True to the Gospel? True to Church teaching?
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Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, titled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness,” has been called the most controversial section of the post-synodal exhortation. Many commentators have expressed concern that in this chapter, Pope Francis could potentially encourage a departure from the Church’s established teachings on marriage and the family. Yet a simple, full and good-faith reading of the actual text of chapter 8 would reveal nothing that is truly novel or foreign to the Church’s traditional doctrine or moral theology.
For example, here are some “soundbites” from chapter 8 that might appear problematic apart from the rest of the text:
Par. 297 – “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”
Taken out of context, this might seem to contradict Jesus’ own words in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 25:46) when he warns of us the very real possibility of experiencing eternal punishment if we die unrepentant from our sins. One might therefore presume that Pope Francis is either telling us that failure to live in accord with the Church’s marriage laws should no longer be considered sinful, or else is suggesting that there are no longer any enduring consequences of persisting in a sinful state.
However, only a few lines down in the very same paragraph, the Holy Father notes that: “Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community. Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.”
In reading the actual paragraph, it becomes clear that Pope Francis is not denying the reality of hell, but is rather emphasizing the Church’s constant teaching that there is indeed hope and mercy for those striving to turn away from sin. “The logic of the Gospel” refers to Christ’s readiness to forgive those who sincerely seek reconciliation.
Par. 299 “Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church …”
It has been claimed that, in this passage, Pope Francis subtly suggested that the unlawfully divorced and remarried may now readily participate in all of the sacraments, including the reception of Holy Communion. If this were the correct reading of this line, it would be problematic in so far as it would imply that the Pope Francis was willing to dismiss the Church’s teachings on the permanence of the marriage bond, or else that he was devaluing the sacredness of the Eucharist.
But if we look at what this sentence actually does say, rather than what some hope or fear it might imply, we should recognize that it expresses a fact that is both true and uncontroversial.
“Excommunication” is a punishment for certain crimes committed against canon law, and not a consequence of an irregular marriage. While those who have divorced and remarried (that is, without having first received a declaration of nullity) are, technically, living in a public, sinful state of adultery — and are therefore, according to both canon law and the Church’s moral and sacramental theology, not permitted to receive Holy Communion — it is important to acknowledge that this is not the same thing as incurring excommunication as a canonical penalty.
Still, in this paragraph Pope Francis is making a larger point on the importance of pastors finding ways for those in irregular marriages to participate in the life of the Church. While some activities, including those which involve representing the Church in an official capacity, would be inappropriate for the divorced and remarried, it is still possible for them to be involved in other aspects of the Church’s life, such as assisting in works of mercy organized by the parish or participating in prayer groups (cf. AL 297).
The purpose of striving to integrate the divorced and remarried into the life of the Church is not somehow to give an official seal of approval on their past sinful choices, but rather to include them in an environment which will help foster their deeper conversion, in the hope of an eventual resolution of their irregular situation.
Par. 301 “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin …”
In this instance it might sound as though Pope Francis is disregarding the importance of obeying the Church’s marriage laws. Yet, even a basic reading of the actual text would show he is simply acknowledging the possibility of mitigating factors that could prevent an individual from bearing the full guilt of an action that is gravely sinful.
In order for an action to become a mortal sin, that action must be “grave matter,” or an act which is seriously wrong in and of itself; known and understood by the individual to be seriously wrong; and carried out from the individual’s own free will (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1857–1860). While living in an irregular marriage is objectively grave matter which could constitute a moral sin, Pope Francis is calling pastors’ attention to certain elements in today’s culture which might prevent a couple from consenting to their irregular situation with complete freedom or from fully grasping its seriousness.
Over all, in Amoris Letitia, Pope Francis simply echoes the Church’s timeless teaching that, while moral truths are always to be upheld and defended, Christ desires that all sinners come to a full repentance and knowledge of the truth. In chapter 8 specifically, Pope Francis is reminding pastors of their call to assist all those who are striving towards more virtuous life, include those striving despite complicated circumstances, to move forward toward the fullness of life in Christ — and therefore toward a fuller life in Christ’s body, the Church.
Jenna M. Cooper is a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.