Argentine Archbishop Victor Fernandez has taken liberties in his role as ghostwriter for Pope Francis. Michael Pakaluk, an ethics professor at the Catholic University of America, examines some of the problematic passages of Amoris Laetita in a stunning article at Crux.
In his response to Pakaluk, Archbishop Fernandez writes:
I would never admit that anyone can receive Communion if the person is not in a state of sanctifying grace. This profoundly contradicts my own theology, and cannot be based on my texts. I say only that an objective situation of sin can be subjectively not guilty. In that case, the objective situation of sin would not deprive the state of sanctifying grace.
I respond to His Excellency Archbishop Fernandez, because not too long ago I struggled with the precise theological point he believes allows him to sanction access to Holy Communion for those in “irregular” relationships. His logic is thus: There are couples who are in an objective state of grave sin but who do not feel subjectively guilty. There may even be evidence of grace in their lives. If they are at peace with God and a priest can attest to it, they are in a state to receive Holy Communion.
In his mercy, God moved over my darkness, and like the white cabbage roses outside the window of my study, he makes me blossom even in winter. I dare not keep quiet given the grace I have been given. And so what I write, I write with humility before God and man according to the light of faith.
Approximately six months after I had first started attending my local Catholic parish, I began going to confession. I never asked for the sacrament, nor did my priest ever apply it. I knew nothing of this thing called the “internal forum.” I went two to three times a month; some months I went once a week. My priest would listen, pray for me, and offer spiritual direction. The internal forum never usurped the fitting path to restoration, neither prior to nor during the annulment process. Most of the time, the discussion revolved around my war against the sins of anger and bitterness. I do remember telling my priest that I was confused as to whether or not I was in sin in my second marriage. But because I was a broken reed when I first showed up at his confessional, he was tender, yet always committed to giving me the full teaching of the Church. His spiritual advice always steered me toward a deeper faith, and a receptive heart.
In studying Church teaching I learned that my situation was objectively a state of grave sin. But at that time I had been married for seventeen years, and as a Protestant I had already asked God to forgive me for the divorce. I had done that while my husband and I attended premarital counseling with the Lutheran pastor who had married us. We eventually changed churches and denominations, ending up as Presbyterians. During all our years of being Protestant, our marriage had never been called into question. Marriage, in our Protestant churches, was not a sacrament; and divorce was allowed in cases of abandonment or adultery. Even those who had divorced for other reasons were told that as long as they were sorry, God would forgive them.
One may wonder, why then did we bother with the Catholic Church? The answer is that we were searching for the fullness of truth, even if that truth was painful. Protestantism—in doctrine, practice, spirit, and authority—had depleted our faith.
Ten months into our conversion journey, and still wondering how we could be experiencing the grace of God while in an objective state of sin, we decided to petition the Church to investigate the validity of my first marriage. That is how we began the annulment process. At this point, my husband still did not “feel” guilty; my spiritual condition was more complex. Mostly we initiated the process because we accepted the authority of the Church. We didn't come to the Church to dictate to her on which terms we were willing to become Catholics. In our search for the fullness of truth, we found her—the Roman Catholic Church. On earth she is Christ's authority, and we were going to obey.
When we feel ourselves to be free of guilt, are we always right? No, says the Prophet Jeremiah: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” The final arbiter must be Christ, the only one who knows man's heart. He arbitrates through the authority of his Church on earth.
At the time, I was living more uxorio with someone who was not my husband, but who to me, after seventeen years, was the only real husband I ever had. It boggled the mind: How was I in an objective state of mortal sin when my heart yearned so for God? My time in the confessional was purgative, even though the sacrament was not applied. Over time I came to see that although the Church was bound to the sacraments—and that is what must be defended here!—God himself is not (CCC 1257). God was pouring grace upon me: the grace to desire him above all things, the grace to die to self, the grace to obey his Church, and in time even the grace to live in continence.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Pope John Paul II wrote:
I wish to instill into everyone the lively sense of responsibility which must guide us when we deal with sacred things like the sacraments, which are not our property, or like consciences, which have a right not to be left in uncertainty and confusion. The sacraments and consciences, I repeat, are sacred, and both require that we serve them in truth.
This is the reason for the church's law.
Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried sans annulment has weakened, and will weaken, the Church on the indissolubility of marriage—which is where it all stands or falls. Because if a man can divorce his wife, or if a wife can divorce her husband, then Christ can divorce the Church. Which means that Christ can divorce Man. And that is a lie. It is the anti-Gospel. For the unshakeable truth of all of history is that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The plague of divorce must be remedied. Do the princes of the Church not see that to capitulate to divorce will bring down a darkness upon mankind, and suffering upon the children of the world?
If the whole world, including our Protestant brethren, accepted divorce—which they have—yet should the Church stand contra mundum.
His Excellency Archbishop Fernandez is correct to a point. It's true that subjective culpability can be mitigated by circumstances, knowledge, and so on. But the Catholic faith teaches that God gives actual grace, not sanctifying grace, to those in mortal sin. This is not a permanent state in which to live. If and when actual grace is given, it should lead to contrition, repentance, and a life lived in conformity to Christ—a life infused with agape, lived in sanctifying grace. God has given us a fitting path to restoration. Archbishop Fernandez would serve the faithful well by encouraging them to take it.