As we have showed several times in our blog, Amoris Laetitia’s new sacramental discipline is all about mitigating circumstances. In fact, the exhortation’s Chapter VIII has a full segment named “Mitigating factors in Pastoral Discernment,” immediately preceding the one where footnote 351 is inserted. In other words, the sacramental discipline laid out in footnote 351 is done in the context of a discernment that is contextualized by the doctrine of mitigating factors.

This means, if we want to understand this document better, we need to become acquainted with the doctrine of mitigating circumstances. This doctrine is inextricably linked to the nature of sin, namely the distinction between mortal and venial sin.

Mitigating factors and mortal sin

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1857 affirms that, for a sin to be a mortal sin, three conditions must necessarily be present. In other words, if just one of these conditions is absent, then the sin is not mortal. These conditions are: 1) grave matter; 2) full knowledge; 3) full consent.

Grave matter refers to the gravity of the sin. Among sins with grave matter, the Catechism explicitly lists the sin of adultery. A person who divorces, remarries and then proceeds to have intercourse with his/her new partner commits, according to Catholic doctrine, the sin of adultery, for this contradicts Jesus Christ’s commandment: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery, and the man who marries a woman divorced by her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18).

In short, divorced and remarried people who do not abide by total continence commit a sin with grave matter. That much is undisputed.

However, just because we established that this situation is a sin with grave matter, we have not proven that it is a mortal sin. Two other conditions must necessarily be met, and we cannot know if those conditions are fulfilled if we do not consider the particular situation of the individual sinner. For we can only know if someone acts with full knowledge and full consent if we know the sinner and its situation.

Papal critics usually conflate sin with grave matter with mortal sin. “Divorced and remarried people are in mortal sin”, they cry, without any other qualifier or nuance. This is a common confusion, but it goes against established doctrine, since the Catechism itself explicitly says that when one disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

We know this is what Pope Francis is getting at in Amoris Laetitia, since he states, right at the beginning of his “Mitigating factors in Pastoral Discernment” segment:

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.

Being in a state of mortal sin carries with it some damning consequences, including precluding the sinner from partaking of the Eucharist, for those who take communion in mortal sin eat and drink judgment against themselves (1 Cor 11:29). Since the papal critic confuses mortal sin with sin with grave matter, then it is unsurprising that he would think that any divorced and remarried person living more uxorio should be barred from communion. Yet, as I explained before, this is based in a misconception, not in the actual doctrine of the Church. Grave matter is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for mortal sin.

The only stipulation that the Church has infallibly established as excluding the sinner from communion is a state of mortal sin. As the Council of Trent says:

If it is unbecoming for any one to approach to any of the sacred functions, unless he approach in a spirit of piety; assuredly, the more the holiness and divinity of this heavenly sacrament are understood by a Christian, the more diligently ought he to give heed that he approach not to receive it but with great reverence and holiness, especially as we read in the Apostle those words full of terror; He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself. Wherefore, he who would communicate, ought to recall to mind the precept of the Apostle; Let a man prove himself. Now ecclesiastical usage declares that necessary proof to be, that no one, conscious to himself of mortal sin, how contrite soever he may seem to himself, ought to approach to the sacred Eucharist without previous sacramental confession. This the holy Synod hath decreed is to be invariably observed by all Christians

Any other requirements that the Church may establish are based on her prudential judgment. This means they are to be respected, but also that they may be overturned without any implication on its infallibility. For centuries, the Church has imposed excommunications on certain groups and actions, and later lifted them up, according to its discernment of the particular context surrounding them.

In other words, the Successor of Peter may indeed have limited Eucharistic access to the divorced and remarried living more uxorio in the past, but this does not preclude the current pope from lifting up those limitations as he sees fit, provided the people involved are not in a state of mortal sin. For a divorced and civilly remarried person living more uxorio to be in mortal sin, three conditions must be fulfilled. Grave matter is, of course, present by definition. Nevertheless, two more conditions are needed to bar the person from the Eucharist: full knowledge and full consent. Even if these do not interfere with the objective morality of the sin, (the sin remains grave and immoral, regardless of circumstances,) they certainly may change the subjective culpability of the individual sinner. Some circumstances may diminish subjective culpability in such a way, that the sinner is not in a mortal sin and is, therefore, not precluded from the Eucharist if the Church so allows. Circumstances diminishing subjective culpability is what we call: “mitigating circumstances.”

The objections

When confronted with how Amoris bases itself in the sound and orthodox doctrine of mitigating circumstances, the papal critic will usually answer something like this: “yes, ignorance may diminish subjective culpability; but in that case, the priest must inform the sinner of his sin, thereby dispelling his ignorance; from that point on, this ceases to apply.”

This seems like an argument, but it is actually two arguments. In a fell swoop, the papal critic has:

  1. Postulated that ignorance ceases to be a mitigating circumstance simply by informing the sinner that he is sinning;
  2. Very subtly swept “full consent” under the rug; Full consent is out of cogitation: only full knowledge is being considered from there on.

I wish now to explain why both of these arguments are wrong, by delving more deeply into the doctrine of mitigating circumstances.

Full knowledge

If “full knowledge” is a necessary condition for a sin with grave matter to be a mortal sin, then ignorance can act as a mitigating factor. Sin remains objectively a sin, but ignorance diminished the culpability of the sinner, so that he may not be in mortal sin. On this point, the Catechism teaches:

 Mortal sin requires full knowledge (…) It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law (…) Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense

Please note, unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a sin with grave matter (like adultery.) This is doctrine, inscribed in the Catechism since St. John Paul II’s pontificate. It is not an innovation from Pope Francis.

Granted, the Catechism also states, “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” However, this cannot be interpreted as meaning that ignorance cannot ever exist. Otherwise, the Catechism would be self-contradictory. Rather, it means that the principles of the moral law are written in the conscience of every man, so every man has the potential to understand them. No one is unable to understand that a particular sin is wrong, but they can be ignorant of the sinful nature of a particular act at a specific time.

In that case – it might be argued – if we are dealing with unintentional ignorance and no one is unable to understand the principles of the moral law, then all we have to do is inform the sinner.

As appealing as this might be, it is not so. It is a simplistic way of looking at reality. A person cannot be formally informed that he is sinning and from that point on, be liable and fully culpable if he does not accept our explanation. Many papal critics seem to think this is an accurate description of reality, but the Church herself has acknowledged that humanity is more complex than this.

Sin darkens the intellect. This means that a sinner might have difficulty in understanding why a particular act is sinful. This may be compounded by cultural and educational factors, and by that particular sinner’s lifestory. We must note that this does not mean that the sinner is unable to understand the truth, for this would contradict the Catechism. Still, even if it is not impossible for the sinner to overcome his ignorance, he may have difficulty doing so. This is why Amoris Laetitia says: “More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great diffi­culty in understanding “its inherent values”

This is also part of the magisterium and, therefore, part of the doctrine of mitigating factors. This is why the Church has always understood the potential dilemma of informing a sinner not prepared to receive the full truth. In this case, the sinner will start formally to sin, even if the person guiding him knew he could not bear the full weight of doctrine at the time. Since our objective should be the salvation of souls and not their damnation, the Catholic is urged to exercise discernment about the best timing and way to lay the truth on the sinner.

Again, this is not a modern, watered-down pastoral approach coming from a lukewarm “Church of Nice”, as some critics affirm. It is actually quite traditional. It dates back to Apostolic times, to St. Paul:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal. As unto little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat; for you were not able as yet. But neither indeed are you now able; for you are yet carnal.” (1 Cor 3:1-2)

In fact, it dates to Jesus Himself, for He said to His disciples: “I have yet many things to say to you: but you cannot bear them now” (Jo 16:12). They could only bear those teachings when the Holy Spirit descended upon them.

In his foundational book about pastoral care of the souls, Pope St. Gregory the Great instructed his priests 1,500 years ago to proceed like this:

But some things, even though openly known, ought to be seasonably tolerated; that is, when circumstances afford no suitable opportunity for openly correcting them. For sores by being unseasonably cut are the worse enflamed and, if medicaments suit not the time, it is undoubtedly evident that they lose their medicinal function. But, while a fitting time for the correction of subordinates is being sought, the patience of the prelate is exercised under the very weight of their offenses

St. Alphonse Liguori, no moral laxist to be sure, also instructed confessors in this regard. He called this the “principle of good-faith”:

If [the sinner] is inculpably ignorant of some other matter (of which he can be ignorant) – even something of the divine law, the confessor should prudently decide whether the instruction will be profitable for the penitent. If it will not be profitable, he should not make the correction, but rather leave him in good faith. The reason is: the danger of formal sin is a much more serious thing than material sin. God punishes formal sin, for that alone is what offends Him.

This principle of “good faith” is echoed already in post-conciliar times, in a Vademecum published under Pope St. John Paul II:

The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin.

This, of course, does not mean that the sinner should be deprived of the sound doctrine that will help him turn away from his sinful life. The idea is not to keep the sinner in a state of ignorance forever in order to protect him from formal sin. Quite the contrary, what is intended is that eventually, and as soon as possible, he will be instructed on the teachings of the Church. Nevertheless, sometimes, a process of conscience formation must be undertaken before that can happen. Far from being a way to water down truth, this is a way to protect truth from being trampled by being presented in a context and timing where it will not produce its effect.

Most importantly, this shows that there is a difference between evangelizing and “notifying.” By thinking that a mere exposition of the Church’s doctrine is sufficient to dispel ignorance, irrespectively of pastoral sensitivities, and without any discernment towards the characteristics of the sinner before us (or any consideration on whether he will be saved or condemned by our actions,) the papal critic is not acting in a Catholic or even traditional way. The rediscovery of the proper way to evangelize is, in fact, a major overtone of Francis’ pontificate. People concerned with the growing secularization of our society should do well in heeding His Holiness’ counsels.

Full consent

Even if the papal critic seems to focus solely on the ignorance of the sinner, the truth is that this is mostly a red herring. Amoris does not talk too much about ignorance: it is Francis detractors who usually do talk about ignorance. For years, many of them have decried the watering down of doctrine by the clergy as the sole factor for the current Church crisis.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising they would think that the only mitigating circumstance is ignorance, and that ignorance can easily be overcome by strong doctrinal statements.

By doing this, the papal critic is interpreting Amoris Laetitia through the prism of his own concerns and biases. This is, however, not consistent with how the apostolic exhortation tackles the issue. Even if Francis grounds his sacramental discipline on the doctrine of mitigating circumstances, the truth is that he does not delve too much on the “full knowledge” side of the equation, but rather on “full consent”. In fact, the only part of Amoris where Francis mentions impaired knowledge and ignorance is one sole sentence, which I quoted above. While Francis dedicates half a sentence to “full knowledge”, he develops the concept of “full consent” throughout almost two paragraphs!

So, when the papal critic says that mitigating circumstances do not apply because all that is needed to overcome ignorance is to instruct the sinner, he is doing a sleight of hand where he disregards the most important foundation for the new sacramental discipline: consent.

The detractor does this because he does not think full consent is impaired in most situations. Most of the time, he is influenced by a libertarian outlook, where the only way to coerce someone is through physical violence. However, libertarianism is a post-Enlightenment philosophy, and we wish to focus our attention into what Catholicism actually teaches. If we look at doctrine, we notice that orthodoxy takes a much broader approach to the question of impaired consent than the reductionist view limited to the libertarian non-aggression principle. After all, sin not only darkens the intellect, it also weakens the will.

Returning to the Catechism’s section on Mortal Sin, and reading what it has to say about full consent, we can see that “the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.” Also on the Catechism’s section on Freedom, we can read that imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified, not only by ignorance, but also by “inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.”

Please note, what was said above refers to “responsibility for an action.” There is no qualifier for what that action might be. Any action is encompassed in this reasoning, including intrinsically evil acts like adultery. However, sins of the flesh, being driven by passions and concupiscence, are particularly prone to this. In fact, there is precedent in the Catechism for evaluating mitigating circumstances impairing full consent for another intrinsically evil act of a sexual nature: masturbation.

Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action (…) To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability

— Catechism, 2352

In other words, the same paragraph of the Catechism acknowledges that masturbation is intrinsically evil, but also that mitigating circumstances (even immaturity, habit or anxiety) may impair full consent in order to lessen the moral culpability of the same act. These are not contradictory statements.

Is this important to interpret Amoris Laetitia? We cannot pretend otherwise, for the above sections of the Catechism are, in fact, explicitly quoted in the Amoris section about mitigating factors in pastoral discernment (AL 302). This pastoral discernment on mitigating factors is precisely where the pontiff’s sacramental discipline bases itself. In other words, these parts of the Catechism are key to interpreting Francis’ manifest mind and will on this issue.

Pope Francis is not producing some new doctrine, he is simply extending a preexisting doctrine to another set of sins, previously excluded from this pastoral logic by the Church’s prudential judgment. It is in the Church’s power to do this, as it does not contradict any definitively defined doctrine.


At the end of this article, I think we can draw the following conclusions:

  • A mortal sin requires three conditions: grave matter, full knowledge and full consent;
  • A sin with grave matter, but without full knowledge and full consent is not mortal sin, but venial sin;
  • Mortal sins preclude the sinner from the Eucharist, whereas venial sins do not;
  • Subjective culpability can be diminished if full knowledge and full consent are impaired;
  • Diminished subjective culpability in no way interferes with the objectively evil nature of the sin;
  • An intrinsically evil sin can have diminished culpability and still remain intrinsically evil (One thing is to say that a sin is not justified in any circumstance and another thing is to say that there are circumstances where the sinner is not fully culpable);
  • This doctrine is not new, the only novelty comes from extending it to the divorced and remarried;
  • Ignorance is not overcome by simply restating doctrine to the sinner;
  • Consent can be limited by many factors, not just coercion;
  • Amoris Laetitia deals mostly with full consent, not full knowledge.

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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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