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Two completely different—and logically incompatible—arguments in favor of communion for the divorced and remarried have figured in the synodal process that led up to Amoris Laetitia. Despite their incompatibility, both arguments can be found in Amoris itself, at least according to many of the document’s interpreters.

Here is one of the arguments:

A) Living in a new sexual relationship after a divorce from a valid marriage can in some cases be objectively morally good or at least morally acceptable, namely in cases where the new relationship is so established that the well-being of children and other innocent persons would be jeopardized if the couple were to separate or attempt to live as “brother and sister.” Jeopardizing the well-being of innocent persons would be unjust, which is to say immoral, and this means that the morally right course of action is to preserve and nurture the new relationship. This is why persons who are in this kind of situation can receive communion.

Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, has no doubt that this is how Pope Francis reasons: “Francis would be sympathetic to the woman who put her husband through law school waiting tables but then got dumped for a pretty, younger associate. She is now married to a loving plumber who is a good father to the children from both marriages. Telling her to abandon her new husband or live as brother and sister is not only absurd, it is unjust” (National Catholic Reporter, Dec 8 2016, my emphasis).

However, some other commentators who embrace communion for the divorced and remarried reject this argument out of hand. According to them, the pope reasons like this:

B) Living in a sexual relationship after a divorce from a valid marriage is always objectively gravely immoral, but various factors can diminish or even remove subjective guilt. So while the situation itself is gravely sinful, the persons involved in it need not be in a state of mortal sin. This is why some of them can receive communion.

The philosopher Rocco Buttiglione advances this interpretation. “Sexual relations outside of marriage are without doubt gravely contrary to the moral law. This was the case before Amoris Laetitia, this is still the case in Amoris Laetitia. … Again, there is no doubt as to whether [the divorced and remarried person] is living in an objective situation of grave sin, except in the limited case of an invalid marriage. Whether he or she is carrying the full subjective responsibility and is at fault remains to be seen” (L’Osservatore Romano, July 19 2016).

The distinction between the objective moral status of a behavior (whether it is moral or immoral in itself) and the subjective culpability of the person acting (whether he/she has contracted guilt), is commonplace in moral theology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states three conditions that must be satisfied if a person is to be guilty of grave sin (§1857). The first is objective, namely that the act itself must be gravely immoral. The second and third conditions are subjective (related to the acting subject), namely that the person must act with full knowledge of the immorality of her behavior, and that she must act freely or with “deliberate consent.” If any one of the two subjective conditions is lacking, an objectively immoral act will not be fully imputable to the person, and his or her guilt will be correspondingly diminished.

The two arguments above—A and B—disagree about the objective moral status of sexual relations outside of marriage. Argument A says that such relations can sometimes, under certain circumstances, be morally good or acceptable. Argument B says that such relationships are always morally bad.

There is no question that Argument A is powerful, and few people can honestly claim to be completely insensitive to its force. Would it not be morally problematic to let innocent children pay the price for a rigorous insistence on the indissolubility of marriage? Argument A could not easily be dismissed, were it not for the fact that it flatly contradicts irreformable Catholic doctrine. Extramarital sex, and in particular extramarital sex involving married persons, is one of the behaviors that the Catholic Church identifies as intrinsically gravely evil (CCC §2390). To say that an act is intrinsically gravely evil is to say that no particular circumstances and no good intentions can transform the moral status of the act so that it no longer counts as gravely evil. Both the gravity and the evil are, so to speak, in-built features of the act itself.

Those who are familiar with contemporary debates in moral philosophy and theology know that whenever Catholic doctrine claims that some act is “intrinsically evil,” plausible arguments will be advanced that appear to show that in some circumstances, or given some good intentions, doing what is allegedly intrinsically evil is in reality morally good. Argument A belongs in this category. There are at least equally persuasive arguments of the same kind against the intrinsic evil of, for example, contraception, euthanasia, and abortion. Of course, to say that there are powerful arguments against Catholic moral doctrine is not to say that the Church has reason to rethink its moral teaching. There are very powerful arguments against the existence of God, too—such as the occurrence of the Holocaust—but that does not mean that the Church must rethink its belief in God. Everything depends on how good the arguments on the other side are. With respect to Catholic doctrine on intrinsic evil, Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor should be consulted for the positive case.

While Argument A is forceful but radically revisionist—accepting it would mean that the Church caves on the intrinsic evil of adulterous acts—Argument B is arguably orthodox. Unfortunately, this argument is wholly irrelevant to the situation of most divorced and remarried Catholics who want communion. In order to see just how irrelevant it is, we must first make sure that we understand the argument correctly. When Buttiglione claims that a divorced and remarried person lives “in an objective situation of grave sin,” he means—and the Church means—that this person’s present choice to continue the sexual relationship is objectively gravely sinful, irrespective of the person’s responsibility (or lack of responsibility) for whatever happened in the past.

An analogy can make this clear. If you rob a bank in your sleep, you are not responsible for this action, and no subjective guilt attaches to you. However, if you then decide to hang on to the money from the robbery, this later decision is by itself gravely sinful, and your guilt for it is not mitigated by the fact that you robbed the bank in your sleep. Similarly—no other comparison with bank robbery intended—a person may have very little moral responsibility for having contracted a second marriage, but once she has “woken up” in this situation and realized its objective sinfulness, she will be morally obliged to rectify it, on pain of grave objective sin.

Now, Argument B points to the possibility that some persons may not be fully responsible for their failure to rectify their irregular marriage situation in one of the two ways that are available, namely either by separating, or by turning a sexual relationship into a non-sexual relationship (the brother-sister solution). Argument B says, in effect, that some persons may not be fully responsible for continuing to have sexual relations with their current partner.

As we have seen, there are two subjective factors—lack of full knowledge and lack of deliberate consent—that can reduce or remove subjective responsibility. However, in the case of divorced and remarried persons who want communion, and who want it in a legitimate way, there can be no lack of knowledge. Amoris Laetitia clearly emphasizes the need for a pastoral dialogue with divorced and remarried persons who want communion, and the document also emphasizes the need for persons in this situation to examine their consciences (AL §300, 303). If a remarried person is involved in a pastoral dialogue, he or she will be enlightened about the objective moral facts, unless the pastor deliberately withholds this knowledge in order to leave the person in “good faith.” But the idea that the Church should deliberately withhold the truth from some remarried divorcees, while at the same time urging them to examine their consciences with respect to their marriage situation, is absurd. The absurdity would be even more pronounced if it were suggested that a remarried person who expresses informed disagreement with Catholic teaching about marriage could be admitted to communion, on the ground that she has not grasped the “inherent value” of this teaching. This view entails that as long as a person tells the pastor that she disagrees with the doctrine of marriage, she can receive communion, but the day she lets the pastor know that the truth about marriage has begun to sink in, the pastor must refuse her communion. This is not a defensible pastoral policy.

Of course, there are probably some divorced and remarried persons who sleep with their new spouses without deliberate consent. Buttiglione gives an example: “Consider … the case of a woman who is completely financially and mentally dependent on someone and is forced to have sexual intercourse against her will. … What is lacking here are the subjective conditions for sin (full knowledge and deliberate consent). The act is still evil but it does not belong (not entirely anyway) to the person” (Vatican Insider, Nov 22 2016).

But what about the woman in Fr. Thomas Reese’s example above, who “put her husband through law school waiting tables but then got dumped for a pretty, younger associate,” and who is now “married to a loving plumber who is a good father to the children from both marriages”? According to Argument B, if this woman wants to sleep with her loving plumber, and intends to keep doing so, she cannot receive the sacraments, because she deliberately consents to intrinsically evil acts. A pastor can only grant a sexually active remarried divorcee (who knows the Catholic doctrine of marriage) absolution and communion, if he has first concluded that this person does not have sex voluntarily. In most cases, the person concerned would perceive such a judgment as grossly insulting, but there are probably some cases where it would be true.

So has the Church debated Eucharistic discipline through two synods merely on behalf of those remarried divorcees who have sex unwillingly? Though Buttiglione and other defenders of Argument B seem to interpret Amoris Laetitia and the whole synodal process in this light, let me try to account for the facts in a more plausible way. I suggest that many people who endorse the largely irrelevant Argument B are in reality motivated by the intuitively very potent, but heterodox, Argument A. They implicitly believe, in other words, that it is immoral to do anything that might affect the well-being of the second family. This is a respectable position, and well worth considering given a consequentialist view of ethics, but it is logically irreconcilable with Argument B and with Catholic doctrine.

Arguments A and B are easily confused, however, due to an ambiguity in the phrase “mitigating factors and situations,” which is used in Amoris Laetitia to explain why culpability might be lacking in some cases. This phrase—and similar terms, such as “extenuating circumstances”—can refer either to

1) factors and circumstances that mitigate (extenuate) by making the act itself objectively less immoral (Argument A);

or to

2) factors and circumstances that mitigate by diminishing a person’s subjective responsibility for the act (Argument B).

So both Arguments A and B appeal to mitigating factors and circumstances, but in the context of Argument A this means factors and circumstances that can make extramarital sex morally acceptable and even a duty, whereas in the context of Argument B it means factors and circumstances that may impel a person to have extramarital sex non-voluntarily. I suggest that most people who think that a change in Eucharistic discipline is desirable are implicitly motivated by the heterodox Argument A, even though many of them promote Argument B, which can be defended as orthodox. This may not be a conscious strategy, but rather the result of a failure to distinguish clearly between the two different senses of “mitigating factors.”

This confusion, if not dispelled, may have far-reaching consequences for the life of the Church. We can imagine the following scenario: The general prohibition of communion for the divorced and remarried is lifted with appeal to Argument B. This decision opens the way for a pastoral practice based on the moral intuition behind Argument A, namely that the flourishing of the second family is a more important moral imperative than respecting the sanctity of the first marriage. This scenario, I suggest, is in fact what is currently happening in the Church. In what follows, I will try to substantiate this hypothesis by showing that Argument B appears rather late in the process that led to Amoris Laetitia, and that Argument A was the implicit basis of the so-called Kasper Proposal.

In 1993, the German bishops Walter Kasper, Karl Lehman, and Oskar Saier issued a pastoral letter that suggested criteria for when to admit persons in irregular marriage situations to the Eucharist. One criterion is “the presence of an insoluble conflict of duty.” Furthermore, the bishops claim that it must be investigated “whether or not fidelity to the second relationship has become a moral obligation with regard to the spouse and children” (my emphasis).

These statements—together with the bishops’ rejection of the brother-sister solution as “unrealistic”—make clear that the bishops subscribe to Argument A. It can never be a “moral obligation” to do something that is always and in all circumstances morally wrong. Hence, for the bishops to say that it can be a moral obligation to have sexual relations with the second spouse is for them implicitly to say that extramarital sex is not always and in all circumstances morally wrong.

The bishops are right, of course, that the second spouse and the children may become innocent objects of “grievous injustice” because of the actions of a spouse who wants to be faithful to Catholic doctrine. But the cause of this injustice is not the separation, or the decision to practice the brother-sister solution. The cause of the injustice is the earlier decision whereby an already married person agrees—perhaps out of ignorance—to take on moral responsibilities that he or she is not in a position to take on. The suffering caused by this objectively immoral act (which subjectively may not be fully culpable) will not be fully unleashed until the day when the truth is no longer swept under the rug. To take an analogy: A man who hides stolen goods in his basement for some time does not commit a morally wrong act when he decides to face the music and go to the police, even if his children will suffer as a result of this act, when their father goes to jail. The morally wrong act was the theft, not the decision to go to the police, and the grievous injustice that the children will suffer is the result of the former act. (No comparison between theft and remarriage intended, of course.)

In Cardinal Kasper’s speech to the Consistory of Cardinals in February 2014—given in preparation for the first Synod on the Family—Argument A seems to by subtly implied, while Argument B is wholly absent. Three times the cardinal repeats that divorced and remarried persons may be unable to rectify an irregular marriage situation without incurring “new guilt.” (This is also one of the criteria he proposes for when it is appropriate to admit remarried divorcees to communion.) However, if it is true that a person incurs guilt by rectifying an irregular marriage situation, it follows that it is immoral to rectify it. It is natural to conclude, then, that the morally right or at least most acceptable thing to do is to stay in the new relationship. This is Argument A.

There is not a single line in Kasper’s speech about the distinction between objective sin and subjective culpability—which is noteworthy in light of the role this distinction would play later, in Amoris Laetitia. So when, in the debate, does this distinction come to the fore? It is very briefly mentioned already in the 1993 pastoral letter, and even more briefly alluded to in the controversial mid-term report of the 2014 Synod of Bishops. However, it does not play a salient role until the final report of the same synod, where it appears in a paragraph that was rejected by the synod fathers, but retained by order from the pope:

The subject [of communion for the divorced and remarried] needs to be thoroughly examined, bearing in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances, given that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” (Relatio Synodi 2014, §52)

In the final report of the next synod (2015), the distinction between objective sin and subjective culpability was discussed at greater length, but without any unambiguous reference to the question of communion for the divorced and remarried (The Final Report of the Synod of Bishops 2015, §85). Finally, in Amoris Laetitia, the distinction is the cornerstone of what many take to be the pope’s case in favor of communion:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. [In the attached footnote 351: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.”] (AL §305)

What we see here is a process in which communion for the divorced and remarried is first defended mainly by implicit reference to Argument A. Then, towards the end of the first synod, Argument B is suddenly promoted, and in Amoris Laetitia it plays the lead role.

I say “plays the lead role,” because there are passages in the document that seem to hint at Argument A, for example the following statement: “A subject may know full well the rule, yet … be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide other­wise without further sin” (AL §301, my emphasis).

It may be a slip of the pen, but this statement, if it is taken to apply to the present issue, is as problematic as Cardinal Kasper’s claims about “new guilt.” “The rule” that the pope mentions is presumably the rule that forbids people who are validly married to live in a new sexual relationship. What the pope says is that it can sometimes be a sin to “act differently”—that is, to end the new sexual relationship (or to end the sexual aspect of it, by practicing the brother-sister solution). But if it is a sin to end the new sexual relationship, then it is very hard to see how continuing that relationship could be intrinsically gravely immoral. How could it be sinful to abstain from a behavior that under no circumstances can be morally justified? Amoris Laetitia’s claim about “further sin” can easily be taken to imply that extra-marital sexual relations are, after all, not intrinsically gravely immoral, and that it may be morally acceptable for some divorced and remarried persons to continue to have sexual relations outside of marriage.

Nobody denies, of course, that divorced and remarried persons may face very tough choices: If they continue the new sexual relationship, they are objectively committing adultery; if they choose to leave, or insist on practicing continence, they may contribute to jeopardizing the well-being of their children. But this does not mean that both available courses of action are immoral and sinful, so that it is an open question which one to choose. The first option—to keep up extra-marital sexual relations—is simply ruled out by Catholic morality. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II: “The negative precepts of the natural law … oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. … They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost” (Veritatis Splendor §52).

If what looks like Amoris Laetitia’s implicit denial of this principle is a slip of the pen, it might be a Freudian slip. As we have seen, Argument A was the original reason proposed in favor of communion for remarried divorcees, and my hypothesis is that the moral intuition underlying this argument is still the real motivating force behind the communion-agenda (unconsciously in the case of the pope, whose intentions I take to be wholly orthodox and good). The traces of Argument A in the apostolic exhortation support this hypothesis.

Many responders to Amoris Laetitia—including the “four cardinals”—have worried that the document sidesteps the Church’s traditional teaching about intrinsically evil acts. This worry clearly is not groundless, if Argument A has in fact exerted the kind of subterranean influence I have suggested. The stakes are very high here. Especially in the present climate of moral relativism, it would be disastrous for the Church to cave on the existence of intrinsically evil acts, and nobody who can read the “signs of the times” could want this to happen. However, there is a further reason not to accept—even implicitly, and especially not confusedly—Argument A, namely its incompatibility with the indissolubility of marriage.

The marriage bond, by its very nature, imposes a moral obligation of sexual fidelity on the spouses, which minimally means that they cannot sleep with other people. Remove this obligation from a relationship, and it no longer counts as a marriage. Now, Argument A says that under certain circumstances, a married person’s duty to be sexually faithful to his or her spouse can be permanently abolished. This is the same as saying that the marriage in question has ceased to exist. A “marriage bond” that does not impose an obligation of sexual fidelity is not a marriage bond at all.

Perhaps it could be argued that even though the original marriage still imposes a moral obligation, a second, civil marriage can in some cases impose a stronger obligation, and in this conflict of duties, the stronger obligation must win. So the original marriage still exists, but it is, so to speak, morally out-wrestled by the second, civil marriage. However, to reason like this would be irrational. If a second marriage can out-wrestle the first marriage by imposing a stronger moral obligation, then there is no point in having indissoluble marriages. The very point of contracting an indissoluble marriage rather than opting for some provisional or temporary arrangement is that the possibility to “move on” to a new relationship in the future is thereby renounced. By getting married, the spouses close this door, and this closing has an important purpose—they have now committed themselves wholly to each other. But if a second marriage can out-wrestle the first—provided, for example, that the well-being of children in the new relationship is at stake—then the door in question is not closed, and the idea that marriage is “indissoluble” is a theoretical fiction that serves no purpose. After all, what people normally do when they divorce is to start a new relationship. If they are in the right age, what they normally do is to have children. If the Church says that this is what it takes to effectively nullify the moral obligations of one’s first marriage, then the Church has abolished indissoluble marriage.

This means that Argument A comes with a very steep doctrinal and human price. Catholics—and especially members of the hierarchy—who accept the argument should, in the name of intellectual honesty, be prepared to pay the doctrinal price or else rethink their position. A bit of soul-searching is necessary in this context, because, as we have seen, it may not always be clear to a person which argument motivates his or her own view on the communion issue.

Here are some guidelines for how to find out: If you think that remarried divorcees can receive communion only in those rare cases in which their present sexual activity is non-voluntary, then you are a true believer in the arguably orthodox Argument B. However, if you think that in some cases it would be morally wrong to require of remarried divorcees that they separate or live as brother and sister, then your view glaringly contradicts Argument B, and it implies that extramarital sex is not intrinsically evil, and that indissoluble marriages do not exist. You now have a moral obligation to embrace those consequences, or rethink your position.

Finally, let me point out a peculiar fact about this whole debate, which might provide additional evidence for the tacit influence of the heterodox Argument A. The main reason why the Church, so far, has not admitted remarried divorcees to communion is 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” (Familiaris Consortio §84, my emphasis). The main reason, in other words, is a symbolic-ontological one, and it has exclusively to do with the objective situation in which divorced and remarried persons find themselves. Is this symbolic-ontological reason no longer cogent, or was it never cogent in the first place? Amoris Laetitia does not tell us. This is a remarkable lacuna in the document.

Suppose there were an amusement park ride with a weight limit set for safety reasons, and suppose that somebody were to argue for the removal of this weight limit on the grounds that some people are heavy due to no fault of their own. This would be a non-argument, of course, since the weight limit is set for safety reasons. In the same way, it is a non-argument against Familiaris Consortio’s objective reason to point out that some remarried divorcees may be subjectively innocent.

Why does Amoris Laetitia remain silent on the real issue—the objective contradiction? Let me try a hypothesis. Argument A entails that in certain cases, there simply is no objective contradiction between the state of life of remarried divorcees and the union of love between Christ and his Church. Under some circumstances, it is morally acceptable, objectively speaking—and hence consonant with the love of Christ for his Church—for a remarried divorcee to continue his or her new sexual relationship. So for those who are swayed by the moral intuition behind Argument A, the problem that Familiaris Consortio refers to will not—in the relevant cases—appear to be a problem at all.

Since Argument A is very persuasive, taken on its own terms, it is no wonder that intelligent and faithful Catholics feel its pull and are moved to advocate what they see as a merciful pastoral solution for people in difficult marriage situations. And it is no wonder that faithful Catholics prefer to defend this pastoral solution in terms of another, incompatible argument—the arguably orthodox Argument B—that allows them to claim that no doctrine has changed. However, this double play can only go on for so long in “good faith.” And the time when Arguments A and B could be innocently confused is over.

Mats Wahlberg is associate professor of systematic theology at Umeå University in Sweden.

Editor's Note (4/11/2017): This essay has been amended to clarify its argument about moral dilemmas.

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