When trying to prove that Amoris Laetitia contradicts established doctrine, papal critics will usually refer to Familiaris Consortio as proof of this “self-evident contradiction.”

Familiaris Consortio was a post-synodal apostolic exhortation issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 1981. It is interesting that papal detractors will sometimes try to undermine Amoris’ authoritativeness by invoking the low magisterial weight of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, while at other times assigning a definitive, infallible nature to the sacramental discipline laid out in Familiaris, another post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Still, the question remains: does Amoris contradict Familiaris or not?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on whether we are talking about matters of doctrine or discipline. Although I am not aware of any magisterial definition of those two concepts, they play a crucial role in Church life and theology. “Doctrine” usually refers to the teaching of the Church, while discipline refers to the practical applications of this teaching.

Doctrine can develop, but not contradict itself. Disciplines, on the other hand, vary across time and space and can, therefore, change. This does not, of course, mean that we can exaggerate the scope of these changes: disciplines can never contradict established doctrine. Yet, disciplines can indeed be contradictory among themselves. So, for instance, communion under both species is not usually given to the laity in the Latin Rite, but this practice remains in the Eastern Rite.

Since disciplines can and do change, how can we know if they are legitimate? We already know that disciplines should not contradict established doctrine. Therefore, a change in discipline must be done by the Magisterium (i.e. the Pope and the bishops in communion with him,) since this is the authoritative interpreter of doctrine (cf. Catechism, 85). This is particularly true for sacramental discipline. As the Council of Trent states:

It [the Council] furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain,– or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places.”

Council of Trent, 21st Session, Chapter II

Of course, while doctrine (even non-infallibly proclaimed) requires religious submission of mind and will, the same is not true regarding disciplines. However, as Donum Veritatis 17 explicitly says, disciplines promulgated by the Church are not without divine assistance and also require adherence from the faithful. This means that, even if the faithful may respectfully disagree with the prudence of a particular discipline, and propose that it be changed, the same faithful cannot on the other hand postulate that a discipline approved by the Church is erroneous, or that the Church is not the final arbiter on the matter.

With this in mind, let us review Familiaris Consortio as far as communion for the divorced and civilly remarried is concerned.

The sacramental discipline

Regarding access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, Familiaris Consortio 84 stipulates:

[T]he 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.

In other words, the Eucharist is to be given only to those divorced and remarried couples who, having ceased to live more uxorio, celebrated the sacrament of Penance beforehand.

Are we dealing with doctrine or discipline? Familiaris is very clear that the Church is “reaffirming her practice.” Therefore we are dealing with a “practice,” a matter of sacramental discipline, which can be overturned if done authoritatively and without contradicting established doctrine. Amoris partially abrogates Familiaris, and has been promulgated by the Pope, who has the authority to do it. So, we only need to focus on whether there has been any contradiction in doctrine.

Familiaris bases its sacramental discipline in two reasons: one pastoral and one doctrinal. The pastoral one has to do with scandal and I have already tackled this topic in another article. The doctrinal one is that the divorced and remarried couple’s “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, I can recognize in Familiaris another doctrinal reason for this sacramental discipline: that it was based in Sacred Scripture.

So, does Amoris contradict these two doctrinal statements? The answer is no. Amoris does not say that the previous sacramental discipline was not based in Sacred Scripture. The fact that it instituted a new sacramental discipline does not mean that the previous one was not based in Sacred Scripture, just like it does not mean that the new discipline is not based in the deposit of the faith (as the doctrine of mitigating circumstances is.)

Likewise, Amoris never says that the divorced and remarried person’s state in life does not objectively contradict the union between Christ and the Church. There is no textual evidence for that claim. In fact, Amoris does indeed proclaim the analogous nature between marriage and the union of Christ and the Church:

The sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment. The sacrament is a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, since “their mutual belonging is a real representation, through the sacramental sign, of the same relationship between Christ and the Church (…) Christian marriage is a sign of how much Christ loved his Church in the covenant sealed on the cross, yet it also makes that love present in the communion of the spouses. By becoming one flesh, they embody the espousal of our human nature by the Son of God. That is why “in the joys of their love and family life, he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb”. Even though the analogy between the human couple of husband and wife, and that of Christ and his Church, is “imperfect”, it inspires us to beg the Lord to bestow on every married couple an outpouring of his divine love

— Amoris Laetitia, 72-73

After this, Francis clearly says that “any breach of the marriage bond is against the will of God” (AL 291) and he approvingly quotes the Bible to proclaim that the Lord “hates divorce.” (AL 123). Hence, we cannot say that Amoris contradicts the doctrinal point that the divorced and remarried couple’s “state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist“.

In conclusion, Amoris and Familiaris do not contradict themselves in matters of doctrine, only of sacramental discipline. But if Amoris acknowledges the doctrinal foundations of the previous sacramental discipline, how can it propose a different one?

A shift of emphasis

When an apologist points out that Amoris Laetitia is perfectly compatible with the orthodox doctrine of mitigating circumstances, the papal critic will usually (and correctly) point out that the previous sacramental discipline was never about subjective guilt. Rather, the divorced and remarried were excluded because their state in life objectively contradicts Catholic marriage. From this correct assessment, they will incorrectly extrapolate that it is not possible, therefore, to institute a new sacramental discipline not taking into account solely the objective state, but also subjective guilt.

Of course, we already established that disciplines can vary over time and even contradict each other, as long as they do not contradict doctrine. But if disciplines cannot contradict doctrine, how can they be contradictory among themselves?

One of the ways (if not the only way) this can be achieved is if both disciplines draw their conclusions from different parts of doctrine. Mind you, the doctrine is the same, but there are different parts in it: in our example, one part is the objectively evil nature of sin and other part is the subjective guilt of the sinner. One discipline can ground itself in the former and another discipline can ground itself in the latter. Since both parts of doctrine are not contradictory, then neither discipline contradicts doctrine. Ergo, both disciplines are valid.

In other words, when the papal critic says “sacramental discipline for the divorced and remarried has never been about subjective culpability, but about the objective nature of their state” he is not providing an actual argument. In fact, he is engaging in a tautology. Of course a different sacramental discipline will base itself in a different part of doctrine! If two contradictory disciplines were based in the same part of doctrine, then it would be highly likely that at least one of them would contradict doctrine. Since Amoris allows communion for some divorced and remarried people, then it cannot base itself on the objective state of life of those sinners, like Familiaris does. If it did, then its sacramental discipline would be invalid. Since its sacramental discipline is based on a different reasoning, then it is legitimate.

In short, papal critics think that Amoris Laetitia has to do with doctrinal change, when in fact it as to do with a shift of emphasis vis-à-vis doctrine. John Paul II chose, in his sacramental discipline, to emphasize the objectively evil nature of divorce and remarriage, while Francis chose to emphasize the subjective culpability of the sinner. Both are legitimate, both are orthodox. This is not a doctrinal change. Rather, it’s a disciplinary change based on a doctrinal swing, like the harmonious and continuous movement of a pendulum. Or perhaps, the best expression would be that we are observing “a paradigmatic shift.”

Hermeneutic of continuity

Many papal critics frequently invoke the expression “hermeneutic of continuity” to justify their personal interpretations of Tradition and to put down any other interpretation (namely authoritative ones.) This term was coined – so it is argued – by Pope Benedict XVI to denote the true way to develop doctrine, in contrast with the illicit “hermeneutic of rupture.” There are two problems with this reasoning. First of all, they sometimes use the expression “hermeneutic of continuity” to quell any and all development coming from magisterial sources, so that it ceases to be a way to properly evaluate doctrinal development and becomes only a justification to not develop at all. Second (and most importantly), Benedict never used the expression “hermeneutic of continuity,” but rather “hermeneutic of reform (in continuity)”.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God (…) The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform

— Address to the Roman Curia offering them Christmas Greetings, December 22nd, 2005

Reform implies change. However, as Benedict says in his speech, doctrine cannot change, even if it develops. Doctrine is not reformable. So, how is reform to be undertaken? The only possible answer is: reform is to be done at the disciplinary level. But if there is a new discipline, there are certain practical implications: Some practices that used to be done, are abandoned; and some practices that were not done until then are adopted. However, what matters is whether this reform is done in continuity: doctrinal continuity.

So, in order to ascertain whether Amoris Laetitia and Familiaris Consortio are in continuity, we should not focus on whether their sacramental disciplines contradict each other or not. Rather, we should see if Amoris flows from a doctrinal continuity with Familiaris. I do believe that is the case, for the seeds of Amoris are all present in Familiaris, even if they had not blossomed yet at the time Familiaris was published.

Familiaris Consortio does indeed acknowledge that there is a tension between the Church’s roles as a Teacher and as a Mother. It does so in the context of the Church’s teachings on artificial contraception, but I think this can shed light into Pope Francis’ theology:

As Mother, the Church is close to the many married couples who find themselves in difficulty over this important point of the moral life: she knows well their situation, which is often very arduous and at times truly tormented by difficulties of every kind, not only individual difficulties but social ones as well; she knows that many couples encounter difficulties not only in the concrete fulfillment of the moral norm but even in understanding its inherent values.”

Familiaris Consortio, 33

Of course, John Paul II does not believe that, as Mother, the Church can ever compromise truth and moral norms. Again, this is not what we are talking about. However, even if the Church’s pedagogy must always remain linked with her doctrine and never be separated from it, this pedagogy must “display its realism and wisdom (…) by making a tenacious and courageous effort to create and uphold all the human conditions – psychological, moral and spiritual – indispensable for understanding and living the moral value and norm.” (FC, 33). The Pope then proceeds to enunciate some of those conditions, and among them is the frequent recourse to the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist.

Right in the next paragraph, John Paul II urges priests to exercise a “unity of moral and pastoral judgment.” This unity “must be carefully sought and ensured, in order that the faithful may not have to suffer anxiety of conscience.” The Holy Father talks about this pastoral judgment in the context of the moral progress of married people (that’s the actual title of this section in FC 34.) He mentions how “man (…) knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”

Both progress and growth are, by definition, gradual. This is why the “law of gradualness” is mentioned here for the first time. This is the law where Amoris Laetitia rests.

Granted, there is a difference between the law of gradualness and gradualness of the law. This is a distinction that Amoris Laetitia also makes. But still, the law of gradualness is defined as a “step-by-step advance”. Before we reached this section dealing with the moral progress of married couples, Familiaris had already delved on what gradualness means in a section entitled “Gradualness and Conversion”:

What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of His definitive and absolute love in the entire personal and social life of man. Therefore an educational growth process is necessary, in order that individual believers, families and peoples, even civilization itself, by beginning from what they have already received of the mystery of Christ, may patiently be led forward, arriving at a richer understanding and a fuller integration of this mystery in their lives.

Familiaris Consortio, 9

In other words, what has been stated before about the law of gradualness does not apply solely to married couples, but to anyone, even entire civilizations. Therefore, we cannot exclude the divorced and remarried from this process. In fact, Pope St. John Paul II is very explicit that pastoral care should be extended to families in “irregular situations” (the same terminology used in Amoris Laetitia):

The Church’s pastoral concern will not be limited only to the Christian families closest at hand; it will extend its horizons in harmony with the Heart of Christ, and will show itself to be even more lively for families in general and for those families in particular which are in difficult or irregular situations. For all of them the Church will have a word of truth, goodness, understanding, hope and deep sympathy with their sometimes tragic difficulties. To all of them she will offer her disinterested help so that they can come closer to that model of a family which the Creator intended from “the beginning” and which Christ has renewed with His redeeming grace. The Church’s pastoral action must be progressive, also in the sense that it must follow the family, accompanying it step by step in the different stages of its formation and development.

Familiaris Consortio, 65

Of course, there are even more staggering parallels between Amoris Laetitia and Familiaris Consortio. In fact, the points of agreement between both documents as regards education of children and the missionary vocation of families are so abundant that they would require an article of their own. It cannot be denied that there is a great continuity from Familiaris to Amoris. If Amoris implements reforms (namely sacramental reforms,) it does so in continuity with Familiaris and the doctrinal principles laid therein.

Anyway, we should bear in mind that Familiaris does not claim to have the last word on the matter. Familiaris urges a greater dialogue between pastors and laity, pastors and families, and theologians and experts in family matters. “In this way the teaching of the Magisterium becomes better understood and the way is opened to its progressive development.” (FC, 73)

It seems to me to be undeniable that this dialogue is precisely what Pope Francis sought to undertake with the two Synods of the Bishops on the Family.

The only rupture

It is precisely on this part of Familiaris Consortio, where Pope St. John Paul II urges for a greater dialogue, that we can find the only rupture between Familiaris and the Church today. However, when I mention “the Church” here, I’m not referring to Pope Francis or to the bishops in communion with him. Those are, by definition, the Magisterium. In fact, the Church in rupture with Familiaris is composed of Catholics who refuse to assent to the Magisterium. For Familiaris Consortio is very clear in this regard:

Priests and deacons, when they have received timely and serious preparation for this apostolate, must unceasingly act towards families as fathers, brothers, pastors and teachers, assisting them with the means of grace and enlightening them with the light of truth. Their teaching and advice must therefore always be in full harmony with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, in such a way as to help the People of God to gain a correct sense of the faith, to be subsequently applied to practical life. Such fidelity to the Magisterium will also enable priests to make every effort to be united in their judgments, in order to avoid troubling the consciences of the faithful.


But it is useful to recall that the proximate and obligatory norm in the teaching of the faith – also concerning family matters – belongs to the hierarchical Magisterium. Clearly defined relationships between theologians, experts in family matters and the Magisterium are of no little assistance for the correct understanding of the faith and for promoting – within the boundaries of the faith – legitimate pluralism

Familiaris Consortio, 73

In summary, those who are now spreading all sorts of arguments to undermine the authority of the Magisterium, both in theory (by defending that a Catholic need not assent to non-infallible magisterial pronouncements,) and in practice (by sabotaging the reforms defined in Amoris Laetitia), are actually the ones who are acting with a hermeneutic of rupture with Familiaris Consortio

They usually decry “dialogue” as a subtle way to introduce heterodoxy into what has been clearly defined before in Familiaris Consortio. By doing so, they are being disobedient to the document they claim to defend, which actively asks for such dialogue to take place. More grievously, with their actions, they have put themselves outside the boundaries of legitimate dialogue, as Familiaris itself explains. For the obligatory norm in the teaching the faith, including family matters and their practical application, belongs to the hierarchical Magisterium.

[Photo: Osservatore Romano]

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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