Questions Answered

Question:  If a couple is in the state of mortal sin because of cohabitation before marriage without confession, is the marriage still a valid sacramental marriage? If not, when does it become a sacramental marriage?

Answer:  This question is based on the moral nature of cohabitation before marriage. First, it is important to emphasize, objectively speaking, that despite the cultural judgements to the contrary, such a relationship is a mortal sin. No matter what the intention or circumstances, there are no mitigating circumstances for having sex without marriage.

That being said, the pastoral approach would encourage priests to first explain, gently but clearly, the problems which cohabitation creates for a future relationship, especially regarding fidelity. The cultural superficial judgement for this is that trial marriage is a good thing, so the prospective spouses can get to know each other, and see what it is like to live together. In fact, since there is no permanent commitment to fidelity, this undercuts the whole idea that the depth of the sexual relationship, affecting the possible outcome of childbearing which is so deep, that the personal commitment of those who partake in the sexual action must also be deep and lifelong. Of course, the present cultural tendency to approve cohabitation is primarily based on the denial that children have anything to do with sex or marriage. They are at best a “choice”; at worst a threat to the freedom and enjoyment of the parties. Because of the statistical possibility that trial marriage more easily leads to divorce, many pastors will not allow a couple to marry unless they separate and live chastely before marriage.

If the cohabiting couple is allowed to marry, such action occurring in a state of sin, will be committing another sin. They cannot receive the grace of a sacrament until they return to a condition of being in the state of grace through the sacrament of Penance.

As to the validity of the marriage, one must remember that the minsters of marriage are the couple themselves, if they are validly baptized. It is a very powerful exercise of the priesthood of the laity. Just as is the case with an ordained priest, who can administer a sacrament without being personally in the state of grace, a married couple can minister to the central nature of the bond without being in the state of grace themselves, because of the character which is conferred in baptism. Priests can consecrate the Eucharist, or grant absolution in Penance without being in the state of grace, though this is a sin for them.

The couple who have cohabited, without absolution, would then confect a valid marriage as to the nature of the bond, which means that a sacramental marriage has taken place which can only be dissolved by God. Their action enters into divine providence as to its unity and indissolubility, and also begins a process which should end in living the passion and resurrection of Christ. They do not, however, receive the grace of the sacrament, until they return to being in the state of grace by confessing their sins.


Question:  In the Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis invokes a term used by John Paul II “the law of gradualness” regarding the formation of marriage. What does this mean theoretically and practically speaking?

Answer:  Pope Francis has invoked the “law of gradualness” in the Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Here is the text:

Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth.” This is not “gradualness of the law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. (AL, 295)

This distinction has been common in Catholic moral theology, and it was first made by John Paul II, as the Pope points out. (Familiaris Consortio, 34, 123) What is it?

The “law of gradualness” recognizes that though one has experienced a decisive break with objective sin, from the standpoint of the subjective implementation of this break in moral freedom, there may be a long period between the decision to confess and convert, and the actual free use of the virtues necessary to experience moral integrity. For example, one may have been committing sexual sins for a long time, and then convert. One does not immediately develop the free use of the virtue of chastity, though if one is in the state of grace, one has this virtue in habit. This fact is, then, a reflection of the presence of voluntary moral freedom in acts by which a person rejects sin, and chooses virtue. One “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God, and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love, in his or her entire personal and social life.” (FC, 90)

In other words, the concept of living a morally integrated life in marriage is not something everyone lives with a level playing field starting from scratch. Freedom may have been formed based on other values for a long time. For example, one may have thought there was nothing wrong with contraception, and then converted. For some, the integrity of the sexual act is not easily embraced as it might be in a person who has exercised the freedom of chastity their whole life. Chastity should lead to freedom of choice, and enjoyment in the sexual realm. For one whose soul has been formed according to another value system, this may not be so free, or so joyous. In fact, in its initial stages, it might be quite painful.

This is not the same as “gradualness of the law” which often has to do with the whole idea that there are objective evils which one must reject. John Paul II defines this as meaning that there are: “different degrees or forms of precepts in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” (FC, 34) This has been roundly condemned by the Church because it is a reflection of consequentialism. Consequentialism maintains that there is no action which can be morally determined before the intention and consequences, or circumstances, are considered. This is true for good actions because good comes from an integral cause. But it is not true for evil actions. A moral object which is evil is always evil. Evil is determined here according to the Eternal Law in God’s mind, and the Natural Law present in human reflection through reason. The fact that pastoral practice is aimed, not to condemn sinners, but to invite them to conversion and, finally, to one’s living a fullness of virtue which demands that one recognize that people cannot overnight become perfect in charity or, indeed, have perfect integrity regarding all the other virtues. John Cassian relates in the Conferences of the Desert Fathers that there was a confessor who was so hard on a monk regarding his weakness in living the vow of chastity, that the monk gave up the whole idea altogether and decided to leave the monastery. As he was on his way out, he met another confessor who asked him what had happened. When the situation was explained to him, the second confessor prayed that the first confessor would suffer the same temptations against chastity the monk experienced and they saw the first confessor running to town to satisfy his unchaste desires. The second confessor drew the lesson that one must gently help souls along in their conversion, and not give them the idea that there is no hope for them at all.

This does not mean that one makes no requirement for conversion from sin in showing mercy and kindness. But it does mean that once the objective sinful relationship is broken, it is not recidivism should the person fall again. Recidivism is more the idea that one goes to confession pro forma, but without any intention of conversion at all.

There is some discussion about this problem regarding the ambiguities in recent statements concerning cohabiting couples, whether before marriage, or after divorce and remarriage, without any benefit of annulment. Such conditions remain objectively sinful. One could argue that the parties may not be totally responsible for the sin due to ignorance on their part. But these situations are not good, and certainly are not occasions of grace. Sexual acts in those situations remain objective sins. To maintain otherwise is to affirm “gradualness of the law” and not “the law of gradualness.”

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. I think casting the label of “mortal sin” is being done too much lately, especially given the Church’s definition of mortal sin. (CCC 1857-59) First there is no list of acts that are definitive mortal sins, only that the object of an act is of grave matter. Yes, a list could be constructed, but the Church does not offer such a definitive list (general examples based on [some] of the Ten Commandments are given in CCC 1858). According to the three necessary conditions, no one outside of the sinner and God can make judgement as to an act as being a mortal sin. Fr. Mullady and other responsible shepherds should know this, and provide such guidance to those who are ready-at-hand to point and say “mortal sin.” The seriousness of a sin (culpability) is according to its object, the reason and intent that it was committed. First condition is that the object of the act be of grave matter. Secondly, the person must know and acknowledge that the object of the act is of grave matter, and third, the person be willful in committing it in the face of that gravity and knowledge. Shame on those who point and make mortal judgement.

    • Ignorance of the teaching is not an excuse. If they are marrying in a Catholic Church, they’ve no doubt been told of the teaching. If they continue with “relations” prior to the wedding, then they are indeed culpable in the area of grave matter. I agree we must be charitable and assume the best, but I haven’t heard anyone from the pulpit speak about mortal sin in years. I don’t know where you see this happening. Now, my brother and “SIL” recently were married in the church after living together for 6 years. They told the priest they didn’t want children and would not be “open” to life. He said that was OK, a lot of couples feel that way now. During the ceremony, imagine the brides surprise when they were asked if they were open to any children God would send. She was facing the congregation, shook her head negatively, but said she would. Is that a valid marriage?

    • Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman and is a grave sin (grave matter) (CCC 2353). St. Paul condemns fornication in his epistle 1 Corinthians 6:18. All aspects of intimate contact associated with the marriage act also constitute fornication for Jesus said, “I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 9:28). If lustful looks are adulterous, how much worse is lustful voluntary physical contact? (Committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent) There certainly is a definitive list of moral sins and fornication is one of them. To call fornication no grave matter is the heresy of relativism on a grand scale. Moral relativism has caused untold issues in Holy Church resulting in the malformation of many souls. I would certainly hope someone in Holy Orders would not council the faithful that sacramental marriage is an “option” in a relationship and if it feels good do it Deacon.

      • You are misquoting me. I never said fornication was not grave matter. My point was that you and I cannot discern the three conditions that make an act a mortal sin. To do so is to be judgmental. To say that an act is a sin is not judgmental, to say what the result and/or culpability is, is judgmental. The second condition, in particular, is interior to the person acting. To be a full act of the will. Also I never counselled anyone that “sacramental marriage is an option.” I would welcome real dialogue, but you are attributing quotes to me that I never said. I also did not say “if it feels good do it.” Shame on you for lying about what I said. Is bearing false witness against your neighbor (me) a sin of grave matter? “Remove the beam from your own eye before removing the splinter from your neighbor’s eye.” Sorry you don’t understand my point.

      • St. John Paul teaches us in Veritatis Splendor:
        81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).
        If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134
        Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.
        In summary: the Holy Father St. John Paul and St. Augustine seem disagree with you Deacon. The faithful can know the seriousness of sin and the effect of sin without being judgmental. Note Deacon, you are wrongfully judging and condemning me calling me a liar and a bearer of false witness, though a probably act of passion, the voluntary nature is still there. For the effects of sin you could review the Summa questions 85 to 89, St. Thomas teaches us that sin diminishes the good of nature.

    • Avatar bill bannon says:

      Be careful….Paul in the Holy Spirit gives such lists….one here in I Cor. 6….” do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers,
      10 Nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God.”

      Scripture trumps anything else…..including the ideology that mortal sin is hard to commit. The NT says, ” if the just man will scarcely be saved, where will the impious and the sinner appear.”. Case closed…there are lists…mortal sin is not hard to commit. Scripture trumps anything that suggests its opposite.

      • A list of acts of grave matter does not constitute a list of mortal sins. You are all missing the point, actually two points of the three points that constitute a mortal sin. If all of the above were to use the term grave (i.e. very serious) sin instead of mortal sin, I would never have commented. Grave sin and mortal sin is not the same thing. The former is a subcategory of the latter. A mortal sin is a grave sin, but a grave sin is not necessarily a mortal sin.

        Did any of you who commented on my comment, first read CCC 1257-59? I don’t think so.

      • Avatar bill bannon says:

        Check those ccc numbers….they were nice reading anyway. Thank you.

      • Avatar bill bannon says:

        Peter…ps…I think I see a problem. ccc 1859 does not use your word ” acknowledge” which you use here: “Secondly, the person must know and acknowledge that the object of the act is of grave matter”.
        ccc 1859 says that the person need simply know that it is grave matter….not also acknowledge or agree that it is grave matter. Entire denominations do not acknowledge that sodomy is grave matter even though they know Romans one denounces it. They argue that Paul condemning it in Romans or I Cor.6 is just Paul and when you point to the burning of Sodom by God, they point to another OT book that talks of Sodom’s non sexual sins as the cause. So far Catholicism has held the line on that matter but has itself devalued Romans 13:4 by recently ignoring it as to the death penalty….and St. John Paul II ignored five NT passages on wifely obedience in order to make Ephesian’s ” be subject to one another” primary whereas it is secondary when you look at all six passages in the aggregate.
        Simply put. Your word “acknowledge” opens the door to dissent on sins not mentioned in the ten commandments and ccc 1859 does not use the word ” acknowledge”….perhaps for that reason.
        Now I can see how you get there…because God judges those outside Catholicism by what they ackowledge to be immoral if they have been trying their best within their culture without their seeing the Bible as from God. As St. Alphonsus noted…even the saints within Catholicism have differed on the natural law in its less clear areas like usury and slavery. Much more then will those outside the Church differ in what they acknowledge to be wrong.

  2. Sorry, mistake on the CCC paragraphs in my reply to Bill Bannon. Should have said 1857-59.

    • As Bill notes, the Catechism does not use the word “acknowledge” in the defining marks of mortal sin, but the subject character of mortal sin is emphasized in 1857 (“Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”) in the words “full” and “deliberate.” The Catechism also links the subjective aspects of required knowledge and consent in 1859:
      CCC 1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice….

      Given the confusion today in this culture, concerning the most fundamental moral tenets once presumed to be “obvious” from the supposed presence within of the natural moral law, I can see the need to be very careful talking about this. We can be precise and clear discussing what is of grave moral matter – but on the issue of personal culpability, concerning what exactly a particular person is freely choosing, in a questionable moral action, is another matter altogether.

      There is a clear and pressing need for the Church, in this culture in decline, to be light. And to better pass on to the members of the Church, the importance of true moral discernment and action.