Dear Father, I am confused about some things Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia concerning circumstances in which divorced and remarried people might be admitted to the sacraments. Can you shed some light on this?
Much has been written and said about this apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, with numerous critics saying the Pope has departed from traditional Catholic teaching and others defending him.
The pope has always defended the consistency of this document with traditional Catholic teaching – it could not be otherwise – and so it should be read and interpreted in this light.
The teaching of the Church is based on Our Lord’s words on divorce and remarriage: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12). It is clear from this that those who are divorced and remarried civilly are living in an objective situation of grave sin and if they engage in acts of intimacy they are committing adultery. I say “objective” because there may be people who are subjectively not guilty of grave sin due to circumstances which the Pope mentions.
In view of this constant teaching, Pope St John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio (1981), after saying that the divorced and remarried should be welcomed into the life of the Church, went on to say: “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried” (n. 84).
Later the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) taught: “Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’ (Mk 10:11-12) – the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognised as valid, if the first marriage was.
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 … Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence” (n. 1650).
What then of Pope Francis’ reference to people in this situation who may not be subjectively guilty of grave sin because of particular circumstances? He quotes the Catechism, which says 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; AL 302).
Later he goes on to say: “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” (AL 305).
Can these people be admitted to the sacraments? The normal pastoral practice in these cases is to help them realise that, even though they may not be guilty of sin, their present life is not in keeping with the demands of the Gospel and to show them how they can change, perhaps over time, so that they are once more living as God wants.
Only when they are living in conformity with God’s law will they find the true wellbeing and happiness they seek. What is not pastoral or merciful is to leave them in that state, just as it would not be merciful to allow someone to go on using heroin simply because they didn’t know how much it can harm them.
What this means in practice is to help the couple live as brother and sister, abstaining from acts of sexual intimacy. If they agree to do this and are sorry for their sins, they can be absolved in the sacrament of Penance and can be admitted to Holy Communion. If from time to time they fail and have acts of intimacy, they can still be forgiven, as can others who fail in matters of serious sin when they are sincerely trying to avoid falling. To avoid the danger of scandal it is usually recommended that they attend Mass and receive Communion in a parish where they are not known.