Is Catholic Teaching Under Assault by Amoris Laetitia?

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;

Dear priests,

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


11 Responses

  1. Kevin Walters
    Kevin Walters at |

    “As a final point, let us remember that mercy has always been the overall direction of the Church throughout history”

    Pope Francis says we need be a Church of mercy and so we do, but more importantly we need to be a humble Church, as Gods Mercy received in humility guarantees spiritual growth, which wells up into eternal life.

    We are ‘all’ sinners, nevertheless His promise “the gates of hell shall not prevail “ still holds true and the challenge to-day for renewal, will be based on both scripture and sacred tradition, which will involve all the ‘faithful’.

    ‘A lack of stillness’ desolates as can be plainly seen in the turbulence today within the Church, similar to the time God destroyed the Tower of Babel because they did not speak /act in unity of purpose, as they served their own egos rather than the Will of God.

    Jesus was very specific in regards to the Commandments, as in not “One iota” as with His teaching “Whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”. Self- justification has no part to play within a Christian heart, as we all fall short in regards to “One iota” and love of neighbour, and this comes about when we fail to “Love the Lord your God with all our Heart, mind and soul”… this is the precursor to ‘A lack of stillness’.

    It could be said that a ‘Good-Enough Life’ is that of love of neighbour without the Love of God/ ’Truth’, but it ‘is not good enough’. But a humble life/heart is, as “Only God is Good”. Truth is the essence of love. The Truth, as in not “One iota”, is the yoke that binds us to Jesus Christ, in ‘humility’. St. Bernard- Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself…

    “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest (‘Stillness’) for you souls” …

    The True Divine Mercy Image/message, one of Broken Man given by Our Lord Himself, is a missionary call that offers the Church the means to embrace all her children no matter what their state of being, who are ‘willing’ to embrace the wedding (Bonding) garment of humility. The one and only state from where the ongoing transforming action of The Holy Spirit can take place. While we evangelize through the action of Humility, a disarming action in its honesty, that embrace all in its simplicity, as we encounter our brothers and sisters who stand and seek direction at the crossroads (Difficulties) of life.

    So in our present shameful situation, is God preparing the birth of a Church that will be truthful with herself. A Church that proceeds and leads in humility, openly acknowledging her failings before God and all of her children and in doing so, permit her children to do the same, and walk dressed in the Wedding (Bonding) Garment of humility also. Please consider continuing via the link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. JMC
    JMC at |

    Thank you for this article; it has clarified so much. People on both sides of the “political divide” have caused too much confusion, one side rejoicing that the Pope is finally “on board” with modern thinking; the other calling him a heretic, usually employing the kind of rhetoric that can send one into a panic attack.
    Part of the problem is the way modern documents are written. The modern tendency is to use hundreds, or even thousands of words, when only tens are truly needed. This language is very difficult for most people, even the highly educated, to wade through. For an example, I give both the Catechism of the Council of Trent, vs. the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. The former is very readable, understandable right down to the junior high school level. The latter almost requires a degree in philosophy to cut through. Most of the laity have never studied philosophy and have no clue about the way some words, used philosophically, mean something entirely different from their everyday colloquial meanings – I concept I myself am still struggling with in my fledgling (self-guided; I can’t afford formal instruction) study of theology.
    In short, I find myself comparing modern documents to the way politicians answer questions in formal debates: Each participant spends fifteen minutes spouting words which eloquently disguise the fact that the speaker is not actually answering the question!

  3. Kevin Walters
    Kevin Walters at |

    Hi! Davide, as an uneducated lay Catholic I would like to give my overall understanding of the present situation and while doing so propose a safe way forward that is one based upon humility, for the whole Church and all those who are entangled in sinful situations.

    The act of making a civil marriage (commitment) to another partner outside of the church cannot be reconciled by the Church and to try to do so is to flaunt Gods law (Will) before His face, as the Christian marriage bond is unbreakable. We the laity and clergy can show compassion and must do so, but only God can show Mercy on someone who by their own free will has knowingly separated themselves from God’s Holy Will.

    Very few divorcees see annulment as a solution as most do not think that their first marriage simply never existed. The possibility of an annulment is therefore only practicable for a small minority, as it does not solve the problem.
    Discernment by individual priests on who can receive Holy Communion is a step into darkness. As the permutations for the reason for divorce are endless as they cover the full spectrum of man’s fallen nature, to try and manage the situation by offering some annulments and others not is fraught with difficulties, as individual self-justification is often badly flawed, but more importantly it calls into question the Inviolate Word of God and in so doing undermines the authority of Gods Holy Church on earth.

    Sadly many Catholics in the West have married before truly committing to Jesus Christ nevertheless the marriage bond cannot be broken. Only God truly knows the full reality of each individual and it is only Him and Him alone who can show Mercy on someone who is now involved in situation that could be described as an entanglement with sin/evil.

    We can see this entanglement in my fictional character John. The permutations of this scenario are endless and in some cases far more difficult.

    John was married for six years he has two Children, he is a cultural catholic, he develops an addiction problem that ruins his marriage, although married in a Catholic Church his wife was not a Catholic but is a baptized Christian. She remarries and has another child, a few years later John meets someone who helps him with his addiction problems, he commits to a civil union, he now has two more young children, with his new partner, she is an unbeliever and is sceptical of Catholicism and believes that many are hypocrites “the majority use contraception which is a mortal sin etc”
    John lives in a small house with two bedrooms he has a low income his partner suffers from a debilitating illness and cannot work, he is a good father and compensates for her lack of energy in bringing up his two young children, and one of them will soon be school age.
    John has a true conversion (He realizes what he has lost) in that all the errors/ sins he has committed come in upon him, he wants to recapture that which he has lost and return to the Church and in doing so wants his children to be brought up as Catholics, his partner is in agreement with him but would not be prepared to live the single life and why should she.

    John knows he cannot return as he cannot receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation or partake of the Bread of Life, he is entangled in a sinful situation, in his heart he knows that he cannot leave his present family and he also knows that continence even if attempted is unrealistic for him with his new partner, if he is to maintain family harmony at this moment in time. He accepts in humility that he is living in a sinful situation he is looking for a way back.

    ‘Where do we begin?

    I think we stand beside Jesus in the temple as he looks upon the Tax Collector and the Pharisee and attempt with His eyes/heart to see the reality of this situation.
    The Pharisee has the authority of the Law and see himself as a reflection of that law, he see this because he makes sacrifices in almsgiving and regular fasting, a sign of penance but it was not true repentance, rather for many it was an outward would sign of their own goodness, to be seen by men with their tassels symbols of goodness etc.
    We can discern that it was not sincere repentance because if it were he would not have been able to condemn the Tax Collector as in doing so he would condemn himself.
    Our judgements in this type of situation would be a reflection of one’s own heart/soul.
    With all the stress which they placed on externals, they missed the living heart of their religion it was too much tradition and conformity to rules.

    We now turn our gaze to the Tax Collector a symbol of sin a counterpart to a prostitute. He is honest with himself as he sees the reality of his self, he depends on nothing but God alone, for His Mercy and in doing so, he makes an act of perfect contrition, he does not make a statement that he will sin no more, for to do so would make him an hypocrite as he knows his own reality (Living Situation). In that he will return home to a sinful situation, it is fair to say he now endeavours not to misuse his power as a tax collector but nevertheless goes back (Home) to his position with the enemy of his people, he is still entangled in a sinful situation one of collusion with the enemy in that he would have to deal with informers, spies, intimidation, injustice etc.
    Jesus also knows his reality nevertheless He tells us that he went home justified before God, (Not ‘MAN’). He was acceptable to Jesus and it would be fair to say that today he would be welcome to partake of His table in his humility before God.

    Has it now become more difficult, two thousand years later, to embrace the Lord?

    I am sure many who read this will agree that only God knows the full reality of each human heart and that He cannot be deceived, we are not here to stone others or to put stumbling blocks before them, rather we would want for them that which we have been given, that is His continual mercy. My proposal would allow John and all those like John the sacramental grace (Food for the soul) they need, to take the next step forward to the full sacrament of reconciliation.

    I see all those who are entangled in evil situations such as the Tax Collector/Prostitute (Adulterer) been in the same boat, so to say. I also believe that the True Divine Mercy an Image one of Broken Man, given by our Lord to the Church has within itself the capacity to draw in to communion, in humility, all those outcasts who our Saviour came to save and I rejoice that it can be so and I hope eventually others will too.

    Please consider continuing and read my post in this link with the post above it, that deal with the true Divine Mercy Image (Message)

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    1. Kevin Walters
      Kevin Walters at |

      Addendum to my post above

      Jesus creates a parable out of a customary real life situation in the temple; “two men went ‘up’ to the temple to pray” and by necessity, later went home again to their occupations (Real life situation)
      Jesus via the means of the parable of the Pharisee and Tax collector, teaches the Apostles and by implication the Priesthood and Church of today the NEVER CHANGING REALITY of “a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” and its acceptance before our Father in heaven, throughout the ages.

      What I am proposing does not ‘give scandal’ as no one is deceived, rather it glorifies God before the laity and mankind, as it shows the merciful human face of Jesus Christ, who holds us accountable to the consequences of our choices, encourages us to ‘grow up’, while inspiring our cooperation and as we do so, provides the grace to confirm our efforts.

      “A bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out”

      To acknowledge openly what we are about, requires us to show our vulnerability, but to do this we have to confront our perceived shame before each other and our Father in heaven and we can only do this when we embrace humility (St Bernard Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself).
      We see this vulnerability (Humility) in Jesus as he washes the disciples’ feet also on the cross before His Father and our Father in heaven.

      The fear of shame separates us from truly ‘sharing’ with each other, as in, when we struggle for worldly worthiness and this can take many forms.
      To show vulnerability takes courage the root of the word courage is Cor – Courage originally meant

      “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”

      To truly connect with others we need to show /tell our vulnerability, for when we do so, it confers authenticity, a place from where we can truly share the communal meal.

      The true Divine Mercy image, one of Broken Man permits all to approach His table wearing the wedding garment of humility. (See the link below)

      “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”

      In truth to each other before our Father in heaven and in so doing so creates unity of purpose.

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

  4. Cris
    Cris at |

    Fr. Murray is correct. Your argument is an old one & has been addressed before. The obstacle to communion is first & foremost the objective situation, not the subjective culpability, reiterated several times by/under JPII & Benedict, precisely to refute claims that subjective disposition could qualify people to receive & also addressing those who can’t receive annulments. In fact every one of the reasons now being suggested to allow something else have been previously considered and rejected. (See, e.g.,; it also references therein a 1994 statement, also see Benedict’s sacramentum caritatis #29 for one of the last pre-Francis statements. As an aside this approach also introduces a novelty, as access to sacraments has never been largely based upon subjective worthiness.) Notice the teaching and discipline is based upon divine law and thus can’t be changed & any approach not requiring separation or continence is “impossible”. So, even if Francis were to change the law, e.g., canon 915 of the code of canon law, this would be very problematic. This also means that the statement that anyone not in mortal sin may receive Communion is false. (see canon 915 which enshrines the true teaching.) Thus it is indeed the logical conclusion that either an ongoing adulterous relationship is no longer a situation of objective grave sin and/or adultery no longer grave matter. There is also a logical fallacy in claiming that this is not an exception because it is not blanket permission. Any instance which contravenes a general norm must be an exception by definition. Blanket permission would comprise a new general norm, not an exception. Also, that these situations are objectively grave has been called into question, at least by those around Francis, by trying to call it something other than adultery, while Francis himself says we can no longer refer to them as being irregular, i.e. that they are objectively contrary to an absolute norm.

    Furthermore, stating that adulterous acts can be allowed as a willful choice, for the supposed betterment of the parties and/or children is madness. Does God will or desire intentional violation of his commandments? Why is continence not possible- does God not give the grace to obey his commands? How does one receive valid absolution, paving the way for communion, if they intend to continue sinning? The object of “discernment” cannot be objectively evil acts or situations & whether to commit or continue them. In fact such discernment would most probably mean mortal sin is present. These are also some of the reasons why this proposal undermines morality and the sacraments at large.

    There are thus so many other problems with this approach, e.g., under “accompaniment” it becomes much more likely that persons are committing mortal sin, for now they have the requisite knowledge/qualifications for mortal sin to be present. Also, no one can judge/be certain if they are in the state of grace, and now people are being told to make a formal judgment to that effect for themselves!? What if the parties never change their behavior, and in fact have no impetus to do so because they can receive communion anyway- how is that good for their salvation? And again the problem of receiving absolution while not intending to stop the sin. There is also no real category of people who are unable to receive an annulment, unless they mean those who receive a negative decision, in which case it renders the whole notion of annulment and validity of marriage obsolete. The category of persons envisioned by each is even conflicting- the one possibility usually thought of are the elderly whose marriages occurred a long time ago and there are no witnesses around, for example; and these folks probably are being continent anyway due to age; while the subjects of the “exception” are obviously younger couples w/ minor children, who should have no problem with being able to have a prior marriage examined.

    Even Cardinal Gerhard Muller has had to say that Francis’ claim of this being magisterial is “disturbing” & is an attempt to impose Francis’ human will and “submit his personal view of things for others to believe.” The real problem we seem to be faced with is not formally changing doctrine but rendering it null by introducing contrary teaching and practice at lower levels, and once that spreads, the doctrine may remain the same but is practically meaningless. The argentinian guidelines are also the tip of iceberg, as the ones for Malta and Germany, for example, go much farther and clearly contain doctrinal error, and yet are being permitted by Francis. We are not papal positivists, thinking that a pope’s will is absolute regardless of whether it is true. There is a false priori assumption that whatever is said must be true/valid, then some explanation must be concocted to explain it, rather than first seeing if it is true and in continuity, and if it is not or at least serious doubt is raised, then admit there is a problem. The fact remains that erroneous teaching and practice have been introduced at various levels, with at least the permission/toleration of Francis. Compare this to all prior teaching and practice which was clear & firm that separation or continence is required, without exception, unchangeable via divine law. As for the bishops of Kazakhstan their “argument” is the constant teaching of the Church, which explains itself and has already considered & rejected contrary approaches. Something must be terribly wrong for such a thing to even occur- for bishops and cardinals to be openly questioning a Pope’s “teaching.”

  5. David Silva
    David Silva at |

    Brother Bianchini,

    As you have treated the “error” of Rev. Fr. Murry, please do so with all due diligence to the exhortation of the three Prelates who echo with even greater clarity and Magisterial reference the Reverend’s position:

    Three Bishops call Pope’s reading of Amoris Laetitia “alien” to Catholic faith

    Pax Christi in Regno Christi


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