In the December 7th airing of The World Over Live, Raymond Arroyo hosted a segment in which one of his guests, Fr. Gerald Murray, suggested that Catholic teaching is now under assault by pope Francis (due to his recent clarification of Amoris Laetitia, which essentially confirms an interpretation presented by the Argentinian bishops).
During this segment, Fr. Murray summarized this assault in a few words: “Are we now saying that certain cases of adultery are no longer gravely sinful, and that people publicly engaged in this behavior are to be treated as if they are in the state of grace and should be given the sacraments?”
According to Fr. Murray, the new clarification of Amoris Laetitia—now confirmed by pope Francis—suggests that certain cases of adultery are no longer gravely sinful. In other words, when the pope says (paraphrase mine) “there are certain cases in which the divorced and remarried can receive Holy Communion,” this is the same as saying (according to Fr. Murray) that “adultery is no longer gravely sinful in these cases.”
I must take issue with this leap that Fr. Murray is making in his logic, and must, in fact, call it a grave oversimplification. For as we know, an act can be intrinsically evil and grave matter without the person de facto committing mortal sin. Mortal sin has certain requirements—only one of which is grave matter. To put it plainly, all adultery is grave matter, but not all adultery is mortal sin. A divorced and remarried couple may be in an objectively grave situation, but may not necessarily be in a state of mortal sin. And in fact, in these rare cases (for example, when the spouse has been abandoned), the person has already sought an annulment and are taking steps to normalize their situation; they have demonstrated upright intention, are active in the life of the community and in prayer, are trying to live continent, and are not willfully rejecting Church teaching (all determined by the judgment of the priest); for these people, there is nothing theologically incongruous in saying “sometimes, under certain circumstances, divorced and remarried couples may receive Holy Communion.” (at the discretion of the priest)
Furthermore, pope Francis already answered Fr. Murray’s question in the negative. Adultery, as we know, is and always will be grave matter and an intrinsic evil. The Church has always taught this, and always will. And pope Francis himself stated in Amoris Laetitia that he has no intention to change Church teaching; his intention—as he stated repeatedly through the document—is merely in the sphere of prudential application. Fr. Murray’s error, it seems, is therefore one of poor interpretation—of reading a Church document as one would read the newspaper, or a novel, for example. He does not attempt to read the document with a hermeneutic of continuity, and usurps one sentence out of its context from the greater whole.
Let us also recall that the pope has “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (Catechism, 882). He has the authority to change Church practice in this way. Granted, practice is a reflection of theology (what we do reflects what we believe). But theology does develop over time, according to the needs and the era in which a civilization lives. Furthermore, God makes the laws, but God is not bound by His own laws. When the pharisees attempted to trick Our Lord into teaching a falsity, what was His response? “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But in the beginning it was not so.” (Matt. 19:8) So Moses was vested with the power to make an exception to God’s law on divorce. God’s original plan was that divorce is an intrinsic evil and thus can never be permitted. Yet Moses permitted it. He made a concession based on the hardness of Israel’s hearts. So the head of Irsael, the vicar, Moses, can make an exception based on the spiritual maturity of humanity back then. But the pope, the head of the Catholic Church, the visible body of Jesus Christ Who is the fulfillment and completion of the Old Testament, cannot make exceptions based on the spiritual maturity of humanity today? Where does Fr. Murray get the authority to revoke such power from the pope? Can not God, through His vicar, also say today “because of the hardness of your hearts, I am allowing this”?
Moses went about as far as any man could go. He modified God’s law on marriage by allowing divorce in order to accommodate man’s weakness. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is hardly going this far in Amoris Laetitia. The Church has always taught that adultery is grave matter and an intrinsic evil (which has firm precedent in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition). However, the Church has not always taught that the divorced and remarried are always and everywhere and unequivocally denied Holy Communion. This is a much more difficult precedent to establish in the Tradition of the Church. So where does Fr. Murray get the authority to suggest that Amoris Laetitia changes Church teaching? From canon law? Does he not know that canon law is a lesser authority to the pope, and one that changes frequently?
As a final point, let us remember that mercy has always been the overall direction of the Church throughout history. Virtually all of the anti-popes throughout history were those who took hard-lined positions on the major debates of the time, while the real popes were those who advanced merciful positions. Virtually half the early Church shunned the lapse (those who renounced their faith under threat of execution) and refused them readmission into the Church, while the popes were the first to extend mercy to them. Some of the early fathers insisted on a minimum of 7 years penance for adultery and other grave sins before being admitted Holy Communion, while the popes advanced mercy and reduced the time of penance to less. So mercy has always been the overarching direction of the Church throughout history—a direction which pope Francis seems to share in common.
Granted, I admit, further clarifications need to be made so that the nuances may be better parsed. And I am more than likely reading too much of what is not present in the Argentinian document (Ultimately, I think, a synod of bishops will likely need to be called to catalyze the discussion and bring greater clarity). But since the pope has authority in this regard, it behooves us as Catholics to try an interpret this new development in accord with longstanding Church practice—which is what I am attempting to do.
In conclusion, I will leave you with the full statement from the Argentinian bishops—that which pope Francis approved as the true interpretation of Amoris Laetitia;
We have received with joy the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which calls us, above all, to encourage the growth of love between spouses and to motivate young people to opt for marriage and a family. These are important issues that should never be disregarded or overshadowed by other matters. Francis has opened several doors in pastoral care for families and we are called to take advantage of this time of mercy with a view to endorsing, as a pilgrim Church, the richness offered by the different chapters of this Apostolic Exhortation.
We will focus for now on chapter VIII, since it refers to the “guidelines of the bishop” (300) in order to discern the possibility of access to the sacraments of the “divorced who have entered a new union”. We deem it convenient, as Bishops of the same Pastoral Region, to agree on some minimal criteria. We present them without prejudice to the authority that each Bishop has in his own Diocese to clarify, complete or restrict them.
1) Firstly, we should remember that it is not right to speak of giving “permission” for access to the sacraments, but rather of a discernment process under the guidance of a pastor. This is a “personal and pastoral discernment” (300).
2) In this journey, the pastor should emphasize the fundamental proclamation, the kerygma, so as to foster or renew a personal encounter with the living Christ (cf. 58).
3) Pastoral accompaniment is an exercise of the via caritatis. It is an invitation to follow “the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and integration” (296). This itinerary calls for the pastoral charity of the priest who welcomes the penitent, listens to them attentively and shows them the maternal face of the Church, at the same time as accepting their righteous intention and goodwill in placing their whole life under the light of the Gospel and in practising charity (cf. 306).
4) This path does not necessarily end with receiving the sacraments, but may lead to other ways of achieving further integration into the life of the Church: a more active presence in the community, participation in prayer or reflection groups, or giving time to church activities etc. (cf. 299).
5) Whenever feasible, and depending on the specific circumstances of a couple, and especially when both partners are Christians walking together on the path of faith, the priest may suggest a decision to live in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties arising from this option (cf. footnote 329) and offers the possibility of having access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if the partners fail in this purpose (cf. footnote 364, recalling the teaching that Saint John Paul II sent to Cardinal W. Baum, dated 22 March, 1996).
6) In other, more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.
7) But we have to avoid understanding this possibility as an unlimited access to the sacraments, as if all situations warrant it. The idea is to properly discern each case. For example, special care is called for in “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or in “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (298). Also, when there is a sort of justification or ostentation of the person’s situation “as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (297). In these difficult cases, we should be patient companions, looking for ways of integrating them (cf. 297, 299).
8) It is always important to guide people to stand before God with their conscience, and for this the “examination of conscience” proposed by Amoris laetitia 300 is very helpful, specifically in relation to “how did they act towards their children” or the abandoned partner. Where there are unresolved injustices, providing access to sacraments is particularly scandalous.
9) It may be right for eventual access to sacraments to take place privately, especially where situations of conflict might arise. But at the same time, we have to accompany our communities in their growing understanding and welcome, without this implying creating confusion about the teaching of the Church on the indissoluble marriage. The community is an instrument of mercy, which is “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (297).
10) Discernment is not closed, because it “is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (303), according to the “law of gradualness” (295) and with confidence in the help of grace.
Above all, we are pastors. This is why we would like to welcome the following words of the Pope: “I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen [to the faithful] with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church” (312).
With love in Christ,
The Bishops of the Area