Last week, Pope Francis sent an official letter to the Argentine bishops, offering his emphatic approval of their proposed norms for the implementation of the eighth chapter of his highly controversial Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The chapter in question deals with, among other things, the sacramental and spiritual status of Catholics living in illicit second marriages.
In their draft document, the Argentine bishops provide for cases in which Catholics who have been validly married, have divorced, and then have entered into a second marriage may be admitted to the Eucharist without practicing or resolving to practice continence with the second spouse. In some cases, the bishops suppose, abstention from sexual relations may damage the familial situation involved in the second union, or may simply be unrealistic, so that failures of chastity become subjectively inculpable (i.e. not instances of sin). In this they follow the somewhat cryptic reasoning of Amoris Laetitia’s infamous Footnote 329, which suggests that in some cases, when continence is practiced with the second spouse, “faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.” (The incoherence of this reasoning has been amply discussed elsewhere.)
The Church teaches and has always taught, from St. Paul to the Council of Trent and beyond, that grace strengthens and liberates us from the bonds of sin, and that while we may never, in the present life, be perfectly free from the inclination to do wrong, it is possible through grace to keep the commandments. This doctrine was given force of law in Trent's decree on justification: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” The same decree explains that “God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and aids you that you may be able.”
The real problem with the Argentine norms is their deviation from this larger and more fundamental principle: that grace truly sanctifies and liberates, and that baptized Christians are always free to fulfill the moral law, even when they fail to do so. Jesus Christ holds us to this standard in the Gospel. It is presumptuous of Francis—however benign his intentions—to decide that his version of “mercy” trumps that given by God himself.
Worse, though, is the scandal and confusion that Francis's continued teaching on this topic will bring to pastoral praxis at the parish level, legitimizing laxism among poorly formed clergy, creating myths and half-truths about the Catholic approach to the moral law, and forming ever-larger numbers of lay Catholics who do not understand that sacramental marriage is indissoluble. All of these things are already massive problems in the Church, and this confirmation of error will only exaggerate them.
So as not to end on a note of despair, I would like to offer three words of advice on the proper Catholic response to this latest papal confusion. First, it is clear to me that Francis is still our pope, and that we are bound by the requirements of piety (both spiritual and filial) to will the best for him, to pray for him, and to recognize his authority where it is duly exercised. Please, pray for him. Second, we should do our best to form ourselves in the Catholic faith. The easiest way to do this is to read one of the old children's catechisms, which were written with clear and concise language and designed for memorization. The Penny Catechism is a wonderful resource, as is the old St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism. Both are tremendously illuminating, especially in confusing times like our own. Third, as you study one of these Catechisms, I would urge you to contemplate what is said in them, to bring it into your prayer, and to share what you've learned with your fellow Catholics.
God's grace is what saves us, through faith and the sacraments. Worry less about the pope and his muddled attempts at “reform,” and more about what is already given and guaranteed by the Church as conducive to the salvation of your soul.
Elliot Milco is deputy editor of First Things.