Argument: Concerning the reception of Communion for those who are divorced and civilly remarried, I read Amoris Laetitia Paragraph 305 (including Footnote 351) to say that individuals in objective situations of sin, but who are not subjectively culpable because of mitigating factors (insufficient knowledge or consent) may, in certain cases, receive Communion. (It also appears that this is the same way that the bishops from Argentina, Malta, and Gozo understand this passage of AL.)
This reading makes sense to me and, on its face, seems to be in line with Church teaching on Mortal Sin. The Catechism says that mortal sin prevents one from legitimately receiving Holy Communion (CCC 1415). However, the Catechism also says that “Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC 1859). Further, the Catechism states that, “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).
If it is mortal sin that’s preventing someone from receiving Communion, and an individual and their Confessor discern that there are mitigating factors (insufficient knowledge or consent) that would make one not guilty of mortal sin, then why would that person be prevented from receiving Communion? Now, if someone is living in objective situations of sin, but aren’t subjectively guilty, the public reception of Communion could cause scandal. But that doesn’t mean that this person should be barred from receiving the Sacrament privately.
Here’s an example that is relevant to this discussion. Say there’s a woman who is divorced and civilly remarried. She is Catholic and has recently gone through a personal conversion and wants to be reconciled to the Church. However, her “second husband” threatens to leave her and the kids if she stops having sex with him for the 12+ months (or indefinitely) it will take while they wait/hope for an annulment to come through. Because of the threat to her and her children’s well being, she is not fully able to say no to the objectively sinful act of having sex with her “second husband”?
The Catholic apologist Tim Staples offer a similar, if not a more extreme, hypothetical example:
“Imagine a woman in the jungles of Brazil, a strong Catholic who marries in the Church, has three small children, and then is abandoned by her husband. She has no way of supporting herself, finds herself unable to feed herself or her children, leading her to abandon her faith and to marrying outside of the Church. She then has three more children with a man who is a member of “Amigos dos Amigos,” but at least provides for her and her children. She then has a strong reversion to her Faith and is told by a priest she cannot have relations with her husband, but must live with him “as brother and sister.” So she informs her husband. The husband then informs her that she will, in fact, have relations with him or else bad things will happen to either her, her children, or both. Knowing the police are in the hip-pocket of the “Amigos…” she is scared to death. I can see how a priest could determine this woman is in a place where fear mitigates against any thought of mortal sin. She is in a desperate state and let’s say she desires greatly the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession.”
And these are just two examples of potentially many more that could meet the criteria of someone in an objective sinful situation, but who is not subjectively culpable because of mitigating factors.
Therefore Amoris Laetitia appears to be entirely within orthodoxy.
Objection 1: Divorced and civilly remarried couples are not being denied communion because they are in a state of mortal sin, they may not be subjectively guilty of a mortal sin. They are being denied because their status as being divorced and civilly remarried objectively contradicts that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified by the Eucharist. And this could lessen reverence toward the Eucharist or cause confusion among the faithful concerning the indissolubility of marriage. This teaching comes from, among other places:
Familiaris Consortio 84: “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.”
Catechism 1650: “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.”
Canon 915: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”
In a pretty extensive document he wrote in 2007, Cardinal Burke goes into the history and theological development of Canon 915 where he concludes (among other things) that, “The person who obstinately remains in public and grievous sin is appropriately presumed by the Church to lack the interior bond of communion, the state of grace, required to approach worthily the reception of the Holy Eucharist.”
Response 1: This Canon is a matter of practice, not of doctrine, and that practice can be changed.
It is a matter of doctrine that one must be free from mortal sin, that is, in a state of grace, in order to receive Communion.This teaching comes from, among other places:
Council of Trent: “If anyone says that faith alone is sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist, let him be anathema. And that so great a Sacrament may not be unworthily received, and therefore unto death and condemnation, this holy Council ordains and declares that sacramental confession must necessarily be made beforehand by those whose conscience is burdened by mortal sin, however contrite they may consider themselves. If anyone moreover teaches the contrary or preaches or obstinately asserts, or even publicly by disputation shall presume to defend the contrary, by that fact itself he is excommunicated.”
Pope Saint Pius X, in Sacra Tridentina: “Frequent and daily Communion…must be open to all the faithful, of whatever class of conditions, so that none who is in a state of grace and approaches the holy table with a right and pious mind may be turned away from it” [emphasis mine].
Other restrictions and regulations on who may receive Holy Communion appear to be a matter of prudential practice, not doctrine. Familiaris Consortio 84 admits as much when Pope Saint John Paul II stated, “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried” [emphasis mine].
Furthermore, this practice can be changed. In that same paragraph of Familiaris Consortio, Pope Saint John Paul II changes that practice by allowing divorced and civilly remarried couples to receive Communion when “serious reasons” would encourage them to stay together (like the upbringing of children) and under certain conditions (abstinence).
In other words, Pope John Paul II allowed couples, whose public status objectively contradicts that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified by the Eucharist, to receive Communion. He introduced an innovation of practice which allowed divorced and civilly remarried couples to receive communion even though their circumstances still objectively contradicts God’s law.
So if this exception is made (by a pope teaching through an Apostolic Exhortation) for these couples, it is not unreasonable for the exception to be extended (by a pope teaching through an Apostolic Exhortation) to some other divorced and civilly remarried couples, like the original example above, who are not subjectively culpable of mortal sin because of mitigating factors.
Objection 2: Canon 915 is not merely a matter of ecclesial law or prudential practice, but is rather a matter of divine law that cannot be changed. In the year 2000 The Pontifical Council For Legislative Texts wrote a document about Canon 915 in which they stated, “The prohibition found in the cited canon , by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church.”
Response 2: The pope is not changing or revoking Canon 915, but rather clarifying that some divorced and civilly remarried individuals do not meet the criteria of the canon.
Canon 912 states that “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.” And Canon 18 says that “Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.” In other words, the faithful have a right to receive Holy Communion unless prohibited by law, but any laws prohibiting reception must be interpreted in the strictest sense. Therefore, when Canon 915 states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion” it means that only someone who meets all three of those criteria (obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin) can be denied Communion.
Now the Pope is the supreme legislator of Canon Law and therefore is the supreme interpreter of the law. In the infamous eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father speaks of those who “flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal,” and he says that through their actions they are separated from the community (AL 297). These individuals certainly meet the criteria listed in Canon 915.
This is a different situation though from those (like the women in the examples at the beginning of this article) who wish to change but who find themselves prevented from changing because of their circumstances. Those individuals in this position do not meet the criteria listed in Canon 915 because they are not obstinate in their sin and thus their situation does not prevent them from receiving Holy Communion.
Conclusion 1: Any theologian who understands the difference between an objective action and subjective culpability should be able to recognize that Amoris Laetitia is within orthodoxy. The middle school students I teach sometimes have a difficult time understanding this distinction but the high schoolers I teach usually get it. So it is difficult not to conclude that those who are publicly accusing the Holy Father, not of being confusing or ambiguous, but of outright propagating heresy, are allowing a personal animus against Pope Francis to cloud their reason.
Conclusion 2: Amoris Laetitia is clearly a part of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Holy Father, therefore the teaching is protected by Divine assistance and demands the religious submission of mind and will. This conclusion is made clear by these sources:
Lumen Gentium 25: “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” [emphasis mine].
Catechism 892: “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it” [emphasis mine].
Donum Veritatis 17: “One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged. It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful” [emphasis mine].
Conclusion 3: Those who are publicly disagreeing with Pope Francis are breeding dissent and contempt for legitimate authority by creating a “parallel magisterium.”
When a theologian disagrees in some way with the Magisterium they have“the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself.” However, “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders servite to the truth” (Donum Veritatis 30). This is because “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church,” otherwise called “dissent,” can cause “serious harm” to the “community of the Church” (Donum Veritatis 32).
Therefore, those who publicly join together to correct the Ordinary Magisterium of the pope, presuming to know better than the Divinely assisted Bishop of Rome, create a “parallel-magisterium” that breeds dissent and contempt for authority. As Cardinal Ratzinger said in Donum Varitatis, “As to the ‘parallel magisterium’, it can cause great spiritual harm by opposing itself to the Magisterium of the Pastors. Indeed, when dissent succeeds in extending its influence to the point of shaping; a common opinion, it tends to become the rule of conduct. This cannot but seriously trouble the People of God and lead to contempt for true authority” (Donum Veritatis 34).
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.