When Does Sin Stop Being Sin?

Father Gerald Bednar, vice rector of St. Mary’s, the Cleveland Diocesan seminary;
the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

Imagine I’m poor. Not dirt poor. Not homeless. Not living on the edge of extreme poverty. Just poor. Poor enough not to be able to afford some of the nicer things in life.

Now, let’s imagine that I’m riding on the subway. I happen to notice an older passenger sitting in front of me. He has a briefcase, a briefcase full of money. I don’t know where it came from. Hard work? Hard drugs? Doesn’t matter.

We get off together at the next station. It’s rush hour. The older passenger walks in front of me on a crowded platform. Suddenly, holding his chest, he collapses, coughs, and starts spitting up blood. He drops his bags. People begin surrounding the man. Somebody who apparently has some EMT experience starts applying CPR. I am close by and I see a chance. I pick up the briefcase and slip through the otherwise preoccupied crowd. I reach the street and jump into a taxi. Nobody saw or followed me.

The briefcase contained $75,000. It has identification in it. I know the owner’s name, but I never call.

The next day, there’s a little story in the corner of the newspaper that a man collapsed and died in the subway. He is described as eccentric, wealthy, and has no family.

I keep the money. Slowly and discreetly, I use it in ways that nobody notices. My economic situation improves. I’m doing well and getting ahead.

On stolen money.

The years pass. The miracle of compounding investment makes me richer. Decades go by and, because of that money, I’ve become successful.

When did I stop being a thief?

An honest person would say: you haven’t. Theft does not go away with time. Possession does not change title. Res clamat dominum.

An honest person would say the question is illegitimate: time changed nothing. The thief continues to profit from ill-gotten gains.

But, you protest, I have been responsible ever since. I used the money to better myself and, through my philanthropy, bettered the community. I built a solid, stable, respectable, bourgeois life for myself, my wife, and my family. Do you expect me to uproot all that good when there may be nobody to whom I could return the old man’s money? Isn’t that cruel? Where is your mercy?

Most people would call that line of pleading rationalization.

So please tell me why Father Gerald Bednar is not one big rationalizer?

Bednar, vice rector of St. Mary’s, the Cleveland Diocesan seminary, is author of a piece in the November 10 English issue of L’Osservatore Romano (osservatoreromano.va/ vaticanresources/pdf/ING_2017_045_1011.pdf), defending the moral approach of Amoris Laetitia (AL). Bednar’s essay is, frankly, long on rhetoric but short on theology.

His essay straddles the space between moral and sacramental theology (the latter also involving Biblical exegesis), but I want to focus more on the former.

In an earlier time, those who wanted to change Church teaching on sex and marriage invented a whole new methodology to moral theology, generally called “proportionalism,” which was essentially utilitarianism supplemented with pious velleities about measuring “ontic” and “moral” goods and evils, which would have ultimately required Divine prescience. At least, though, proportionalism pretended to weigh goods and evils: the good of these people, the evil of undermining marriage as an institution, the good of sex now, the bad of bad example later.

Since proportionalism is really not tenable since Veritatis splendor (which hardly means it has disappeared from being taught in institutions claiming a Catholic pedigree), those who want to change Magisterial teaching in these areas needed some new approach. In the controversy over AL, that approach has been “mercy,” interpreted in a way that jibes with the cultural tenor of the times, i.e., avoiding too rigorous and consistent thought in favor of some gauzy emotional response. (For one example, see here: firstthings.com/article/2017/10/empathy-is-not-charity.) In the 1960s, it was whether what one was doing was “loving” and opponents of the easy answer “love” offered were “inauthentic.” Today, it’s “mercy,” and opponents of that easy answer are “closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings … in order to sit in the chair of Moses.” In either case, instead of attempting the ultimately impossible task of weighing goods and evils, today’s “mercy” theology throws its hands up, says that the person is “discerning,” and then blames his/her opponents for introducing a sour note into an era of good feelings.

Bednar argues that those of us who question the studied ambiguities of AL are “dissenters” who “fail to understand a subtle but important distinction between law and mercy.” “Mercy” is existential. Although it “resists legal formulation”, it is “a way of applying laws.” Yet there is “no recipe … for when and how it should be applied.” Still, it “listens for the voice of Jesus” while law, which “attends only to abstract principles” may “result in a mean-spirited application….”

Applying this mishmash of ambiguities to any other aspect of moral life would get its advocate dismissed tout court. Nobody would say that the prohibition on theft is “abstract” but the “voice of Jesus” might allow a little pickpocketing here, the occasional shoplifting there. But, of course, what we want to do is accommodate divorces and—well—why didn’t you tell me it was about sex? Since the 1960s, all revisionist moral theology has applied a different set of norms to the Sixth Commandment from any other.

Which is exactly what Bednar is doing when he asks, rhetorically, whether “a second marriage must be characterized continuously as adultery.”

Well, if one retains and enjoys the use of stolen money, you remain a thief. As I said above, there is no statute of limitations on the moral demands of justice (another Francis term grossly misrepresented by some of his interpreters). Justice is about ensuring one receives his due. Therefore, yes, if I retain stolen goods, I have to be “characterized continuously” as a thief. And if I live in a “second” marriage when I have a valid first one, and enjoy the conjugal benefits of that union, I have to be “characterized continuously” as an adulterer.

Bednar offers an example that he thinks makes his point. “… [A] man … selfishly leaves his wife early in a valid marriage. He obtains a civil divorce and marries another. Years go by. Eventually, the man comes to his senses about the first marriage. He admits his sin, and seeks pardon and forgiveness. What does conversion require of him? Must he leave his second wife and their children to return to his first wife? What if his first wife has remarried? Is there no way for the repentant husband to stay in the second ‘marriage’ and still receive Communion?”

If he insists on acting in his second “marriage” as if he is a legitimate spouse, entitled to conjugal intercourse, no. How is he “repentant” if he continues to act as if he is a spouse when he is not? Moreover, if he is not repentant, how is he to receive Communion? How can he express the communion personarum proper to spouses with this woman who is not his spouse? Bednar’s “repentance” seems to be like Judas’: I am sorry the situation got this bad, but what can I do about it now?

Bednar wrongly juxtaposes “mercy” to “law.” The proper counterpoint is “mercy” and “truth” and, properly understood, those two cannot be in opposition (crisismagazine.com/2015/st-john-paul-ii-no-mercy-without-truth). A “mercy” that winks and nods at truth, which admits that this is not really a marriage but, hey, life is what it is and “who am I to judge?” is not just cheap mercy. It is bogus mercy.

There is another problem lurking in the background of Bednar’s question about how long a sin remains a sin: confusion about where the malice of sin lies. What makes sin a sin is not the duration of the act—I can kill somebody in a minute—but the persistence of the will in evil. I am a sinner as long as I remain attached to my sin, which includes attachment to the fruits of that sin. Sure, with the passage of time, the initial impact of what John Adams called “sexual combustibility” wanes, but as long as I remain in the situation that brought about the original sin, enjoying all its fruits (like board and bed) then—even if the pleasure is tinged with some regrets or remorse—the perversion of the will and the sin remains. It’s important to be clear about this because it also feeds a certain kind of “practical universalism” in popular eschatology: can we really take seriously the idea of an eternal hell, and a merciful God, when a human act (sexual but not just) could only occur in a finite amount of time? Apocatastasis is heresy; “dare we hope that all men be saved?” is a salutary hope as long as we admit the possibility of damnation; but has not popular Catholic belief degenerated into a wink and nod that pays lip service to damnation even as we really believe deep down that a “merciful” God would never allow it?

A lot else could be said about what is problematic with Bednar’s essay, e.g., his questioning of why the Matthean reference to porneia, or the Pauline Privilege, do not allow “the Church of a later day [to] make a similar exception”? [Because there is such a thing as the normativity of the canon.] But the heart of the problem remains moral: unlike milk, sin does not have an expiration date. So must one “consistently characterize” living with a woman who is not your wife when you have another as “adultery?” If one prefers synonyms, one could try “recidivist.”

Dr. John M. Grondelski About Dr. John M. Grondelski

John M. Grondelski is an independent scholar from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Fordham, and served as associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He has written for Angelicum, Antonianum, Irish Theological Studies, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.


  1. Tony Jenkinson says:

    Very true. Thank you, Dr. John, well said. If the man, after conversion, is unable to return to his wife, because she has remarried, then he and the second woman must live as brother and sister, as he still needs to be a father to their children. If they had no children, he must stop living with her.

  2. Harvey B. says:

    Well stated. The only thing I would add is that Fr. Bednar is not the sole culprit here. Amoris Laetitia itself — whose faulty interpretation the pope claims to be part of the Church’s authentic magisterium — is the bigger culprit.

  3. Ted Heywood says:

    Imagine that! Someone has the courage to say that if you commit a serious sin and persist in it, it does not go away just because you begin to think good thoughts and enjoy the fruits of that sin over an extended time.

  4. Rev. Gerald J. Bednar says:

    Readers might be interested in consulting my recent reply to critics in Emmanuel Magazine (May/June 2018) which can be reached online at emmanuelpublishing.org. The article entitled “The Christian Sense of Mercy: A Defense of Amoris Laetitia” contains footnotes plus a reference to the larger original article, “Answering the Dubia: Sense and Sensibility in Amoris Laetitia,” Emmanuel (Sept/Oct 2017).

    My thanks to Dr. Grondelski for his comments and critique, but I fear he has not fully understood my article.

    Many blessings to all,

    Fr. Jerry Bednar

  5. Bernadette Fakoory says:

    No doubt this problem with divorces remarriages and reception of holy communion by those who are divorced and remarry is for most part irresolvable but there may some leeway where divorces base on illicit marriages are exempted. Perhaps this is where annulment of marriages have emerged in the Church .

    Again another leeway in the discussion of the sinlessness of divorce may arise from the discussion Jesus had with his disciples in Matthew 19: 7-9. When Jesus spoke about the indissolubility of marriage between one man one woman the disciples mentioned those divorce cases which Moses allowed through a writ I’d dismissal. However, the question about divorce taken in full narrative context between Jesus and His disciples concludes with the disciples saying that it is advisable not to marry knowing that marriage is for life.

    So where does this leave us in our discussion about those who divorced and are remarried and do receive holy communion? Are they living in sin. It would appear not for those who receive annulments and those who claim that they were in an illicit marital relationship :Perhaps where spouses are verbally and physically abused.

    Then if we look at St.Paul’s teaching he says it is legitimate for a married man or woman to leave their marriage but only if the spouse is not a baptized Christian. See 1Cor. 7: 12-16.

    The core principle underlying marriage and the sin of divorce is the fact that two baptized Christian in the one body of Christ breaks unity with the Holy Spirit. Then if breaking the unity of the Holy Spirit from the body of Christ receiving communion as a divorced person defies the purpose of communion and Union with the body of Christ.

    So is pope Francis in Amore Laetitia giving consent to the bishops in their pastoral duty to allow divorce and remarried to receive communion. He says no. But, we can agree with pope Francis that there are many divorces and remarried lay persons who do need counsel and help in coming to terms with the sin of divorce in the eyes of God and the guilt burden of sin of separation from God under those circumstances. It’s not an easy matter because many people get married young and have no preparation about marriage before they do get married.

  6. bill bannon says:

    Dr. Grondelski,
    How can hoping for an empty hell be salutary if It contradicts Christ words..? Are we to listen to theologians rather than Christ? He contradicts them.
    Luke 13:24 Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)
    24 Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and shall not be able.
    It’s identical in the New Vulgate:
    “quia multi, dico vobis, quærent intrare, et non poterunt.”

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