Amoris Laetitia, the Human Person, and the Meaning of Marital Indissolubility

Amoris Laetitia Human Person art

Since the release of Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, on April 8, 2016, numerous articles and statements disagree as to whether the pope either has opened the possibility of admitting civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion in some cases, or that he has left unchanged the Church’s traditional discipline of not admitting Catholics in those situations to these sacraments under any circumstances (short of their living as brother and sister when, for serious reasons, they cannot fulfill the obligation to separate). Those two opposing claims stem from the fact that the document contains real ambiguities on the issue, as well as some dubious interpretations of sources, and problematic formulations regarding human freedom and conscience.

While not taking a definite position on the differing claims, this essay first will examine the two main categories of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics with which Amoris Laetitia (AL) concerns itself. I will note along the way some of the moral issues involved, some of the reasons for the Church’s traditional discipline, some of the values that she intends to uphold by it, and some of the problems with AL’s understanding of freedom and conscience. Then, the essay will examine AL’s understanding of conscience, and related matters, from the standpoint of Christian anthropology. Through this investigation, the hope will be to understand better the reasons why the Church’s traditional discipline is the only real way to uphold the values inherent in, and signified by, the divinely ordained reality and gift of marital indissolubility.

The Pastoral Concern and its Ambiguity
One of Pope Francis’s central concerns in Amoris Laetitia is to ensure that the members of the Church, especially her pastors, show a proper sensitivity to Catholics who have legally divorced their spouse, and gone on to contract a civil marriage with someone else. The pope wants Catholics in this situation to be more fully integrated into the life of the Church. Toward that end, he wants their pastors to accompany them in a process of discernment, so that together they may assess the particulars of their cases and, thus, determine their appropriate level of integration more precisely (AL §299). The pope mentions several times that psychological, circumstantial, and other factors can diminish, or even eliminate, subjective culpability (personal accountability) in some cases in which a Catholic has divorced and civilly remarried, hence the need for careful discernment. The document seems to suggest that it might be permissible, under certain conditions, to admit these persons to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion (AL 336, 351). This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that, in the same context, the pope makes unqualified references to “sacramental privileges” and to “general rules” whose application might vary in particular cases. One “rule” in question may be understood as the Church’s traditional discipline of not admitting divorced and “remarried” Catholics to Reconciliation and Holy Communion (AL §300). What are we to make of this?

The Main Issues
Pope Francis seems to have two basic situations in mind. One is a civil marriage that has followed the civil dissolution (through legal divorce proceedings) of a Catholic marriage whose permanent validity is nevertheless reasonably certain. The other involves a Catholic who, without receiving an annulment, is civilly remarried because he or she is personally convinced in conscience that his or her preceding Catholic marriage was not only unsalvageable, but that it had never been validly constituted in the first place.

Let us begin by considering the case of civil remarriage after divorce, when a Catholic has not received an official annulment, but believes that his or her previous marriage was illicit. It may be that legitimate grounds exist for thinking that the preceding Catholic marriage was invalid. Yet, one wonders why the person did not seek an annulment so that he or she could marry validly in the Church, instead of entering straightaway into a non-sacramental and, therefore, an invalid, civil marriage with someone else (whom we will presume throughout this essay is eligible for marriage). Reasons for not pursuing an annulment sometimes include cost, lack of cooperation among witnesses, the time it would take, or the distress it would cause (AL §244). Despite the existence of such reasons, a declaration of nullity from the Church is necessary before a Catholic in those circumstances may marry validly in the Church. Why? Because God himself established the marital bond as indissoluble. This demands that the Church first verify carefully whether the civilly divorced person is actually free to marry before permitting him or her to marry in the Church. The Church is not merely adhering to an arbitrary rule that it might just as well change. In fidelity to God, the Church’s whole mission is to safeguard human dignity and the sacraments which God established. Moreover, where marriage is concerned, God has revealed that the dignity of spouses (and by extension, of their children) is upheld and promoted only by complete fidelity to the indissoluble, marital bond.1

The Church has an obligation to determine whether any grounds exist for declaring null a Catholic marriage, which has a significant implication: the civilly “remarried” person’s subjective assessment of his or her earlier marital status is insufficient. Even secular law understands that individuals are the worst judges of their own case, hence the need for civil courts to help people settle disputes. In both religious and secular instances, concrete evidence is needed to support an individual’s personal conclusion about the actual state of affairs.

Consider the following example: five witnesses point to me as the man they saw bludgeon their neighbor in his backyard. They are all subjectively certain it was me, and they testify to that effect in court. In the absence of any further evidence, I am convicted. Yet, I am innocent of the crime. A criminal disguised himself to look like me, and I have been framed. Now, all five witnesses were perfectly sincere about their testimony, given in good faith; their consciences are clear. They can sleep well, knowing that they have done their civic duty. But their subjective state neither corresponds to, nor changes, the simple fact of my innocence. In consequence, my good name has been destroyed, I have lost my civil freedom, and true justice has not been served. Alternatively, perhaps the apparent sincerity of the witnesses was contrived, and they had it in for me for some reason, and so testified falsely against me.

Personal sincerity does not alter reality, and may even be feigned entirely. Thus, the Church has wisely understood that she cannot conclude (and must insist that her marriage tribunals not conclude) that a marriage is invalid based on the supposed sincerity of one or both of the parties involved. Concrete evidence based on a thorough investigation is needed to support that conclusion, and the absence of such evidence would render that conclusion impossible. In that way, the Church stands against the injustice which may occur against one’s spouse, one’s neighbor, one’s self, and God, when a civilly divorced Catholic goes on to contract a civil marriage based on a personal conviction that his or her previous Catholic marriage was invalid, when, in fact, it was not. For the civil union would then be adulterous.

When it is determined that one’s previous marriage was invalid, and the individual remarries, the subsequent marriage of the Catholic outside of the Church is nonetheless also, by definition, invalid, since it is a non-sacramental union, despite the subjective conviction of the contracting parties. One would, therefore, still be violating the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” which the Church understands to cover all the sexual sins. In this case, fornication applies, so the individual is sinning against his or her self, one’s neighbor (especially the civil “spouse”), and God. Therefore, the Church’s practice of not admitting Catholics to Reconciliation and Holy Communion without changing the living arrangements, based on their subjective certainty about the invalidity of their previous Catholic marriage, and the validity of their subsequent civil union, is the only reasonable and appropriate way to safeguard the dignity and the vocation of marriage, both of which are rooted in marital indissolubility. In turn, indissolubility is rooted in the Church’s mission both to safeguard the dignity and vocation of every human person, and to give due honor and glory to God.

The other situation which Pope Francis describes involves divorce and a civil “remarriage” which has taken place even though the validity of the previous Catholic marriage is not in question, since it is known to have been valid. In other words, a situation of adultery is present, a clear violation of the Sixth Commandment. On the question of divorce, Our Lord made the following unequivocally clear: God himself, from the beginning, joined man and woman in an indissoluble marital bond. Accordingly, though Moses allowed divorce and remarriage because of the people’s hardness of heart, this did not alter God’s original plan but was, instead, contrary to it. The divine Lawgiver thus came as one of us to reaffirm for us the abiding reality of God’s plan, implying, thereby, a new offer of grace to live it out. Hence, what God has joined, let no man separate (cf., Mt 19:3-9). In light of this, a civil or legal divorce does nothing to change the marital status of a validly married Christian couple. If one spouse (or both spouses) later contracts a civil marriage with someone else, he or she and the new “legal” spouse commit adultery in performing the conjugal act.

Now, the Church teaches that the sins encompassed by the “Thou shall nots” of the Ten Commandments are destructive by their very nature: they are intrinsically evil. By committing them, we invariably act against ourselves and others. By opposing the good which God intended for the personal (and the natural) order, we oppose God himself. Therefore, violations of the Commandments can never be justified under any circumstances. They can never lead us to God. The fact that we might have acted with good intentions, with ignorance of the full gravity of the sins, with limited freedom, or with a fairly peaceful conscience, does not change any of that.2 As the Church teaches, the very act of freely committing these sins already contains within itself a disordered and, perhaps, even a malicious will.3 One cannot commit these sins without knowing what one is doing, and intending to do it. If I steal, I intend to take for myself what I know belongs legitimately to someone else. Yet, I do take it. That makes me a thief. Likewise, if I am validly married, and have sexual intercourse with a woman other than my wife (whether I have “divorced” my wife, and married the other woman, or not), I am an adulterer. Since I know what the definition of an adulterer is, I define myself as such in committing, or even in just intending, the act (cf., Mt. 5:27-28), whose content and destructiveness every reasonable person can understand quite naturally, even apart from divine revelation.4

Pope Francis seems to acknowledge, somewhat obliquely, that the adulterer knows what he or she is doing in committing the act of adultery. He states, “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’” (AL §301). As I have just indicated, any reasonable person has a basic, natural grasp of the Commandment’s “inherent values,” so it is puzzling that the pope should suggest that one could have “great difficulty” understanding them. Perhaps an individual has become completely blind to the truth and goodness of natural and Christian values by his or her persistence in sin. The process of discernment must be alert to that, seeking to restore the moral vision of such people. But it does not seem that the pope has these people in mind. The pope’s statement unintentionally implies something of profound significance, namely, that the subject who has difficulty understanding the values inherent in the divine precept against adultery could not very well understand the essential nature, rights, and duties of marriage either, since a mature comprehension of the former presupposes an equally mature comprehension of the latter. One would have to question whether the person is even capable of contracting marriage.5 Pastoral discernment should be aware of that. In general, though, it is patronizing to treat Catholics in adulterous unions as though they were not reasonable, as though they were capable of grasping only gradually the essence of the Sixth Commandment.

In the next part of the quotation, the pope stresses that a person’s freedom to fulfill the divine command can be somehow limited, or even effectively obliterated. He states that the person may “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” This formulation is a huge problem. For one thing, it does not account for the fact that it was the person who put himself or herself originally in that situation (of adultery). If, by engaging in the sin, the person has become so enslaved to it, and so enmeshed in the complexities of the situation, that personal responsibility appears mitigated, the same cannot be said of the initial decision to enter that situation. As Sacred Scripture states, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

The pope’s formulation is even more problematic in suggesting that the sin of adultery can be a means of avoiding further sin. St. Paul tells us, on the contrary, that those are justly condemned who say, “Why not do evil that good may come?” (Rom 3:8). The Church has always rejected any claim that one may ever use an evil means to achieve a good end (or in this case, a lesser evil). Rather, she insists that every reasonable person has a natural grasp of, and the binding duty to follow, the basic moral principle “Do good and avoid evil.”

Two paragraphs later, another inadequacy appears in reference to civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. The pope states that conscience can “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL §303). Again, realistically speaking, individuals are the worst judges of their own guilt or innocence, particularly when it comes to sexual sins. The Church cannot very well affirm both that God has revealed his will for us in the form of commandments that allow no exceptions, and that God approves their violation in individual cases and consciences. The Commandments, which our Creator has enjoined on us, reflect the absolute goodness of his nature, which means that our observing them corresponds exactly to the goodness of our human nature. By obeying them, we are true to our authentic self, we confirm God’s image in ourselves, and we uphold and promote unfailingly our personal dignity, and that of everyone else. Therefore, Amoris Latitiae’s treatment of conscience in its relation to the concrete circumstances surrounding adultery is seriously flawed, leading to a position which has affinities with both situational ethics and fundamental option theory.6

Pope Francis wants pastors to accompany “second union” Catholics (and other Catholics living in sin) in a process of discernment, with the object of leading them to grasp fully, so as fully to live, the truth of the Gospel, and this is laudable. The danger is in avoiding the central issue of adultery. The discernment process may place too much emphasis on other aspects of the situation taken to reflect, on the part of those being accompanied, an appreciation for positive values, such as how the union has become “consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, {and} Christian commitment” (AL §298). The pope acknowledges that a Catholic in these circumstances has “a consciousness of {the union’s} irregularity,” but once again the pope falls into the trap of excusing this as the lesser evil, saying that the person is also conscious “of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” This seems to be why the pope keeps urging that discernment consider how “forms of conditioning and mitigating factors” might have converged to reduce, or to eliminate, the person’s subjective culpability for living in an adulterous union (AL §305). Could the discernment process result in the conclusion that some people in adulterous unions are actually living in a state of grace, and growing in charity? Does Amoris Latitiae really open the possibility of allowing people, living in adultery, to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion, without changing their living situations, so as to strengthen them in grace and charity (and their adulterous commitment?), as note 351 would suggest at that point?

One could credibly argue that question either way. Let’s examine a good reason for answering it in the negative. Consider that the discernment process is supposed to help Catholics in adulterous unions gauge—in the light of factors which might somehow be limiting their free decisions—how they, in their conscience, understand presently their situation before God with respect to his commandments. The discernment process is supposed to lead them gradually to understand the full demands of the Gospel, particularly those which relate to marriage. If some Catholics, living in a state of adultery, discern with their pastors that they are, at present, properly disposed to receive Reconciliation and Holy Communion without changing their living situations, then we wind up in an impossible contradiction: Why would their pastors invite them to partake of those sacraments now, when these same pastors are working simultaneously toward the goal of rescinding that invitation in the foreseeable future, when the person, or people, involved realize they are living in mortal sin? Further discernment ought to lead Catholics in these adulterous relationships to conclude that:

  • They have been acting unjustly toward their first, living spouse;
  • They have been acting unjustly, falsely, and sinfully toward their second “spouse” by committing the conjugal act (if not also in other respects);
  • They have been denying God his rights over both marriage and the married; and,
  • They are, therefore, not disposed, after all, to receive the sacraments, and must stop receiving them.

Such a confused approach would be neither pastoral nor sensible. Despite the ambiguities and problematic formulations contained in AL, we have therefore a reasonable basis for thinking that the pope has not opened the possibility of changing Church discipline in this matter.

Foundational Misunderstandings
Whatever Amoris Latitiae’s overall merits might be, its treatment of conscience is marked by an overly optimistic estimation of one’s own, or another’s, ability to discern one’s subjective culpability when involved in an objective state of mortal sin. Such a view doesn’t square with a sound Christian anthropology. Let’s consider some biblical and theological reasons why that is so.

Biblically speaking, the human heart represents the innermost, living center of the person, in which thoughts, the workings of conscience, decisions, memories, imaginings, desires, feelings, emotions, affections, virtues, and vices are concentrated, and out of which they issue. So it is not surprising that Jesus tells us, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). In other words, the person reveals by what he says or does on the outside, what’s going on inside—what kind of a person he really is.

In Amoris Latitiae, the pope often speaks negatively about “making judgments,” and Jesus himself tells us, “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37). However, Jesus also says that the kind of fruit someone bears tells us the kind of person he is, and we may make judgments about whether the fruit is good or evil. We have nothing else to go on. And that fruit speaks volumes. As reasonable human beings, we can exercise the virtue of prudence because we can make judgments. On the strictly human level, we can make prudent judgments only by basing them on what we can concretely see or foresee. Every good mother knows that she cannot entrust her child to just anyone. Even her best natural intuitions about the matter are based on things that she has actually seen and assimilated. So she judges accordingly anyone to whom she might entrust her child’s care. We must make certain kinds of judgments about others.

What are we to think, then, about an accompanied discernment of the “heart,” here meaning how someone feels in conscience about what he or she is doing? Pope Francis wants pastors to start giving more consideration to someone’s individual conscience in assessing how that person stands before God when they see that actual violations of the Commandments are the “fruit” (AL 303). That is, he wants them to give less weight to what the person is doing—the fruit of his/her actions—than to how he or she feels about doing it. Let’s see what the prophet Jeremiah has to say: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man . . . according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer 17:9-10). Jesus confirmed the prophet’s inspired estimation of the human heart by refusing to trust those who claimed to believe in Jesus, “[F]or he himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25; see also 1 Cor 4:4; Ps 19:12). Saint Faustina Kowalska, and other saints, while at a very high level of sanctity, were appalled when, penetrated by the light of Christ, they saw the miserable, hidden condition of their souls. With good reason, then, does St. Teresa of Avila urge that a soul place no confidence in itself, but place all confidence in God, for then the devil will not succeed in deceiving it.7

We can be “subjectively certain” of only two things: God’s fidelity to us, which is a manifestation of his Love; and our readiness to forsake God through sin, a sign that our love is lacking. Given the endless capacity of the human heart to deceive itself, or to welcome the devil’s deception about it’s moral goodness, there is no possible way for us, or for anyone else (short of a direct revelation from God), to have subjective certainty about where we stand before God. Many people who have resigned themselves to evil are at peace with themselves about it. The examination of conscience must, therefore, be based on one concrete fact: Do I, or Do I Not obey God’s commandments to the full? For God does not command the impossible. He gives us all the help we need to obey him.8 In fact, his commands are not even burdensome, but light (Mt 11:30; 1 Jn 5:3). Often, we find the commandments burdensome, or are not keeping them at all, because of our own sorry condition. Yet, we are told, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 Jn 5:3; see also Jn 14:15). That is the very condition of our entering eternal life (Mt 19:17). If we jeopardize our own eternal salvation, and that of others, by breaking the Commandments, what love of God or neighbor is there in that?

Since human beings do not often rightly consider their sinfulness, we must avoid emphasizing a person’s subjective take on his or her “concrete situation” while minimizing the attention due to the actual sin of commission or, for that matter, of omission. Regarding the omission of an act that we ought to perform, but do not (in this context, foregoing an adulterous union), Amaoris Latitiae misinterprets an article (and others as well) from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae,9 giving the impression that even certain saints, though possessing all the moral virtues, and abiding in a state of grace and charity, did not exercise some of them when too difficult (AL §301). Now, Thomas Aquinas surely did not envision a parallel between these saints, and a person who persists in breaking one of the Commandments, and who thereby resists doing the right thing. Aquinas’s point is that the saint does not omit the virtuous act, despite the presence, in some instances, of a contrary disposition that makes it difficult to execute the act with ease, and a certain pleasure. Here, AL does not clearly distinguish and explain the relation between the infused moral virtues, and the natural virtues. The former are supernatural, ordered toward God, and exercised with an intrinsic facility. However, the latter natural virtues, though elevated to God in their exercise by the infused virtues (since these presuppose supernatural charity), can nevertheless extrinsically impede the exercise of the infused virtues insofar as one has not yet cultivated fully the corresponding natural virtue (e.g., that of temperance). This is what results in a contrary disposition. But saints surmount that obstacle nonetheless. For someone in the state of grace, there is merit before God in doing the virtuous thing simply because one ought to, regardless of whether one can do it easily and take pleasure in doing it. In fact, that is both the means of overcoming the contrary disposition, and a sign of one’s love for God.

So, given our proclivity toward self-deceit, a Catholic who is violating the Sixth (or any other) Commandment, and omitting, thereby, the obligatory exercise of the opposing virtue, would be unwise ever to rely on a feeling of subjective certainty that this is a generous response to God’s will. Pastors should be equally wary as they assist the person’s discernment, for we read, “He who says ‘I know Him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4). The “logic of the Gospel” (to borrow a phrase from AL §297), and of all Sacred Scripture, for that matter, is that we really be good by doing good, not that we are subjectively convinced that we are good, despite our doing evil. God judges us by our deeds. Yes, God does take into account all mitigating factors in cases of objective sin. But it would be far better for us to reject the sin than to wallow therein, while taking solace in our own inevitably partial, and possibly presumptuous, judgments about our actual inner state. Our eternal salvation, and that of others, might well depend on it.

Simply put, the doctrine of grace in Amoris Latitiae is inadequate, at even the most fundamental level. If we cannot be subjectively certain about how we stand before God, based on how guiltless we feel about violating his Commandments, then we can certainly not be certain about whether, despite such violations, we are in a state of sanctifying grace—the grace that keeps us in God’s friendship, and out of the eternal torment of hell. The pope refers repeatedly to mitigating factors, or forms of conditioning, that can reduce or eliminate personal culpability for sin, concluding, “{I}t is possible that in an objective situation of sin … 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” (AL §305). But one must question here whether persisting knowingly in an “objective situation of sin” (again, the context refers to adultery) while relying on one’s subjective opinion regarding mitigating and conditioning factors to justify it, might not actually stifle and, eventually, reverse one’s supposed growth in grace and charity. While a person who is violating the Commandments might not, in the end, be damned eternally, that will not be because he or she was somehow realizing positive values by violating the commandments with good intentions and mitigated freedom. That is quite impossible. Instead, it will be for other reasons entirely, known perhaps only to God. But we are in no position ever to presume that salvation will happen in every such case, or that it has happened, or is happening, in any particular case.

Simple prudence would, therefore, dictate that we should err on the side of caution, never presuming that someone is in the state of sanctifying grace when the person is violating one or more of the Commandments. Much less, then, should we presume to “discern” that he or she is fit to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion without changing his or her situation. Nor is one in any position to make that determination for one’s self in these circumstances. To receive absolution or Holy Communion sacrilegiously would only make worse one’s standing before God. It would only increase one’s spiritual blindness, leading to further grave sins. The sin which so offended Jesus was hypocrisy (Mt 23:13-36). For a person to pretend to be in union with him, by receiving absolution or Holy Communion while still intent on breaking his Commandments, is the height of hypocrisy. Who may presume to know better than God what constitutes good and evil in one’s life? This mode of thinking presumes that God approves the transgression, in one’s own case, because of mitigating circumstances, and the supposed nobility of one’s motives. This is nothing but a replay of the hubris behind the original sin, the point at which the “internal forum” (conscience) has become an infernal forum.

The Church teaches that no human being, not even someone who, thanks to sanctifying grace, is in a state of profound holiness, can consistently do good without the help of additional graces from God. These are called “actual” graces. When one is in a state of sanctifying grace, the good acts, which one performs by cooperating with actual grace, are supernaturally elevated so as to lead one to God. But God rains actual graces down on both the just and the unjust, on those who are, and on those who are not, in the saving state of sanctifying grace (Mt 5:45). In other words, when those in a state of mortal sin consistently perform acts that are genuinely good as far as our earthly life is concerned, or which express real human love toward others, they do so only because God has supplied them with the grace to do so, and has moved them to it.

Now, their cooperation with actual grace might dispose them to respond favorably to subsequent graces from God which may lead to their conversion, to their introduction or to their restoration to the life of sanctifying grace, and to their eternal salvation. But they are not there yet. They are exhibiting only natural virtues, bereft of divine charity. As Jesus observed, even pagans love and greet their own (Mt 5:46-47). While Amoris Latitiae does not seem to take account of these basic elements of the Church’s doctrine of grace, Pope Francis seems to have presupposed them when he excommunicated the Italian mafia two years ago. While we might suppose that at least some of their members are consistently loving and generous toward their own family in response to actual grace, the pope judged that their evil deeds provide sufficient, concrete evidence that they cannot be in the saving state of sanctifying grace. By implication, he judged also that any acts of love and generosity done by mafia members are taking place solely on the natural, not the supernatural, plane. Consequently, those acts have no power to raise them to God.

One must wonder, then, why the pope seems not to recognize in AL that this same understanding of grace might also apply to Catholic adulterers who seem “sincere” about their adulterous civil unions. For we can never be sure that mitigating factors have diminished their personal culpability to the point where they are not in mortal sin. Yet, for them, the pope seems to assume just the opposite, with the result that he views what might be only expressions of natural virtue (e.g., “fidelity, generous self giving”) as acts infused with supernatural charity. How can he presuppose that in this case, and not apply the same logic in the case of at least some Catholic members of the Italian mafia? Or perhaps, in the case of some Catholic fornicators or homosexual “couples”? Or to any sinner? One could just as well argue that they, too, are “subjectively certain” that they are acting generously according to God’s will for them at the moment, and that mitigating factors are at work in their situation so as to make other, more “ideal” decisions impossible. People do not commit evil things because they see them as evil, but because they see something good in them.

The fact is, there is simply no way for the pope to argue one way for Catholic adulterers deemed sincere, and another way for Catholics who might regard themselves as being equally sincere while breaking God’s Commandments in other ways. Though perhaps contrary to the pope’s intention, already laying just below the surface of Amoris Latitiae is the possible application of his argument to the two cases mentioned above. For while stating that de facto, and same-sex, unions “may not simply be equated with marriage” (AL §52; italics added), the pope acknowledges a “certain stability” in co-habitational and same-sex “family situations” (despite all the documented evidence of instability and abuse in both cases).

Perhaps as a means of both discouraging hasty pastoral judgments and encouraging Catholic adulterers to entrust themselves to pastoral care, Pope Francis uses the benign circumlocution “‘irregular’ situation” to describe their civil unions. But not to name the sin for what it is, is not really to address it: it’s a form of denial. As Saint John Paul II has reminded us,10 the use of euphemisms tries to disguise what is really taking place, or it tries to make a sin’s gravity seem less than it is, as when abortion is called the “termination of a pregnancy” instead of what it actually is, namely the brutal murder of a helpless child in the womb. Similarly, calling an adulterous union an “‘irregular’ situation” can give the impression that we’re dealing with nothing more than a technical irregularity—one that might eventually be regularized. In reality, that would be quite impossible while the real spouse is still living.

In the Bible, the ability to name something shows one’s understanding of, and mastery over it (Gn 2:19-21). Indeed, as a child learns the names of things, he or she begins to manifest an understanding of what those things are, while simultaneously gaining a greater sense of self-understanding. This allows the child to exercise a greater mastery over the objects of experience, and hence over himself or herself, too. Likewise, persons who have been enslaved to one or another kind of addiction tell us that they started to experience real healing—to regain mastery over themselves—as soon as they named their addiction honestly before other people. Identifying the problem by naming it was the key to their recovery. It was a moment of truth, and the truth set them free.

So, while it seems clear that Pope Francis really wants Catholic adulterers (and all people) to experience the joy of living the Gospel fully, he is unintentionally hindering precisely that objective by keeping the virulent nature of their sin hidden behind an innocuous name. Just as one’s subjective assessment of one’s sinful condition does not change one’s actual moral and spiritual state, neither does renaming it. The only thing that can change it is conversion, living out the Commandments. The longer conversion is put off, the longer one is deprived of the healing that Jesus wants to provide. But people will have less incentive to convert if pastoral care insists on tiptoeing around the very sin which is holding them back.

Our Lord called his followers to be the salt of the earth. This means identifying sin and denouncing it. The Church’s moral teaching, and her forthright proclamation of it, are expressions of her charity, and they are integral to her mission. Therefore, the true “balm of mercy” (AL §309) is the salt of Gospel truth, applied charitably to the wounds of sin, so as to help people name their problem truthfully and, thus, awaken them to their sorry plight. With God’s help, their will can then begin to assert its mastery over sin, and recovery can take place. Repression leads only to depression. If the world, and the Church at large, are losing their taste for God—and the world seems to be doing just that—it is because Catholics are withholding the seasoning of the Gospel from their own life, and the lives of others. If the salt becomes flat, so does the world.

Pope Francis’s repeated references to mitigating and conditioning factors, which can diminish someone’s level of personal accountability for sin, seem to constitute the main hinge on which his overly subjective understanding of conscience rests.11 Such factors and circumstances may exist, and the Church has long recognized the need to take them into account in evaluating human action. In the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas produced the most comprehensive, penetrating, balanced, and faith-informed treatise ever written on human acts, and the factors that can limit personal responsibility for them. In the Church today, however, a tendency exists to embrace, too easily, the conclusions of modern psychology in this and other areas, to the neglect of one or more aspects of the Church’s multi-faceted anthropology. This cannot but skew the Church’s concept of sin and morality.

Most of what this essay has covered so far suggests that Amoris Latitiae suffers from that same tendency by de-emphasizing both the objective dimensions of the moral act, and our ability to know and understand them, even in the light of divine revelation. While the Church has benefitted from certain contributions of modern psychology, she must, nevertheless, resist the temptation to receive them uncritically. Modern psychology was founded on an atheistic anthropology and, hence, is radically deficient. Whatever insights it might offer must, therefore, be critically assessed and corrected by, and only then integrated into, a sound, Christian understanding of the human person (as some good Christian psychologists are doing very well). Short of that, our vision of the person will become, well … adulterated.12

Consider that “unbaptized” modern psychology will, in general, never understand—much less admit—that many of the neuroses, psychoses, and complexes that it identifies in people are actually the direct, or the indirect, effect of sin, often compounded by a repressed consciousness of sin. Instead, it gives its adherents strategies for dealing with their condition, or encourages them to accept it wholesale, and to integrate it into their personality. However, it does not, and cannot, provide them with permanent healing, insofar as sin is at the root of the problem. But the Church can. That is why she must, in her charity, be utterly forthright in her moral preaching, trusting that God’s prevenient grace will simultaneously act in the souls of her wayward children to lead them—on hearing that preaching (and if they are willing)—to repentance, conversion, and the desire to receive, again, the sacramental means of grace that God has given. This, in turn, will enable them to succeed in living fully the Christian life. Most particularly, they will be enabled through the sacrament of Penance, so that they can name their sin before God, and be forgiven. And, they will be enabled through Holy Communion to detach them from sin, as they unite more closely with Our Lord. Through the conversion and healing that they receive, thereby, from the Divine Physician, their personalities will become more integrated so that they will have little or no need to seek the help of, or to justify their sin with, the blessing of secular psychology. Individual Christians, and the Church at large, would therefore do well to “mitigate” any undue fascination they might have with secular psychology.

Pope Francis reminds us that tragic situations do occur in the area of marriage and the family. He gives some emotion-laden examples: spouses who have unjustly endured separation or divorce, sometimes because of abuse by the other spouse; spouses who were unjustly abandoned, despite having tried to save their first marriage; and spouses who, having gone through such hardships, have entered a second union for their children’s sake (AL §242, §298). We must, nevertheless, resist any impulse to allow such situations to result in our justifying sinful solutions to difficult personal problems, however much our heart goes out to those involved.

Given what we learned earlier about the heart’s proclivity toward self-deception, we should not be too quick to approve an illicit “remarriage” for a civilly divorced, yet sacramentally married Catholic, even for the sake of the children, though it may tug at our heartstrings. Despite any soul-searching that might have taken place before the person made the decision to enter a civil union, it is perhaps more likely than not that untoward motives lurk beneath the surface of that decision, in which case, the children are merely being used as a convenient cover for the parent’s adultery. Again, one is never justified in doing evil (in this case, entering an adulterous union) so that good may come of it (here, the good of the children’s upbringing). There is clearly a disorder of the will involved in a decision of that kind. It is disturbing that AL §330 should express sympathy for this kind of illicit arrangement by applying to this “situation” a passage from article 51 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which pertains only to validly married couples. The passage tells us that the conjugal intimacy of such a couple has a crucial bearing on both their mutual fidelity, and the good of their present and future children. By implication, Amoris Latitiae suggests that conjugal intimacy in an adulterous union would likewise redound to the good of the relationship and of the children, while being apparently oblivious to the destructive effects of an intrinsic evil, even when such effects are not immediately evident. Aside from its misguided sympathy for civil remarriage for the children’s sake, AL has surprisingly little to say, in dealing with the “hard” cases of divorce and civil remarriage, about the genuine needs of children, or about the genuine sacrifices that must be made to ensure their physical, personal, moral, and spiritual growth and well-being.

In AL’s treatment of all the hard cases, the implication seems to be that the tragic circumstances, the limited freedom, and the good will of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics—along with the “constructive elements” of their second union (AL §292)—somehow converge to render their adulterous breach of fidelity, relative to their first valid marriage, more acceptable and less destructive. That’s like saying that my suicidal jumping off a bridge to make more food and money available for my impoverished family, renders the act more acceptable and less destructive. It might make it more understandable, and my personal culpability for the act might even be mitigated for various reasons, but that neither justifies the act, nor changes its inherently destructive character. And how can an act that denies God his rights over my life (as the “Author of life”) be simultaneously also considered an act of selfless generosity that is ordered to God? Likewise, it seems quite a stretch to construe adultery as a generous response to God, regardless of the circumstances (cf., AL §303).

To affirm the indissolubility of marriage for the hard cases (or for any case), and to proclaim that one must live accordingly, in no way detracts from the dignity of the spouse who has been treated unjustly in a failed but valid marriage. It is in no way unfair to the faithful spouse. On the contrary, there is no higher affirmation of the profound dignity of that person than the Church’s infallible and unchangeable teaching on marital indissolubility—the teaching of our Lord Jesus himself. It affirms one as a free and intelligent creature made in God’s image—as a person, whose freedom is so great that it allows one to will into existence a permanent state of being by a firm, conscious intention to make a binding vow, in the very act of making it. That is a far cry from affirming, if only tacitly, someone’s decision to engage in the gravely sinful behavior of adultery, which is invariably destructive, unjust, and degrading—good intentions or mitigating factors notwithstanding. We must take our freedom and inherent dignity as seriously as God does. Our ability to make free, permanently binding decisions is the basis of our moral life, which will, in turn, determine whether we spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell. This understanding of the human person is the reason for the Church’s luminously clear, traditional discipline of not admitting civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion without a change of lifestyle.

In this essay, I have had to acknowledge quite honestly that Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, contains some ambiguities, problematic formulations, and questionable textual interpretations. Taken together, they make it unclear whether the document opens the possibility of admitting civilly divorced and illicitly remarried Catholics to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. Ambiguities aside, this essay demonstrates that the document could not allow such access to these sacraments without contradicting its own pastoral recommendations, in light of the ancient and sacred tradition of Christ’s Catholic Church.

It seems that many of Amoris Laetitia’s problems stem from an overly subjective view of human conscience, coupled with an exaggerated confidence in just how accurately we can evaluate, with the help of modern psychology, our own or someone else’s level of personal culpability for serious sin. That view entails less obvious anthropological misunderstandings, some of which we have examined here from a biblical and a theological perspective. In the course of doing so, we have seen that the presuppositions behind the pope’s inclination to view, in a rather benign light, the moral and the spiritual state of some Catholic adulterers, cannot be restricted to them alone, either in principle or in practice. The implications of his pastoral outlook in their regard, therefore, threaten in a real way the whole edifice of Catholic moral teaching. In consequence, further refinement of his approach is necessary to his otherwise laudable effort to encourage pastoral outreach and strengthen the family.

I have noted in this essay that the importance of Our Lord’s teaching on marital indissolubility extends far beyond the divinely established institutions of marriage and the family, though it is most profoundly realized and exemplified therein. Second only to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, marital indissolubility, in both principle and practice, is the premier sign of eternal love, affirming the worthiness of every person as an individual made in God’s image. Since our vocation to love others accordingly implies our power to love (assisted by divine grace), marital indissolubility also points to our personal capacity to be absolutely faithful in fulfilling our duties and commitments toward them, even to the point of sacrificing our own life for them. From that standpoint, indissolubility expresses the profound gift of our freedom, by which we can dedicate ourselves permanently to seeking and actualizing the true and eternal good of our neighbors. Marital indissolubility teaches us, and the world, that we are moral creatures whose free decisions and actions determine our eternal destiny—for good or for ill—depending on whether our deeds incarnate true goodness, justice, and mercy toward ourselves and others. In these and other ways, marital indissolubility—as a divine teaching and as a vocation—fosters, protects, and epitomizes the dignity and vocation of every human being. Each of us is called by God to love others unconditionally for their sake, and to be loved unconditionally by them for one’s own sake. The minimum measure of our love is our faithful observance of all the Commandments. By reflecting, thereby, God’s gratuitous and unconditional love for us, we simultaneously express together our love for God, in whom alone our vocation as human persons is ultimately fulfilled, both now and forever.

Given all this, we can now understand that naming the sin of adultery in pastoral practice, and maintaining absolutely the Church’s traditional sacramental discipline in every case of Catholic adultery, is not an indictment against persons. It is an unequivocal sign to them, and a reminder to all, that their state cannot but undermine all that is most human and personal in themselves and others—regardless either of circumstances, or of sincere intentions to the contrary. By recognizing this, and acting accordingly, pastors truthfully contribute to the Church’s mission of safeguarding the dignity and sanctity of marriage, as well as of every married man and woman, of the family, and of every human person.

  1. Gen 2:21-24; Mt 19:3-9; Eph 5:21-33
  2. See Veritatis Splendor §52, §63, §79-82
  3. See CCC §1753-1756, §1761; Veritatis Splendor §61, §78
  4. Note that adultery has also the character of thievery, by depriving one’s own spouse of his or her exclusive right to conjugal intimacy, or by taking to one’s self the spouse of another. God, too, is robbed of his just due as the Author and Sanctifier of marriage, and as the Source of human dignity, so grievously violated in the act of adultery.
  5. See the 1983 Code of Canon Law: CIC/83, §1095. This is clearly not the position which AL takes, but neither was it even envisioned in the present context. The point is, therefore, well worth considering.
  6. The position adopted in AL has also a certain affinity with liberation theology in suggesting that one may, in some cases, interpret an adulterous situation through the lens of one’s subjective experience of it, and thereby not to change the situation, however, but to validate it. Here, the experience seems more to arise from our de facto praxis than to determine it, at least initially. This outlook fails to take seriously how radically the lens of experience has been distorted by sin and our habituation to it, which is precisely why we require the corrective lens–the objective standard–of revealed truth to interpret our experience properly and to direct our praxis accordingly. At the very least, we need to train our focus on the natural moral law and abide by it. Short of that, we will wander blindly into the abyss of moral relativism.
  7. See The Life of Teresa of Jesus, chapter 25
  8. See Veritatis Splendor 102
  9. See Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 65, art. 3
  10. See Evangelium Vitae §11
  11. Pope Francis twice quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church to substantiate his point. Curiously, in quoting from §2352 (which quotes, in turn, from section IX of the CDF’s Persona Humana), he excludes an extremely relevant passage: “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of {a valid} marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” Adultery (or any other misuse of sex) cannot therefore be credibly regarded as a legitimate default mode of the sexual faculty.
  12. The same has happened whenever Christians have tried to conform the data of revelation to questionable philosophical systems or scientific speculations. This is a sure recipe for both heresy and the degradation of the human person.
Jeffrey Tranzillo About Jeffrey Tranzillo

Jeffrey Tranzillo earned his doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America. Several of his essays have appeared in HPR and Crisis Magazine, and he posts others on his own website, He is the author of John Paul II on the Vulnerable, published by CUA Press.


  1. Avatar Ron Erken says:

    Excellent essay, and I do concur in the author’s conclusions. In para 6 of the section “Main Issues”, is there confusion re non-sacramental marriage being invalid? My understanding from the Catechism is that civil, therefore non-sacramental marriages, are valid in the eyes of the Church. A Catholic who marries a civilly divorced non-Catholic has a valid marriage, but not sacramental. It is also an adulterous marriage. Please clarify. Thanks

    • Can. 1059 Even if only one party is Catholic, the marriage of Catholics is governed not only by divine law but also by canon law, without prejudice to the competence of civil authority concerning the merely civil effects of the same marriage.

      Meaning no Catholic can be validly married without following Church [Canon Law] rules.
      What makes a marriage sacramental is that the man and woman entering a valid marriage each be validly baptized. So two validly baptized validly married non-Catholic Christians have a sacramental marriage.

    • Jeffrey Tranzillo Jeffrey Tranzillo says:

      Hello, Ron. Thanks for your question. I’m not sure what part of the Catechism you’re referring to, but perhaps I can elaborate a bit on the reply already posted and so be of further help. Canon 1055 (paragraphs 1-2) of the current (1983) Code of Canon Law tells us that there is no such thing as a valid marriage between two Christians that is not also sacramental. Where sacramentality is absent, so is validity, and vice versa. Regardless of the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations, the truth is that a marital covenant established validly between two baptized persons cannot be broken by any civil or ecclesiastical authority, for its sacramentality places it in the supernatural order. God Himself has ratified and graced that covenant through the free and knowing consent of the contracting parties. So in the example you gave, if the civilly divorced, non-Catholic that the Catholic person wants to marry is also a Christian (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say a Protestant Christian), it would be necessary, before the possibility of marriage could be seriously considered, to determine whether the Protestant person’s previous marriage was valid and therefore sacramental. The Catholic Church has the obligation and the authority to make that determination through the annulment process.

      Let’s say that a declaration of nullity is granted. The Catholic party would first have to obtain permission from the competent Church authority to enter a “mixed marriage” (a marriage between a Catholic and a Christian of another confession), or else the marriage would be prohibited (Canons 1124-1125) . The Catholic would also remain bound to marry the prospective spouse in the Catholic Church according to the canonical form (i.e., before two suitable witnesses and presided over by the local bishop or the parish priest or deacon; see Canon 1108). To be dispensed from that form (e.g., so as to be married in the fiancée’s Protestant community by the minister there), the Catholic would have to obtain the dispensation ahead of time from the ecclesiastical authority. Short of meeting either of those conditions, the couple could not marry validly. On the other hand, the Church acknowledges the validity and the sacramentality of the marriage between a Protestant man and woman when the ceremony has taken place according to the conditions established by their own community. If I am not mistaken, the Church’s recognition would hold even where the Protestant community permits marriage before a civil magistrate. So why all the hassle for Catholics?

      The Church is concerned that a mixed marriage might result in the Catholic’s defecting from the faith and in the offspring not being raised according to the Catholic faith (Canon 1125, para. 2). This is the concern of a Mother for the spiritual and eternal welfare of the children to whom she has given spiritual rebirth in baptism. Since the Church possesses the structure, the faith, and the sacramental life in the full measure that Christ intended for the sake of human salvation, she, together with her divine Head, holds her children to the highest standards, for their own eternal good: To those who have been given (the fullness of the means of salvation), more is expected.

      Another possible way to take your question, Ron, is to consider that the civilly divorced, non-Catholic in your example is a non-Christian (hence unbaptized). A declaration of nullity from the Church would be necessary here, too, since a Catholic wants to marry that person. The Church would otherwise recognize the natural validity of a non-Christian (or of a Christian/non-Christian) marriage where no ascertainable impediment exists (see Canon 1056). But as before, let’s say that a declaration of nullity is granted. Now we are dealing not just with different Christian confessions but with “disparity of cult,” with different religions altogether. The Church regards this as an impediment to marriage (Canon 1086)–again, because of the real dangers it can pose to the Catholic’s faith and to the offspring. The impediment can be removed only by an express dispensation from the ecclesiastical authority (Canon 1086, para. 2). If granted, the Catholic and the non-Christian could then marry validly in the Church, or the Catholic could be expressly dispensed from the canonical form so as to be wed in, say, a synagogue by a rabbi, if the prospective spouse is Jewish; however, the marriage would not in either case be sacramental because one of the parties is unbaptized, and baptism is the gateway to every other Christian sacrament, including marriage. Consequently, neither party could, in giving marital consent, confer God’s gift of sacramentality on the other. Perhaps you were thinking of something like this when you asked about a valid but non-sacramental marriage. You might also want to review the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1633-1637. I hope this helps.

  2. Perhaps @Jeffrey Tranzillo can’t get from Amoris Laetitia that it allows for the divorced + civilly remarried access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist contrary to perennial Church practice and teaching [cf. Familiaris Consortio, 84), but then why ignore the pope’s own words [recall his answer, “yes, period!”] or those of his appointed exegete Card. Schönborn, who in the “Presentation of the post-Synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia: the logic of pastoral mercy, 08.04.2016” said:

    In the sense of this ‘via caritatis’, the Pope affirms, in a humble and simple manner, in a note that the help of the sacraments may also be given in ‘certain cases’.

    And has gone to give talks saying that the one to determine this is the priest on a case by case basis?
    Amoris Laetitia is a mess on so many levels. Some have pointed out that it does not even mention the “sin of adultery” which is mentioned in this article.

  3. I am asking if Jeffrey Tranzillo will correspond with me here or via e-mail about his statement: “Since human beings do not often rightly consider their sinfulness, we must avoid emphasizing a person’s subjective take on his or her ‘concrete situation’ while minimizing the attention due to the actual sin of commission or, for that matter, of omission.” I’d like to ask Jeffery if he is familiar with the canon law on separation of spouse and the requirement to have ecclesiastic authority give its take on the concrete situations of separated spouses (long before any question of indissolubility of marriage, and before anyone files for civil divorce). For introduction, see Mary’s Advocates > Resources > Defending Marriage > Petition Bishop.

    • Jeffrey Tranzillo Jeffrey Tranzillo says:

      Hello Bai. Thank you for writing. I’m not sure whether you’re asking me to elaborate on or to clarify the statement that you quoted, but I’ll do my best to reply here. We can always continue the conversation by email if you’d like to explore the matter further. If I understand you correctly, you are asking me whether I think that an ecclesiastical authority can accurately assess the concrete situations of separated spouses. I believe that a properly trained and informed ecclesiastical authority is capable of making such an assessment; however, I also believe that he is capable of failing in his obligation to assess the matter objectively. (This is all applicable to each of the separated spouses as well.) I’ll take this up again below, after having placed the statement you cited in the broader context of conscience and then in the more specific context of the paragraph that precedes it.
      Conscience has both a subjective and an objective aspect. It is subjective in that it resides in and is exercised by the human subject. In terms of function, however, conscience is fundamentally a judgment of human reason pertaining to actions of moral import in their relation to particular situations. As such, conscience can and must connect with something beyond the subject in order to assess a particular moral act objectively. That “something” is the rationally ascertainable, evidentially based truth of the matter (i.e., of the “concrete situation”), together with the transcendent voice of God binding us in conscience to act as that truth demands. The paragraph preceding the quotation you cited encompasses both of these aspects. It says that we are capable of making objective moral judgments, but that we are ill-equipped to do so when we minimize or neglect the objective evidence bearing on the situation, for then conscience becomes closed in on itself; it becomes a mere tool for rationalizing the acting out of one’s own desires based on how one feels about or interprets one’s own experiences before, during, or after the act. The quoted statement intends to summarize that understanding.
      Amoris Laetitia’s treatment of conscience falls into the kind of subjectivism just described. It fails to affirm our absolute obligation to make the Ten Commandments (as understood in the light of Christ and the Golden Rule) the measure of our actions. The universal validity of those commandments is evident to human reason applied rightly to the objective data of experience (e.g., regarding the nature and purposes of marriage), and it has also been revealed to us, and is confirmed in us, by God. Consequently, we have no real basis for maintaining that someone capable of mature, rational thought can violate fundamental moral norms such as the Ten Commandments in good conscience, “mitigating factors” notwithstanding. Instead, we have every reason for maintaining that sin leads to a bad conscience, and that a bad conscience sanctions sin.
      I can only imagine how difficult and convoluted some cases involving the separation of spouses can be, so I am in no position to get too specific about this matter. But in applying the principles just given to the case of an ecclesiastical authority judging the concrete situation of separated spouses, I would say, in general, that his judgment can be only as good as the objective evidence with which he is provided. If there are clear signs of serious physical or psychological abuse, and/or there is credible testimony or documented evidence of such abuse; or, if there is convincing evidence that one of the spouses is involved in an adulterous affair, then I would assume that the authority’s first order of business would be to issue a decree of separation, even before the question of marital validity is investigated. My main point, though, is that the judge would have to base his decision on real evidence, and not on partiality toward one of the spouses, unfounded intuitions, personal biases, or any other purely subjective ground. That said, the absence of hard evidence does not mean that serious abuse or injustice is not occurring. Frankly, I don’t know how the ecclesiastical authority would distinguish in that instance between a mere accusation and real danger or injustice to one of the spouses. My guess is that he would have to choose or to recommend the safer course until he could gather enough evidence for making a morally certain decision.


  1. […] Now, the Church teaches that the sins encompassed by the “Thou shall nots” of the Ten Commandments are destructive by their very nature: they are intrinsically evil. By committing them, we invariably act against ourselves and others. By opposing the good which God intended for the personal (and the natural) order, we oppose God himself. Therefore, violations of the Commandments can never be justified under any circumstances. They can never lead us to God. The fact that we might have acted with good intentions, with ignorance of the full gravity of the sins, with limited freedom, or with a fairly peaceful conscience, does not change any of that.2 As the Church teaches, the very act of freely committing these sins already contains within itself a disordered and, perhaps, even a malicious will.3 One cannot commit these sins without knowing what one is doing, and intending to do it. If I steal, I intend to take for myself what I know belongs legitimately to someone else. Yet, I do take it. That makes me a thief. Likewise, if I am validly married, and have sexual intercourse with a woman other than my wife (whether I have “divorced” my wife, and married the other woman, or not), I am an adulterer. Since I know what the definition of an adulterer is, I define myself as such in committing, or even in just intending, the act (cf., Mt. 5:27-28), whose content and destructiveness every reasonable person can understand quite naturally, even apart from divine revelation.4 […]