Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why are there different regional implementations of Amoris Laetitia?

Can a mortal sin in Poland be a venial sin in Malta?


"Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For 'cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied'." - Amoris Laetitia 3.

The primary complaint against Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is that it is fostering confusion in the church. Bishops in different parts of the world are implementing it differently. In Poland, the bishops appear to have upheld a strict view of whether divorced persons living in new civil unions can receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, while the bishops in Malta appear to have taken a more liberal view that allows access to the sacraments in certain situations.

This is said to be unacceptable.  A mortal sin is a mortal sin, regardless of where you are in the world, right? 

It’s not so simple.

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.

Thus, there are both objective and subjective elements to a mortal sin.  The gravity of the sin is objective.  Sex outside of marriage is always an objectively grave sin, regardless of where it happens.  But whether a person has full knowledge and deliberate consent is a subjective question.  The Catechism acknowledges a variety of mitigating factors that can result in an objectively grave sin being a venial 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.    

The same objectively grave act can be a mortal sin when committed by a person with full knowledge and deliberate consent, but a venial sin when committed by a person who lacks full knowledge or deliberate consent. 

But can it vary from region to region?


Certain parts of the world are more Catholic than others.  I have never been to Poland, but from what I hear it has held fast to the Catholic faith and retains a strong Catholic culture.  I have never been to Malta, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it has succumbed to the secularization that has eroded family values across the western world.  A Catholic living in Poland might have the strong family and community support necessary to help them in their struggle against sin, while a Catholic living in Malta might have been raised in a family and culture where Catholicism was little more than a formality.  Thus, a Catholic in Poland who enters into a new union may be without excuse, whereas a Catholic in Malta might legitimately plead ignorance or other mitigating circumstances.  

According to the logic of the world, this does not make any sense.  Catholics in Poland seem to be getting punished for maintaining the faith, while Catholics in Malta seem to be getting off easy.  But the logic of the gospel is different.  To whom much has been given, much will be expected.  He who labors for one hour might receive the same wages as he who has labored for the entire day.  The last will be first, and the first will be last.

Perhaps I have not correctly described the situation in Poland and Malta.  Perhaps there are other circumstances in each country that I am not aware of.  The only persons capable of making that determination are the bishops of each country.

But canon law requires sacramental confession for grave sins, and that is objectively the case everywhere.   


While the determination of whether a sin is mortal or venial is subjective, no one can discern this in any particular case with absolute certainty.  Only God knows the state of a person's soul.  Accordingly, to protect the person from the harm that can come from receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy state, Canon 916 requires every person conscious of a grave sin to first receive absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: 
A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

Likewise, Canon 915 forbids priests from allowing those who are "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin" to be admitted to Holy Communion.

In response to the chorus of echoes in social media that the Maltese bishops have allowed adulterers unfettered access to Holy Communion, we must reiterate:  No one has changed Canon Law 915 or 916.  Not Pope Francis.  Not the bishops of Malta or anywhere else.  No one has said that a person can commit an objectively grave sin and go to Holy Communion without first going to confession.  The bishops of Malta explicitly say that it is the Sacrament of Reconciliation that is available in certain circumstances to divorced persons living in new civil unions.  Far from allowing access to Holy Communion for those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin, the Maltese bishops are clear that their guidelines do not apply "if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches."

In accordance with these guidelines, a priest in Malta can discern whether it is appropriate to grant absolution to a divorced person living in a new union who has had sex with their new partner.  If absolution is granted, the person can then receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

But God does not command the impossible.  


The Malta guidelines state, "On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living 'as brothers and sisters' becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm."  Similarly, the implementation of the Argentine bishops, which was approved by Pope Francis, states that access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation may be granted in certain cases where a commitment to continence is not “feasible.” 

In response, it is objected that God does not command the impossible.  See Session 6 of the Council of Trent.  Accordingly, Canon Law 987 states that the penitent must have a firm purpose of amendment.  To claim that it may not be “feasible” for a person living in a new civil union to avoid sex with their partner seems to plainly contradict the Council of Trent.  But this ignores Canon 23 of Trent Session 6: 
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.

Thus, it is in fact impossible for a person not to commit venial sins unless they have been granted a special privilege from God.  In the confessional booth, we all firmly resolve to sin no more, but we do so with the understanding that we will commit more venial sins unless God grants us a special grace.  A priest can grant absolution if he discerns that it will not be feasible for the penitent to stop committing venial sins.  The bishops of Malta and Buenos Aires have accordingly instructed their priests to grant absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation where a commitment to continence is not feasible if, due to the circumstances, failure to maintain continence would only amount to a venial sin.  In accordance with the requirement for all penitents to have a firm purpose of amendment, the bishops of Malta require that a person "desire to make a more perfect response to God's will". This is in line with Canon 23 of Trent Session 6 and is therefore completely orthodox.  

But everyone is called to holiness.


The Malta and Buenos Aires approach instinctively offends the puritan impulse in every Catholic.  We feel the call to holiness and want our church to be holy.  We are at war with a secular, atheist world that is destroying family values, and we want our church to militantly, aggressively wage that war.  The beauty of the Catholic Church is that it wages that war with open arms to sinners.  The most notorious of all anti-Popes, Novatian, wanted to turn the church into an isolated fortress of the pure and holy, where no one who committed a mortal sin could be received back into communion.  Pope Cornelius recognized then, as Pope Francis recognizes now, that even the just man falls seven times a day (Proverbs 24:16).  The confessional is not a torture chamber, but an encounter with God’s mercy. 

The risk is that absolution will be granted in cases where it is not appropriate, i.e., where a person is in fact committing repeated mortal sin without a firm commitment to stop.  But it is impossible for the person or their priest to know this with certainty.  Only God knows the state of a person's soul.  The church's dilemma is that there will inevitably be cases where it is forced to choose between being too strict or too lenient.  Jesus gives us the answer to this dilemma in Matthew 13, where He tells us in the parable of the weeds not to rip up the weeds lest in doing so we also rip up the wheat, and to cast a large fishing net even though many fish will ultimately be discarded.  Jesus is clear:  The church is to be merciful and inclusive, even if it appears to be full of weeds and foul smelling fish.

Given that this is a subjective question that can vary from person to person and even region to region, only the bishops of each region know best how to implement Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia for their flock.  This is not a case of confusion, but of the church boldly stepping forward from the clarity of objective, unchanging doctrine into the difficulty of subjective case by case implementation.   

May we all pray for our priests, bishops and Pope Francis as they courageously undertake this task.

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