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Is Pope Francis a Heretic?

The apostolic exhortation of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (Latin, “The Joy of Love"), promulgated March 19, 2016, has caused quite a stir. Because my colleague Jimmy Akin has already written an excellent synopsis of it, I was not planning to write about it.

But because the questions about Amoris Laetitia,which I will refer to as “AL,” seem to keep coming—some few even accusing Pope Francis of heresy—I decided to jump into the fray. In this post I will outline the controversy.

There are nine chapters in the document, but I am going to focus on chapter 8 (though I will mention other parts as well) and the famous “footnote #351," which has been the source of virtually all of the questions I have received. If you have not read the rest of it, I encourage you to do so. There is much in AL that is good, beautiful, and true and that helps you understand the whole document. It is packed with solid Catholic doctrine and practical application concerning our Faith. But, unfortunately, many seem to have overlooked the good due to the confusion caused mainly by what I argue are faulty interpretations of chapter 8.

Let’s see if we can clear up the confusion.

So what is the controversy?

In a nutshell, Pope Francis made a pastoral and prudential judgment to change the practice of the Church that in the past absolutely, and in every situation, forbade any Catholic who had divorced and remarried outside the Church to receive Holy Communion. No exceptions. But in so doing he made very clear he was not and is not changing a single doctrine of Catholic Faith. In fact, he did not even change a single law of the Church, notwithstanding all of the accusations to the contrary.

The Pope was quite simply applying what is a commonly held teaching of the magisterium—everyone who commits an objectively grave sin is not necessarily culpable of mortal sin—to the particular situation of people who have divorced and remarried without having received an annulment.

It is indeed the perennial teaching of the Church that In order to commit a mortal sin, one must:

1. Commit an act that is objectively grave.
2. Have knowledge that what he is about to commit is, in fact, a grave sin.
3. Freely engage his will in carrying out that gravely immoral act.

The Church also teaches that there are many factors involved in the process of human persons committing sins that can contribute to decreasing a person’s culpability to the point where he would not be culpable of mortal sin.

In AL 301-302, Pope Francis makes these same points clear, employing first the always lucid teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 65, art. 3 ad 2; De Malo, q. 2, art. 2) in paragraph 301, and then, and more importantly, the teaching of theCatechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 302:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors" (citing CCC 1735). In another paragraph, theCatechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability" (citing CCC 2352). For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person.

This is indisputable Catholic teaching, folks.

So is it possible that a married Catholic couldfind himself a situation where he is divorced and remarried outside of the Church and yet not be culpable of mortal in? According to both Pope Francis and the teaching of the Catholic Church, yes, it is possible. A person could be living in an objectively grave state of sin but have his culpability for that sin either reduced to the level of venial sin, or even to the point of no culpability at all.

If we understand this to be so, the conclusion necessarily follows: A person living in a situation of objective grave sin (remarried outside the Church) yet not subjectively and mortally culpable for that sin would not have an impediment to receiving the Eucharist according to divine law. According to divine law, only a mortal sin impedes a validly baptized Catholic from licitly receiving the Eucharist. Venial sin does not so impede him (CCC 1457).

I say “divine law" here for a very important reason. That this was not permitted before, as we will see below, was a matter of the “practice" of the Church—a matter of prudential judgment, not doctrine—as presented by Pope St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortationFamiliaris Consortio 84, a document I shall henceforth refer to as FC. This was never divine law.

But I get ahead of myself.

Though Pope Francis makes clear this possibility of a person living in an objectively grave state yet not mortally culpable is an “irregular" (AL305) and even “exceptional" (AL307) situation—and thus, I think we could argue, a rare situation—we have to acknowledge that here, on the objective level, the Pope is right. Hence, the now famous footnote #351 makes sense when it says of those in such situations:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.". . . I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."

In tomorrow’s post I will identify and respond to the three main objections to Amoris Laetitia. Stay tuned.

Yesterday I outlined the controversy over Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Now let’s break down what I have found to be the three key and most common objections to AL. The first two are closely related, so we’ll consider them together:

The objections

  1. Pope Francis is claimed to give tacit approval to adultery when he posits “extraordinary" cases where a Catholic is divorced from a presumably valid nuptial union, remarried outside of the Church, and yet be able to receive communion licitly in the Church.
  2. Pope Francis is claimed to contradict divine law as laid out plainly by our Lord himself in the Gospels: “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; see Mark 10:11-12, Matt. 19:9, I Cor. 7:10-11).

A Catholic response

The pope made quite clear that he is not giving any sort of approval to adultery. In paragraph 297, he says:

[I]f someone flaunts [flouts] 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. Matt. 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the gospel message and its call to conversion.

Our Holy Father uses the language of excommunication here. I don’t know if he could have been any more forceful.

In paragraph 295, Pope Francis agrees with Pope St. John Paul II, from FC, that there can never be a change in the divine law of God. The moral law is given to us as a gift from God. He reminds us that it was St. John Paul II who:

. . . proposed the so-called “law of gradualness" in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth" (FC 34). This is not a “gradualness of law" but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. The law is itself a gift of God that points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life" (ibid., 9).

Pope Francis also made clear “in order to avoid all misunderstanding" that he is in opposition to any who would water down the gospel. He says the essential truth of the gospel must be proclaimed in its entirety, including the indissolubility of marriage:

In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: “Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church." A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown (AL307).

Pope Francis is not talking about changing, or even making “exceptions" to, the sixth commandment or the Sermon on the Mount; he is talking about whether or not individuals can break a commandment while not being fully culpable for it. And the answer is: yes they can.

  1. The claim is made that Pope Francis contradicts a doctrinaldeclaration of Pope St. John Paul II, in FC 84:

[T]he 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.

The operative word here is “practice." There is not even a question as to divine law here, as we said above. Pope Francis is not denying divine law. It is the “practice" of the Church that Pope Francis is changing. This is a matter of prudential judgment in a juridical matter, not doctrine.

It is interesting to note that in his decision making process Pope Francis is actually building upon principles laid out in FC. He refers to John Paul’s “law of gradualness" (FC34); and we could add here Pope St. John Paul II’s acknowledgment that there are levels of culpability in these cases of divorce and remarriage:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid (FC84).

John Paul II does makes clear that, even in these cases of reduced culpability, the divorced and remarried would not be permitted to receive Communion, and for two reasons. First, he mentions their “objective state," and second because of the real possibility of scandal, as we saw above. These are both very strong reasons for the “practice" of Pope St. John Paul II. But these are both matters of prudential judgment, not doctrine.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, acknowledges that his judgment in this matter presents a danger of confusion in its application: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion" (AL308). He understands that there is a greater need for ongoing pastoral discernment in the lives of these who live in these “irregular" situations. For example, pastors must ensure that whatever mitigating factors there may be continue in their lives (AL301-302, 307). And he understands the pastoral need to ensure that the ninety-nine are not scandalized as a result of the shepherd’s concern for the one (AL299).

This is no small undertaking our Holy Father is advocating.

And to be frank with you, I do not think Pope Francis’s decision is the most prudent. I am inclined toward the wisdom of Pope St. John Paul II on this. At the same time, I fear that in making that statement I may be standing in opposition to the heart of the Good Shepherd. Could it be differing times require differing prudential judgments? Is it providential that this decision comes in the midst of this extraordinary year of divine mercy (see AL309)?

I don’t know. But I am intrigued by Pope Francis’s words echoing those of the Good Shepherd:

The Bride of Christ must pattern her behavior after the Son of God who goes out to everyone without exception. She knows that Jesus himself is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst" (ibid.).

By Tim Staples



  1. Bill Reply

    The truth should not be so complicated unless someone is looking for an excuse to avoid the difficult task of Christian living….he who controls the words controls the debate…each of us will be judged and accountable for what we have done or omitted to do….including especially the Pope….do not mince words Jesus never did!!

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “It is indeed the perennial teaching of the Church that In order to commit a mortal sin, one must:
    1. Commit an act that is objectively grave.
    2. Have knowledge that what he is about to commit is, in fact, a grave sin.
    3. Freely engage his will in carrying out that gravely immoral act."
    We have a problem with number one right off the bat. Using contraception, loving a partner of the same sex, masturbating, or even having an abortion, are not necessarily objectively grave acts. Given the millions of people who disagree with the Church, it’s clear that these acts are only subjectively grave, as compared with something like murder, which almost everyone would agree, is an objectively grave act.
    Of course if you don’t think that what you are about to do is a grave sin, like use contraception, or masturbate or love a fellow human of the same sex, then you don’t have “knowledge" that your action is a grave sin. All you have is the voices of celibate, virgins dressed in robes who hail from the Iron Age, trying to convince you that it’s a grave sin – but they don’t know any more about gods or afterlives than anyone else, as there is no “objective" evidence for these things in the first place.
    I think most people are let off the hook, by number three, having determined in their own mind and in conjunction with other civilized humans, and based on a higher morality than any of the Abrahamic religions offers, that they are not committing a gravely immoral act.
    But please do maintain the Iron Age rules. That ensures the RCC will continue to drive people out and that means saving children from falling into the grips of an organization that is manically obsessive about what we do with our clothes off. The Pope is trying to create these loopholes because he knows the Church is chasing people and in particular the next generation and their kids away. Few in western countries convert to Catholicism, so it’s mandatory that they indoctrinate the kids or continue to lose ground at ever increasing rates.

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