A Guest Post by James Hooper
Some Catholics may be unaware of, or are possibly confused by the controversy following the release of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, and the new dubia which has been submitted to the Pope asking for confirmation of various aspects of Catholic doctrine. (Read it at the Vatican website here, or purchase Our Sunday Visitor’s print edition here.)
Here is a summary of the situation we are facing.
The Main Issue
Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, although it was a bit unclear at the outset, has now proposed an official change in practice in that absolution can now be given to someone who is divorced and civilly remarried (and still sacramentally married to someone else) if they and their pastor have decided that their culpability is reduced, even if they will continue to live as “man and wife” with their new spouse. John Paul II allowed this if they lived as “brother and sister” (no sexual relations) because there was no continuing sin (see Familiaris consortio). The new idea is that by living as brother and sister more harm would be done to the family, children, etc. The claim is that we aren’t changing doctrine but we are allowing a new practice that is “merciful.” Many are referring to this as the “private forum” which means instead of a court of annulment, this is handled between the person and their confessor.
So What’s the Big Deal?
The problem has been that in order to give absolution in confession, for 2000 years up to this point the person must show firm purpose of amendment–meaning they have no intention of continuing to sin. Being sacramentally married to Person A while having sex with Person B is, in fact, objectively evil, even if the person has reduced culpability. “Reduced culpability” means that the person was coerced or had no other choice, or the situation is such that they can’t stop having sex with their new partner. (The three conditions for a mortal sin are grave matter, you know it’s a sin, and you willingly do it anyway.) However, the rule of reduced culpability has never been applied in this way.
Additionally, some argue that even if there were reduced culpability in the original act (because they were coerced, weren’t Catholic at the time, or didn’t know), culpability in fact is not reduced for the future acts of adultery if the couple remains sexually active. Even if the man or woman were unable to live as brother and sister without harming the marriage or family harmony, the objectively sinful act will continue to happen. This is a conundrum for priests, who can only give absolution for sins for which a firm purpose of amendment can be honestly given.
There is also the aspect of public scandal which doesn’t seem to be addressed. The concern is that when the first spouse, or the faith community, sees that the divorced and remarried individual (without an annulment and presumably not living in continence) has returned to the sacraments, they will be led into sin, their faith in the sacraments may be reduced, and confidence in the teaching of the Church eroded. People may not be as hesitant to get divorces if this path is now available.
There is also the issue of allowing someone in a state of mortal sin to receive the Eucharist, which has also never been allowed. St. Paul warns those that those who are not disposed to receiving the Eucharist and who receive it anyway eat and drink condemnation upon themselves. Some also argue that this approach really is allowing an evil, so that a good may happen. The ends justify the means is not a part of Catholic teaching–and is in fact identified by Pope Benedict and others as part of the “tyranny of relativism.”
The other 900-pound gorilla is that when AL was released, none of this was overtly announced. The Pope said yes, things were changing, but referred people to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who was somewhat vague at first. However, now we have seen the Pope himself confirm in writing to the Argentine bishops that “no other interpretation is possible.” Cardinal Schönborn has been overt about this as well. Archbishop Chaput, who established standards for Philadelphia, has also been criticized by new Cardinals Farrell and Cupich for upholding the previous standard. Some bishops go one way, some go the other.
There is also the claim now that this has always been allowed in a sort of “hidden magisterium” and that while our public documents never said it, this was “okay” and a regular practice. If that has been the case, and there is anecdotal evidence that priests have been allowing this, then it would necessarily require that Church leaders and/or documents were in fact lying and/or priests were acting outside their authority.
Officially Expressing Doubts: The Dubia
Given all of this controversy, two months ago four Cardinals privately sent a letter and a document called a dubia (expressing doubts) to the Pope, asking for clarification on five questions of doctrine including whether or not we still believe that there is such a thing as objective sin. The letter was respectful and within the boundaries of Canon 212, Paragraph 3. Because the Pope refused to answer, they then made the rest of the faithful aware of the questions at hand, and released the document publicly.
The Pope has still not responded, but what we have seen since this happened is the Pope making veiled references to “black and white” thinking and criticizing this as legalism and rigidity. We have seen a bishop in Greece (the head of the conference) call the four cardinals heretics and schismatics. We have seen the archbishop over the Roman Rota also suggest that the Pope could demote these cardinals for asking this question. We’ve also seen other bishops and cardinals come out in support of asking for clarification.
How are Catholics reacting?
We have people who support the change as an issue of “mercy”, regardless of the implications to Catholic doctrine.
We have people who reject the dubia and the notion of even discussing this publicly.
We have people who agree with the dubia, but question discussing it publicly.
We have people who reject the notion of questioning the Pope at all because the Pope is at the top of the hierarchy and shouldn’t be questioned.
We have people who label those who are discussing it as reactionary.
And we have people who agree with the dubia, discuss it openly and disrespect the Pope.
And we have people who agree with the dubia, discuss it openly, and respect the Pope while disagreeing with his apparent position on this.
Other Alarming Developments
We have now seen in San Diego the bishop there proposing that not only are the divorced and remarried (not living as brother and sister) welcome to return to the sacraments, but also that this “private forum” can now be used to justify people living in homosexual unions to approach to receive the Eucharist if their consciences tell them it’s okay.
It’s unclear how all of this will conclude. What is clear that it is a very complex, very concerning issue which isn’t getting better – it’s only getting worse. Let us all commit ourselves to praying that God’s will be done and that harmony, communion and unity be restored quickly.
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James Hooper is a husband and father who writes a regular column in the Catholic Stand
, coordinates street evangelization in the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Diocese of Belleville, frequently broadcasts on Catholic Radio and directs communications for St. Mary of Victories
in St. Louis.