This article is a systemic summery of the most controversial section in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. In doing so it addresses all of the major questions and objections that people have regarding the pope’s teaching on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion.
My desire is that this article will bring needed clarity to a nuanced and controversial topic. Please read and share it with others, it is going to be permanently linked on our Resource Page.
What does Amoris teach about divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Communion?
In chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis teaches that individuals in objective situations of sin (being divorced and remarried), but who are not subjectively culpable because of mitigating factors (insufficient knowledge and/or consent) may, in certain cases, receive Communion. (See paragraph 305 including footnote 351 in the appendix of this article.)
This is entirely in line with the Church’s teaching concerning mortal sin. The Catechism says that mortal sin prevents one from legitimately receiving Holy Communion (CCC 1415). However, the Catechism also says that “Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC 1859). Further, the Catechism states 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).
Here are a couple of examples of individuals who may fit this situation. Also, it is worth keeping in mind that we are blessed in the United States to have a functioning tribunal in every diocese and that many areas in third world countries don’t have tribunals at all.
Say there’s a woman who is divorced and civilly remarried. She is Catholic and has recently gone through a personal conversion and wants to be reconciled to the Church. However, her “second husband,” who is also the primary breadwinner for the family, threatens to leave her and the kids if she stops having sex with him for the twelve or more months it will take for their annulment to come through (this is assuming that they live in an area that has a functioning tribunal). Because of the threat to her and her children’s well being, she is not fully able to say no to the objectively sinful act of having sex with her civil husband. (The Catholic apologist Tim Staples offer a similar, if not a more extreme, example that can be read in the appendix.)
While that example could easily be a circumstance of marital rape, less extreme examples could also apply. Remember that the Catechism says that “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” can all diminish or nullify culpability.
Another possible example could be a situation where there’s a Baptist couple who have been married several years and have multiple children. After attending Mass with a friend the husband finds himself intrigued and attracted to Catholicism and begins RCIA with the intention of joining the Church. During those classes he learns that he and his wife aren’t really married because she was previously married to someone else for six months when she was in his early 20s. Thus, in order for the husband to receive Communion, he and his wife must abstain from sex for the rest of their lives because they live in a diocese that does not have a tribunal. The wife simply refuses to submit to Catholic teaching on this matter and won’t accept living with her husband in total abstinence.
These are just a few examples of potentially many more that could meet the criteria of someone in an objectively sinful situation, but who is not subjectively culpable because of mitigating factors.
Doesn’t this teaching contradict the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio which says that divorced and remarried couples are barred from Communion, not because of their subjective culpability, but rather because “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist”? (see appendix for full quote)
Amoris Laetitia doesn’t contradict previous teachings. When there are magisterial teachings that appear to be opposed to each other we must not pridefully presume that we have the sufficient knowledge and perspective to declare one of those teachings to be incorrect. Rather, we must take a position of docility, recognize that we likely don’t know all the facts, and then seek to understand how these teachings can be reconciled. So how do we reconcile Amoris with previous teachings?
Before Familiaris Consortio the Church taught that Catholics who were divorced and civilly remarried must separate before they could receive Communion. However, dating back at least as far back as 1900, the Church, in a limited way, has allowed divorced and civilly remarried couples to receive Holy Communion and still live together. This exception is widely called the “brother and sister” solution. Then, in Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II explicitly affirmed this practice of allowing divorced and civilly remarried couples to receive Communion when “serious reasons” would encourage them to stay together (“the children’s upbringing”) and under certain conditions (“abstinence from the acts proper to married couples”). In other words, he allowed divorced and civilly remarried couples to receive communion even though their objective relationship still contradicts meaning of the sacrament.
So if this exception is made (by a pope teaching through an Apostolic Exhortation) for these couples, it is not unreasonable for the exception to be developed (by a pope teaching through an Apostolic Exhortation) to include some other divorced and civilly remarried couples who are not subjectively culpable of mortal sin because of mitigating factors.
Thus Amoris Laetitia doesn’t contradict previous teachings – it develops them. It simply dives deeper into what exactly about this civil marriage objectively contradicts the nature of the sacrament. Amoris concludes that there’s nothing meaningfully different (concerning the reception of Communion) between the divorced and remarried person not having sex and the divorced and remarried persons who wish they weren’t having sex but are prevented by their circumstances from stopping.
But doesn’t this teaching contradict Canon 915 which is a matter of divine law that cannot be changed, not merely a matter of ecclesial law or prudential practice? This canon states, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” Further, in the year 2000, The Pontifical Council For Legislative Texts wrote a document about Canon 915 in which they stated that, “The prohibition found in the cited canon , by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church.”
Pope Francis is not changing or revoking Canon 915, but rather clarifying that some divorced and civilly remarried individuals do not meet the criteria of the canon.
Canon 912 states that “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.” And Canon 18 says that “Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.” In other words, the faithful have a right to receive Holy Communion unless prohibited by law, but any laws prohibiting reception must be interpreted in the strictest sense. Therefore, when Canon 915 states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion” it means that only someone who meets all three of those criteria (1. grave sin 2. obstinate persistence 3. manifest character of the grave sin) can be denied Communion.
The Pope is the supreme legislator of Canon Law and therefore is the supreme interpreter of the law. Canon 17 says, “If the meaning remains doubtful and obscure, recourse must be made to …the mind of the legislator [the pope].” In Amoris Laetitia the Holy Father speaks of those who “flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal,” and he says that through their actions they are separated from the community (AL 297). These individuals certainly meet the criteria listed in Canon 915. This is a different situation though from those who wish to change but who find themselves prevented from changing because of their circumstances. These individuals do not meet the criteria listed in Canon 915 because they are not obstinate in their sin and thus their situation does not prevent them from receiving Holy Communion.
Some would argue that because Pope Francis didn’t clarify this interpretation of Canon 915 through a formal legislative act that the interpretation presented under Pope John Paul II’s pontificate is more authoritative than Amoris Laetitia. However, John Paul II himself would disagree with that position. In a speech he gave in 2003 where the former pontiff said:
“A more dangerous reductionism is that which claims to interpret and apply the laws of the Church in a manner that is detached from the teaching of the Magisterium. According to this view, only formal legislative acts and not doctrinal pronouncements would have disciplinary value. It is obvious, that those operating from this reductionist perspective could sometimes come up with two different solutions to the same ecclesial problem: one drawn from the texts of the Magisterium, and the other drawn from canonical texts. At the root of such a conception is an impoverished idea of canon law that identifies it only with the positive dictate of the norm. This is not right: in fact, since the juridical dimension, being theologically intrinsic to the ecclesial reality, can be the object of magisterial, even definitive, teaching.”
In other words, canon law is interpreted in light of the Magisterium, not the other way around. Thus we need to read Canon 915 through the authoritative magisterial teaching in Amoris Laetitia.
Okay, but that presumes that this teaching has magisterial authority is that the case?
Being an Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia is clearly a part of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Holy Father. Therefore this teaching is protected by Divine assistance and demands the religious submission of mind and will. This conclusion is made clear by Lumen Gentium 25:
“This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”
But I know of theologians, apologists, and even some bishops who publicly disagree with this teaching.
Those who are publicly disagreeing with Pope Francis are at risk of breeding dissent and contempt for legitimate authority by creating a “parallel magisterium.”
When a theologian disagrees in some way with the Magisterium they have “the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself.” However, “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders servite to the truth” (Donum Veritatis 30). This is because “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church,” otherwise called “dissent,” can cause “serious harm” to the “community of the Church” (Donum Veritatis 32).
Therefore, those who publicly join together to correct the Ordinary Magisterium of the pope, presuming to know better than the Divinely assisted Bishop of Rome, create a “parallel-magisterium” that breeds dissent and contempt for authority. As Cardinal Ratzinger said in Donum Veritatis, “As to the ‘parallel magisterium’, it can cause great spiritual harm by opposing itself to the Magisterium of the Pastors. Indeed, when dissent succeeds in extending its influence to the point of shaping; a common opinion, it tends to become the rule of conduct. This cannot but seriously trouble the People of God and lead to contempt for true authority” (Donum Veritatis 34).
Okay, but Amoris Laetitia is a confusing document. How do we know for sure that this is what Pope Francis meant and the absolute correct way to interpret this?
Actually, this controversial section of Amoris Laetita is pretty straightforward. However, for those who are confused about it, Pope Francis clarified exactly what he intended to teach. After Amoris Laetitia was released, the bishops in Buenos Aires released their own document, Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia, implementing the changes Pope Francis made into their area. Paragraph six of that document states clearly:
“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.”
These guidelines were sent to Pope Francis and on September 5th, 2016, he replied back saying, “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations. And I am certain that it will do much good.”
This letter to the Buenos Aires Bishops was later published in the Official Acts of the Apostolic See (AAS), and Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said that this letter is “the Holy Father’s authentic magisterium for the whole church.” Therefore, the manifest mind and will of the Holy Father is explicitly clear and his Ordinary Magisterium is to be obeyed with “religious submission of mind and will.”
Amoris Laetitia (305): For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”. Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”. 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. 351* Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.
(Footnote 351): In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
Tim Staples: “Imagine a woman in the jungles of Brazil, a strong Catholic who marries in the Church, has three small children, and then is abandoned by her husband. She has no way of supporting herself, finds herself unable to feed herself or her children, leading her to abandon her faith and to marrying outside of the Church. She then has three more children with a man who is a member of “Amigos dos Amigos,” but at least provides for her and her children. She then has a strong reversion to her Faith and is told by a priest she cannot have relations with her husband, but must live with him “as brother and sister.” So she informs her husband. The husband then informs her that she will, in fact, have relations with him or else bad things will happen to either her, her children, or both. Knowing the police are in the hip-pocket of the “Amigos…” she is scared to death. I can see how a priest could determine this woman is in a place where fear mitigates against any thought of mortal sin. She is in a desperate state and let’s say she desires greatly the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession.”
Familiaris Consortio (84): Daily experience unfortunately shows that people who have obtained a divorce usually intend to enter into a new union, obviously not with a Catholic religious ceremony. Since this is an evil that, like the others, is affecting more and more Catholics as well, the problem must be faced with resolution and without delay. The Synod Fathers studied it expressly. The Church, which was set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptized, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage. The Church will therefore make untiring efforts to put at their disposal her means of salvation.
Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.
Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.
However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
Buenos Aires Pastoral Area (5-6): 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.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, and professional lay person.