Not heretical: Pope Francis’ approval of the Argentine bishops’ policy on invalid marriages

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 13, 2016

According to news reports, Pope Francis has commended the bishops of Argentina for recognizing that Amoris Laetitia permits Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in some cases, without benefit of annulment. The result is that some Catholics are now saying that Pope Francis has crossed the line from doctrinal fuzziness to material heresy. But this is not at all the case.

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. It is very possible to question the prudence of such a practice, as one consequence could be to weaken the Catholic understanding of and commitment to marriage in the minds of the faithful. But that remains a prudential question, which means legitimate disagreement about the best course is possible.

I have repeatedly made the point that the rules governing reception of Communion are disciplinary, not doctrinal. It is impossible to prove that advocacy of any disciplinary approach indicates heresy in the mind of the advocate. At the same time, of course, Church discipline obviously should be designed to strengthen faith and promote spiritual growth, and the discipline in question is clearly tied very closely to the Catholic doctrinal understanding of both marriage and Communion.

At the time of the first Synod on the Family, I suggested a scenario in which the sin of remaining in an invalid marriage could be venial. If that were the case, it could be spiritually advantageous to receive Communion. When Amoris Laetitia was issued, I also suggested a specific case that might lead to the same conclusion, though I think the case I offer below is a better illustration of the point. Readers who wish to consult the two earlier articles will find them here:

The main factor in discerning such cases is that mortal sin requires not only grave matter (which clearly exists in invalid marriages) but also two personal conditions. The sinner must (a) Be aware that the moral breach is very serious; and (b) Commit the sin with full consent of the will. In the absence of these conditions, sins which involve objectively grave matter are venial. Hence they do not render the reception of Communion spiritually dangerous (cf., 1 Cor 11:27).

A likely particular case

Very briefly, then, 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.

Now, even if we argue that the morally correct course is to separate from the unrepentant spouse and trust in God, it is easy to see that—at the very least—this would be hard to discern and, even if discerned, there would be tremendous fear of depriving one’s children of a family setting which includes both their mother and their father.

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.

Conclusion

What all this means, again, is that the decision to admit someone in this situation to Communion is purely prudential. The key question is: Which is more important, the potential scandal which could weaken the commitment of others to the Church’s teaching on marriage, or the need for the (venial) sinner (caught in a no-win situation) to be spiritually nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ?

A final point worth mentioning is that the Church’s prudential judgment about this matter can legitimately change with cultural conditions. For example, in a culture which generally respects the permanence of marriage, the potential scandal might be far greater than in a culture which generally denies the permanence of marriage (in which case it may be difficult to erode that concept any further).

I have not yet seen the full text of the Pope’s letter. But the key point is that this remains a question of Church discipline—not doctrine—on which good Catholics can disagree. Neither position implies an erroneous understanding of the Church’s teaching on faith or morals.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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