Monday, December 11, 2017

Is Adultery Automatically a Mortal Sin?

I'm beginning to better understand the concern that many critics have with Amoris Laetitia.  The concern is that sex outside of marriage (fornication) is not on the same level as other sins.  It is objectively worse than many other objectively grave sins.  We could safely say that fornication is, at least generally, worse than lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, slandering and maybe even some forms of physical violence.

Saint Paul makes this clear in his First Epistle to the Corinthians 6:18-20:  

Fly fornication. Every sin that a man doth, is without the body; but he that committeth fornication, sinneth against his own body. Or know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own? For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body. 
Just a few sentences earlier, Saint Paul says: 
"neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
Thomas Aquinas likewise notes the gravity of fornication:
Wherefore it is a graver sin, as to its species, than those sins which are contrary to external goods, such as theft and the like; while it is less grievous than those which are directly against God, and sins that are injurious to the life of one already born, such as murder.
He then observes that adultery is worse than simple fornication:
Adultery, as its name implies, "is access to another's marriage bed." By so doing a man is guilty of a twofold offense against chastity and the good of human procreation. First, by accession to a woman who is not joined to him in marriage, which is contrary to the good of the upbringing of his own children. Secondly, by accession to a woman who is united to another in marriage, and thus he hinders the good of another's children.

Still worse according to Saint Thomas are "unnatural" sexual acts (e.g., masturbation, bestiality and sodomy).  

Is Adultery Automatically a Mortal Sin?

The key question in this debate is whether adultery is automatically a mortal sin.  The Catholic Catechism notes that three elements are required for a sin to be mortal:
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." (CCC 1857)
The above texts from Saint Paul and Saint Thomas Aquinas make it clear that adultery is a grave matter.  The Catechism offers further guidance on the other elements of mortal sin - full knowledge and deliberate consent:
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. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. 
1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
Critics of Amoris Laetitia have argued from the principle of CCC 1860 that no one can be ignorant of the intrinsic moral evil of adultery.  Even if that satisfies the requirements for full knowledge, it still leaves the issue of deliberate consent.  CCC 1859 requires "complete consent" for a grave act to be a mortal sin.  CCC 1860 explains, "The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders."

It would be absurd to claim that there are no persons in irregular unions for whom the promptings of feelings and passions, or external pressures or even pathological disorders, diminish the voluntary and free character of sex with their partner in the irregular union.

I have not found any teaching, in the Catechism, Saint Thomas, or any other source, which states that adultery is always a mortal sin by reason of its object alone.  In fact, the Catholic Church has expressly taught that this is not the case.

In 1975, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Persona Humana, which states:
A person therefore sins mortally not only when his action comes from direct contempt for love of God and neighbor, but also when he consciously and freely, for whatever reason, chooses something which is seriously disordered. For in this choice, as has been said above, there is already included contempt for the Divine commandment: the person turns himself away from God and loses charity. Now according to Christian tradition and the Church's teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.
It is true that in sins of the sexual order, in view of their kind and their causes, it more easily happens that free consent is not fully given; this is a fact which calls for caution in all judgment as to the subject's responsibility. In this matter it is particularly opportune to recall the following words of Scripture: "Man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart." However, although prudence is recommended in judging the subjective seriousness of a particular sinful act, it in no way follows that one can hold the view that in the sexual field mortal sins are not committed. 
Amoris Laetitia is thus perfectly in line with Persona Humana. Every direct violation of the moral order of sexuality (which includes adultery) is objectively serious. Nevertheless, it is not only possible for free consent not to be fully given in sins of the sexual order, it more easily happens.  Far from teaching that every act of sexual immorality is a mortal sin, Persona Humana, 40 years before Amoris Laetitia, had to remind its audience that at least some of the time sexual immorality is a mortal sin.

The Catechism confirms this through its section on masturbation:
By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved." 
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)
Remember that, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, masturbation is a worse sin than adultery.  And yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church is explicit that psychological and social factors can lessen moral culpability for masturbation.  How can that not also be the case for adultery?

I have seen at least one critic of Amoris Laetitia quote the following from Reconciliatio et Paenitentia:
It must be added - as was likewise done at the synod - that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. That is, there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. (Section 17)
But the critic left out the immediately following sentence:
These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful. 
There are no acts, no matter how objectively grave, that are always mortal sins regardless of whether there is full knowledge and deliberate consent.  Those who claim that there are should stop and consider whether they are the ones who are guilty of heresy.

This does not excuse the behavior

Acknowledging that not every instance of adultery is automatically a mortal sin does not mean excusing the behavior.  It does not mean that it is ok to practice adultery, or that couples in irregular situations should be advised to keep having sex.  It means that there may be cases where the sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation will help a person in an irregular union to grow in grace and to better live in accordance with God's will.  The goal of the Catholic Church, after all, is to help people get to Heaven.  That's what the sacraments are there for - to help sinners get to Heaven.

Where both persons in the irregular union are Christians, the pastoral guidance to help them get to Heaven is straightforward, as the Buenos Aires guidelines acknowledge.  In that case, the commitment to continence from Familiaris Consortio can be proposed, and the sacrament of Penance is available if the couple fail in their commitment.

The beauty of Amoris Laetitia is that it recognizes that not every couple in an irregular union is composed of two Christians who desire to live according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.  There may be one person in an irregular union who, after years away from the Catholic Church, wants to come back.  But their partner may not want anything to do with the Catholic Church.  They may have had many children together and need both of their incomes to support the children.  They may live in tiny accommodations that make separate sleeping quarters an impossibility.  Or there could be far worse situations of psychological or physical coercion.

How can the Catholic Church help a person get to Heaven when the objective circumstances make a commitment to continence not feasible? A person in an irregular union may have the interior disposition of wanting to cease having sex in compliance with the Church's teaching, but their partner may insist on continuing to have sex.  It is already established Church teaching (see below) that there may be objective circumstances that make it impossible to cease cohabitation.  How can the Catholic Church help a person in this situation?  Should it withhold the sacraments based on circumstances out of the person's control?

The only difference between a person in this situation and a person who could have received the sacraments prior to Amoris Laetitia is the existence of external pressures, which CCC 1860 states can diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense.  Before Amoris Laetitia, a person in an irregular union who happened to have a partner who also wanted to be a good Catholic and practice continence would be granted access to the sacraments, whereas a person with the exact same desire to live chastely would have been denied access to the sacraments if their partner refused to practice continence and didn't want anything to do with the Catholic Church.  Simply put, Amoris Laetitia does not bar access to the sacraments based on circumstances beyond a person's control.

The Church Never Advised Couples in Irregular Unions to Abandon Their Children

Finally, critics of Amoris Laetitia often reply that it is better to suffer harm than to commit a grave or even a venial sin.  If the objective circumstances of an irregular union make practicing continence not feasible, then a person in an irregular union should simply separate from their partner, regardless of whatever harm may follow.

The problem is that the Church did not advise this as a pastoral practice prior to Amoris Laetitia.  Familiaris Consortio states:
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" and if they cannot, then they must separate from each other.
Likewise, in Sacramentum Caritatis:
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 cease cohabitation 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.
Critics of Amoris Laetitia who suggest that persons in new unions should leave the union rather than commit another act of adultery, even if it means the persons abandoning their own children, could have made the exact same criticism against Familiaris Consortio and Sacramentum Caritatis.  The recognition that there are cases where it is impossible for persons in an irregular union to cease cohabitation was already established church teaching prior to Amoris Laetitia.


Adultery is intrinsically evil and is objectively worse than many other grave sins.  Nevertheless, it has never been elevated to the status of an inherently mortal sin where the requirements for full knowledge and deliberate consent do not apply.  Forty years prior to Amoris Laetitia, the Catholic Church acknowledged in Humana Persona that limitations on deliberate consent may frequently apply in cases of sexual immorality.  This does not excuse the behavior or create circumstances where adultery is the right thing to do.  This is simply an acknowledgment that there may be cases where a person in an irregular union who faces concrete circumstances that do not allow him or her to feasibly commit to continence may nevertheless be helped to grow in the grace of God by the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.


  1. What's the difference between something being "intrinsically evil" and something as "inherently mortal sin"?