A commitment to avoid venial sin may not be feasible
Very soon following the publication of Amoris Laetitia, the bishops of Buenos Aires published a set of guidelines for priests that in certain cases permitted a divorced person living in a new union to have access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist even if a commitment to continence was not feasible.
Pope Francis quickly endorsed the Buenos Aires guidelines: "The writing is very good and explicitly the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations." Aside from Philadelphia (July 2016), the bishops of Buenos Aires were the first bishops to implement Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis approved their interpretation on September 5, 2016. The "dubia" were not submitted until two weeks later, and only made public two months later. The bishops of Malta released their guidelines in January 2017, stating they felt compelled to follow the Buenos Aires implementation given that Pope Francis explicitly said there were no other interpretations. The bishops of Germany, Belgium, Poland and other regions followed suit later in the year.
Given that the Vicar of Jesus Christ spoke clearly and emphatically on the only correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia so early in its implementation, the entire church should be looking to the Buenos Aires guidelines as the definitive interpretation of the document.
Paragraph 5: The Preexisting Discipline
The bishops of Buenos Aires address the possibility of access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist for a divorced person who lives in a new union in paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 of their guidelines. Paragraph 5 states:
5) When the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a path of faith, the commitment to live in continence can be proposed. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties of this option (see note 329) and leaves open the possibility of accessing the sacrament of Reconciliation when that purpose is failed (see note 364, according to the teaching of Saint John Paul II to Cardinal W Baum, of 03/22/1996).This paragraph is not controversial and is consistent with the practice implemented by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1980 of allowing divorced couples in new unions to be granted absolution and access to the Eucharist if they committ to live in full continence.
Paragraph 6: Continence May Not Be Feasible in Some Cases
6) In other more complex circumstances, and when a declaration of nullity could not be obtained, the aforementioned option may not be in fact feasible. However, a path of discernment is also possible. If it is recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate liability and guilt (see 301 - 302), particularly when a person considers that he would fall on a further fault damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see notes 336 and 351). These, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the strength of grace.This paragraph is the source of the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia: Can the Sacrament of Reconciliation (followed by the reception of the Eucharist) be accessed by a penitent when a commitment to avoid the grave sin of adultery is not feasible? The confession of sins must include the serious intention not to commit them again in the future. So how can absolution be granted where a commitment to stop sinning is not feasible?
The entire debate comes down to Canons 18 and 23 of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent:
Canon 18: If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.
Canon 23: If anyone says that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore he that falls and sins was never truly justified; or on the contrary, that he can during his whole life avoid all sins, even those that are venial, except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard to the Blessed Virgin, let him be anathema.There is an obvious tension between these two canons: God's commandments are not impossible, but it is in fact impossible to avoid all sins (particularly venial sins) except by a special privilege from God. Chapter XI of Trent Session 6 explains that the principle behind Canon 23 is that the Christian's progress in grace and justification has no end:
For though during this mortal life, men, however holy and just, fall at times into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, they do not on that account cease to be just, for that petition of the just, forgive us our trespasses, is both humble and true; for which reason the just ought to feel themselves the more obliged to walk in the way of justice, for being now freed from sin and made servants of God, they are able, living soberly, justly and godly, to proceed onward through Jesus Christ, by whom they have access unto this grace.However holy and just a person may be, they will at least fall into venial sin. Daily(!) As Proverbs 24:16 says, even the just man falls seven times a day.
Thus, when the penitent in confession states their intention not to sin again, it is with the understanding that the penitent will at least commit venial sin again (absent a special privilege from God). As Pope Saint John Paul II noted:
It should also be remembered that the existence of sincere repentance is one thing, the judgment of the intellect concerning the future is another: it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.Pope Saint John Paul II speaks of all sin in this passage: even in the case of mortal sin, the authenticity of the commitment to sin no more is not compromised by fear of falling again when the penitent joins prayer to the will to do what is possible to avoid sin.
Does doing "what is possible to avoid sin" mean that a divorced person in a new union must separate from their new partner? Pope Saint John Paul II established that the Church does not require this in Familiaris Consortio in 1981:
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples."Pope Benedict XVI confirmed as recently as 2012 that the Church does not require divorced couples in new unions to separate in each and every case:
Finally, where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God's law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church's established and approved practice in this regard. This path, if it is to be possible and fruitful, must be supported by pastors and by adequate ecclesial initiatives, nor can it ever involve the blessing of these relations, lest confusion arise among the faithful concerning the value of marriage.Thus, prior to Amoris Laetitia, it was already established church doctrine that, at least in some cases, a firm purpose of amendment in confession does not require a divorced person living in a new union to separate from that union.
Mortal vs Venial Sin
Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were speaking of mortal sin, but the bishops of Buenos Aires in Paragraph 6 are speaking of specific cases where "there are limitations that mitigate liability and guilt," in which case the sin would be venial.
According to Section 1857 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a mortal sin is any sin:
1. Whose object is a grave matter,
2. which is also committed with full knowledge,
3. and with deliberate consent.
Section 1860 of the Catechism states:
The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.
The Catechism elsewhere acknowledges a variety of factors that can mitigate culpability for a grave sin:
Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. CCC 1735.
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. CCC 2352.
Sex outside of marriage is always a grave sin. But the foregoing factors can "diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense", in which case sex out of wedlock would be a venial sin. In such a case, according to the Council of Trent, a justified person may fall into this venial sin without losing the state of grace, and it may not be possible (let alone feasible) not to fall into it.
Canon 916 would still require sex in a new union to be confessed before taking Holy Communion because it is a grave sin, but Pope Francis and the bishops of Buenos Aires have stated, in accordance with the Council of Trent, that the priest can, through a process of discernment, recognize that due to "limitations that mitigate liability and guilt" the sin is venial and can therefore be absolved with the understanding that a commitment to continence may not, in fact, be feasible.
This is all very basic.
It is odd that something so basic is causing so much controversy. Does anyone really think it is heretical to suggest that there may be cases where sex in a new union is a venial sin? Clearly the heresy would be to deny that such cases may exist. And if sex in a new union is a venial sin, then according to the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent it may not be possible (let alone feasible) to commit to continence.
To make it clear that this is not an unrestricted opening of the sacraments to those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin per Canon 915, the bishops of Buenos Aires state in paragraph 7:
7) But we must avoid understanding this possibility as an unrestricted access to the sacraments, or as if any situation justified it. What is proposed is a discernment that adequately distinguishes each case. For example, special care requires "a new union that comes from a recent divorce" or "the situation of someone who has repeatedly failed their family commitments" (298). Also when there is a kind of apology or ostentation of the situation itself "as if it were part of the Christian ideal" (297). In these more difficult cases, pastors should accompany with patience trying some way of integration (cf. 297, 299).This is exactly what Pope Francis called for in the beginning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia:
If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. (AL 300).Even the just man falls daily into venial sin, and there may be cases where sex in a new union is a venial sin. Pope Francis and the bishops of Buenos Aires have recognized this simple truth and encouraged priests to grant absolution in confession where this may be the case. The heresy would in fact be to deny that there could be such situations. Which makes this whole affair just another of the countless episodes over the past 2000 years in which Rome has each and every time proved itself to be, in the words of the First Vatican Council, "unblemished by any error."
No Comparison With Other Alleged Papal Heresies.
Finally, we must note that no comparison can be made between Amoris Laetitia and other alleged papal heresies of the past. None of the alleged heretical Popes in history spoke as clearly and definitively about their points of controversy as Pope Francis has regarding Amoris Laetitia.
Pope Liberius was imprisoned and coerced. We don't know what, if any, document Pope Liberius signed while in prison, but it is acknowledged by all that any document he did sign was signed under coercion and the threat of death. There is no coercion in the case of Pope Francis today.
Pope Honorius I's words were twisted to invent a later heresy. Pope Honorius I wrote on the heresy of mono-energism, and in the process used an imprecise phrase that was later used (after his death) to justify a new heresy (monothelitism). In contrast, Pope Francis is addressing issues that have long been settled in the Church. No one is accusing Pope Francis of speculating on a new, previously undefined doctrine. Rather, they are accusing him of changing what is already established doctrine.
Pope John XXII qualified his sermons on the Beatific Vision with an invitation for feedback and discussion. Pope John XXII specifically asked the church to consider the issue and get back to him. He did not come close to saying, "The writing is very good and explicitly the meaning of my teaching. There are no other interpretations."
Thus, the accusations against Pope Francis go far beyond accusations against prior Popes. The critics of Pope Francis are making far graver accusations than they realize.
Thankfully, Amoris Laetitia and the Buenos Aires guidelines are completely orthodox and the Vicar of Jesus Christ has once again been demonstrated to be protected from error by the Holy Spirit in his ordinary teaching authority. May we all pray for a better and deeper understanding of the wisdom of Amoris Laetitia.