aires region concerning their pastoral degree on the application of Chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia, ii) the pastoral decree itself, and iii) a statement by Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, asserting that the Supreme Pontiff has ordered the publication of the two preceding components in the AAS as statements of the authentic magisterium. The letter from Pope Francis is given the title of ‘Apostolic letter’ in the AAS statement, a title it did not bear when originally issued.

            The statement in the AAS has a high degree of authority. The term ‘authentic magisterium’ is explained in para. 25 of the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, and in canon 752 of the Latin Code of Canon Law. The exercise of the authentic magisterium is not infallible, and hence does not require the assent of faith from Catholics, but it does require the religious submission of mind and will, a submission that includes sincere adherence to the assertions being taught. The covering statement by Cardinal Parolin, the publication of the above documents in the AAS at the command of the Pope, and the new title of ‘Apostolic letter’ given to Pope Francis’s original letter to the Buenos Aires bishops, confirm that the relevant contents of the documents are teachings of the authentic magisterium of the Catholic Church. This is a rather roundabout way of conveying an official teaching of the Church, since  this teaching is given in a letter about a letter about an apostolic exhortation, but this form of expression is not entirely without precedent or unsuitable in itself. There are precedents for a Pope issuing a teaching by endorsing a statement previously made by bishops. It does however mean that the statement needs to be carefully analyzed in order to identify the content of the teaching it conveys.

            The essential starting point for such an analysis is the realization that the AAS statement is not making a claim about Catholic faith and morals as such. It is making an assertion about the meaning of another document, the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia. This assertion does not in itself endorse the meaning of the relevant section of Amoris laetitia as being a teaching of Catholic faith or morals, or as being a legitimate exercise of papal authority concerning discipline or canon law. It simply describes what chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia is in fact saying. A magisterial teaching concerning the meaning of a given text is not as such an endorsement of the truth of that text. Such teachings can in fact be statements that the meaning of a given text or texts is not compatible with the Catholic faith. An example of such a teaching is the bull ‘Ad sanctam Beati Petri sedem’ issued by Pope Alexander VII in 1656, in which he reiterated the teachings of his predecessor Innocent X to the effect that five heretical Jansenist propositions were in fact to be found in the works of Jansenius. It is true that Pope Francis’s statement in the AAS does not qualify the meaning it attributes to Amoris laetitia as heretical. But it does not assert that this meaning is orthodox either. It is silent on this topic. Amoris laetitia itself is a document that makes assertions about faith, morals and Church discipline. The statement in the AAS does not add to any degree of teaching authority that is possessed by Amoris laetitia. It simply clarifies what chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia is itself teaching. The level of authority of the statements of Amoris laetitia has been a subject of considerable debate among theologians. This debate will not be recapitulated or continued here; suffice it to say that although Amoris laetitia is probably not a mere statement of personal opinion on the part of the Pope that lacks any teaching authority at all, it is not clearly presented as a teaching of the authentic magisterium in the way that the AAS statement is.

            This method of clarification on the part of Pope Francis could be criticized as disingenuous, since many Catholics will be inclined to assume that the religious submission of mind and will that is required by the AAS statement is also due to the teachings of chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia. However, the AAS statement does in itself give a determinate answer to requests for clarification of the teaching of Amoris laetitia that have been made to the Pope. The answer itself is not a novel one; the meaning it assigns to Amoris laetitia corresponds to the meaning that has been discerned in the document by a number of commentators, such as the signatories to the correctio filialis that was sent to the Pope. In fairness to Pope Francis, it could be said that his explaining Amoris laetitia by citing his previous statements is a reference to the fact that his intention and meaning has been clear all along to objective observers, and that anyone who looked at his actions during the Synod on the Family and his many statements on the subjects raised in chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia should have been able to tell that he meant what the AAS statement says he meant in that chapter. 

            What exactly does the AAS statement give as the meaning of chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia? Pope Francis’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops states that their pastoral latter gives the only correct interpretation of that chapter. It is the pastoral letter itself, therefore, that provides the explanation of Amoris laetitia that is being endorsed as correct by the authentic magisterium of the Church. This letter does not address everything that is contained in chapter 8. It deals with the possible access to the sacraments of Catholics who have civilly divorced their living spouse and are living in a new union with another person. A number of rather general statements are made about the pastoral care of such persons. The passages of the pastoral letter that make clear recommendations about access to the sacraments for these persons are found in its paragraphs 6 and 7. Paragraph 6 states that under some circumstances, when a couple of this kind are unable to practice continence and live together as brother and sister, Amoris laetitia permits them to receive absolution and to receive the Eucharist, despite the fact of engaging in a sexual relationship with someone who is not their spouse, and without imposing the preconditions of intending to abandon or actually abandoning this sexual relationship. This statement is expressed in the following words: ‘If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).’ 

            Paragraph 7 simply states that this permission is not to be understood as a universal entitlement to receive the sacraments regardless of the circumstances of the couples in question. The character of the restrictions suggested is important. Both the statement of the Buenos Aires bishops and Amoris laetitia itself describe the conditions for admitting civilly divorced and remarried Catholics in very general terms that cannot serve as criteria for identifying which persons should and which should not be admitted to the sacraments. In practice, therefore, the decision about admitting such persons to the sacraments depends entirely on the decision of the individual priest. The proposal of Amoris laetitia is to replace a discipline governed by law with the lawless, and hence tyrannical, authority of the priest. The practical result of abandoning the current law will of course be the unrestricted access to the sacraments that Amoris laetitia forbids, but its intent of imposing clerical rule untrammelled by any law casts light on the goals and mentality of its author.

            The AAS statement thus establishes as correct an understanding of Amoris laetitia that has been presented by many people in the Church as the obvious meaning of that document, whether they support or oppose this understanding. It agrees with the statements of Cardinal Kasper on Amoris laetitia; it also agrees with the authors and signatories of the correctio filialis, who condemn this understanding as the second of the heresies they accuse Pope Francis of upholding.

The meaning of Amoris laetitia in the light of the AAS statement

            What are we to make of this assertion of Amoris laetitia, now that its meaning has been settled by the AAS statement? One position is that of Cardinal Kasper, according to which the assertion is a legitimate exercise of papal teaching and disciplinary power that must be accepted and followed by all Catholics. Another position is that of the correctio filialis, according to which the assertion denies a divinely revealed truth and must be rejected as a heresy.

            In order to answer this question, it is best to begin with two undoubted facts about the passages  in Amoris laetitia that are addressed by the AAS statement.

1). While it would be rash to deny any magisterial authority at all to Amoris laetitia, it is certain that no part of that apostolic exhortation is infallibly taught. The possibility of its claims being false therefore cannot be excluded.

2). It is also certain that the positions of Amoris laetitia referred to by the AAS statement are in flat contradiction with the teaching of another papal document, the apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio of Pope John Paul II issued in 1981, as a sequel to the 1980 Synod of Bishops. The text of Familiars consortio on this topic is so important and pertinent that it should be cited at length.

84. Daily experience unfortunately shows that people who have obtained a divorce usually intend to enter into a new union, obviously not with a Catholic religious ceremony. Since this is an evil that, like the others, is affecting more and more Catholics as well, the problem must be faced with resolution and without delay. The Synod Fathers studied it expressly. The Church, which was set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptized, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage. The Church will therefore make untiring efforts to put at their disposal her means of salvation.
            Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.
            Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.
            However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
            Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples."[John Paul II, Homily at the Close of the Sixth Synod of Bishops, 7 (Oct. 25, 1980)].
            Similarly, the respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful, forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry. Such ceremonies would give the impression of the celebration of a new sacramentally valid marriage, and would thus lead people into error concerning the indissolubility of a validly contracted marriage.
            By acting in this way, the Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth. At the same time she shows motherly concern for these children of hers, especially those who, through no fault of their own, have been abandoned by their legitimate partner. With firm confidence she believes that those who have rejected the Lord's command and are still living in this state will be able to obtain from God the grace of conversion and salvation, provided that they have persevered in prayer, penance and charity.

Familiaris consortio here clearly states what Amoris laetitia denies; the divorced and remarried who do not undertake to live as brother and sister cannot be granted absolution, and cannot be admitted to eucharistic communion. This is not the full extent of the contradiction between the two documents. Familiaris consortio explicitly considers those ‘hard cases’ that Amoris laetitia raises, such as persons who are subjectively convinced that their previous marriages were not valid, those who have been unjustly abandoned by their spouses, and those who enter into or remain in civil partnerships for the sake of their children’s upbringing. It teaches that these ‘hard cases’ cannot be a basis for changing the Church’s discipline concerning absolution and reception of the Eucharist. It agrees with Amoris laetitia in saying that the Church cannot abandon to their own devices those Catholics who have entered into second unions. However, its understanding of what it means for the Church to not abandon these people is the opposite of the one proposed by Amoris laetitia. Familiaris consortio describes the pastoral help of the Church in these cases as having the object of enabling such persons to cease their adulterous and bigamous relations. Amoris laetitia does not propose this as the object of their pastoral care; instead it proposes that in some cases they should be assisted to live their adulterous and bigamous relations in a good way.

            The teaching of Amoris laetitia on divorce and the sacraments is thus virtually a negative image of the teaching of Familiaris consortio. This is not a coincidence. The passage of Familiaris consortio cited above was composed to reject a progressive position on these subjects that was widely held in the Church, and that was put into practice by many priests and bishops. Pope Francis and his supporters hold this progressive position, and did not agree with Familiaris consortio when it was issued. Now that he holds the supreme power in the Church, Pope Francis has issued Amoris laetitia in order to do away with the traditional teaching enunciated in Familiaris consortio and present the progressive view held by himself and his supporters as the teaching of the Church.

            The complete opposition between Familiaris consortio and Amoris laetitia on these topics effectively disposes of Cardinal Kasper’s claim that the teaching of Amoris laetitia must be accepted by Catholics. One cannot appeal to papal authority to show that the teaching of one apostolic exhortation must be accepted over the completely contradictory teaching of another apostolic exhortation, since both exhortations are papal teachings of the same sort. This cancelling out of papal authority claims leaves us with the question of which of these contradictory teaching should be believed by Catholics. What has to be done to answer this question is to determine which of the contradictory positions is actually true. To decide between them, we must consider their respective positions in the light of divinely revealed truth.

The assertions of Amoris laetitia and Christ’s teaching on marriage

            The position of Amoris laetitia is not entirely clear on one subject, even after the AAS statement. We know that Amoris laetitia recognizes ‘limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability’ for the situations of the civilly divorced and remarried living more uxorio with one another, and that in consequence permit them to be absolved and to receive the Eucharist. But the character of these limitations is not plainly specified. There are two possible ways in which such a specification could be made. The limitations in question could be understood as circumstances that make the actions and lives of such persons objectively good, and hence not in need of forgiveness. This is certainly what is suggested by the text of Amoris laetitia. However, these limitations could instead be understood as circumstances that do not make the actions and lives of such persons objectively good, but do make them subjectively guiltless for their cohabitation and sexual relationship. Both these understandings have been presented by defenders of Amoris laetitia; hence both of them need to examined in the light of the teachings of the faith, even though the former one seems much more likely to be the actual meaning of the document.

            With Familiaris consortio, on the other hand, there is no doubt about its position about whether the civilly divorced and remarried can be admitted to reception of the Eucharist; such admission is forbidden under all circumstances. Unfortunately, the reason that it gives for this position is not equally clear. It states that this law is based on the Sacred Scriptures, but it does not specify how it is based on the Scriptures. This is the crucial issue in the debate. Is this absolute refusal actually commanded in the Scriptures, or does it follow with logical necessity from what is stated or commanded in the Scriptures?            To judge how the teaching of Familiaris consortio is related to the Scriptures, we need to consider the chief Scriptural passages that are relevant to this teaching. These are the following:

Exodus 20.
14. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Luke 16.
18. 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.

Mark 10.
2 And the Pharisees coming to him asked him: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.
3 But he answering, saith to them: What did Moses command you?
4 Who said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce, and to put her away.
5 To whom Jesus answering, said: Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you that precept.
6 But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female.
7 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife.
8 And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh.
9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
10 And in the house again his disciples asked him concerning the same thing.
11 And he saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her.
12 And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.’

Matthew 19.
And there came to him the Pharisees tempting him, and saying: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 Who answering, said to them: Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said:
5 For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh.
6 Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.
7 They say to him: Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put away?
8 He saith to them: Because Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.
10 His disciples say unto him: If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry.
11 Who said to them: All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given.
12 For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.

1 Corinthians 5.
9 I wrote to you in an epistle, not to keep company with fornicators.
10 I mean not with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or the extortioners, or the servers of idols; otherwise you must needs go out of this world.
11 But now I have written to you, not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, or a server of idols, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such a one, not so much as to eat.

1 Corinthians 6.
9 Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers,
10 Nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 7.
 10 But to them that are married, not I but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband.
11 And if she depart, that she remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. And let not the husband put away his wife.

1 Corinthians 11.
26 For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come.
27 Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord.
28 But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice.
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.

            The qualification of the ban on divorce in Matthew19:9 has been the subject of much debate, but it is not significant for our topic. The term ‘fornication’ translates the Greek word ‘porneia’, which is a general term for sexual immorality. Catholics have understood the passage as either giving permission for separation but not divorce, or as referring to marriages that are null because contracted within the prohibited degrees of affinity (these marriages are referred to by the term ‘porneia’ in 1 Corinthians 5:1 and Acts 15:20, 29). Protestants have understood the passage as providing a real exception to the ban on divorce, that permits divorce and remarriage under certain circumstances. None of these understandings have any bearing on the teaching of Amoris laetitia. Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is repeated by Amoris laetitia, and the possibility of admission to the sacraments that is the subject of the AAS statement is one that applies precisely to those whose marriage has not been dissolved, but who are living more uxorio with someone else.

            How, then, can we say that the teaching of Familiaris consortio is based on the above Scriptural passages? We should first note that these passages do not limit themselves to condemnation of adulterous relations with a person with whom one has contracted a form of marriage. They also condemn the act of divorce itself, and the act of contracting a form of marriage with someone other than one’s spouse independently of the adulterous relations that may be involved in the relationship contracted. These actions are thus themselves grave sins. There has not even been any discussion of how the civilly divorced and remarried can be permitted to receive the Eucharist despite having committed these sins; the discussion has largely been restricted to considering the compatibility of receiving the Eucharist with the sin of engaging in adulterous relations with one’s civil partner. This restriction will be followed here, as it is only on this subject that a case for this compatibility has been made.

            With respect to Eucharistic discipline, the possibility of the civilly divorced and remarried receiving the Eucharist can be excluded in two ways. The first way is through a divine commandment addressed to the civilly divorced and remarried that absolutely forbids them to receive the Eucharist. The second way is through a divine commandment addressed to priests and bishops absolutely forbidding them to dispense the Eucharist to persons who are civilly divorced and remarried.

            The above passages undoubtedly express an absolute prohibition upon persons who are civilly married to someone who is not their spouse choosing to receive the Eucharist. They state that those guilty of grave sins may not receive the Eucharist, that adultery is a grave sin, and that those who divorce their spouse and marry someone else commit adultery. The Scriptural texts are much clearer on this subject that they are on many doctrines that have been solemnly defined as divinely revealed. Many supporters of Amoris laetitia would deny this, because they deny that there are any exceptionless moral prohibitions, and claim that the Scriptures do not contain prohibitions of this sort. This claim repeats a thesis of proportionalism, a moral theory that was hotly debated during the pontificate of John Paul II and was condemned by him in the encyclical Veritatis splendor. The debate over proportionalism will not be recapitulated here. It is not of great moment for the examination of Scriptural teaching, because there is no reputable case to be made for the Scriptures adhering to the proportionalist understanding of moral norms. This understanding came into existence many centuries after the completion of the New Testament, and is entirely alien to all of the varied historical and intellectual circumstances in which the Scriptural books were composed. The Scriptural commandment forbidding adultery is meant precisely as an absolute prohibition.

            Some defenders of Amoris laetitia have recognized the existence of this absolute prohibition, but have argued that it can be reconciled with the reception of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried persons when these persons are not fully culpable for their situation. The argument is that reception of the Eucharist is forbidden for those in a state of mortal sin, but not for those in a state of venial sin; but it is possible for persons who are committing a seriously sinful act to not be fully responsible for the act they are doing, and hence to be sinning venially rather than mortally; so reception of the Eucharist cannot be absolutely ruled out for such persons.

            In order for this situation to obtain, the civilly divorced and remarried would have to either not give full consent of the will to their situation, or else not be fully knowledgeable about its being a sinful one; and this lack of consent and/or of knowledge would have to be blameless on their part. Their lack of knowledge would have to be a lack of knowledge of law, or lack of knowledge of fact.

            It is difficult to conceive how a person in his right mind could have sexual relations with someone to whom he is not married, but not be aware of this fact. People who are not in their right mind would not be sinning by living in an adulterous relationship and receiving the Eucharist, because they are not responsible for their actions. But their lack of sin would not mean that what they are doing is permissible.

            Many people do lack knowledge of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce, but the difficulty here is how such a lack of knowledge could be blameless, since we are responsible for knowing the  basic moral rules that apply to our state of life. It is also difficult to see how persons lacking knowledge of the sinfulness of adultery and the permanent nature of marriage could validly contract marriage in the first place, since their ignorance bears upon two things that are essential to the nature of marriage. Conditions under which one could divorce one’s spouse, marry someone else, and engage in adulterous relations with that person, but not fully consent to do these things, are also difficult to conceive of.

            However, we may concede for the sake of the argument that such persons could exist. The question that then arises is whether or not the Scriptural prohibition on the reception of the Eucharist by serious sinners applies to them. This depends on whether the prohibition bears solely upon the state of being in mortal sin that results from the culpable commission of grave sins, or whether it bears upon the commission of a grave sin as such.

            It is certainly true that Catholics are forbidden to choose to receive the Eucharist when they are in a state of mortal sin. But it does not follow from this that it is the defiled state of the soul in mortal sin that furnishes the sole reason for the prohibition on grave sinners receiving the Eucharist, so that the absence of this defiled state of soul removes the basis for this prohibition. The Scriptural passages that express this prohibition do not qualify it by saying that those who commit grave sins with full knowledge and consent of the will must not choose to receive the Eucharist. What the Scriptural texts say is that committing grave sin is a bar to reception of the Eucharist. It is not hard to see why this commandment is not qualified by adding that the grave sin in question is one that is done with full knowledge and consent of the will. The Eucharist is the holiest thing in the universe, and nothing evil can be permitted to approach it. In the hypothetical case of a person blamelessly living in an adulterous relationship, the evil of mortal sin in the person’s soul is lacking, but the objectively evil act, with its violation of the order of justice and its evil consequences, remains. Reception of the Eucharist by a person committing this evil would be a profanation of the sacrament, and hence is contrary to divine law. As the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique states, receiving communion in a state of merely material sin is in itself a very grave sacrilege, because objectively speaking it involves a profanation of the body and blood of Jesus Christ (‘la communion, faite en état de faute matérielle, est par elle-même un très grave sacrilège, puisque, objectivement parlant, il y a profanation du corps et du sang de Jésus-Christ’; DTC III, ‘Communion eucharistique’, col. 505.)

            This does not mean that the hypothetical persons who blamelessly engage in an adulterous relationship are necessarily committing a sin if they receive the Eucharist. They may be committing a sin in doing so, if they realize that they are violating a divine commandment to not receive it. But their extraordinary condition might also include a blameless ignorance and/or lack of consent of the will about this commandment to not receive the Eucharist, as well as about the commandment not to commit adultery. In such a case their choosing to receive the Eucharist would not be sinful. But this would not be due to the prohibition against adulterers receiving the Eucharist admitting of any exceptions; it would be due to the deficiencies in knowledge and will that alleviate or remove their guilt for violating this further commandment.

            It is thus certain that the Scriptures forbid the civilly divorced and remarried to choose to receive the Eucharist. Does it also state that priests are absolutely required to refuse the Eucharist to such persons?

            There are two reasons why such a prohibition might exist. One reason is that such reception of the Eucharist is itself a grave sin. A priest would refuse to permit the reception of the Eucharist under such circumstances in order to prevent this sin, the desecration of the Eucharist that it involves, and the public scandal that would result. This reason is clearly a cogent one.

            It could be argued that it would not apply to the private distribution of the Eucharist to persons of the kind described above, who for some extraordinary reason are not culpable for their adulterous relations and their decision to receive the Eucharist without abandoning these relations. But the reception of the Eucharist by such persons is a profanation of the sacrament, even if they are guiltless for committing adultery and choosing to receive it. Distributing the Eucharist to them would thus be cooperation in the profanation of the sacrament. Moreover, it could not benefit the persons receiving the Eucharist in any way, because the benefit that is sought in receiving the Eucharist is grace and union with Christ. This benefit will not be granted by a communion that profanes the Eucharist, even if the persons receiving it are guiltless of the profanation that occurs.

            The other reason for the priest refusing the Eucharist under these circumstances is the existence of a divine command that forbids giving the Eucharist to public grave sinners. Such a command is to be found in a number of places in the Scriptures. There are several Scriptural texts that command the expulsion of public grave sinners from the Christian community. We may take it that such expulsion includes refusal of the Eucharist. 1 Corinthians 5:1-6 refers to the expulsion of a man for an irregular marriage (to his father’s wife). The chapter then generalizes this measure in verses 10 to 11 (quoted above), commanding the expulsion of a number of categories of public sinners, and concludes ‘Put away the evil one from among yourselves’ (v. 13). 1 Timothy 1:20 refers to another such expulsion. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 states ‘And we charge you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother walking disorderly, and not according to the tradition which they have received of us.’ These passages together constitute a clear Scriptural mandate, and indeed a clear command, to refuse the Eucharist to public sinners. This includes public adulterers such as the civilly divorced and remarried. Some obvious reasons can be suggested for this Scriptural command; respect for the meaning and function of the Eucharist as the bond of union in Christ, the avoidance of the desecration of the Eucharist by a sacrilegious communion, and the prevention of the spiritual harm caused to those who make sacrilegious communions. To them may be added the grounds that Familiaris consortio provides for the specific prohibition on giving the Eucharist to the civilly divorced and remarried.

Pope Francis and heresy

            The AAS statement thus settles an important and much-debated question. It establishes that Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia has affirmed propositions that are heretical in the strict sense; that is, propositions that contradict truths that are divinely revealed and that must be believed with the assent of faith. It has not only established this; it has made it a religious duty for Catholics to believe that this is the case. Pope Francis is the Pope, and as such he has the power to exercise the papal teaching authority within the limits set to that authority by divine law. In the AAS statement, he has required Catholics to give religious assent of mind and will to the assertion that Amoris laetitia contains propositions that are heretical.

            The heresy in question is distinctive, as it goes farther than previous denials of Catholic teaching on marriage. Amoris laetitia does not uphold the Mosaic permission on divorce, or the Protestant teaching on divorce, against Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. If it did, it would be less extreme. The Mosaic law permits divorcing one person and then marrying another. It does not permit cohabiting with one person while being married to a different one, as Amoris laetitia does. The latter permission in practice dissolves the notion of marriage altogether.

            The profession of heresy in the AAS statement together with Amoris laetitia is unambiguous, but indirect. The AAS statement endorses a further statement that attributes a heretical meaning to the statements of Amoris laetitia. This indirect form of expression forms part of a strategy for promoting the heresy that is being professed. A natural understanding of Amoris laetitia would discern this heresy in it, but the words of that apostolic exhortation did not completely exclude an orthodox understanding of it. By initially permitting this latitude of understanding, Pope Francis ensured that Catholics who rejected the heresy in question would nonetheless rally to the defence of the document, out of blind loyalty to the papacy, timidity, careerism, or a simple feeling of obligation to give the Roman Pontiff every benefit of the doubt. These defenders of Amoris laetitia were very effective in confusing the issue and leading Catholics to think that the document was acceptable and was being unjustly attacked. The indirect character of the AAS statement avoids embarrassing these defenders, and indeed enables many of them to continue their defence. The meaning of the statement does not have to be confronted unless one follows a chain of reasoning about it, which many conservative Catholic apologists are happy to refrain from doing.

            Its indirect character also weakens the opposition of those conservatives who realize that it is promoting heresy. Pope Francis has found that such conservatives are weak, vacillating, and afraid to oppose him personally. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the most high-profile conservative of this sort, has gone from saying that Amoris laetitia is not an act of the papal magisterium to saying that it is impossible to understand Amoris laetitia in a heterodox sense because it is a magisterial document. A direct statement of heresy might back such persons against the wall and embarrass them into contradicting it. The AAS statement also serves to mock and humiliate conservatives, because it constrains them to reject a legitimate magisterial teaching in order to preserve their silence about Amoris laetitia.

            The heresy that the AAS statement establishes as present in Amoris laetitia does not make Pope Francis guilty of the canonical crime of heresy. This is an important point, because the crime of heresy is the only offence for which a pope can and should be removed from office. In order to commit the canonical crime of heresy, it is not sufficient to publicly state that a heretical proposition is true. One must also refuse to retract this proposition when warned by ecclesiastical authority that it is heretical and cannot be held by Catholics. The pope does not have an ecclesiastical superior, so the authority in his case would have consist in the authority to teach rather than the authority to command. This authority is possessed by Catholic bishops, who have the right and the duty to warn the pope when he upholds heresy. In the case of Pope Francis this has not been done.

            The fact that Pope Francis has not been authoritatively told that he is upholding heresy does not mean that he is simply in error about marriage, divorce and the Eucharist. One does not have to commit the canonical crime of heresy in order to knowingly reject the teaching of the Catholic Church. Most deliberate heretics do not commit this crime, because they are not told by ecclesiastical authority to abjure their heresies. Pope Francis knows that he is contradicting Catholic teaching on this subject; he has composed Amoris laetitia precisely to reject the exposition of this teaching that is to be found in Familiaris consortio. He may think that that adhering to the Catholic faith does not require assenting to the past teachings of the magisterium. It is likely in fact that he does think this; this modernist position is generally held by progressive clerics of his school of thought, and he has shown signs of agreement with it in a number of statements. But acceptance of modernism is itself a more profound and universal form of heresy than rejection of specific divinely revealed truths, since it does away with the whole notion of divine revelation and faith in its teachings. There is no parallel to this betrayal in the entire history of the Papacy. St. Peter denied Christ out of fear, and later repudiated his action. Pope Francis is attacking Christ’s teaching in a planned and systematic fashion because he is opposed to it.

            It would be wrong however to think that Pope Francis is the worst scourge afflicting the Church. The election of a bad man as Pope can never be entirely ruled out. In a healthy Church the problem of a heretical Pope can and will be dealt with by the Catholic bishops, just as the immune system of a healthy body will react to disease and eradicate it. The immune system of the Church at the present is not operating. The bishops of the Catholic Church have remained silent about the heresy in Amoris laetitia, and have thereby abandoned the faithful. The heretical statements of Amoris laetitia have not been presented to the faithful as something that they can take or leave. Pope Francis has stated in official magisterial documents that they are papal teachings that they must accept. He has been supported in this by a large number of bishops. Pope Francis has thereby put pressure on all the Catholic faithful to reject divinely revealed truth. The faithful are not protected against this pressure by the bishops of Kazakhstan, or elsewhere, issuing a statement upholding the truths that Francis is denying. When encountering a difference of opinion between a papal document and a letter from a handful of Kazakh bishops, the faithful will naturally take the papal statement to be of higher authority. In order to protect the faithful from the attack on their belief and salvation that is being made through Amoris laetitia, it is necessary to address the falsehoods in that document itself, and to condemn them by appealing to an authority that justifies the rejection of a non-infallible papal letter; the authority of divine revelation expressed in the Scriptures and repeated by the magisterium of the Church. This appeal does not have to be a canonical warning to Pope Francis that could serve as the first step in his deposition. Such a canonical warning would have to be addressed to the Pope himself, and warn him of the nature of his crime and the consequences of persisting in it. It would be sufficient to take the lesser step of simply addressing the faithful to condemn Amoris laetitia as heretical. Aside from Bishops Bernard Fellay and Henry Gracida, no Catholic bishops have done this.

            This almost unanimous betrayal of their office by Catholic bishops, and the episcopal infidelity that this betrayal reveals, is the fundamental problem in the Church. Without this massive infidelity there would have been no constituency to elect Pope Francis in the first place, and if he had nonetheless managed to be elected he would not have been able to mount an overt assault on the faith. If this fundamental problem is not solved, the repudiation of the heresies in Amoris laetitia or even the deposition of Pope Francis will not produce any lasting benefit. Other evils of a similar kind will recur, since the causes of Pope Francis’s career and actions will remain. A basic reform of the Church that addresses and eradicates these causes is what is needed.

(Copyright John R.T. Lamont, 2018).