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The Controversy at the Heart of Amoris Laetitia

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 11, 2016

If Catholics who have divorced and remarried without obtaining an annulment can in some cases be given permission to receive communion, will this do more harm than good? That’s the question at the heart of the controversy over Pope Francis’ post synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

Other questions are so easily answered that we can skim over them very quickly. For example:

1. Is the text too long?

It is long, yes. It used 95 pages coming out of my printer, with 391 footnotes. But it is not out of keeping with other post-synodal apostolic exhortations on complex topics, for these documents typically attempt to pass along the full range of concerns and insights which surfaced in the discussions at the synods which prompted them. Thus Pope Benedict’s Verbum Domini in 2010 sported 382 footnotes and took 79 printed pages. John Paul II’s On the Bishop, Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World in 2003 had 301 footnotes and filled 76 printed pages.

It’s not quite a fair comparison, but the revised Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops which grew out of the 2001 Synod, when printed, used 180 of my precious sheets of paper, and it had a whopping 760 footnotes. But what is fair to remember is that the 2003 and 2010 documents mentioned in the preceding paragraph covered just one synod each. Amoris Laetitia covers two of them.

2. Is the text confusing?

Not generally. This is quite an achievement for a document designed to include as many of the insights of two synods as possible. We must remember that there is always something of the “committee” in such documents, ensuring that each valid episcopal intervention makes the cut, and that the experience of the bishops from a variety of countries is honored. Nonetheless, in eight of its nine chapters, Amoris Laetitia is quite clear, engaging, perceptive, wise and even inspirational.

The first seven chapters discuss the nature of marital love, the surpassing importance of the family in God’s plan, and the great many problems which weaken both the family and the marital bond in our time. Anyone can read and reflect on all this with great profit. Pope Francis has done a fine job of pulling it all together. This is true of the closing chapter (chapter 9) as well, which outlines a brief “Spirituality of Marriage and the Family”.

So why the uproar?

The controversy stirred by Amoris Laetitia arises from Chapter Eight, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”. As Pope Francis wrote in the introduction, it is likely that “married couples will be more concerned with Chapters Four and Five, and pastoral ministers with Chapter Six, while everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight” (emphasis added). This is because Chapter Eight considers an extremely difficult theological and pastoral question, namely: In ministering to the needs of her sinful members, to what degree can the Church take into account the reality that the human person cannot achieve the goal of spiritual growth all at once, but typically must proceed by degrees?

We first encounter this dilemma when we learn the difference between mortal and venial sin. While it requires grave matter for a sin to be mortal, not all sins involving grave matter are in fact mortal. Instead, two interior aspects also affect the gravity of sin. First, the sinner must be aware of the grave nature of his decision to sin; second, the sinner must choose the sin with the full consent of his will. In ordinary human lives, a large number of circumstances mitigate the guilt incurred when we sin, so that sins which are objectively gravely evil may in fact be venial for any given sinner.

We see in this another example of the mercy of God: The less spiritually mature and well-formed we are, the more often our sins are venial rather than mortal—owing to the very blindness and compulsion which we have not yet overcome through spiritual growth. We are dealing here with a Gospel principle: To whom much is given, from him much is expected. (Of course, we also recall that complete stagnation is unacceptable. The one who has been given little can fall into the danger of losing the little he has.)

At a more complex theological and psychological level, we encounter this same principle in the idea of “gradualism”. To keep this fairly brief, I am not going to make many specific references to the text. Suffice it to say that Pope Francis rejects gradualism of the law (as if God’s law changes to accommodate our spiritual deficiencies). But he recognizes the gradualism of moral and spiritual growth. This makes it possible, without failing to set forth the demands of the Christian life, to judge that a person has not reached sufficient spiritual development and discernment for some of his or her sins to be considered mortal. Hence there is a certain legitimate latitude for gradualism in pastoral care, striving always toward greater perfection.

The Critical Consideration

Apply this to irregular marriages, and you can see the problem it presents. As I stated at the time of the first Synod on the Family in 2014, it is not necessary to conclude, from the objective gravity of the sins(s) involved in an irregular marriage, that these sins are always subjectively mortal. Human confusion and even compulsion in marriage matters is probably more difficult to overcome than in almost any other area of life. Pope Francis tries very hard to promote a proper application of this spiritual understanding. Let me provide just one extensive quotation:

What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf., Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”.338 These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard. [#300]

Let us ignore the last sentence for the moment—a prudential judgment which is vastly overstated, since we can hardly control what people might think. Up to that neuralgic point, we have a reasonably straightforward and cautious statement of what is clearly to be desired and, in fact, ought to be the case. This is why Pope Francis states that we cannot simply say (as many have said in the past) “that all those in any ‘irregular’ situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’,339 or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (#301).

This is unquestionably true, and the conclusion is inescapable:

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.351 [#305]

Confession and Communion

Now even up to this point, there is (or ought to be) no great problem in understanding and agreeing with the Pope—unless we rush ahead to imagine the practical results in the daily ministry of the Church. Although Pope Francis tries to hedge against abuses in the way he presents the problem, two things are at work here which raise very grave prudential questions. The most important is the inclusion of Communion in the footnote at the end of the last quoted sentence, footnote 351:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I 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 [2013], 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). [This is footnote 351.]

Admission to Communion is specified only in this note. But the note serves to clarify that, at least in some cases, Pope Francis foresees admission to Communion to be possible (as it would be if the decision were based only on the question of whether the sin is mortal or venial). In passing, let me also mention that Cardinal Schönburg’s insistence that the Holy Father is referring only to Confession in this note is not tenable given the specific mention of the Eucharist.

Here we are, then, in this spacious and even strikingly beautiful document, right back to the Church’s sore spot: Communion for those who are divorced and remarried without benefit of annulment. This is certainly at least a small part of the Pope’s pastoral approach, as highlighted in this footnote, which specifies it as possible.

This, of course, brings us to the second of the “two things” I mentioned which raise questions. We must now recover that final clause in the last sentence of the very long passage above. Under the conditions he has outlined (which are excellent conditions), Pope Francis concludes: “there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.” But every Catholic in the entire world, on either side of this question, knows that this statement is extraordinarily wide of the mark. For even if every priest fulfilled the Pope’s high expectations in this process of accompaniment and discernment (and experience suggests the opposite), it is in fact impossible to prevent people from thinking the Church maintains a double standard, when the normal rules are in fact suspended, at least in some cases and perhaps more often than not.

It is inescapable that the Church’s ministry in this matter will be, at best, uneven. There will be scandal, not just in the minds of some, but in actual fact.


It goes without saying that it is impossible to know in advance the good and the evil consequences which will flow from this pastoral approach (and surely we can foresee both). It is even less possible to judge infallibly whether the good will outweigh the bad. For this reason, the first conclusion to be drawn is that any quarrel with Pope Francis on this point is not a quarrel over doctrine, but a quarrel over discipline. We are arguing not moral principles, but spiritual prudence. We are considering the question of which pastoral strategy, which type of ecclesiastical discipline, will bear the greatest fruit in our contemporary situation, when marriage and family life are under overwhelming assault.

Because the question is prudential, let me state clearly that I have no patience at all with those who say, in effect, that this is the last straw, that the Church has gone astray, and that they are leaving. Yes, I have had emails to this effect already, so I wish to be frank: This is sheer stupidity; worse, it is a dramatic failure in Faith. For insight on why the Pope may have chosen the course that he did, see my earlier essay, Divorce and Remarriage: Why has Pope Francis chosen to leave one door open?.

But the problem that this pastoral approach raises is exactly the one I hoped could be avoided (as I mentioned more than two years ago) by changing the emphasis with respect to irregular marriages from “objective state of mortal sin” (from which people unfortunately infer a corresponding subjective guilt) to “rejection of the Church’s sacramental authority”. We cannot know the exact state of someone’s soul, but we can know that in contracting a second marriage without an annulment, a couple has refused to honor the Church’s sacramental system, refused to accept the Church’s sacramental authority over marriage. As such, it would seem proper for the Church to take account of this refusal, with respect to Communion, until such time as it ceases to exist. (In this approach the weight of condemnation is not nearly so strong.)

I should also like to make one theological point. The Pope repeatedly emphasizes that the Church’s “ideal” of marriage must always be presented. But the Pope must also know, from the controversies of the seventies and eighties, that an emphasis on the “ideal” can often be taken to mean not that one understanding of marriage is right and others are wrong, or that one understanding of marriage is good and others are bad, but that one understanding of marriage is “ideal” yet others are “also acceptable and good.” The Pope does not mean to say this; but it will be in the air nonetheless.

When all is said and done, then, what do I expect? I expect that the uneven application of the Pope’s goals in this matter will continue to haunt the Church (which is haunted by this question already without the least pontifical justification). I generally agree, then, with Phil Lawler’s judgment that “The Pope’s confused message undermines his own pastoral program”. The only difference is that I do not regard the message as confused in itself so much as inescapably confusing to most Catholics, as well as immensely likely to be abused, both of which make it prudentially ill-suited to its stated goal.

But time will tell. Meawhile there is enormous room for pastors to increase the fruitfulness of their ministry to the divorced and remarried if only they will apply their desired zeal in ways that do not call into question the importance of the Church’s sacramental authority and power. Every other concern the Pope mentions, and every other recommendation he makes to strengthen marriage and family life, should be taken to the very heart of the Church—should become hallmarks of Catholic ministry. Indeed, at one point Francis states quite clearly:

To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown. [Emphasis added]

We must not lose sight of that.

If you are already raising the alarm and mounting your horse with mailed fist and eyes of flame, let me repeat: We must not lose sight of that. Yet we cannot keep these goods in sight if we have not bothered to read and understand what Pope Francis has exhorted us to consider and to do. Francis did not write Amoris Laetitia so that he could hear the faithful whine, but so that, “in reading the text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life, for ‘families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity’ ” (#7).

In this sense, I am obliged to add: It worked for me.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: hitchs - Apr. 15, 2016 4:07 AM ET USA

    While I can understand the point being made here (at least, I think I do), I find it irking, to say the least, that we keep having to explain Francis's words in such a way that we can agree with them - or at least, agree not to disagree. At such a crucial point in our history, with foes ranged all around us, I want a Pope that I can follow without qualification, without even having to think about it - not just one I can excuse.

  • Posted by: St.John Neumann - Apr. 13, 2016 4:34 PM ET USA

    Once you admit just about anybody to Holy Communion as is the practice in many places, of people who do not believe it is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the sacrament becomes devalued. The Sacrament of Reconciliation already is devalued. Marriage is already devalued its meaning has been effectively transformed into a secular understanding even among Catholics. Many people I know believe that we are going to be saved anyway. So why sacrifice. Poor St.John Fisher.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Apr. 13, 2016 12:45 AM ET USA

    What a conundrum! Chapter 8 doesn't just apply to the divorce situation; it can be applied to any "serious sin situation". The only real problem with "In ordinary human lives, a large number of circumstances mitigate the guilt incurred when we sin, so that sins which are objectively gravely evil may in fact be venial for any given sinner." is the Fatima message.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Apr. 12, 2016 9:22 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis has a fondness for always talking about the exception rather than the rule, which imho is unfortunate. 99 times out of 100, if u bang ur toe against ur dresser, its gonna hurt. But that once in 100, it somehow, magically, doesn't hurt. Do we throw caution out the window for the 1 in 100, or do we deal with and protect for the 99?

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 11, 2016 6:48 PM ET USA

    AL is not confusing for people who dedicate themselves to a careful analysis of the text, and who, can ignore the siren songs of the media and breathless clergy. But for ordinary humanity, this I fear will be the "catechism" coming out of AMORIS LÆTITIA: "Mama, what does pastoral mean?" "It means, Child, that when your father and his new 'wife' go to church the priest has to pretend that I’m dead." (hat tip, Dymphablogspot)