The joy of love and the consternation of theologians Some comments on the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia

By Rocco Buttiglione
Monday, August 1, 2016

The following article first appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, on July 19, 2016.

I remember coming across a cartoon in a French newspaper a while ago. I think it was in L’Aube. Several theologians, each sitting atop his own little hill, were looking out toward the horizon in search of the Christ. Down in the valley, some children had already found Jesus. He took them by the hand and was walking among the theologians, none of whom recognized the Lord. The theologians were looking off into the yonder while Jesus was right in their midst.

I’ve often thought of this cartoon while reading comments concerning Amoris Laetitia and, more broadly, the pontificate of Pope Francis. The sensus fidei of the Christian people immediately embraced and followed him. But some of the learned class seem to have trouble understanding him. They criticize him and portray him as out of harmony with the Church’s tradition, and more specifically, out of step with his great predecessor, Pope John Paul II. They seem disconcerted by the fact that they find no support in Francis’s teaching to affirm their own theories, and they do not want to depart from their intellectual framework and listen more closely to the surprising freshness of Francis’ message. The Gospel is always ancient and always new. That is precisely why it is never old.

Let’s try to read the most controversial part of Amoris Laetitia through the eyes of a child. The most controversial part is where the pope says that, in certain conditions and in certain circumstances, some divorced and remarried people may receive the Eucharist.

When I was a child I studied the Roman Catechism before making my First Holy Communion. The Catechism was written by a pope who was undoubtedly anti-modernist: Saint Pius X. I remember him saying that to receive the Eucharist a soul had to be free from mortal sin. He also explained what a mortal sin is. In order for a sin to be mortal, three conditions are necessary. It must be an intrinsically evil act or gravely contrary to the moral law: that is, it has to be grave matter. Sexual relations outside of marriage are without doubt gravely contrary to the moral law. This was the case before Amoris Laetitia, this is still the case in Amoris Laetitia, and it will naturally be the case after Amoris Laetitia. The pope has not changed the Church’s doctrine.

But Saint Pius X tells us more. For a sin to be mortal, two other conditions are necessary beyond grave matter. It is also necessary that there be full knowledge of the evil of the act committed. If one is convinced in conscience that the act is not (gravely) evil, the action will be materially evil but not imputed to the person as a mortal sin. Moreover, the acting subject must give deliberate consent to the evil action. This means that the sinner must be free to act or not to act: that is, he must be free to act in one way rather than another, and he must not be coerced by a fear that obliges him to do one thing when he prefers another.

Can we imagine circumstances in which a divorced and remarried person finds himself or herself living in a situation of serious sin without full knowledge or deliberate consent? Perhaps a woman was baptized but never truly evangelized, entered marriage superficially, and then her spouse abandoned her. Perhaps a man entered a union with someone he was helping in a moment of serious crisis. He sincerely loved her and became a good father (or a woman a good mother) for the sake of the children the spouse had from the first marriage.

You might suggest to such a person that he or she live with his or her mate as brother or sister. But what if the partner refuses to do so? Perhaps, at some point in his or her tormented life, a person such as this encounters the beauty of faith and is truly evangelized for the first time. Or perhaps the first marriage is truly invalid, but there is no reasonable access to an ecclesiastical tribunal or any reasonable way to present evidence that demonstrates the invalidity. There is no reason to keep listing examples because we don’t want to travel down the road of infinite casuistry.

But what does Amoris Laetitia tell us about such cases? Perhaps it would be better to begin with that the exhortation does not say. It does not say that remarried divorced persons can tranquilly receive communion. The pope invites divorced and remarried persons to undertake (or continue walking along) the path of conversion. He invites them to question their conscience and to find help from a spiritual director. He invites them to go to confession and to be open about their situation. He invites penitents and confessors to walk the path of spiritual discernment. The apostolic exhortation does not say at what point along that path they can receive absolution and approach to receive the Eucharist. It does not say so because the variety of situations and human circumstances is too vast.

The path the pope proposes to divorced and remarried persons is exactly the same the Church proposes to all sinners: go to confession, and the priest, once he has considered all the circumstances, will decide whether to give you absolution and admit you to the Eucharist or not.

Again, there is no doubt as to whether the penitent is living in an objective situation of grave sin, except in the limited case of an invalid marriage. Whether he or she is carrying the full subjective responsibility and is at fault remains to be seen. For this reason, he or she should go to confession.

Some claim that for the pope to say such things contradicts the great battle waged by John Paul II against moral subjectivism. The battle lines were drawn in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Moral subjectivism means that the goodness or evil of human action depends on the intention of the agent. According to moral subjectivism, the only per se good is a good will. Therefore, in order to judge the action, we must look at the consequences desired by the person performing the act. According to this subjective view, any action can be good or bad depending on the circumstances that accompany the action. Pope Francis, in perfect harmony with his great predecessor, tells us that some actions are bad in themselves (adultery, for example), regardless of the circumstances that accompany them and the intentions of the one performing them. Saint John Paul II never doubted, however, that circumstances influence the moral evaluation of the one performing the action, rendering the agent more or less culpable of the objectively evil act he or she commits. There is no circumstance that can render an intrinsically evil act good, but the circumstances can increase or diminish the moral responsibility of the one who performs the act. This is precisely what Pope Francis is talking about in Amoris Laetitia. Thus there is no “ethics of circumstance” in Amoris Laetitia, but rather the classic Thomistic balance that distinguishes between the judgment of the act and the judgment of the one performing the act, in which case attenuating or exonerating circumstances need to be considered.

Other critics see a direct opposition between Familiaris Consortio (n. 84) and Amoris Laetitia (n. 305, and the notorious note 351). Saint John Paul II says that divorced and remarried persons cannot receive the Eucharist, while Pope Francis says that they may in certain cases. How could this be anything but a contradiction?

Yet we must read the text more deeply. Once upon a time, divorced and remarried persons were excommunicated and excluded from the life of the Church. That kind of excommunication disappears from the new Code of Canon Law and Familiaris Consortio, and divorced and remarried persons are now encouraged to participate in the life of the Church and to give their children a Christian upbringing. This was an extraordinarily courageous decision that broke from an age-old tradition. But Familiaris Consortio tells us that the divorced and remarried cannot receive the sacraments. The reason is that they are living in a state of manifest public sin and they must avoid giving scandal. These reasons are so strong that any attenuating circumstances were rendered inconsequential.

Now Pope Francis tells us that it is worth considering such circumstances. The difference between Familiaris Consortio and Amoris Laetitia lies completely in this. There is no doubt that a divorced and remarried person is objectively in a situation of grave sin; Pope Francis does not simply advocate that such a person be admitted to Communion, but, like all sinners, to confession. There, he or she will relate all the eventual attenuating circumstances and will hear from the confessor whether and under what conditions he or she can receive absolution.

Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis clearly do not say the same thing but neither do they contradict each other on the theology of marriage. Rather, they are exercising the divinely granted Petrine power of loosening and binding in different ways and in different historical circumstances. To understand this better, let us consider the following question: is there any contradiction between the popes who excommunicated divorced and remarried persons and Saint John Paul II who lifted that excommunication?

The popes who preceded him always knew that some divorced and remarried persons could be living in God’s grace due to various attenuating circumstances. They were well aware that the ultimate judge is God alone. But they nevertheless insisted on excommunication to reinforce within the conscience of their flock the truth of the indissolubility of marriage. It was a legitimate pastoral strategy in a largely homogenous society at that time. Divorce was an exceptional situation, the divorced and remarried were very few, and sadly, by excluding from the Eucharist even those who in realty could have received Communion, they were defending the faith of the people.

Now divorce is a much more frequent phenomenon and there is the risk of mass apostasy if the divorced and remarried abandon the Church and no longer give their children a Christian education. We no longer live in a homogenous society. It is much more heterogeneous and fluid. The number of divorced persons has greatly increased as well as those who are in “irregular” situations but subjectively may be in a state of grace; hence the need to develop a new pastoral strategy. For this reason, popes have decided to change not divine law but the human laws that necessarily accompany it, given that the Church is a human and visible entity.

Do the new directives create problems and risks? Of course they do. Is there a risk that some will approach Communion sacrilegiously and not in a state of grace? If so, they will eat and drink their own condemnation.

But didn’t they old norms also include risks? Was there not the risk that some (or perhaps many) were lost because they were deprived of the sacramental support they had a right to? It is up to individual episcopal conferences, individual bishops, and in the final analysis, to individual Christians to adopt the correct measures to maximize the benefits of this pastoral line of thinking and minimize the risks. The parable of the talents teaches us to accept the risks and to have faith in mercy.


  • pope francis
  • marriage
  • family life
  • amoris laetitia

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