Saturday, May 27, 2023

Prospective mitigation: the Trojan horse in Catholic moral theology

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. (Rom. 3:8)

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:9)

The central message of the Christian faith is metanoia, turning toward God (conversio) and away from sin. This is not simply a revealed truth but a metaphysical truth. God called all things from non-being out of love for the purpose of love, which is why Christians affirm that "God is love." This is the entire purpose of our existence, and this is why the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love are essential to fulfilling this purpose in our lives. In faith, we recognize the invisible God in His relationship to us and respond accordingly. In hope, we firmly believe that we can achieve this metanoia that will enable us to live this relationship with him. In love, we realize this relationship in our lives.

But progressive moral theology, in its attempt to falsely display a sense of mercy for human weakness, actually erodes and even destroys the theological virtue of hope and its integration with the other virtues by standing in the way of metanoia.  Historically, the virtue of hope is exemplified in the requirement of firm purpose of amendment in contrition. This is the resolute will not to sin again in the future, and it arises from the belief that God's grace can always suffice to "lead us not into temptation" under any circumstances. This is not to say, of course, that it is in any sense God's fault if we fall; the grace we had was sufficient, and we ourselves had the fault for refusing God's aid, knowing in faith that He was with us. But the hope that we will not sin in the future and the resolution to try, even knowing that we might fail, is essential to the ability to live the Christian life. And the exercise of Christian love, worrying about others rather than oneself, takes the focus off of one's own conduct, which fortifies hope. This is why the theological virtues tend to be lost in the opposite order; love first fails, which then weakens hope as the person becomes more self-centered, ultimately leading to the denial of the living relationship that faith acknowledges.

As I mentioned, the theological virtue of hope is strongly connected in metanoia to the firm purpose of amendment, and the Catechism reflects this in its teaching on sins against hope:


2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and of incurring punishment. 

2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption: 

By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy. 

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

It is that phrase "hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion" that is corrosive of the theological virtue of hope. Since hope pertains to future conduct, this refers to the false hope that we will be forgiven despite lacking the resolute will not to sin. We can be assured that God has given us sufficient grace that, if we are rightly disposed to receive it, we will not fall into sin. We cannot be assured that God will overcome our resistance to that grace if we ourselves have not turned toward Him and away from sin. To expect that God will do so is the false hope of presumption.

This is not to say that one cannot be ignorant of the wrongness of one's conduct. It is entirely possible that one will not know that one's conduct involves grave matter. Although there is innate awareness of the natural law implicit in the proper function of reason, the fallen world has darkened the intellect through ignorance and deception, so that error or ignorance remains possible. This can even happen with respect to issues of life itself, as the "culture of death" pervades modern society:

How did such a situation come about? Many different factors have to be taken into account. In the background there is the profound crisis of culture, which generates scepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights and his duties. Then there are all kinds of existential and interpersonal difficulties, made worse by the complexity of a society in which individuals, couples and families are often left alone with their problems. There are situations of acute poverty, anxiety or frustration in which the struggle to make ends meet, the presence of unbearable pain, or instances of violence, especially against women, make the choice to defend and promote life so demanding as sometimes to reach the point of heroism.

All this explains, at least in part, how the value of life can today undergo a kind of "eclipse", even though conscience does not cease to point to it as a sacred and inviolable value, as is evident in the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person. 

In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today's social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable "culture of death". This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of "conspiracy against life" is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States. [Evangelium Vitae 11-12]
Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future. Such circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices which in themselves are evil. But today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights. [Evangelium Vitae 18]
But today, in many people's consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behaviour and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. [Evangelium Vitae 58]

Although, as Pope St. John Paul II says here, "conscience does not cease to point to [life] as a sacred and inviolable value," what we see in the culture of death is an intersection of pervasive ignorance and enormous social pressure, neither of which alone would be exculpatory but which in combination may be. When one does not perceive the gravity of what one is doing, in large part because the humanity of the fetus is obscured by trusted experts, then one's moral agency may be overwhelmed by pressures that would not in the least be exculpatory for a well-formed conscience. Thus, this social disinformation campaign creates a social structure of sin in which deceived members of society, disproportionately the weak, are unable to exercise their moral judgment correctly.

We should not judge such victims of the social structures of sin too harshly, as EV teaches concerning the "necessary recognition of these personal situations." But we would do a grave injustice to these people if we were to deprive them of hope that they can turn from sin and live. And this is exactly what we would do if we allowed "subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability" to prospectively excuse grave sin of which they have become conscious. Giving this license to sin would effectively deprive the person of hope, instead substituting the false hope of presumption for the Gospel. It would make the culture of death not something to be overcome but instead an irresistible inevitability that grace can never penetrate. It would make true contrition, true metanoia, an impossibility.

Yet this false hope is exactly what progressive dissenters have been selling since Humanae Vitae was first published, and far too few Catholics have been engaged in stopping them. And since Amoris Laetitia, these dissenters have only become more emboldened. In this article, I explain why the dissenters were able to exploit weaknesses in Amoris Laetitia to do so and how it has led two prominent defenders of Pope Francis, Pedro Gabriel and Stephen Walford, into progressive dissent.

I. Metanoia and the Sacraments

As ministers of the Sacraments, priests have a unique and essential role in calling people to metanoia. Authority figures who are charged with responsibility over others have a different set of responsibility owing to their positive obligation to protect those who may not be capable of protecting themselves. For that reason Scripture says "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). To compare this to a mundane situation, there are laws that require people to be assessed for adequate skill before being allowed the privilege of driving. Subjectively, people may consider themselves capable of driving safely, but the privilege is nonetheless regulated as a matter of public safety. So there is both the moral duty not to drive in a way that will harm others and the greater duty of the authority figures to regulate driving, regardless of whether anyone is actually harmed by lax regulation.

We can turn to a couple of similar examples. A bodyguard has a duty of care over the person he is protecting. If a bodyguard fails to exercise this care in a way to prevent harm to his charge or worse conspires with an assailant, then he has broken his duty in a way that makes him responsible for it. With respect to laws against abortion or euthanasia, for example, the government has a positive duty not to grant a license to do these things, just as it has a positive duty not to grant a license to assassination, duels, or "honor killing." This moral duty as protector and moral tutor is distinct from the government's actual ability to prevent the evil; it is a much graver assault to the common good to positively license murder with government authority, even if that regulation were actually to result in less murder, than to be negligent, because the formal complicity with the wrong is absent in the latter case. (This distinction and its gravity is, however, frequently lost on voters who might tend to consider licensing the murder of millions of unborn children to somehow be proportionate to mildly disagreeing with me on exactly how trillions of dollars of taxing and spending will be allocated. But that is a separate discussion; for now, we will only consider it as an example of this duty to protect.)

Priests likewise have a duty to protect the Eucharist from abuse and sacrilege, one example of which is reflected in canon 915: "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion." While the canon is an explicit obligation, the underlying duty is a moral one that cannot be dispensed; the priest is obliged to prevent people who have publicly broken from the Church from partaking of the Eucharist in an abusive way. This is why "manifest grave sin" is not the same thing as "a mortal (grave) sin committed in public," when we might have no idea about whether the person has met the conditions of full knowledge and consent. Rather, "manifest grave sin" is a public act that objectively declares opposition to the Church's moral teaching, regardless of whether or not one is personally guilty of sin in doing so. Likewise is the case for Protestants who have a manifestly different sacramental teaching, who may then receive the Eucharist only in grave circumstances and when "the person [is] unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask[s] for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, [and] manifest[s] Catholic faith in this sacrament and [is] properly disposed."

When the priest fails to exercise this duty to protect the Eucharist, this is a scandal to the faithful. Note that the scandal is not that someone might have taken sacrilegious Communion, although that is certainly to be avoided, but that the priest has scandalously failed in his duty to act as guardian. This is analogous, albeit applicable to an entirely different genus of sin, to the scandal one feels at a government that gives license to murderers. For that reason, when there has been a public break from the Church, there may need to be some form of public reconciliation, although there might be objective reasons for not requiring this. 

In addition, when there has been a public break from the faith, the priest also has a responsibility to assess that the person has objectively reconciled himself to the faith, which will generally require confession of the manifest grave sin, including firm purpose of amendment to avoid that sin in the future. The priest has a grave duty not to give absolution and to bind the person not to participate in the Eucharist if there is at least reasonable doubt whether the person has a firm purpose of amendment for grave sins brought forward in Confession. If the priest fails to do so, then he might give the penitent a false sense of security. This pertains directly to the dogma of the matter of Confession, since true contrition (including the resolution not to sin again) is a requirement of matter for the sins to be confessed.

With respect to firm purpose of amendment, priests do not judge (or at least are not supposed to judge) subjective guilt in the confessional; it is not their role to judge guilt. Instead, what they judge objectively is firm purpose of amendment -- that the penitent has made a sincere resolution not to commit the sin again, even if the person may fail in the attempt. This is an essential element of the matter of Penance; it cannot be omitted or changed any more than the bread or wine can be omitted or replaced the Eucharist. What the priest judges then is the objective evidence of the firm purpose of amendment, not the person's subjective guilt for the sins being confessed, which no man can judge. And with respect to manifest grave sin, public acts that show an objective contradiction to the faith, that objective evidence requires accounting for what is publicly known.

One of the heresies of Protestantism was exactly that objective contrition and Penance was not required for access to the Eucharist. Hence, the Council of Trent replied as follows:

Now, ecclesiastical usage declares that such an examination is necessary in order that no one conscious to himself of mortal sin, however contrite he may feel, ought to receive the Sacred Eucharist without previous sacramental confession.

This is reflected in canon 916: "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." In Confession, the priest plays a role with respect to this canon in the internal forum; he provides an objective assessment of whether the requirement of objective contrition has been met. There is still a requirement that the person be "conscious to himself of mortal sin," which includes any situation of grave matter of which he might be responsible. If there is any reasonable doubt in that matter, the requirement "however contrite he may feel" implies that the person short of moral certainty should instead confess this sin and submit it to the objective judgment of the Church. The question required for this examination under canon 916 is not "am I guilty of mortal sin?," which may be difficult or impossible to judge based on one's own feelings, but "have I adequately repented for what I am conscious of having done, even if I am not sure I am guilty?" This is why the canon uses the term "grave sin," referring to awareness of objectively grave conduct, as opposed to "mortal sin," which is a question of guilt. In the absence of having done so, there is no adequate basis for moral security, and consequently, no adequate examination of conscience before the Eucharist.

In short, in situations when someone has through public action (including manifest grave sin) put himself in irregular relationship with the Church, the person must therefore take steps with a priest to regularize his relationship with the Church. That irregular relationship must be sufficiently regularized for the priest to determine that the person has turned from the previous public action with firm purpose of amendment. With regard to scandal, the person may also need to take some public action as well. 

This is confirmed by the Pontifical Council on Legislative Texts. On June 24, 2000 Declaration in response to the question: “Should a priest deny Communion to a Catholic who is an obstinate public sinner?,” the reason for the affirmative answer was as follows (emphasis added): “In effect, the reception of the body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion." In other words, the priest's duty to guard the Eucharist in public is not just a matter of the pastoral relationship with the penitent; it pertains directly to the priest's public role as a minister of the Church.

With the issue properly framed in terms of both the priest's public duty to guard the Eucharist and private duty to require firm purpose of amendment, we can now turn to the moral specification of adultery.

I. Adultery as a species of sin

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in Part 3, Section 2, groups sexual sins generally as violations of the Sixth Commandment "You shall not commit adultery" based on our Lord's explanation in Matthew 5:27-28 "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." From this, we conclude that the commandment prohibits violations of the state of chastity required before marriage, the failure to enter into the state of marriage when one is treating another person as a spouse, and the violation of marital vows in the state of marriage

Thus, "adultery" can be understood in two senses. One is the sense that Jesus means: a violation of the commandment against adultery, which can include sins of lust generally. This is the sense in which even hatred of one's brother is a violation of the commandment against murder; it shares the same root disposition against which the commandment is written. But if we restrict ourselves to the narrower sense, "adultery" is a sin against marriage, which is the consecration of the sexual faculty to another person in indissoluble union. In this sense, adultery refers to sins against that consecrated union, going beyond mere violations of chastity or other impurity. For this reason, the Catechism groups this section into sins against chastity, which are possible for the unmarried (lust, fornication, masturbation, pornography, prostitution, and rape), and sins against marriage, which are possible only for the married or for those living in a state that is only appropriate for the married (adultery, divorce, polygamy, incest, free union/trial marriage). "Fornication" refers exclusively to sexual activity with another person before the sexual faculty has been consecrated to union; afterward, it is adultery, which I will specifically refer to as "adulterous sex."

What the Catechism teaches is that within the category of "adultery" in the sense of sins against marriage, there are two species of sins: breach of the sexual consecration (adulterous sex) and attacks on the union as such. The latter is why (civil) divorce may be a sin even if the person does not remarry; it is publicly inconsistent with that person's profession of entering into an indissoluble union. But the Church recognizes that there may be objective justifications for doing so, so the Magisterium has clarified that this is not in itself "manifest grave sin" if the public civil act indicates that such an objective justification was present (e.g., the innocent spouse was abandoned, abused, or betrayed; the other spouse is entirely unwilling to reconcile and may have remarried). This clarification was primarily due to the fact that civil divorce as a stand-alone institution independent of the religious authority was a relatively recent development, and the modern system of "no-fault" divorce was even more recent than that, making the situations much rarer and more reasonably subject to case-by-case administration. So this public declaration by the Magisterium that not all civil divorce is sinful allows the priest to fulfill his duty without scandal to the faithful or to his own conscience.

Divorce and remarriage (meaning civil remarriage) falls into this class of sins against the union itself, not in the same subspecies of sin adulterous sex. Adulterous sex itself may take place, or it may not, but whether it does or not, it would be a separate subspecies of sin. As our Lord says, "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (Luke 16:18). Unlike divorce, this has traditionally been considered "manifest grave sin," which the Catechism calls "a situation of public and permanent adultery," as contrasted with adulterous sex, which is "occult" in the sense of moral theology (there is no way to tell whether it is happening unless the remarried couple separates).  There might be good reasons to divorce, but there are no such objective reasons to remarry, which is simply a sin against the indissoluble union that one had already formed. This lends itself to a very simple rule: anyone who is remarried is barred from the public celebration of the Eucharist.

But here we reach an extraordinarily difficult problem: what if someone innocently divorced and/or remarried due to inculpable ignorance, or what if someone who sinfully divorced and/or remarried now repents? Given that it is a public break from the faith of the Church, the priest has both a public and private responsibility: to guard the Eucharist in public and to assure objective repentance (firm purpose of amendment) in private before (1) giving absolution for the public break and (2) providing spiritual direction to the penitent either to return to the Eucharist or to continue to refrain from it until the proper disposition with respect to the prior (objective) sin is achieved. Certainly with respect to the public break, there might be massive practical obstacles to regularizing the situation (the most common being inability to obtain an annulment even if one might be morally certain that the prior marriage was invalid). And with respect to the private situation, the fact that one half of the couple may have sincerely repented does not mean that the other one will, especially in a mixed marriage. It is this complex situation that set the context for Familiaris Consortio and Amoris Laetitia.

II. The solution of Familiaris Consortio

Familiaris Consortio 84 completely separates the public and private aspects of the issue. Essentially, it requires the priest to treat the divorce-and-remarriage as a manifest grave sin in public while handling it in terms of firm purpose of amendment in private. With respect to the priest's public role, FC 84 says the following:

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

In private, however, the following applies:

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."

Some people (mistakenly) took this as intending that such people could return to the Eucharist in public. That would be inconsistent with Pope St. John Paul II's homily that was cited in FC 84. In that homily, he said:

Although it should not be denied that these people can receive, if necessary, the sacrament of penance and then Eucharistic communion, when with a sincere heart they embrace a way of life that is not in contradiction with the indissolubility of marriage, that is , when the man and the woman, who cannot comply with the obligation to separate, agree to live in total continence, that is, abstaining from the acts proper only to the spouses and at the same time there is no scandal; however, the deprivation of sacramental reconciliation with God should not distance them in the slightest from perseverance in prayer, penance and the exercise of charity, so that they can finally achieve the grace of conversion and salvation.

"The deprivation of sacramental reconciliation with God" here refers to those people who cannot meet the conditions, who should nevertheless pray for the conversion of heart that will enable them to pursue continence as they are morally obliged to do. But even those who do must still avoid the scandal of public Communion. The Pontifical Council on Legislative Texts on June 24, 2000 reiterated that this is the case. First, the Council noted that the public responsibility of the priest to guard the Eucharist is objective, and it does not depend on the subjective culpability of the people in question:

The prohibition found in the cited canon [915], by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church. The scriptural text on which the ecclesial tradition has always relied is that of St. Paul: "This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself."

This text concerns in the first place the individual faithful and their moral conscience, a reality that is expressed as well by the Code in can. 916. But the unworthiness that comes from being in a state of sin also poses a serious juridical problem in the Church: indeed the canon of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches that is parallel to can. 915 CIC of the Latin Church makes reference to the term "unworthy": "Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist" (can. 712). In effect, the reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion. In the concrete case of the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried, the scandal, understood as an action that prompts others towards wrongdoing, affects at the same time both the sacrament of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. That scandal exists even if such behavior, unfortunately, no longer arouses surprise: in fact it is precisely with respect to the deformation of the conscience that it becomes more necessary for Pastors to act, with as much patience as firmness, as a protection to the sanctity of the Sacraments and a defense of Christian morality, and for the correct formation of the faithful.

So with respect to access to the Eucharist, the person must be both privately worthy under canon 916 AND publicly worthy under canon 915. With respect to divorce itself, as mentioned previously, there can be public information that provides a justification for the divorce. Otherwise, manifest grave sin is "a serious juridical problem" that prevents the minister of the Sacrament from publicly granting access to the Eucharist, even if the person is rightly disposed in private. The Council therefore concludes:

Those faithful who are divorced and remarried would not be considered to be within the situation of serious habitual sin who would not be able, for serious motives - such as, for example, the upbringing of the children - "to satisfy the obligation of separation, assuming the task of living in full continence, that is, abstaining from the acts proper to spouses" (Familiaris consortio, n. 84), and who on the basis of that intention have received the sacrament of Penance. Given that the fact that these faithful are not living more uxorio is per se occult, while their condition as persons who are divorced and remarried is per se manifest, they will be able to receive Eucharistic Communion only remoto scandalo.

Thus, Familaris Consortio holds that the declared intent to live as brother and sister suffices to show firm purpose of amendment from the sin of remarriage, meaning that the priest can grant absolution and even the Eucharist in private (or the penitent may go elsewhere that the person is unknown). But unless there is some public sign of that intent, it does not remove the manifest grave sin, meaning the priest must still refuse Communion in public.

II. The new teaching of Amoris Laetitia

The context of AL Chapter 8 was this situation after FC, in which the remarried and even some divorced Catholic who were not remarried were barred from receiving the Eucharist in public. Unfortunately, AL not only failed to provide any useful guidance for the objective at all but also blurred the critical public-private distinction (by not even mentioning it at all), thereby opening the door for proportionalists to foment dissension against the infallible teaching of Veritatis Splendor. Technically, what AL says is correct and does not contradict the infallible teaching of VS. But, as I will outline, it is so blindingly obvious that that the progressive dissenters can exploit the resulting ambiguity (which they have actually done without a word of criticism from the Pope) that the document itself was at best grossly imprudent.

What AL seems to have been intended to do is to say that remaining in civil remarriage is not necessarily a manifest grave sin, in the same way that civil divorce is not necessarily a manifest grave sin. Just as we have clarified the teaching to say that not every civil divorce would keep one from participating in the Eucharist, perhaps the same can be said of remarriage. Perhaps the most obvious example would be a convert from another faith who might have been remarried but who cannot reasonably depart from commitments to support the new family. As with the case of divorce, there may be objective evidence of these sorts of commitments, or they may be less apparent but still reasonably inferred. But in any case, we can recognize that there may be such reasonably apparent and just causes for remaining remarried, so that despite failing at the objective ideal, the failure might not amount to "manifest grave sin." Therefore, it is not reasonable to exclude such people from public celebration of the Eucharist any more than it would be to exclude divorcees as a general practice. It is not "manifest" that the objective irregularity entails "grave sin," since there might be good reasons for remaining in the union.

And that is, in fact, what I believe the new Magisterial teaching of AL to be. It is a matter of sacramental discipline concerning the priest's obligation to withhold the Eucharist on the basis of manifest grave sin, and it is providing Magisterial guidance to the effect that being or remaining in a remarried state in the current societal conditions might no longer necessarily be viewed as "manifest grave sin," given that there is reasonable public notice that there might be sufficient justification for remaining in such a union, especially when children are involved. This judgment is, however, left to the judgment of the bishops in various countries as to how well this is understood; some may maintain the current discipline, and others may vary it. This amounts to a revision to the Catechism's statement that remarriage is "a situation of public and permanent adultery," which is similar to the previous Magisterial revision to say that the state of being divorced would not, in and of itself, be considered manifest grave sin as an ongoing opposition to Church teaching. Effectively, it provides an objective basis for reasonably shifting this issue from the public forum to the private forum based on the judgment of the episcopal conference. That is a reasonable and merciful accommodation for people who would otherwise need to take the Eucharist in secret or in a remote parish, being careful to avoid any priest or person who might be acquainted with the situation.

Contrary to Pedro Gabriel's assertion that opponents of his view of AL are simply refusing to accept new teaching, I eagerly accept this new Magisterial teaching. As a general rule, if we can charitably assume that people are being continent in any kind of irregular union, be it remarriage, cohabitation, or even same-sex unions, it is better that we all be allowed to do so when it is clear that the Church does not bless or condone them. Remaining in a union is not the same as entering that union in the first place, the latter being an act the person may now even regret having done. I do not think separating people from the parish who are not openly declaring their opposition to the faith helps either the parish or those trying to walk in faith. 

I believe this is exactly what Pope Francis meant when he said in AL 297: "No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!" (We can easily dispense with the interpretation that this is a denial of the doctrine of Hell; Pope Francis manifestly accepts that doctrine.) Rather, if someone who has done an objectively wrong thing in the past has repented of it, it makes no sense that such a person would continued to be viewed as one in "manifest grave sin" thereafter even if that person has actually repented of the sin and shows no ongoing opposition, yet he nonetheless retains real obligations as a consequence of the prior actions. This interpretation is consistent with what Pope Francis presents as a contrasting case that would forbid access to the Eucharist, although not necessarily as a complete bar to parish life: "Naturally, 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, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17)."

But the problem is that the reasoning offered in support of this conclusion is non-existent. The standard for whether something is "manifest grave sin" under canon 915, which is not even mentioned at all, is objective not subjective. The Pope's reasoning, such as it is, for not keeping the remarried from the public celebration of the Eucharist seems entirely reasonable in AL 296-300. The Pope seems to be thinking of canon 915 when AL mentions "a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases" while being conscious of the need to avoid the risk that the accommodation will "lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard." Likewise, when saying that "[i]t must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family," the Pope definitely has in mind "the ideal" that the couple regularizes their status, either by separation or annulment of the prior union. But because the Pope never once speaks on the objective requirements of manifest grave sin (external forum) or firm purpose of amendment (internal forum), this statements are highly vulnerable to being twisted in a radically subjectivist way. Even worse, there is the one footnote 329 that augurs poorly; it is a sign of worse things to come in AL 301-303. Specifically, this represents an intrusion of a completely irrelevant consideration: mitigating factors.

III. "Mitigating factors" (which have nothing to do with anything)

Thus far, in context, all of the discussion about "irregular unions," specifically, divorced Catholics and remarried Catholics has been consistent with previous developments. Namely, the objective ideal for such Catholics is to regularize their living arrangements either by (1) reuniting with the original spouse, (2) declaring the original marriage null, or (3) undertaking a public act of separation. That is the only way to rectify the objective public situation, so that the union can become regular. When AL uses the term "ideal" or "objective ideal," it is clearly referring to this regularized relationship by its repeated and manifest use of the term, as for example:

The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome. [AL 34]

The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up. I am sometimes amazed to see men or women who have had to separate from their spouse for their own protection, yet, because of their enduring conjugal love, still try to help them, even by enlisting others, in their moments of illness, suffering or trial. Here too we see a love that never gives up. [AL 119]

The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction. [AL 157]

Married couples are grateful that their pastors uphold the high ideal of a love that is strong, solid, enduring and capable of sustaining them through whatever trials they may have to face. [AL 200]

Often, however, we ourselves do not take advantage of those occasions when they do return, to remind them of the beautiful ideal of Christian marriage and the support that our parishes can offer them. [AL 230]

Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage. [AL 292]

Naturally, 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, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). [AL 297]

There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”. Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family. [AL 298]

This is absolutely clear; the objective ideal is Christian marriage, and any state that deviates from that ideal, necessarily including remarriage, is "objective sin" (which, as with divorce, might not be "manifest grave sin"), and this situation is "not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family." FC recognized that remarried Catholics might not be privately sinful and might repent, but because of the conflict with the objective ideal in remarriage, public participation in the Eucharist could not be allowed. AL then extended the teaching concerning public divorce to say that remarried Catholics might also not be in a situation of manifest grave sin, given information known to the public concerning civil divorces and lack of sinful intent in entering such unions. The point is that none of this teaching in AL 296-300 relates to subjective culpability. It is solely related to the public inclusion of remarried Catholics in the life of the Church, a new teaching which was, in my opinion, sorely overdue.

Frankly, if we are reading AL honestly, the Pope's intent to address this issue of public participation is manifestly clear. The goal, the objective ideal, is a regularized state of marital life. The Holy Father, in line with his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II recognizes that returning to this state may be difficult or impossible based on past choices and that the duty to remain continent in such circumstances is quite difficult, especially without the help of the Sacraments. When Pope Francis speaks of "mitigating circumstances," he does not mean mitigation of the duty to remain continent. Not one word in Amoris Laetitia says otherwise, and this would be a complete contradiction of his own predecessor and the age-old moral teaching of the Catholic Church. He manifestly means mitigation of the moral duty to regularize one's objective situation to the Christian ideal, not the moral duty to remain continent. Only the former could even possibly be the subject of public scandal barring access to public participation in the Eucharist. The problem is that unlike St. John Paul II, Pope Francis never mentions the duty to remain continent! So while we know that the objective ideal he has in mind is a regularized state of life, from both the fair reading of his words and from a basic hermeneutic of continuity, dissenters from the moral teaching of Pope St. John Paul II have exploited Pope Francis's silence on the obligation to remain continent to further their dissent. (I note that traditionalist dissenters have likewise used the opportunity to interpret the Pope's words contrary to his expressed intent.)

But in terms of giving ammunition to dissenters, the Pope has only himself to blame, because in what appears to be an attempt to express sympathy for sinners, he sounds like he is giving license to sinners. First, there is this curious footnote, apparently a note in passing that says concerning people who remain in remarried union, which says "In such situations [viz. remarried unions], many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living 'as brothers and sisters' which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, 'it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.'" By using the language "many people .... point out," this cannot be more than a sympathetic observation, which is actually quite common when moral teaching is perceived to be difficult. For example, FC points out the difficulties of complying with the teaching on contraception, but it clearly does not suggest that the teaching on contraception is optional. The problem is that it quotes language from the Second Vatican Council completely out of context in doing so, which can imply that there is something dogmatic here, even though a careful reading of the statement in context rules it out.

A footnote is one thing; three entire sections in AL (301-303) is much worse. In discussing mitigating circumstances, Pope Francis clearly has in mind people who are being excessively judgmental, which is a frequent concern of his. This is why he makes the otherwise inexplicable statement that it "can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace." Of course, that's been obviously true since Familiaris Consortio, which gave access to the Sacrament of Penance to the divorced and remarried, so this is actually just a reiteration of the teaching along with an instruction not to judge others in violation of this standard. But it has never been the case that anyone, even priests in the confessional, are supposed to judge whether someone is in mortal sin. The Holy Father has thus raised this legitimate concern (that no one, not even priests should be judging the state of someone's soul) in a way that, by his own silence, fails to clearly rule out heresy in moral theology.

Here we must turn back to the priest's role in Confession, which is not to judge people's hearts. What the priest judges then is the objective evidence of the firm purpose of amendment, not the person's subjective guilt for the sins being confessed, which no man can judge. And with respect to manifest grave sin, public acts that show an objective contradiction to the faith, that objective evidence requires accounting for what is publicly known. If the priest determines that the penitent lacks firm purpose of amendment with respect to either (1) the sin of remarriage, which is public or (2) the sin of adulterous sex, which is entirely private, he should advise that person not to partake of the Eucharist based on the objective evidence of lack of firm purpose of amendment, even if that person might be subjectively inculpable. This is because priests are not in the heart-judging business; they are ministers of the Sacraments, and they must administer them objectively.

To put it another way, mitigating circumstances are retrospective and subjective; contrition is prospective and objective. Moral security is provided by the objective and not the subjective. In the case of (past) remarriage and failing to rectify the situation, it is possible to have such moral security, since there may in fact be objective reasons why one might remain in a union while truly repenting of ever intentionally having done so. That is, it is possible to show objective contrition even while remaining remarried based on objective reasons, such as children of the later marriage or similar responsibilities, which indicate that the person has indeed repented of any sinful intention with respect to the previous fall but is unable to rectify the objective situation without further sin. This is why remarriage in itself, like divorce, might not be considered a manifest grave sin requiring exclusion from the Eucharist: such objective evidence of plausible reasons for the person being unable to rectify the situation may be available. With respect to adulterous sex, on the other hand, firm purpose of amendment requires intent to live as brother and sister unless one has a morally secure basis for considered one's previous marriage null; there simply is no other objective basis for moral security otherwise. That has nothing to do with mitigating circumstances at all, because the relevant consideration for readmission to the Eucharist is objective contrition, not subjective guilt.

Given, then, that the only relevance of Pope Francis's observation of mitigating circumstances as against people (including priests and bystanders at Mass) wrongly attempting to judge people's hearts, Pope Francis's failure to draw these distinctions between the sin of remarriage and the sin of adulterous sex and between objective contrition and subjective guilt is extraordinarily dangerous. It is so dangerous in fact that it has actually led people like Stephen Walford and Pedro Gabriel into material heresy, and if they weren't simply oblivious to these distinctions (primarily due to Pope Francis's failure to even mention them), it would be formal heresy. Pope Francis's desire to chastise people for judging others, which is not wrong in itself, nonetheless has abandoned the sheepfold to predacious wolves in sheep's clothing. He appears to be more concerned with correcting people who are too judgmental in his view than providing guidance to those who are in desperate need of what Pope St. John Paul II refers to as "the grace of conversion and salvation."

IV. AL on firm purpose of amendment

This confusion is enabling dissenters to attempt to use the teaching of AL to make the internal forum purely subjective, a push that has been on since Humanae Vitae. But while the internal forum is definitely not external, in that it is not public, but it is also not purely subjective. It is a dialogue between the subjective, the penitent, and the objective, the priest who requires objective contrition in the form of the firm purpose of amendment. The confessional is where the penitent is made accountable to the objective, even if one's subjective guilt might not have been fully imputable. Even if one had not turned fully to sin, by God's providence, one must still decisively turn away from it in order to be rightly disposed for the Eucharist. This is the metanoia about which Pedro Gabriel writes extensively, but that metanoia is not rationalizing oneself into material heresy based on a misguided loyalty, but instead the requirement we all have to turn from our sin and live.

Pope Francis himself affirms the need for objective amendment in AL 311 fn. 364, when he says "Perhaps out of a certain scrupulosity, concealed beneath a zeal for fidelity to the truth, some priests demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice. For this reason, it is helpful to recall the teaching of Saint John Paul II, who stated that the possibility of a new fall 'should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution.'" Pope Francis does not deny the requirement of firm purpose of amendment, nor does he modify that teaching one iota. Again, what Pope Francis has presented is simply a reiteration of the teaching of Familiaris Consortio. Especially given the quotation of Pope St. John Paul II, the point here must be that failure to remain continent, even if foreseeable, does not exclude the possibility of firm purpose of amendment for the penitent. But this does not say that someone who does not even intend to remain continent has shown contrition and therefore met the objective requirement of firm purpose of amendment. To say that someone who does not even intend to remain continent, even if lacking full culpability for that sin, is nonetheless rightly disposed for the Eucharist is heresy.

This is stated well by the theologian Josef Seifert in his essay Does Pure Logic Threaten to Destroy the Entire Moral Theology of the Catholic Church? In that essay, Seifert puts the point aptly:

The assertion of AL I wish to investigate here, however, does not invoke subjective conscience at all, but claims a totally objective divine will for us to commit, in certain situations, acts that are intrinsically wrong, and have always been considered such by the Church. Since God can certainly not have a lack of ethical knowledge, an “erring conscience,” or a weakness of free will, this text does not “defend the rights of human subjectivity,” as Buttiglione claims, but appears to affirm clearly that these intrinsically disordered and objectively gravely sinful acts, as Buttiglione admits, can be permitted, or can even objectively be commanded, by God. If this is truly what AL affirms, all alarm over AL’s direct affirmations, regarding matters of changes of sacramental discipline (admitting, after due discernment, adulterers, active homosexuals, and other couples in similar situations to the sacraments of confession and eucharist, and, logically, also of baptism, confirmation, and matrimony, without their willingness to change their lives and to live in total sexual abstinence, which Pope John Paul II demanded in Familiaris Consortio from couples in such “irregular situations”), refer only to the peak of an iceberg, to the weak beginning of an avalanche, or to the first few buildings destroyed by a moral theological atomic bomb that threatens to tear down the whole moral edifice of the 10 commandments and of Catholic Moral Teaching.

Must then not from pure logic euthanasia, suicide, or assistance to it, lies, thefts, perjuries, negations or betrayals of Christ, like that of St. Peter, or murder, under some circumstances and after proper “discernment,” be good and praiseworthy because of the complexity of a concrete situation (or because of a lack of ethical knowledge or strength of will)? Can then not God also demand that a Sicilian, who feels obligated to extinguish the innocent family members of a family, whose head has murdered a member of his own family and whose brother would murder four families if he does not kill one, go ahead with his murder, because his act is, under his conditions “what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal”? Does not pure logic demand that we draw this consequence from this proposition of Pope Francis?

However, if the title question of this paper must be answered in the affirmative, as I personally believe to be the case, the purely logical consequence of that one assertion of Amoris Laetitia seems to destroy the entire moral teaching of the Church. Should it not, therefore, be withdrawn and condemned by Pope Francis himself, who no doubt abhors such a consequence, which, if the title question needs to be answered affirmatively, iron and cool logic cannot fail to draw from the cited assertion of Pope Francis?

Quite right, and this is precisely the point. Contrition is conversion, and lack of objective willingness to convert from grave sin, completely and without excuse, does not meet the requirement. That is simply the purpose of amendment required to receive absolution and to rightly dispose oneself for the Eucharist when conscious of grave sin, even if one may not be fully responsible for it. Fortunately, as Seifert himself confirmed with respect to with respect to the later document Gaudate et Exsultate, the Pope did in fact confirm that AL did not change the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II with respect to intrinsically evil acts and the requirement of firm purpose of amendment not to commit them. While I agree with Seifert's concerns outlined above, I also believe that this section of AL, when correctly read, is directed at the harsh judgment of those who despite the teaching of Familiaris Consortio were still denying the Sacraments on the grounds that the couple might fail to remain continent. That is what the footnote concerning purpose of amendment seems to be addressing, not that a priest can ever license access to the Eucharist without firm purpose of amendment from adulterous sex, but that a priest can and should give the benefit of the doubt that those who fail to remain continent do not necessarily lack the will to try. But Seifert is right to say that it is an absurdly risky decision to leave people to the pitfalls of trying to connect these dots when Pope Francis could simply say this outright.

Nor does the Buenos Aires interpretation of AL, which the Pope authoritatively indicated was correct, make the matter any clearer. On this point, the guidelines read as follows:

5) Whenever feasible, and depending on the specific circumstances of a couple, and especially when both partners are Christians walking together on the path of faith, the priest may suggest a decision to live in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties arising from this option (cf. footnote 329) and offers the possibility of having access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if the partners fail in this purpose (cf. footnote 364, recalling the teaching that Saint John Paul II sent to Cardinal W. Baum, dated 22 March, 1996).

6) In other, more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.

We have already covered that the Pope has not in AL granted anyone a prospective license to sin, so that firm purpose of amendment is not required. On the contrary, he reiterates that "purpose of amendment" is necessary. So understanding this as a license to unrepentant adulterous sex cannot be what is intended. Apart from being blatantly heretical, it contradicts what the Pope has affirmed, and while Pope Francis is not always the most careful theologian, one must presume that he is not so confused that he would assert that black is white.

Correctly understood, then, the interpretive task here is not so difficult. In #5, the "decision" is a decision as a couple, which is apparent from the immediate context. In other words, the priest should suggest that the couple together agree to remain continent. If that process of mutual decision is not feasible (#6) but there are nonetheless mitigating circumstances for the person to remain in the remarried union (the objectively sinful state) despite the foreseeable risks that one's partner may not agree to remain continent despite one's own sincere intent to do so and that one might not be able to maintain one's own resolve, such a person is not thereby excluded automatically excluded from the Sacraments.  But they would absolutely be excluded if the person in question had no intent to remain continent. If that were the case, then there would be no firm purpose of amendment, and the confessor should instead bind that person not to partake of the Eucharist until such purpose of amendment is achieved.

V. Progressive wolves and vulnerable laymen

I have pointed out that the progressive wolves in the Church have been attempting to remove the objective requirement of firm purpose of amendment and to make the internal forum purely subjective for years. There is now a class of supporters of Pope St. John Paul II, including most prominently Rocco Buttiglione, who have been duped into believing that the sainted Pope's teaching on mitigating circumstances has somehow rendered the internal forum purely subjective. In this respect, I believe that his sincere compassion for remarried Catholics has caused him to disregard the maxim "do not become so soft-hearted that you become soft-headed," but this mistake has caused him to overlook the massive danger that Seifert points out. People need to be called to repentance and hope in God's grace! Walford and Gabriel have both fallen into the same trap. In that respect, these people are serving as what under Communism were called "useful idiots," well-meaning people who have nonetheless been duped into serving the purposes of manipulative progressives.

Based on what I have outlined before, there are two heretical subjectivist propositions that have crept into otherwise-conservative theology:
1. One can have moral security in one's lack of culpability in objectively doubtful circumstances apart from Confession.
2. Mitigating circumstances can prospectively modify the requirement of firm purpose of amendment.

Nowhere does AL teach either of these propositions, but Walford and Gabriel (and Buttiglione) make them central axioms of their (materially) heretical moral theology. And, as expected, the doctrine of mitigating circumstances, which is only relevant to the extent that observers are wrongly judging others, has somehow been transformed into a key principle of Sacramental theology. Thus, both Walford and Gabriel go "all in" on the license-to-sin interpretation of AL that Seifert warned against.

This mistake is prominent in Gabriel's work The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia:

Only mortal sin precluded the sinner from the Eucharist, and not every sexual sin fitted the requirements for a mortal sin: subjective culpability had to be ascertained. Pope Francis just extended this logic one step further, to people to whom this process was barred before: the divorced and remarried. Amoris Laetitia was orthodox after all!

Likewise in Walford's Pope Francis, The Family, and Divorce:

Regardless of personal opinions or understandings, we must ask ourselves: if these souls are not in a state of mortal sin and possibly not even bearing much guilt -- as authentic moral theology attests -- what right do I have to demand that their own personal meeting with the Lord does not happen?

Assuming that one has not entirely capitulated to progressivism in moral theology, then a priest-confessor has the same right that has always been defended and enshrined in canons 915 and 916: to require a penitent to display objective contrition before approaching the Eucharist. One's state of grace, one's subjective culpability, is in the end known only to God. In general, the only way to be morally certain that one is not guilty of grave sin (the term used in canon 916) is to receive absolution in Confession, which requires firm purpose of amendment. The teaching on mitigating circumstances is certainly not intended to introduce a purely subjective "am I in mortal sin?" test that removes the objectivity of contrition.

It is because of their complete disregard for the requirement of objective contrition that both Gabriel and Walford take the pastoral "good faith" exception for ignorance entirely out of context. The "good faith" exception is directed to sins that are not confessed that the priest-confessor would need to elicit from the penitent and directs the priest's inquiry into such matters. I have reproduced relevant sections from the Vadamecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, which is mistakenly cited in support of Gabriel's and Walford's views, in their entirety (my emphasis in bold) so that the distinction can be seen:

2. The minister of Reconciliation should always keep in mind that the sacrament has been instituted for men and women who are sinners. Therefore, barring manifest proof to the contrary, he will receive the penitents who approach the confessional taking for granted their good will to be reconciled with the merciful God, a good will that is born, although in different degrees, of a contrite and humbled heart (Psalm 50:19).

3. When occasional penitents approach the sacrament, those who have not confessed for a long time and manifest a grave general situation, it is necessary, before asking direct and concrete questions with regard to responsible procreation and chastity in general, to enlighten them so that they can understand these duties in a vision of faith. Thus it will be necessary, if the accusation of sins has been too succinct or mechanical, to help the penitents to place their life before God, and, with general questions on various virtues and/or obligations in accordance with their personal conditions, remind them in a positive way of the invitation to the sanctity of love, and of the importance of their duties in the area of procreation and the education of children.

4. When it is the penitent who asks questions or seeks clarification on specific points, even if only implicitly, the confessor will have to respond adequately, but always with prudence and discretion, without approving erroneous opinions.

5. The confessor is bound to admonish penitents regarding objectively grave transgressions of God's law and to ensure that they truly desire absolution and God's pardon with the resolution to re-examine and correct their behaviour. Frequent relapse into sins of contraception does not in itself constitute a motive for denying absolution; absolution cannot be imparted, however, in the absence of sufficient repentance or of the resolution not to fall again into sin.

6. The penitent who regularly confesses with the same priest frequently seeks something besides absolution alone. The confessor needs to know how to provide guidance to help him or her to improve in all Christian virtues, and, in consequence, in the sanctification of marital life. This certainly will be easier where a relationship of actual spiritual direction exists, even if this name is not used.

7. On the part of the penitent, the sacrament of Reconciliation requires sincere sorrow, a formally complete accusation of mortal sins, and the resolution, with the help of God, not to fall into sin again. In general, it is not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in invincible ignorance of their evil, or due to an inculpable error of judgment. Although these sins are not imputable, they do not cease, however, to be an evil and a disorder. This also holds for the objective evil of contraception, which introduces a pernicious habit into the conjugal life of the couple. It is therefore necessary to strive in the most suitable way to free the moral conscience from those errors which contradict the nature of conjugal life as a total gift.

Though one must keep in mind that the formation of consciences is to be accomplished above all in catechesis for married couples, both general or specific, it is always necessary to assist the spouses, also in the moment of the sacrament of Reconciliation, to examine themselves on the specific duties of conjugal life. Whenever the confessor considers it necessary to question the penitent, he should do so with discretion and respect.

8. The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin. Nonetheless, in these cases, the confessor must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God's plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church.

9. The pastoral "law of gradualness", not to be confused with the "gradualness of the law" which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.

10. On the other hand, to presume to make one's own weakness the criterion of moral truth is unacceptable. From the very first proclamation of the word of Jesus, Christians realize that there is a "disproportion" between the moral law, natural and evangelical, and the human capacity. They equally understand that the recognition of their own weakness is the necessary and secure road by which the doors to God's mercy will be opened.

11. Sacramental absolution is not to be denied to those who, repentant after having gravely sinned against conjugal chastity, demonstrate the desire to strive to abstain from sinning again, notwithstanding relapses. In accordance with the approved doctrine and practice followed by the holy Doctors and confessors with regard to habitual penitents, the confessor is to avoid demonstrating lack of trust either in the grace of God or in the dispositions of the penitent, by exacting humanly impossible absolute guarantees of an irreproachable future conduct.

The use of the terms "inquire" and "investigate" in this context is unambiguous: it refers to the inquiry into sins that have not been confessed. With respect to those sins that have been confessed or other "objectively grave transgressions" raised in the accusation of sins (even if the penitent denies full responsibility), these are matters that cannot be ignored or placed under the "good faith" umbrella. The priest-confessor may not be required to elicit that recognition from the penitent, as is the case when the penitent is objectively ignorant that the conduct is even a sin, but it would be dereliction of his duty to fail to require objective contrition once the penitent knows that the conduct is sinful, even if he does not think he is fully culpable. And the very fact that the penitent is pursuing a path of discernment concerning objective sin necessarily places this matter in the consciousness of both the priest-confessor and the penitent. In that regard, with respect to the moral duty to regularize the union, it is possible that one shows objective contrition if one sincerely has looked for opportunities to rectify the past mistake and continues to do so. But with respect to the moral duty not to have adulterous sex, one must at the very least intend not to do so in the future in order to make a "decisive break with sin." Mercy recognizes that those who try may fail and may need to return to God's mercy again and again, but the difference between those who resolve to sin no more, while falling short and those who make no such resolution is as wide as the gap between Heaven and Hell.

Again, to reiterate the constant moral teaching of the Church, mitigation is retrospective and subjective, and contrition is prospective and objective. This is not to say that the two things are entirely unrelated, and that is why mitigating circumstances are a legitimate factor in discernment, not to give a license for future conduct but to understand why a person might fail despite good intentions. If a person repeatedly came to Confession without such explanations, then the priest might reasonably question whether the person was truly committed not to commit the sin in the future. But if the failure was likely less culpable or not culpable, then this is evidence that the person is sincerely trying but failing due to weakness or ignorance as opposed to malevolence. This has nothing to do with inquiring into unconfessed sins, which the "good faith" practice addresses, but rather with too harshly judging what those sins the penitent knows and has brought forward, including the failure to regularize one's marital situation. Amoris Laetitia is then not about giving anyone a license to sin but rather recognizing that there can be people who are sincerely trying not to sin who are nonetheless (1) in situations where it might be difficult to avoid doing so, perhaps not even as a result of their own fault and (2) inculpably remaining in such situations that are difficult or impossible to exit. Some might even be in a situation where they have objective reasons for believing that they were not previously married but cannot practically verify them in any external way, such as by a tribunal, in which case one might have objective reasons to believe that one's current union is not adulterous. But in all cases, the prospective action of the penitent in these matters of discernment is evaluated objectively and not subjectively

But Pope Francis should know the teaching of objective contrition has been under assault for decades. The progressive "am I in mortal sin?" standard for absolution rather than the "have I engaged in objectively sinful conduct from which I must repent?" standard has blurred the objective "grave sin" standard used, inter alia, in canon 916 and the Vadamecum. In speaking about "mortal sin," Pope Francis should know as a shepherd that the wolves are about to pounce. But as with Fr. Julio Martinez and Fr. Miguel YaƱez or his own preface to Walford's book, he not only fails to warn against the wolves but also gives them a podium in the middle of the flock. I am obliged as a Catholic to give religious submission of the intellect and will to Amoris Laetitia, and I will absolutely defend that Pope Francis has affirmed the constant teaching of the Church that objective contrition, including intent to remain continent, is required for absolution and access to the Eucharist. But he has done nothing to forestall the progressive "license to sin" interpretation, as evidenced by the fact that even his defenders have been duped into believing it.

Indeed, Gabriel's "am I in mortal sin?" interpretation of access to the Eucharist, bereft of the requirement of objective contrition, is so corrupted that he fails to interpret not only Amoris Laetitia but Familiaris Consortio wrongly. For example, Gabriel asserts of Familiaris Consortio that "no civilly remarried person can receive the Eucharist unless he or she abides by total continence." That is nothing other than the dogmatic teaching of objective contrition: no person is rightly disposed for the Eucharist unless he has turned from all grave sins of which he is conscious with firm purpose of amendment. It is not FC alone that teaches this, but the unwavering dogma of the Catholic Church. What Amoris Laetitia changed was whether such people could receive the Eucharist in public as opposed to remoto scandolo, and this is reasonably a disciplinary question concerning the judgment of whether being remarried constitutes a state of "public and permanent adultery" so as to constitute "manifest grave sin." In that regard, Pope Francis has essentially extended the previous teaching concerning divorce (that is, that there may be publicly accessible reasons demonstrating either lack of sinful intent or inability to rectify the consequences of past actions) to apply to remarriage.

What Gabriel misses is that public celebration of the Eucharist is a matter of the external forum that is reasonably subject to sacramental discipline, albeit only in a matter consistent with the underlying doctrine on faith and morals. In his reasoning, though, he has confused the objective requirements of the external forum with the objective requirements of the internal forum, instead concluding that the internal forum is purely a matter of subjective culpability ("am I in mortal sin?"). He explicitly cites Rocco Buttiglione (convincingly rebutted by Seifert on the subject of objective contrition) and Fr. Paul Keller, who has constructed an example of the "correct" (read: progressive) application of Amoris Laetitia as a license to sin so absurd that it amounts to a canonical crime. Walford's own example of a remarried couple (emphasis in bold) is as ridiculous as Fr. Keller's:

In this new union they have tried to live hard as brother and sister, but their attempts have caused great tension and constant arguments. The husband is now fighting temptations against impurity of various kinds. The peace of the home is fragmenting and the children are being affected. No longer are the arguments kept behind closed doors, but abuse is being hurled across the room while the children play. There is a real danger of the home becoming a quasi-war zone, and possibly a family break-up is imminent. Not only have the children had to experience this, but they have also not experienced for a considerable time any affection between their parents; on the contrary, coldness has been apparent even in the "good" times. They are confused; what they hear preached at Church is not replicated at home. The older ones are asking questions why mom and dad no longer love each other, and there is the distinct possibility they begin to see nothing beneficial in Catholicism based on their experience at home; in fact, there is the danger of blame being attributed to the faith.

At this point, the parents make the decision that living celibate lives is unworkable. They say to God: "We cannot continue like this, we don't have the strength even though we have tried. For our children, we are now witnesses for the devil more than you. We are spreading poison and it is ruining them. If we continue this, we are causing greater evil, and we feel we may turn the children away from the faith. Our conscience tells us we risk breaking the fifth commandment and in a real sense, destroying their emotional and spiritual lives. It is our honest intention to flee from all these evils including the sexual relationship, and we long to live lives of purity. We ask your constant forgiveness even though our weakness means we cannot fulfill what you desire from us. We shall strive in whatever way we can to respond to your grace knowing that your love and mercy will lead us to salvation. As proof of our good intention, what we lack now, we will make up for in other areas; in almsgiving and fasting.

It is difficult to imagine a clearer repudiation of the theological virtue of hope than the statement that turning away from sin "is unworkable." Far from "knowing that your love and mercy will lead us to salvation," the couple has positively denied any such belief. They do not believe God's grace is coming, to the point that they have decided to give up entirely. They have decided, contrary to Paul's warning to "do evil so that good may come of it," to break the sixth commandment in order to (ostensibly) avoid breaking the fifth. That is not a good intention in any sense; their efforts to "make up" for it are attempts to somehow pay God off with good works to excuse an evil intention, but they show no proof of a good one. In short, this is a couple who has given up hope, as evidenced by the lack of firm purpose of amendment. They are not even trying anymore.

Gabriel is equally ridiculous in his attempts to justify the "license to sin" interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. (Note that I have omitted what I consider an extraordinarily offensive analogy involving rape that Gabriel used to justify his position, which I have become convinced was simply due to an error in judgment but which is nonetheless quite shocking.)

Some critics, who actually understand the doctrinal core of Amoris Laetitia, will claim that the teaching on mitigating circumstances is being misapplied here [in prospective mitigation]. As I said before in chapter 4, the "while not yet fully the objective ideal" wording implies that the sinful behavior might persist for some time, while the pastor tries to bring the sinner back into full communion with the church. According to these critics, this is wrong because mitigating circumstances only apply retroactively.

In other words, "mitigating circumstances" are useful guides for a sinner to perform a conscience exam after the sin has been committed. If, after this conscience exam, the sinner determines he had no full consent while performing the sin, he is not in mortal sin and can receive communion. This is very different -- so it is argued -- from someone saying "I have mitigating circumstances, so I have permission to sin in the future." This would open the Eucharist to impenitent sinners, who have no firm resolution not to sin again.

I believe this is a warped version of what Pope Francis intends to implement. As I explained in chapter 6, it is a misinterpretation to claim that communion should be given to impenitent sinners. Francis is quite clear that this process of pastoral discernment is open only to people with "humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God's will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it." This is not a description of an impenitent sinner. Nor can we say this person has no firm resolution not to sin again, because mitigating circumstances are encumbering such resolution: "the possibility of a new fall should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution."

In light of this, we should stop thinking about sinners who self-justify themselves as "I have mitigating circumstances, so I have permission to sin in the future," since those are excluded from the discernment process as laid out by #300. On the contrary, we should start thinking instead about sinners who worry, "I have mitigating circumstances that will not disappear in the foreseeable future. I do not want to sin, but need grace to help me with this situation; the sacraments would help." 

In the first place, Gabriel had previously contradicted Amoris Laetitia at one point when he said that "[i]n certain situations where the new union cannot be legitimately regularized, this 'objective ideal' would be living and brother and sister." The Holy Father has been absolutely clear that the "objective ideal" is objectively living the Church's marital teaching, so Gabriel has already misinterpreted AL to think that it waives the requirement of martial continence, which is what he mistakenly thinks "Pope Francis intends to implement." (As I have pointed out, he clearly does not, but Gabriel has been duped by Rocco Buttiglione into thinking that he does.) But even apart from that, as the bolded text shows he believes that mitigating circumstances can apply to the resolution not to sin! This is, of course, a blatant denial of the objective requirement of firm purpose of amendment and the theological virtue of hope. The fact that there is a possibility of a new fall does not negate the possibility of a firm purpose of amendment, but it certainly does not excuse the requirement of making such a resolution right now. So once again, we have seen the false hope of mitigation offered in place of true hope in God.

Someone who believe in true Christian metanoia would never say "I have mitigating circumstances." They could only ever say "I had mitigating circumstances in my old life of sin, but by God's grace, I have turned away from my old life of sin, and I hope in God's grace to keep me from sin hereafter." To rely on mitigating circumstances from one's past mistakes is to deny hope; there is no third option. So contrary to Gabriel's assertion, if "mitigating circumstances are encumbering" the resolution not to sin again, that person is most certainly impenitent. Contrition is a requirement for one to be penitent, and firm purpose of amendment is required for contrition. Gabriel's assertion here is a direct denial of the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.

And this is what Gabriel misses: the "small step" that Pope Francis describes in Amoris Laetitia is exactly this resolution to be continent, the same one described in Familiaris Consortio. It is Gabriel's mistake to think that Pope Francis has changed the teaching in the internal forum at all. But Pope Francis means this tiny resolution to do better is "a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties" (AL 305). This is metanoia when the circumstances seem impossible, but where the Christian does not give up hope. To take that hope away from them, as Buttiglione, Keller, Gabriel, and Walford would do, and to say that these "mitigating circumstances" are simply too much for God has nothing to do with mercy.

Gabriel notes in his response that progressives "think [Pope Francis] is a kind of Trojan horse that will be used to change the church into the form they want." I agree with Gabriel that Pope Francis is not; AL addressed the public participation of the remarried in the Eucharist without ever once modifying the requirements of continence and firm purpose of amendment in the internal forum. In other words, Pope Francis never taught the heretical progressive moral theology. The real Trojan horse is Gabriel himself, along with those like him who ostensibly support the moral teaching of Pope St. John Paul II while being duped into serving progressive ends. My hope is that they will realize that they are being exploited to peddle the "license to sin" interpretation.