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.


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 See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 24 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 16, 2016 5:18 PM ET USA

    To claude-ccc2991: I'm sorry I was not able to make the point more clearly, but I am definitely not proposing that repentance reduces culpability. In the hypothetical case I introduced, which seemed to match well with some of the Pope's remarks in Amoris Laetitia, I noted that the person in question repented from entering into the bad marriage (and so perhaps could be absolved of that particular sin), but continued to engage in sexual relations out of fear for the fate of the children of that union. I did not argue that this decision was morally good. I argued, from the standard understanding of the difference between mortal and venial sin, that the compulsion in that situation reduced her culpability. In Pope Francis' view, I think it likely that this is the type of couple he wants to be in close contact with a priest, who can help them grow to greater perfection, and a greater willingness to do the best thing -- which in this case would be to AGREE to live as brother and sister. And Pope Francis suggests (I'm not saying this is right, but it is what he suggests) that a discerning pastor could be giving Communion to the one who is sinning only under compulsion during that period of mutual growth.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 15, 2016 6:16 PM ET USA

    What you're proposing is that repenting reduces culpability. That's not true. Culpability attaches to sin, and not to one's later retraction. Deep moral gravity occured at the point at which grave matter, full consent and full knowledge came together (step 1 but prior to 2). While it's true that firm purpose of amendment is blocked from enactment, the grave sin that occured before attempted resolution remains a grave sin. That this exists in the party's conscience is manifest (the very end of 2)

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 15, 2016 5:29 PM ET USA

    To claude-ccc2991: Thanks for your comment, but you apparently have not understand the example case, which was chosen precisely because it introduces compulsion that inhibits the full consent of the will to continuing sexual relations. The person in question (a) understands that the invalid marriage is wrong and repents it; (b) understands that, with children involved, the best solution is the brother-and-sister solution; (c) cannot implement this solution because the other party refuses it; and (d) fears that by insisting upon it he or she will deprive the children of one of their parents. There can be no question that this introduces compulsion which, assuming sincerity, prevents full consent of the will. In fact, the person would continue to engage in sexual relations more or less expressly against his or her will, because not to do so would harm the children of this "marriage". We may judge this decision right or wrong, but there can be no question that it reduces culpability by eliminating full consent of the will, and so necessarily, according to Catholic teaching, renders the sins venial.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 15, 2016 3:17 PM ET USA

    Your example clearly shows grave matter, full knowledge & full consent (which to my mind don't have to all occur at once). Though difficult, it seems the repenting party could refrain from Communion until the children are gone. At that point, that party could again try for marital continence. Failing that, there is a choice. The choice is for sexual relations but against receiving Communion, or against sexual relations but for receiving Communion, but free of the need to maintain a stable home.

  • Posted by: johnk64 - Sep. 15, 2016 1:42 PM ET USA

    Ed Peters has a good column on Jeff's post, essentially saying that Jeff only covers half the story. "even if Mirus’ theory of venial sin for some divorced-and-remarried Catholics is correct, it does not answer the question about their being admitted to holy Communion." It's here:

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 15, 2016 10:51 AM ET USA

    To AgnesDay: There are two questions here. One is whether the mere fact of being divorced and remarried without an annulment places a person into the category specified in Canon 915, which stipulates that those who are "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion." It would seem that Pope Francis either does not think such persons fall into this class (though this has been taken for granted previously), or that he believes Canon 915 can be legitimately revised in a way that permits pastors to follow the course he is now recommending, which would admit them to Communion in certain cases.

    Clearly, however, the Pope should address the issue in Canon 915 and amend the law rather than advising a course which currently appears to be forbidden by Church law.

    The second question (addressed at least partially in Canon 916) is whether the person in question is aware of grave sin, or indeed—as Pope Francis clearly hopes will be discerned by pastors—whether the sins involved may be only venial because of misunderstanding or compulsion. These factors are relevant because for a sin to be mortal we need not only grave matter but (a) personal recognition of the gravity of the sin; and (b) full consent of the will in committing it anyway. These are the issues on which Francis' current approach depends.

    On your final question, clearly a parent may feel compelled by the good of the children not to separate, which would deprive the children of one parent—a very grave evil. This is why the Church has said (most recently by John Paul II) that the best solution is a brother-sister relationship in the same family household. The case I outlined arises when one spouse will leave if the other insists on a brother-sister arrangement, but there may be other relevant cases as well (such as fear of abuse/injury). These would reduce full consent of the will, and might render sins venial.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 14, 2016 5:13 PM ET USA

    I don't get it. Under what circumstances does a Catholic who engages in sexual activity with a person to whom he/she has no Sacramental bond considered fit to receive Communion. Why does the woman in question not seek legal separation from her "spouse" and seek for the welfare of her children?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 4:54 PM ET USA

    To loumiamo: Good heavens, no. Moses PERMITTED divorce and remarriage because of the hardness of their hearts. Francis does not permit this. He simply proposes that, in some cases, the nature of the sins in some particular situations might admit of a path toward Christian perfection which does not require exclusion from the Eucharist. Dangerous? I think so. But the same as Moses? Decidedly not. Nearly every other Christian "church" allows divorce and remarriage, as Moses did. The Catholic Church, almost alone, continues to stand with Our Lord.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Sep. 14, 2016 4:19 PM ET USA

    "in some cases, [can] the sins of adultery be venial rather than mortal?" Isn't that what Moses did, effectively changing adultery to a venial sin, but Jesus made a course correction?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 3:29 PM ET USA

    To wsw4340: Nobody argues with what Our Lord taught. That's not the issue. The issue is whether, in some cases, the sins of adultery might be venial rather than mortal. As I pointed out, Pope Francis thinks they can be venial either by virtue of misunderstanding or compulsion (much more than grave matter is needed to make a mortal sin). If that's true, a different disciplinary approach regarding the Eucharist could be possible in those cases, without violating Catholic doctrine. Again, to be personally clear: I think this new approach is likely to do more harm than good. But it is not heretical.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 3:24 PM ET USA

    To john.n.akiko7522: Actually, you raise a key question. Pope John Paul II decided to stick with the longstanding practice of the Church, which is also expressed in Canon 915, that manifest grave sin is sufficient for the Church to refuse Communion. Two questions arise: First, does "grave" mean only mortal sin? Probably it refers simply to grave matter, not to knowledge of the wrong and full consent of the will, but it could mean mortal sins only, which require far more than grave matter. Second, is this longstanding practice one that can be slightly modified, taking into account the distinction between mortal and venial sin? Not all longstanding practices are impervious to legitimate change. In any case, it does not appear to me that a doctrinal question is involved which merits the charge of heresy. To be clear, though, I do think this new approach is likely to do far more harm than good.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 3:22 PM ET USA

    To VICTORIA01: No, you are not wrong about the reality that you should not present yourself for Communion if you are not in a state of grace. But it is only mortal since that eliminates your state of grace, not venial sin. While I am not a fan of Pope Francis' new approach on this matter, it would not face any doctrinal impediments if the sins were judged to be venial. As I said this would be based on lack of understanding or compulsion.

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Sep. 14, 2016 12:55 PM ET USA

    While I see your scenario as a possibility, not a probability. The old adage of letting your conscience be your guide can be very misleading based on the attitude of modern society. This could lead to other changes in a person's mind to accommodate his view of what he considers mortal sins.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Sep. 14, 2016 10:09 AM ET USA

    Jeff - not disagreeing about the "disciplinary" aspect, since I'm not well-read enough to do so - - but I have to say that any "marriage" where one partner refused to stay in a sexless union, and so the other partner participates in sex under duress, is not likely to be a successful marriage anyway. Maybe because those who deliberately flaunt the Commandments can expect a poor outcome...

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Sep. 14, 2016 8:46 AM ET USA

    This is NOT doctrine vs. discipline; there are Words of Jesus: Mk 10:11-12: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Please read a good commentary: - note how Vatican reprimanded Kasper in 1994 through a letter approved by Pope John Paul II but written by Card. Ratzinger

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Sep. 14, 2016 3:12 AM ET USA

    I don't see that the question of divorce is at the center of the AL controversy. As I read Chapter 8 and the footnotes, the same tortured reasoning employed could be turned on about social issue you'd like to point to. Same sex marriage is an obvious example. Ideally couples should be man and woman, but if the Church must move to where the people live .... and the pastoral opportunity is there .... why not? Francis is doing tremendous damage. (Can we disagree about 50% invalid marriages?)

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Sep. 14, 2016 1:29 AM ET USA

    This teaching directly contradicts the teaching of St. John Paul II's and the entire history of the Church. Does that mean all the previous popes were wrong? "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..."

  • Posted by: Nuage - Sep. 14, 2016 1:18 AM ET USA

    My best friend married a Catholic man who had been divorced for 15 years before they met. His children are grown. It is my friend's first marriage and this is the love of her life. They are both believers. They attend Mass every Sunday. If Pope Francis himself told them they had his personal permission to receive the Sacraments, they would continue to refrain. They know that marrying outside of the Church is a mortal sin. They understand adultery. The Natural Law is written on their hearts.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 13, 2016 9:49 PM ET USA

    We live in an age of statistics. They are clear: artificial birth control is alive and well among Catholics. Now among those lay Catholics who are divorced and remarried without annulments what percentage might also be using artificial contraception? Well, a 2014 poll conducted among Catholics in Europe and South America found "90% have no problem with it." And among those in "irregular marriages" might we hope for less? Just one facet. We seem to be living in a time of delusion.

  • Posted by: VICTORIA01 - Sep. 13, 2016 9:09 PM ET USA

    Long ago when I received an orthodox instruction in the Catholic Faith I was taught that one had to be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion. Has this teaching now been changed to permit Catholics in civil marriages who are not living as brother and sister and are objectively not in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion? If so does that mean that one does not have to be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion any more?

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Sep. 13, 2016 5:36 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis. "Amoris Laetitia permits Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in some cases." There is absolutely no possibility that "some cases" will fairly quickly become "all cases." Such things have never happened in the past.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Sep. 13, 2016 2:53 PM ET USA

    Boy, the Holy Father has set the bar pretty low. "Pope Not Heretical!" and "Formal Heresy Narrowly Averted!" are just not ideal headlines.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Sep. 13, 2016 2:51 PM ET USA

    Per your beginning, it seems better to note that Eucharistic rules are a matter of discipline BASED on doctrine, rather than discipline NOT doctrine, at least to my simple way of thinking. As a practical matter, to avoid scandal, the Church should institute a kind of banns of re-Communion (for perhaps 10-12 weeks?) to announce the news and catechize us properly, & the subject couple (perhaps?) should explain some details to the adult parishioners. Oh yeah, I stand corrected, not that I like it.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 13, 2016 2:32 PM ET USA

    It is clear that there is a track record here.. It's at least problematic, particularly when there is so little discipline among so many pastors these days. The Holy Father directly intervened in the Synod to ensure specific language that was resisted by many bishops. This latest letter can't be interpreted in a vacuum. In light of all the evidence this appears to prescribe a new path. And as recent decades have shown clearly, these new paths tend to meander and to break barriers over time.