1.0 Mortal Sin

This objection, as stated in the first Dubia of the four Cardinals, is that it is not:

“[P]ossible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance, and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 34 and Sacramentum Caritatis 29“.

1.1 Doctrinal Background of the Objection

The impediment to the D&R not living in complete continence receiving Holy Communion, referred to in this objection, is expressed in the discipline of the Church by Canon 916:

A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to … receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession”.  

As made clear in CCC 1385, this law expresses the doctrinal truth taught by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-31:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world”.   

The impediment for these same people from obtaining sacramental absolution, referred to in this objection, is expressed in Chapter 4 of the 14th Session of the Council of Trent (quoted by CCC 1451):

Contrition, which holds the first place amongst the aforesaid acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of mind, and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future. This movement of contrition was at all times necessary for obtaining the pardon of sins; and, in one who has fallen after baptism, it then at length prepares for the remissions of sins, when it is united with confidence in the divine mercy, and with the desire of performing the other things which are required for rightly receiving this sacrament”.

Further, as confirmed in Canon 22 of the Second Lateran Council, all relevant sins are required to be confessed in order to obtain sacramental absolution:

[T[here is one thing that conspicuously causes great disturbance to holy church, namely, false penance, we warn our brothers in the episcopate and priests not to allow the souls of the laity to be deceived or dragged off to hell by false penances. It is agreed that a penance is false when many sins are disregarded and a penance is performed for one only, or when it is done for one sin in such a way that the penitent does not renounce another. Thus it is written: Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point, has become guilty of all of it; this evidently pertains to eternal life”.   

1.2 Teaching of AL

This objection arises because AL teaches that there are circumstances where it is possible to admit the D&R not living in complete continence to the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion.

The sections of AL which do this are summarised by the Buenos Aires Directive, in relation to which Pope Francis has confirmed:

“The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations”.   

The Buenos Aires Directive provides that:

If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351)”.

These footnotes, being 336 and 351, demonstrate that the basis for the possibility of access to the Sacraments is reduced culpability. Footnote 336 forms part of AL 300, which states:

What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same”.

Footnote 336 itself then goes on to state:

This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists. In such cases, what is found in another document applies: cf. Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), 44 and 47”.  

EG 44, referred to in this footnote, provides “pastors … must always remember” what CCC 1735teaches quite clearly”. In this regard CCC 1735 states:

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”.  

This reference to CCC 1735 is further reinforced in AL 302, which quotes it as well as CCC 2352, to confirm that:

[A] negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved”.   

In this regard, CCC 2352 states:

“To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability”.

AL 302, in Footnotes 344, 345 and 346, also refers to the following precedents in respect of reduced culpability:

Similarly, Footnote 351 forms part of AL 305, which states:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. 

Footnote 351 itself then goes on to state “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments”.

1.3 Reduced Culpability and Mortal Sin

The relevance of reduced culpability for access to the Sacraments is its relationship to the distinction between mortal and venial sin. For a sin to be mortal, rather than venial, CCC 1857-1860 provides three conditions must together be met:

“Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” …

Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man … Do not commit adultery

Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin …

Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest”.   

In this regard, as outlined by RP 17, objective grave sin and subjective mortal sin are sometimes conflated in practice:

Considering sin from the point of view of its matter, the ideas of death, of radical rupture with God, the supreme good, of deviation from the path that leads to God or interruption of the journey toward him (which are all ways of defining mortal sin) are linked with the idea of the gravity of sin’s objective content. Hence, in the church’s doctrine and pastoral action, grave sin is in practice identified with mortal sin”.

However, as recognised by VS 70 and RP 17 in light of the Council of Trent, they are not in fact the same:

The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia reaffirmed the importance and permanent validity of the distinction between mortal and venial sins, in accordance with the Church’s tradition. And the 1983 Synod of Bishops … “not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of mortal and venial sins, but it also recalled that mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent“.

The statement of the Council of Trent does not only consider the “grave matter” of mortal sin; it also recalls that its necessary condition is “full awareness and deliberate consent”. In any event, both in moral theology and in pastoral practice one is familiar with cases in which an act which is grave by reason of its matter does not constitute a mortal sin because of a lack of full awareness or deliberate consent on the part of the person performing it”.

As noted above, CCC 1735 and 2352 provide examples of the factors which can limit full knowledge and complete consent, and thus reduce subjective culpability for an objectively grave sin from mortal to venial. For instance these can be limited by:

  • Full knowledge – Ignorance or inadvertence.
  • Full consent – Duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, affective immaturity, conditions of anxiety or other psychological and social factors.

The principle that reduced subjective culpability can render all objective grave sins (even those intrinsically evil) subjectively venial was confirmed by Pope St John Paul II on a number of occasions, including:

  • Canon 1324 – “The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed … by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls”.
  • RP 16 and 17 – “This individual may be conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external factors. He may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits linked with his personal condition. In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt [T]here exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful Clearly there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability”.
  • CCC 1754 – “The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil”.
  • VS 63 and 81 – “It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good … If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it”.
  • EE 37 – “The judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience.

These confirmations are based on the traditional moral theology of the Church, which provides that subjective factors which render an act less than voluntary such as invincible ignorance and a lack of consent can reduce culpability, as seen in:

For example St Alphonsus Liguori, in his Sermon XLVII, taught:

It is not the bad thought, but the consent to it, that is sinful. All the malice of mortal sin consists in a bad will, in giving to a sin a perfect consent, with full advertence to the malice of the sin. Hence St. Augustine teaches, that where there is no consent there can be no sin … (De Vera Eel, cap. xiv.) Though the temptation, the rebellion of the senses, or the evil motion of the inferior parts, should be very violent, there is no sin, as long as there is no consent. ” Non nocet sensus,” says St. Bernard, “ubi non est consensus.” (De Inter. Domo., cap. xix.)”.

Similarly, the ability of grave fear and necessity to reduce culpability for intrinsic evils, was taught for example by Canon 2205 of the 1917 CCL:

Grave fear, even relatively such, necessity and also great inconvenience, excuse as a rule from all guilt, if there is question of purely ecclesiastical laws … If, however, the act is intrinsically evil, or involves contempt of faith or of ecclesiastical authority, or the harm of souls, the circumstances spoken of in the preceding paragraph do indeed diminish the responsibility but do not take it away”.

The application of these principles to sins of a sexual nature is well established. For example the CDF, in 1975, stated in Persona Humana at 10:

It is true that in sins of the sexual order, in view of their kind and their causes, it more easily happens that free consent is not fully given; this is a fact which calls for caution in all judgment as to the subject’s responsibility. In this matter it is particularly opportune to recall the following words of Scripture: “Man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.” However, although prudence is recommended in judging the subjective seriousness of a particular sinful act, it in no way follows that one can hold the view that in the sexual field mortal sins are not committed”.

Further, the application of this principle to the D&R was confirmed under Pope St John Paul II in the 2000 PCLT Declaration, which stated that:

[T]o establish the presence of all the conditions required for the existence of mortal sin, including those which are subjective, necessitating a judgment of a type that a minister of Communion could not make ab externo

[B]eing that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability”.

That this declaration does indeed apply the principle of reduced culpability to the D&R was further confirmed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in his 2004 CDF Memo at 7:

When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it” (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics” [2002], nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin”.  

Indeed this fact is also acknowledged in the notes to the third Dubia of the four Cardinals:

In its “Declaration,” of June 24, 2000, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts seeks to clarify Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion.” The Pontifical Council’s “Declaration” argues that this canon is applicable also to faithful who are divorced and civilly remarried. It spells out that “grave sin” has to be understood objectively, given that the minister of the Eucharist has no means of judging another person’s subjective imputability.

Thus, for the “Declaration,” the question of the admission to the sacraments is about judging a person’s objective life situation and not about judging that this person is in a state of mortal sin. Indeed, subjectively he or she may not be fully imputable or not be imputable at all

Hence, the distinction referred to by Amoris Laetitia between the subjective situation of mortal sin and the objective situation of grave sin is indeed well established in the Church’s teaching”.

Further, prior to AL, the Church also taught that reduced culpability can render other objectively grave sins venial rather than mortal, including same sex relations, abortion, suicide, euthanasia and artificial contraception. The precedents in relation to these sins are separately considered by this Apologia at 7.0 Slippery Slope, particularly at 7.2 Reduced Culpability and Canon 916.

1.4 Internal Forum and Nullity

AL provides a number of examples of different circumstances the D&R may find themselves in, which must be adequately distinguished by a careful discernment. One of the examples noted by AL, quoting FC 84, is where a person is subjectively certain in conscience their first marriage was never valid (AL 298):

The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment … There are also the cases … “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”.

The need to “exercise careful discernment of situations” and a recognition that “[t]here is in fact a difference” in these circumstances was already acknowledged by FC 84.

The basis for this difference is that while “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man” (CCC 1860) such as the Sixth Commandment that “You shall not commit adultery”, a conscience which errs or is ignorant of the validity of a marriage, does not mortally sin due to a lack of full knowledge. As noted by St Thomas Aquinas in his ST I-II, q. 19, a. 6:

For instance, if erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man’s wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know. But if a man’s reason, errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance, which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary”.

Accordingly, even if one who is subjective certainty of nullity is objectively wrong, it maybe they are inculpably ignorant as to the fact they are married. As such subjective certainty of nullity is merely an example of reduced culpability due to a lack of full knowledge, as outlined above at 1.2 and 1.3.

Further while it may be thought such ignorance could be cured by the processes of the Church in the external forum, such as its marriage tribunals, Canon 1060 provides that:

Marriage possesses the favour of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven”.

Accordingly, while a declaration of nullity may not be able to be provided by the Church due for example to insufficient evidence being available to prove nullity, a person’s own knowledge may be sufficient for them in conscience to be certain of nullity.

It may be objected that even if a first marriage was invalid such that a subsequent civil marriage is not adultery, without a declaration of nullity objectively it will still be the sin of fornication, a “carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman” (CCC 2353).

This arises because of the “canonical form” requirement in Canon 1108, which provides that “Only those marriages are valid which are contracted … according to the rules expressed in the following canons”, such that a civil marriage by a Catholic outside the Church is invalid rather than just illicit.

However this invalidity is not a doctrinal requirement nor part of divine law, as shown by the fact that it does not apply to baptised non-Catholics, as provided by Canon 1117:

The form established above must be observed if at least one of the parties contracting marriage was baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it and has not defected from it by a formal act”.

This can also be seen in Chapter 1 of the Decree Concerning The Reform Of Matrimony of the 24th Session of the Council of Trent, which introduced the rules of canonical form represented by Canon 1108:

Although it is not to be doubted that clandestine marriages made with the free consent of the contracting parties are valid and true marriages so long as the Church has not declared them invalid, and … the holy council does condemn them with anathema, who deny that they are true and valid … nevertheless the holy Church of God has for very just reasons at all times detested and forbidden them. But while the holy council recognizes that by reason of man’s disobedience those prohibitions are no longer of any avail, and considers the grave sins which arise from clandestine marriages, especially the sins of those who continue in the state of damnation, when having left the first wife with whom they contracted secretly, they publicly marry another and live with her in continual adultery, and since the Church which does not judge what is hidden, cannot correct this evil unless a more efficacious remedy is applied, therefore … Those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest or of another priest authorized by the parish priest or by the ordinary and in the presence of two or three witnesses, the holy council renders absolutely incapable of thus contracting marriage and declares such contracts invalid and null, as by the present decree it invalidates and annuls them”.

This passage from the Council of Trent also shows that canonical form was not introduced with the intent that it would apply to the subsequent civil marriages of those who are subjectively certain of the nullity of their first marriage.

Accordingly it may be that the application of canonical form to these cases is able to be set aside under the canonical concept of “epikeia” or “aequitas canonica”. St Thomas Aquinas explains in relation to epikeia that (ST II-II, q. 120, a. 1):

[W]hen we were treating of laws, since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view … On these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of “epikeia” which we call equity”.

In this regard the application of the concept of epikeia / aequitas canonica is restricted to ecclesiastical, rather than divine, laws as noted by the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in his 1998 CDF Memo at 3:

Epikeia and aequitas canonica exist in the sphere of human and purely ecclesiastical norms of great significance, but cannot be applied to those norms over which the Church has no discretionary authority. The indissoluble nature of marriage is one of these norms which goes back to Christ Himself and is thus identified as a norm of divine law”.

This does not however prevent its application to canonical form, which as demonstrated above, is not to be identified as a norm of divine law.

Accordingly, based on the application of epikeia / aequitas canonica, it is likely such subsequent civil marriages do not give rise to the objective sin of fornication. Alternatively if epikeia / aequitas canonica does not apply, reduced culpability may, as the sinful avoidance of a valid sacramental marriage is not chosen by the parties but is instead imposed by a contingent action of the Church.

Another objection which may be made is that the Church has rejected subjective certainty of nullity as a basis for the reception of Holy Communion by the D&R on a number of occasions, including:

  • 1994 CDF Letter at 7 – “The mistaken conviction of a divorced and remarried person that he may receive Holy Communion normally presupposes that personal conscience is considered in the final analysis to be able, on the basis of one’s own convictions, to come to a decision about the existence or absence of a previous marriage and the value of the new union. However, such a position is inadmissable. Marriage, in fact, because it is both the image of the spousal relationship between Christ and his Church as well as the fundamental core and an important factor in the life of civil society, is essentially a public reality”.
  • 1998 CDF Memo at 3 b) – “Since marriage has a fundamental public ecclesial character and the axiom applies that nemo iudex in propria causa (no one is judge in his own case), marital cases must be resolved in the external forum … Some theologians are of the opinion that the faithful ought to adhere strictly even in the internal forum to juridical decisions which they believe to be false. Others maintain that exceptions are possible here in the internal forum, because the juridical forum does not deal with norms of divine law, but rather with norms of ecclesiastical law. This question, however, demands further study and clarification. Admittedly, the conditions for asserting an exception would need to be clarified very precisely, in order to avoid arbitrariness and to safeguard the public character of marriage, removing it from subjective decisions”.

Some have suggested, prior to these rejections, the Church had an approved practice in the internal forum (probata praxis Ecclesiae in foro interno) which allowed Holy Communion for the D&R, based on 1973 and 1975 CDF Letters which stated:

[T]his phrase [probata praxis Ecclesiae] must be understood in the context of traditional moral theology. These couples [Catholics living in irregular marital unions] may be allowed to receive the sacraments on two conditions, that they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles and that they receive the sacraments in churches in which they are not known so that they will not create any scandal”.

This however has been disputed, by for example the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), whom in his 1991 Letter to the Tablet suggested consistent with FC it only applied to those seeking to live in complete continence (i.e. those trying to live in accordance to the demands of Christian moral principles):

Cardinal Seper’s mention in his letter of 1973 of the “approved practice in the internal forum” … was not referring to the so-called internal forum solution which properly understood concerns a marriage known with certainty to be invalid but which cannot be shown to be such to a marriage tribunal because of a lack of admissible proof. Cardinal Seper for his part was not addressing the question of the validity of a prior marriage, but rather the possibility of allowing persons in a second, invalid marriage to return to the sacraments if, in function of their sincere repentance, they pledge to abstain from sexual relations when there are serious reasons preventing their separation and scandal can be avoided”.

In any event these rejections relate to the treatment of the D&R in the external forum under Canon 915, rather than in the internal forum under Canon 916, and therefore are not relevant to if mortal sin precludes access to the Sacraments.

The application of Canon 915 to all the D&R, regardless of if subjective certainty of nullity exists, is separately considered by this Apologia at 3.0 Public Scandal.

1.5 Sacrament of Penance

The possibility of reduced culpability certainly does not allow ongoing adultery to be absolved, even if venial, as the very factors which reduce culpability for the ongoing sin also make it significantly less likely a person will have the “firm purpose of not sinning for the future … necessary for obtaining the pardon of sins” (Chapter 4 of the 14th Session of the Council of Trent).

However, in relation to the requirement for an individual to confess all relevant sins in order to obtain sacramental absolution as noted by the Second Lateran Council, this is to be understood as all subjective mortal sins rather than all sins. This is shown by:

  • Chapter 5 of the 14th Session of the Council of Trent – “For venial sins, whereby we are not excluded from the grace of God, and into which we fall more frequently, although they be rightly and profitably, and without any presumption declared in confession, as the custom of pious persons demonstrates, yet may they be omitted without guilt, and be expiated by many other remedies”.
  • CCC 1493 – “One who desires to obtain reconciliation … must confess to a priest all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience. The confession of venial faults, without being necessary in itself, is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church
  • Canon 988 – “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience … It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins”.
  • 1996 Letter to Cardinal Baum 4 and 5 (1996) – “Confession must also be complete in the sense that one must tell “all mortal sins”, as was expressly stated in the 14th session, fifth chapter, of the Council of Trent, which explains this necessity not in terms of a simple disciplinary norm of the Church, but as a requirement of divine law, because the Lord established it so in the very institution of the sacrament … It is also self-evident that the accusation of sins must include the serious intention not to commit them again in the future. If this disposition of soul is lacking, there really is no repentance: this is in fact a question of moral evil as such, and so not taking a stance opposed to a possible moral evil would mean not detesting evil, not repenting”.
  • 1997 Vademecum at 3.7 – “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”.

Similarly while the Church speaks of absolution requiring “universal” contrition, such that a person who repents must resolve to avoid all sin in the future, this in fact is also limited to subjective mortal sins rather than all sins. As outlined by the Catechism of Pope St Pius X (1908) on the Sacrament of Penance, at q. 51 and 63:

51 Q: What is meant by saying that sorrow must be universal? A: It means that it must extend to every mortal sin committed

63 Q: What is meant by a universal resolution [of sinning no more]? A: It means that we should avoid all mortal sins, both those already committed as well as those which we can possibly commit”.

And in the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) on the Sacrament of Penance:

Sorrow For Sin Should Be Universal … The faithful should be earnestly exhorted and admonished to strive to extend their contrition to each mortal sin”.


  • Where reduced culpability results in the adultery of the D&R being subjectively venial rather than mortal, it need not be confessed in order for that person to obtain sacramental absolution for any mortal sins of which they may be guilty.
  • In accordance the with teaching of the Church prior to AL, it was already possible for some D&R not living in complete continence to be admitted to the Sacrament of Penance.
  • The teaching of AL in this regard is not a novelty, and therefore neither contradicts nor even develops the doctrine or sacramental discipline of the Church.

1.6 Sacrament of the Eucharist

In relation to an individual being “conscious of grave sin” in Canon 916, this is to be understood as subjective mortal sin rather than merely objective grave sin, as shown by its predecessor Canon 856 in the 1917 CCL:

No one burdened by mortal sin on his conscience, no matter how contrite he believes he is, shall approach holy communion without prior sacramental confession; but if there is urgent necessity and a supply of ministers of confession is lacking, he shall first elicit an act of perfect contrition”.

St Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 (at 689-696), confirms this is also true of the teaching of St Paul:

This lack of devotion is sometimes venial … and such lack of devotion, although it impedes the fruit of this sacrament, which is spiritual refreshment, does not make one guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, as the Apostle says here. But a certain lack of devotion is a mortal sin … “But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted and its food may be despised … 

In a third way someone is said to be unworthy, because he approaches the Eucharist with the intention of sinning mortally 

More graphically, this teaching can be seen from the below illustration from an edition of The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969):


The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969)


  • Where reduced culpability results in the adultery of the D&R being subjectively venial rather than mortal, it does not preclude their fruitful reception of Holy Communion.
  • In accordance the with teaching of the Church prior to AL, it was already possible for some D&R not living in complete continence to be admitted to Holy Communion under Canon 916.
  • The teaching of AL in this regard is not a novelty, and therefore neither contradicts nor even develops the doctrine or sacramental discipline of the Church.

1.7 Rarity of Mitigating Circumstances

A further objection which is raised to “pastoral discernment of particular cases” (AL 300) based on reduced culpability, is that while such circumstances exist in theory, they are in practice extremely rare and thus insufficient to justify a case by case approach.

However in order to justify case by case discernment, as opposed to an absolute ban, as formally orthodox it is not necessary to establish that the valid exceptions to the general rule are common. Rather it is only necessary to establish valid exceptions exist, even if they are only rare cases.

Accordingly to the extent it is conceded even that rare cases exist where the D&R lack full knowledge or complete consent, as at least must be conceded based on the precedents of prior pontificates outlined above, then it must also be conceded a case by case discernment is formally orthodox.

A pastoral argument may still be raised against pastoral discernment in this regard, in that in practice access to the Sacraments will not be limited as required to those whom reduced culpability applies. Rather, priests will understand “this possibility as an unrestricted access to the sacraments, or as though any situation might justify it” (the Buenos Aires Directive at Item 7).

However, this argument is merely pastoral rather than doctrinal. Further the force of this pastoral argument is reduced by that fact that in practice abuses of this kind already occur, as noted by RS 83:

It is certainly best that all who are participating in the celebration of Holy Mass with the necessary dispositions should receive Communion. Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that Christ’s faithful approach the altar as a group indiscriminately. It pertains to the Pastors prudently and firmly to correct such an abuse”.

1.8 Rarity of Mortal Sin

Another and opposite objection which is raised to the idea that “[i]n certain cases” the D&R may be admitted to the Sacraments, is that acknowledging mitigating circumstances exists means that the reality of mortal sin is effectively denied, because they will almost always be available to excuse.

However the error of this objection has been demonstrated by the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), whom in his 1986 Letter on Homosexuality at 11 states:

[C]ircumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance; or other circumstances may increase it. What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behaviour of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable. What is essential is that the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well. As in every conversion from evil, the abandonment of homosexual activity will require a profound collaboration of the individual with God’s liberating grace”.

A similar warning is also provided by Pope St John Paul II in RP 16, which states:

Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person … In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt. But it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals’ sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people. Above all, this would be to deny the person’s dignity and freedom, which are manifested-even though in a negative and disastrous way-also in this responsibility for sin committed”.

Accordingly, it must be remembered the mere existence of mitigating factors in a concrete situation, does not mean they are sufficient to mitigate a sin from mortal to venial. As outlined by CCC 1858, “[t]he gravity of sins is more or less great”, and thus lesser mitigating factors can merely distinguish between more and less serious mortal sins.

AL does not provide guidance on what circumstances might be sufficient to reduce culpability for objectively grave sin so that it is not subjectively mortal, on the basis that (AL 304):

At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care”.

Accordingly the discernment of when mitigating factors are sufficient to reduce culpability are in the first instance the responsibility of an individual in conscience, guided by their pastor, rather than any human third party (AL 37):

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.  We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them”.

However, while as AL 308 notes the “Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37)”, equally as the Dubia rightly states:

However, conscience does not decide about good and evil … The proper act of conscience is to judge and not to decide. It says, “This is good.” “This is bad.” This goodness or badness does not depend on it. It acknowledges and recognizes the goodness or badness of an action, and for doing so, that is, for judging, conscience needs criteria; it is inherently dependent on truth”.

Therefore, all such judgments of conscience are subject to the particular and final judgements of Christ, at which time as CCC 1039 outlines:

In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life”.

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51 thoughts on “1.0 Mortal Sin

  1. Scott,

    First of all, congratulations for the hard work involved in your Apologia. It takes a great effort to summarize your thesis in such a comprehensive way.
    As you´ll see, I have many objections to your Apologia. I’ll comment on each one separately, although it´ll take me some time. The way you structured your Apologia makes discussing it much easier.
    In regards to 1.0 Mortal Sin:

    1.3. You correctly present the well established doctrine regarding the POSSIBILITY of reduced culpability due to lack of knowledge and/or full consent. I don’t think the Dubia or any worthy criticism of AL have denied this.

    However, you fail to prove something that is foundational to your thesis: that the possibility of reduced culpability due to lack of deliberate consent can be applied prospectively (future sins) once ignorance no longer exists (which will quickly be the case of d&r in process of discernment with priest). How do you reconcile this with martyrdom and the extreme duress they go through? We´ve all seen horrible images of how Christians are executed by ISIS militants because of their faith. Don’t they have a much better excuse to break the moral law when they face death as result of keeping God’s commandments? They too have children and wives to take care of, I assume!

    According to St. John Paul II, “To maintain that situations exist in which it is not, de facto, possible for the spouses to be faithful to all the requirements of the truth of conjugal love is equivalent to forgetting this event of grace which characterizes the New Covenant: the grace of the Holy Spirit makes possible that which is not possible to man, left solely to his own powers.” (John Paul II, Christian vocation of spouses may demand even heroism, 17 September 1983).

    As you point out in CCC 1859:

    “Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.”

    What matters here is if there’s consent enough to consider the act a free choice. Circumstances only diminish culpability if they render the choice involuntary. For example, we’re talking about something one does while sleeping, under involuntary effect of drugs, pathological disorder that, sudden life threat or other external pressure that results in a reflex or involuntary action, etc. It has never been Church’s teaching to excuse sin, let alone intrinsically evil sin, after weighing alternatives in conscience, no matter how difficult their consequences may be at the human level. I think you completely misunderstood this point.

    Why does AL suggests that further sin may come from choosing to live in continence, in accordance with the Gospel? Isn’t that evil a consequence of the previous sinful decision to remarry and have children with someone that is not your spouse, rather than a consequence of doing the right thing, i.e. separation or continence? If AL is saying that in order to do good to your children and second “spouse” one must do an intrinsically evil act, then it is saying that the end justifies the means.

    1.4. I don’t understand why you conclude from FC84 and the text from St. Thomas Aquinas that subjective conviction of nullity reduces culpability due to ignorance. What do you mean by ignorance due to nullity? What are they ignorant of? One thing is to be convinced of the nullity and not be able to prove it, and so one may not be culpable for divorce or separation, and another thing is to decide that because of that certainty one can get civilly married again even if the Church prohibits so.

    When JPII says in FC84 that these persons need special attention and accompaniment he refers to the fact that, even if they wanted to fix their irregular situation after their conversion, they can’t do so because of lack of evidence, so they are specially suffering and the Church needs to help them. It has nothing to do with reduced culpability when they remarried or they continue to live as husband and wife. Even if they were not culpable for the divorce, there is no circumstance that justifies the decision to commit adultery, assuming there is no ignorance of the moral norm and she is not forced to do it against her will. That´s all that counts. Fear for the wellbeing of the children is not an excuse, it actually is a mortal sin in itself if the result is “shunning what ought not to be shunned according to reason”, as Thomas Aquinas teaches in ST II-II, Question 125, Articles 3.

    Therefore, if out of fear for the future of the children, she decides to do what her conscience recognizes as mortal sin, she is culpable of two mortal sins, inordinate fear and adultery. So as you can see it works the opposite way once you have a formed conscience, and martyrs are witnesses of that. Hard teaching, no doubt about that!

    Now, it could be that her fear is so extreme that it becomes almost pathological and renders her act involuntary, in which case it could reduce the culpability. But as you can see, this is in retrospective, at the spur of the moment. Because if you tell me that God put me in a situation in which there is no possible way to avoid mortal sin and my actions are morally neutral because I cannot use my free will, I would most probably despair and begin to think that maybe Christ didn’t die for me after all, and Grace apparently is not sufficient in my case.

    1.5. You say that “In accordance the with teaching of the Church prior to AL, it was already possible for some D&R not living in complete continence to be admitted to the Sacrament of Penance.”
    I don´t think that´s true in the way you mean it, because as I said, couples that are well informed cannot possibly claim venial sin in a permanent sinful situation. Only couples that have made a firm purpose to amend their lives and live in continence but, due to their weakness, they fall again, can be admitted to the Sacrament of Penance. You have not provided any magisterial document that says that they can be absolved without a purpose of amendment.

    1.6. Similar comment as in 1.5. They have never been admitted to the Sacraments without firm purpose of amendment. It it were the case that, in a retrospective basis, they were subject to such duress or passion that their free will was diminished, then they obviously would be fine as per Canon 916, but never admitted to Communion due to Canon 915.

    1.7. As you say, traditional moral theology teaches that there are mitigating factors that could reduce or eliminate culpability. But the way you seem to understand it (prospectively) cannot be found in the Magisterium, and it certainly was not St. Thomas Aquinas thinking.

    Finally, Church´s mission is, among other things, to take care of souls and guide them to heaven. That´s the framework for any legit pastoral. I´m not sure why you see as orthodox a pastoral that you admit will do much harm to souls. Pastoral and doctrine are not independent, an idea that some people have successfully advanced in the Church. A bad pastoral that goes against the mission of the Church is in itself a sort of doctrinal error. Don´t you think?

    Thanks for your time.


    • Jorge,

      Thank you for your response. Trying to take your points in order, my thoughts are as follows:

      1. Prospective Application of Reduced Culpability – I think on this point you may be conflating limits on intellect (i.e. full knowledge), with limits on will (i.e. complete consent).

      To take the example of martyrdom, I would indeed affirm this is an example where mitigating factors can make a sin in a sense involuntary by impairing the will. While I know denying Christ is intrinsically evil, and indeed that martyrdom is the demand of the Gospel, the duress / coercion of a gun to the head might make it very difficult for me to actually do the right thing. In this case I still sin, but I think all would agree the coercion means my sin would be less than voluntary, and thus my guilt is reduced. This is confirmed by CCC 1754, which explicitly confirms a fear of death can reduce culpability for an evil action.

      2. St. John Paul II on Heroism – That is a relevant quote. I will include it in my Section 2.4, where I deal with the idea avoiding adultery is “impossible”.

      3. Voluntary and involuntary acts – I deal with this question in my 2.3 Consequences as Mitigating Circumstances, with reference to Aquinas, including the James Bond example raised by the Dubia. I’m not sure if you have had a chance to get that far – If you have please do let me know any defects your find in that analysis.

      4. Further Sin – I could have sworn I had covered that in the Apologia, but it appears to have fallen out at some point. I will rectify that shortly.

      In any event, based on the clarifications by the Pope (rejecting situational ethics) and his spokesman Fr. Antonio Spadaro (rejecting adultery could be a moral duty), I think this must be understood as “consequences as mitigating circumstances”, rather than “ends justifies the intrinsically evil means”.

      That this logic is indeed the intent of AL, can be seen in the text of AL301, which places the idea of “further sin” firmly in the context of an example of mitigating factors. This is why AL301 is headed “mitigating factors”, and the reference to “further sin” is bookended by references to subjective factors which limit the ability to make a decision. Similarly in Fr. Antonio Spadaro interview with Crux we find the same context – “recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations which attenuate responsibility and guilt – particularly where a person believes they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union”.

      While needing clarifications is less than ideal, if one supports the dubia submitted by the four Cardinals, they must be accepted. It would be radically inconsistent to request clarification of an ambiguous text, and then reject the validity of the clarification on the basis it was not consistent with one’s own preferred reading of the ambiguity.

      5. Subjective conviction of nullity and ignorance – The ignorance in this case is in relation to whom one is married. While St Thomas holds we can’t be inculpably ignorance that adultery is wrong, he equally allows that we could be ignorant of whom is our spouse. So if you were sure of nullity, but wrong, you could be inculpably ignorant of the fact you are actually married. I will clarify this in the text of the Apologia.

      6. Inordinate fear – St Thomas certainly considers inordinate fear can be a further mortal sin. But as noted in my 2.3 Consequences as Mitigating Circumstances, he also recognises “necessity resulting from coercion” as rendering acts only partly voluntary (De Malo q. 2, a. 2).

      Indeed, as I noted at my 2.4 The Commandments and Impossibility, I think Dante best express the space which exists between the shinning light of the martyrs and mortal sin. Those who were forced to break vows still dwell in heaven, but only the lowest sphere, as “If their will had been unbroken, like that which kept Lawrence on the grid and made Mucius stern to his own hand, then, as soon as they were free, it would have driven them back on the path from which they had been dragged; but will so firm is rare indeed”.

      7. Impossibility – I deal with this question in my 2.4 The Commandments and Impossibility. Again, I’m not sure if you have had a chance to get that far – If you have please do let me know any defects your find in that analysis.

      8. Sacrament of Penance – I specifically deny anyone can be absolved for a sin without a purpose of amendment. My argument is that if reduced culpability applies, so the adultery is venial, it is not required to be confessed (per Trent etc).

      As to being well informed, again I would point to subjective certainty of nullity as an ignorance which could not always be cured. Further there are mitigating factors which don’t rely upon a lack of knowledge.

      9. Canon 915 – In this section I am merely dealing with Canon 916. I deal with Canon 915 in my 3.0 Public Scandal.

      10. Pastoral vs Doctrinal – I am partial to the idea pastoral mistakes must somehow be caused by, or represent, a doctrinal error (I also like the idea every schism is caused by a heresy somehow). However if we look to the history of the Church, that would mean it has constantly been heretical! Pastoral errors by the Church are a constant – In every era you consider they will be found.

      So ultimately I think we have to accept that while Jesus promised his Church would not teach error, he also promised that like all men those who represent it would sin. It was not for nothing St. John Paul II is said to have made official public apologies for over 100 such wrongdoings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_apologies_made_by_Pope_John_Paul_II).


  2. Scott, I really don’t get what argument you are trying to construct with the “ignorance of nullity” stuff. For example:

    5. Subjective conviction of nullity and ignorance – The ignorance in this case is in relation to whom one is married. While St Thomas holds we can’t be inculpably ignorance that adultery is wrong, he equally allows that we could be ignorant of whom is our spouse. So if you were sure of nullity, but wrong, you could be inculpably ignorant of the fact you are actually married

    Anne could apparently get married in the Church, and then have it turn out to be no marriage (null) because something hidden from you was an impediment to marriage – say, Bill was acting under some compulsion (such as a shotgun being held by your father under his coat). But that’s not what we are talking about, here, are we? Suppose rather that the marriage falls apart, and they get divorce, and Anne applies for an annulment on a basis that SHE knows (from personal observation) is true, but she cannot prove. So though she is “subjectively certain” that the marriage is null, she cannot get the formal decree of nullity because of lack of admissible evidence. OK, is THAT the scenario?

    But nothing demands that she go and try to marry Sam. The Church is telling her “we have not annulled your marriage, you are still considered married in the public forum, you are not free to marry.” So she IS FREE to not marry again. If she attempts to marry again, she cannot marry Sam in the Church, because the Church refuses to consider her free to marry. So if she marries him at all, she marries him outside canonical form, i.e. without the Church’s blessing, and this “marriage” CANNOT be valid. Even if she knows for certain that her first marriage is null, the marriage with Sam cannot be valid. So, how is she ignorant of who she is married to? She isn’t married to Bill, and she isn’t married to Sam, and she knows both perfectly well. Even if, say (to add complications), Sam had been married before, and had a divorce, and “married” Anne outside the Church, and THEN Sam got an annulment from his first marriage, even so, Anne knows that her “marriage” to Sam is not valid because it was outside the Church. This is part of the reason for demanding canonical form in order to even have a valid marriage to begin with.

    St. Thomas’s example of a person who “didn’t know who they were married to” and thus committed adultery was quite a different story. In the days of arranged marriage, where Bill may not even meet his chosen bride until the day of the wedding, he may be unsure of her looks (what with veils and all). Suppose that he marries Anne, but Anne’s sister Barbara kidnaps Anne and replaces her in the bridal chamber. Bill has relations with Barbara because “he doesn’t know he isn’t married to her” (she is, after all, a sister and looks and sounds alike to the inexperienced eye and ear). This is a case of mistake, error, about which person is here that is presenting herself as Bill’s wife Anne. He is NOT in error about (a) whether he is married, or (b) the formal identity of the person he is married to, Anne, or (c) whether it is right for him to have relations with his wife Anne. The “object of the act” which Bill wills is “to have relations with my wife Anne” , which is not disordered at all, nor morally in doubt. The act he engages in is materially that of adultery, but not formally, his error is inadvertend, and there is no guilt at all for Bill.

    But how can you use this for a case of nullity, even of a person who is “subjectively certain a first marriage is null, for which the evidence is inadmissible.” I don’t see how you can get a case of “ignorance of who she is married to” out of that in a way that makes her inculpable for a second civil marriage that was not celebrated under canonical form, or makes her unaware the second marriage is null also.


  3. If the “subjective certainty of nullity” about the first marriage were IN ERROR, it still doesn’t cause a problem. If the conditions which precipitated a divorce (at least in this country tribunals don’t take cases for annulment until the divorce occurs) has separated them, she is not living with Bill, and is subjectively certain she should not be living with him. Not a moral difficulty. If she is subjectively certain the first marriage (to Bill) is valid but she is wrong, after the divorce she can continue to consider herself married to Bill in absentia and honor her marriage vows from a distance, and there is no moral problem. I don’t see how to construct a case where her subjective certainty creates a true difficulty, EXCEPT if she ignores Church discipline and attempts a second marriage without canonical form (i.e. without a DECREE of nullity and the second marriage blessed by the Church). And, of course, in that case the second marriage is invalid no matter what the condition of the first marriage is, objectively or subjectively.

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    • Tony,

      I had passed over the problems of canonical form, because in that regard I want to make a further reform proposal, and didn’t what to confuse the issue at hand.

      However, you are correct that canonical form as provided for in Canon 1108, means that where a Catholic marries civilly it is made to be invalid (not just illicit) even if they are in God’s eyes free to marry. Accordingly, for those “subjectively certainty of nullity” who remarry, all it means is that their objective sin is fornication rather than adultery.

      However, this invalidity is not a doctrinal requirement, as shown by the fact its application is limited to Catholics by Canon 1117 (i.e. the civil marriages of baptised non-Catholics can be valid). Accordingly, my further reform proposal would be that Canon 1108 be reformed such that lack of canonical form only creates a presumption of invalidity (i.e. it does not get the benefit of Canon 1060), rather than imposing invalidity absolutely.

      In the absence of such reform, the question of the culpability for the fornication follows the same principles as for adultery, being is the fornication done with full consent. In this regard, given the sin arises because the person can’t validly marry despite the fact they should be free to do so, I would think it could be said full consent is lacking.

      That is to say it is the Church, not the person or divine law, which is making marriage impossible. The person doesn’t consent to this sinful avoidance of marriage, it is forced on them externally and absolutely.


  4. “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to … receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession”.

    Canon 916 says grave sin and not mortal sin, so why is this being read as if it says mortal? All acts of adultery are grave sins, though it’s possible that a sin that is grave is not necessarily a mortal if full knowedge and full consent are lacking.

    If someone has enough knowledge to claim invincible ignorance of an action they plan on repeating, how can it be said they have invincible ignorance? And if they are lacking full consent, are they being held in a second marriage against their will? Isn’t any sex act where consent lacking rape?


    • In terms of grave sin vs mortal sin, I outline why Canon 916 must be understood this way at 1.6 Sacrament of the Eucharist.

      As it was put by Canonist Patrick Travers:

      “Canon 916 is addressed directly to those who are considering the reception of the Holy Eucharist. It states that they may not normally do so if they are “conscious of grave sin” (conscius… peccati gravis). Here, the interpretation of “grave sin” as a synonym for mortal sin, with all of its subjective elements, appears to be the only one possible.”


    • In terms of a lack of full consent, there are examples of duress which fall short of rape as understood in civil law. For example, if a man threatened to financially abandon a women and her children to serious poverty, in the event continence was proposed.


  5. Accordingly, my further reform proposal would be that Canon 1108 be reformed such that lack of canonical form only creates a presumption of invalidity (i.e. it does not get the benefit of Canon 1060), rather than imposing invalidity absolutely.

    Scott, I have myself suggest a similar modification of the Canon Law. Since it seems to be Church law rather than natural law that blocks a Catholic from marrying outside the Church, the Church could change that. And if SO MANY people are falling into this difficulty, maybe the preponderance of goods vs evils would be better served by a more relaxed law about the validity of a Catholic’s civil marriage.

    But it would create VAST new problems in sorting out those Catholics who divorce and remarry again civilly, and then again. In fact, having only the presumption would generate far more cases of people who are subjectively certain (of either validity or nullity) and yet unable to prove it sufficiently for a decisive declaration? So, let me ask this: what if the law were changed to provide that a civil marriage between Christians is valid? Assuming that the civil marriage retained the formulas needed to elicit consent to the real notion of marriage, not the newer mock-up versions, or worse yet the self-made nonsense that isn’t even recognizable as a contract much less a marital one. I recognize the difficulties that will be created by borderline vows, so assume for the moment that civil authorities allow you to use the form of vows supplied by your church to contract a civil marriage. But retain the notion that a first marriage is assumed valid and the assumption can only be defeated with a decree of nullity. Given that, it would remain true that a D&R who did not get an annulment would ALWAYS be certain that their SECOND marriage is invalid, regardless whether the first was or not.

    I don’t think you answered my difficulty above at all, about how subjective certainty about nullity (in either direction) creates any problems for a D&R to follow the absolute norms regarding continence.


    • I suppose I am thinking of the problem with fornication as not a lack of continence, which isn’t required of them by divine law, but a failure to get validly married (which is). In this perspective, impossibility applies, because the Church makes it impossible to be validly married (despite not needing to make it so).


  6. So, I may have missed something in the argument, and I hope I don’t cross territory already covered in the excellent comments, but I fail to see how you have established a case that a couple who are not husband and wife can continue to live together more uxorio without that being adultery of fornication proper (ie, as some venial rather than mortal sin).

    To quote St Thomas here on their mortal nature:

    “It is heretical to say that fornication is not a mortal sin. Adultery and fornication are forbidden for a number of reasons. First of all, because they destroy the soul…” Commentary on the Ten Commandments, 6

    And here on deliberate reason:

    “Since a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason, the result is that by such a subtraction the species of the act is destroyed.” Summa I-II, Q88A6

    The subtraction of deliberate reason is possibility, but is incompatible with a functioning household over time–which is explicitly what is being defended by AL (“a second union consolidated over time…”). Without deliberate reason one could hardly (to quote Twelfth Night):

    “…sway her house, command her followers,
    Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
    With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
    As I perceive she does.”

    For the mortal sin of adultery (or fornication) to be changed into a merely venial sin, deliberate reason must be subtracted. How do you explain that deliberate reason can be subtracted for a prolonged period of time, and even over both parties! (Presumably both, not just one, can receive communion.)

    Some overmastering emotion alone cannot account for that, and it would not cover the intention to continue to live and even build a certain kind of life into the future, which is precisely a choice of the deliberate reason.

    I do not think you have succeeded in showing how this is even possible in theory. If you succeed, isn’t it at the cost of declaring the moral capacity of those you are arguing for below what is called for to perform properly human acts?

    And even after all of that, if you succeeded in showing how one might live a life of adultery that was not really adultery, but was merely a kind of venial adultery, you bounce off the fact that the Church cannot justify even venial sin.

    Card. Newman’s words on the subject could hardly be stronger:

    “The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

    But to quote from VS81 (a section you bold):

    “Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.”

    If adultery is indefensible as a single act, how can it be approved as a mode or state of life that I can choose to live out, which is certainly the case if AL303 is correct “that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.”

    I am skipping over ignorance, as that was well addressed in the comments already, and also be because AL stipulates that one can “know full well the rule”.

    So, in brief summary, I do not think you have shown how a couple can choose to live a life committing sinful acts which are mortal in their genus without ever consenting to those acts.


    • ThomasL,

      Thank you for your comments, which are also excellent and thoughtful.

      The place I am starting from is that the Church, before Francis, already acknowledged the objectively grave sin of adultery may not be subjectively mortal sin. This occurred, as I note in the Apologia, in the 2000 PCLT Declaration.

      In terms of how complete consent can be limited over extended periods, again I think the precedents I have adduced show that the Church before Francis also accepted this could arise. Duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors etc are not things which last a moment, nor are they things which completely eliminate our ability to function in society.

      In terms of justifying venial sin, I don’t believe AL is guilty of that error. If the objectively grave disorders were justified, they could not be called sin even venially, but instead could be morally right actions.

      This is actually the point Cardinal Newman and VS are making in those quotes – Venial sin is sin, not something we accept as good or defensible. That venial sin does not preclude receiving Holy Communion, as has also been the constant teaching of the Church, does not change that it remains an evil.

      In terms of the “what God himself is asking” portion of AL, I address that in my 2.0 Intrinsic Evil. In that section of my Apologia, I show this must be understood as a breaking open of the law of gradualness, and cannot be seen as a gradualness of the law or situationalism.


      • @Scott,

        I remain unconvinced that you have demonstrated how “complete consent can be limited over extended periods.”

        I think you have only done so by raising the bar on what is required for consent such that anything but wholeheartedness is not sufficient.

        The testimony of the martyrs rebukes this, and moreover your perspective would in effect remove both martyrdom and apostasy from moral responsibility if either was attended by duress or fear: if the apostate is not responsible for his choice to apostatize because his consent is less than complete for fear, neither is the martyr responsible for his choice to remain steadfast despite his own fear. You can only excuse the apostate of sin by snatching the crown off the head of the martyr.

        Even more than the one act, it would excuse the apostate to continue to live his life in apostasy, not just offering the single pinch of incense, but a lifetime of offerings to false gods, so long as the threat of martyrdom hangs over him.

        Is this really what the Church has always an everywhere taught? Or has it rather taught, as in VS91, that “In raising [martyrs] to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.”

        I can hardly improve on Tony’s and Jorge’s comments in section 2.0 though on duress, fear, and habit, so I would only direct you back to them.


  7. ThomasL,

    Again, I think you take a more rigorist line than the Church has though out the ages. Who would doubt those threatened with martyrdom, and lie in respect of their faith in Christ, have done so with less than complete consent? The evil is intrinsic and grave, yet it cannot be said the act was fully voluntarily.

    And yet given what you yourself have quoted from Cardinal Newman, who could doubt we are still called to avoid that venial sin even undo death, so as to receive the Crown? Because while renouncing Christ would not be fully voluntarily, yet it is not fully involuntarily, and can be resisted.

    The commandments of God are not impossible with Grace. But nor are we fully guilty for every grave sin committed. This is the teaching of the Church regarding the difference between grave and mortal sins, which has been the case long before Pope Francis.


    • I do not think I, or any of your commenters, have denied that the culpability for an objectively grave act could never be less than mortal. I referenced Summa I-II Q88A6 earlier, but it is nice to quote again:

      “A sin which is generically mortal, can become venial by reason of the imperfection of the act, because then it does not completely fulfil the conditions of a moral act, since it is not a deliberate, but a sudden act, as is evident from what we have said above. This happens by a kind of subtraction, namely, of deliberate reason. And since a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason, the result is that by such a subtraction the species of the act is destroyed.”

      That could also happen by ignorance (culpable or inculpable) which he addresses in one of the objections.

      But your arguments seem to read as if any duress, or any fear, etc. was sufficient to “not completely fulfil the conditions of a moral act,” and further, that that can be applied not just to actions in the past, but prospectively to actions not yet committed, but preemptively mitigated, since one can in fact be living indefinitely in a state where, while still able to order life generally, one remains unable to “completely fulfil the conditions of a moral act.”

      I do not think that can be deduced from the teaching above, or anywhere else in the teachings of the Church.

      To continue the apostate example above, if suddenly confronted, or suddenly seized by fear, the very suddenness or power might excuse to a degree as St Thomas describes above, because deliberate reason was subtracted, and so the species of the act changed. But if one had time to think in their cell and deliberately chose to offer incense, having thought it over, that would not be excused under traditional moral theology. If you think it would, I would invite you to find a single text from the Magisterium supporting it. The case was certainly a common enough one for much of Early Church history.

      By your arguments regarding duress and complete consent, it goes further than the one act though, I do not see how you can escape from the conclusion that the Christian, continually threatened with martyrdom, is not only able to offer incense once, but to choose a life of public apostasy for as long as the threat of persecution remains without ever gravely sinning.

      Is that accurate? If not can you describe why not?

      This seems quite analogous to living a life of adultery as long as some threat of hardship is associated with stopping, and so is not off topic.


      • ThomasL,

        It seems to me we might have been sucked into a tangent that is, perhaps, not strictly required. Perhaps if we step back for a moment to the bigger picture.

        The formal orthodoxy of AL does not hinge on precisely where we draw the line between mortal sin, and reduced culpability rendering a sin venial. As I note in my section 1.7, AL cannot be shown to be in error, simply because while cases of reduced culpability exist in theory they may be in practice extremely rare. All that is required to justify case by case discernment as orthodox, as opposed to an absolute ban, is that valid exceptions exist even if very rare.

        On the other side in my section 1.8, I equally warn against any tendance to act as if any duress or fear is sufficient to reduce culpability (using Cardinal Ratzinger’s warning in his 1986 Letter on Homosexuality).

        So if we both accept reduced culpability exists, and the 2000 PCLT Declaration binds us to understand it may also exist in relation to the D&R, then at a high level I think my case for the orthodoxy of AL is made out (at least in relation to mortal sin and Holy Communion).

        But that being said, in terms of your argument in respect of fear / duress only excusing when it overwhelms in the moment, my argument against this based on Aquinas can be found in my section 2.3 Consequences as Mitigating Circumstances.

        Further, in terms of your example regarding martyrdom or offering incense, I would start with Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17:

        “With the whole tradition of the church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love that God offers … This can occur in a direct and formal way in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism … It is a mortal sin, that is, an act which gravely offends God and ends in turning against man himself with a dark and powerful force of destruction”.

        Thus we can see that even apostasy must be done freely in order to be mortal sin. If we then turn to Fr. Thomas Slater’s 1925 “A Manual of Moral Theology for English-Speaking Countries”, we find at page 17:

        “Inasmuch as bad actions done through fear are simply voluntary, it would follow that they are imputable to the agent, so that fear does not excuse him from sin. And this is true of such actions as are intrinsically bad and against the natural law. The Church has always considered those to be apostates who through fear of death or persecution deny their faith, though less culpable than those who renounce it without excuse (Can. 2205)”.

        In this regard Canon 2205 of the 1917 Code, now included as Canon 1324, provides:

        “If, however, the act is intrinsically evil, or involves contempt of faith or of ecclesiastical authority, or the harm of souls, the circumstances spoken of in the preceding paragraph do indeed diminish the responsibility but do not take it away.

        Therefore I think we can affirm, with the Church, that culpability is reduced for denying Christ through fear of death or persecution.


  8. I am not aware of any moral theologian ever that has not said that motive, or duress, or emotion might reduce voluntariness to a degree.

    However it seems to me in your response that you are reading “reduced” as if it always and everywhere means “changed from mortal to venial” which is not warranted.

    Not all mortal sins are equally evil, though all entail a turning away from God. As St Thomas said, already quoted, but needs re-re-quoted, “a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason, the result is that by such a subtraction the species of the act is destroyed.”

    It is not enough to say sin X, that was committed wholeheartedly and with gusto, is worse than sin Y which was more reluctant and may have been subject to outside pressure. Everyone agrees on that point, but being not as bad or reluctantly committed is not proof that the species of the act has been altered. As St Thomas said, “a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason,” if the deliberate reason is intact, so is the species of the act.

    Imagine a patient with a gangrenous leg telling the doctor to amputate. Is he afraid? Probably. Is he in pain? Almost certainly. Would he rather not have his leg cut off? Almost certainly. Is his choice still a free and voluntary choice? Yes, so long as the fear, sickness, or pain have not destroyed his deliberate reason.

    “Therefore I think we can affirm, with the Church, that culpability is reduced for denying Christ through fear of death or persecution.”

    Are you affirming this in the sense of “to choose a life of public apostasy for as long as the threat of persecution remains” or in some other sense?


    • I wish to correct my first line about “motive, or duress, or emotion.” Motive could render the act more or less gravely evil (without ever changing its species), but not more or less voluntary as could the latter two.

      Regarding the PCLT2000, I wonder that you can quote it in support of the position while ignoring the fact that its conclusions are completely the opposite of your own.

      Regarding culpability, I would also argue that it is bringing up all the aspects of a mortal sin as a kind of ‘Objection’ showing that it is not possible to know subjective guilt (ie, to read the soul of the communicant). Again, I think most agree on that, which is why the PCLT2000 goes on to show why that argument is irrelevant as to whether communion should be distributed.

      I also think no better warning for *not* quoting a document against its plain meaning and substantial content could come than from the PCLT2000 itself when it says:

      “Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.”


      • I am not sure if you have had a look at it, but my section 3.0 Public Scandal addresses your concerns about the 2000 PCLT Declaration, and indeed the substantive content of Canon 915.


    • I agree not all mitigation will convert mortal sin to venial sin. That would need to be considered on a case by case basis.

      But yes, I think coercion can be applied for an extended period, and continue to mitigate for so long as it remains.


      • @Scott,

        Thanks for the follow up.

        Does that mean that a public apostate, who apostatized out of fear of persecution, and continues to live a life of public apostasy, making offerings to the gods, with no intention of amendment (since the threat remains), should be given the Holy Eucharist so long as it is done at a parish where their apostasy is not generally known (to avoid scandal)?


  9. ThomasL,

    Its hard for me to imagine a case where denying Christ in public wouldn’t be public in a way to cause scandal, given the point of such persecution is precisely to cause scandal (ie get others to also deny Christ).


    • Scott,

      As you have pointed out, the rarity of the case isn’t the issue; it is whether it can be established.

      I think the question remains whether by your theory a “public and permanent” apostate, who has apostatized out of fear of persecution and has no purpose of amendment, should receive the Holy Eucharist, so long as scandal could avoided?

      Avoided at least in the way you seem to indicate as sufficient in 3.0/9.0, that the facts are not known at that place.


      • If it wasn’t relevantly public, they could not be refused. The same principles apply.

        But it is harder to see how it would be both not public, and reduced culpability would still apply. The distance in time & space required to diminish the public knowledge of the act, would presumably also free one from the threat of persecution.


  10. Scott,

    At least that means I am understanding you properly. But is this how the Church has ever actually treated apostasy under persecution? Or for that matter, how it has ever treated divorce and remarriage?

    It demonstrably is not. You have done some of the research yourself on adultery (eg, Elvira) that shows it has not been treated lightly either. On apostasy, as one of the commenters already pointed out, back in St Cyprian’s day the controversy was whether they could ever be forgiven at all, even in the sacrament of Penance. St Cyprian was considered a relative softy for saying they could, but were subject to severe (often lifetime) public penances. As an apostrophe, the rigorist position on remarriage was not that adultery was a mortal sin, but that remarriage for widows and widowers was a mortal sin! Tertullian fell into that, though the Church rejected it.

    Your conclusions are simply foreign to the way the Church has thought, taught, practiced, and handed down in regards to apostasy under persecution, and again, foreign to what the Church has has thought, taught, practiced, and handed down in regards to adultery.

    Are you so certain that only now you understand what all those centuries of teaching, practice, and Tradition had missed in these areas?

    Your view would render apostasy under threat of torture and death almost invariably venial, but can you also answer clearly that is how the Church treated it?

    Is that how the Church has treated adultery whenever the circumstances were less than neat and tidy and so a person might feel pressured?

    When Aquinas rejected adultery even if the cause was to “liberate his country [from a tyrant]” (De Malo Q15A1) with the words “one ought not commit adultery for any benefit,” (DMQ15A1), can you honestly read his “one ought not commit adultery for any benefit” as meaning that because of the pressures and fears attendant to such a case, the man “neither does what the law forbids, nor omits what the law prescribes to be done; but he acts “beside” the law, through not observing the mode of reason, which the law intends.” ? (I-II Q88A1)

    The fact that the Church has never acted as if her teachings led to your conclusions is one of the most obvious indictments of your reasoning process.


    • In case there is any doubt from mentioning the rigorist side of the debate (apostasy cannot be forgiven, widows can’t remarry), the Church rightly and forcefully condemned both of those positions.

      In the case of apostasy under persecution, the Church taught that it could be forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance; rather than the conclusion here, that it in all but rare cases it would not even be matter for the Sacrament of Penance.


    • ThomasL,

      In terms of your understanding of how the Church has treated things like apostasy under threat of torture and death, I think your error is missing just how seriously the Church treats venial sin.

      As you note from Aquinas in De Malo, committing an intrinsic evil even for great benefit is still a sin. And as noted by Cardinal Newman, even if that sin if venial, it would be better to die than commit it:

      “The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

      The application of this principle to apostasy can be seen in the words of St Augustine in his De Mendacio at 13 and 14, which I note in my section 2.3 Consequences as Mitigating Circumstances:

      “[W]hat if these terms were offered to a Martyr, that, upon his refusing to bear false witness of Christ and to sacrifice to demons, then, before his eyes, not some other man, but his own father should be put to death … Is it not manifest, that, upon his remaining steadfast in his purpose of most faithful testimony, they alone would be the murderers who should slay his father, and not he a parricide into the bargain? As therefore, in this case, the man would be no party to this so heinous deed, for choosing, rather than violate his faith by false testimony, that his own father should be put to death by others … so the like consent, in the former case, would not make him a party to that so foul disgrace, if he refused to do evil himself, let others do what they might in consequence of his not doing it …

      But if the question be, which of these he ought in preference to avoid, not being able to avoid both but able to avoid one or other: I will answer, His own sin, rather than another’s; and rather a lighter sin being his own, than a heavier being another’s”

      That is in saying it is better to die a martyr than lie, that indeed it is still a sin to lie under threat of grave evils, is not to suppose the gravity of the sin is so heavy. It is merely that it is sin, which God calls us to always avoid, be in the lightest venial sin or the gravest mortal sin.

      Finally, I note we can’t draw too many conclusions as to the subjective gravity assigned to sins such as apostasy in the early Church from penitential practices, as in most cases public rather than private penance would have been required (c/f CCC 1447). The practice of public penance concerned the repair of public scandal from objective grave sin, as well as the forgiveness of subjective mortal sin, and therefore subjective distinctions were less relevant to these practices than they are to private confession.


      • I quoted that very quote from Newman in disputing that the Church could never condone venial sin.

        But it simply cannot be that when the Church debates whether the sin is so grave that it can even be *extrinsically* forgiven by God in the sacrament (resolving in favor of the bounty of God’s forgiveness), it really means that is because the sin was already *intrinsically* forgivable in itself, which is in fact one of the fundamental distinctions between mortal and venial sin.

        Without denying the seriousness of venial sin, the Church does not take such an extreme measure as denying communion in order to avoid scandal in cases of venial sin. The doctrine, now explicitly embodied in canons 915/916, but previously captured in words like these from St John Chrysostom: “There is no small punishment for you, if being conscious of any wickedness in any man, you allow him to partake of this table… I speak not of the unknown, but of the notorious,” are in reference to grave sin.

        It would be worth making the aside, particularly after your selection from St Augustine, to the “forgotten man” in all this: the priest, whose own soul is accountable for distributing communion to notorious (ie, manifest, grave) sinners, and sins gravely himself if he does so, as St John Chrysostom warns. (Which is also sufficient rebuttal to your case in 3.0 that AL would allow communion to group ‘A’.)

        But back to the point at hand, if it was known that apostasy in face of persecution was rarely if ever grave–and given the understanding you have articulated it would be almost impossible for it to be grave given the duress involved–it could scarcely fall under any of the prohibitions regarding scandal from manifest grave sin. It would be manifestly sin, but equally manifestly not grave.

        And while the pressures in an adulterous union you have suggested which might mitigate it would almost always be “occult,” the persecution which qualifies apostasy is of near certainty as manifest as the apostasy itself, and possibly more so as being more generally known.

        Neither does any of this correspond Scriptures which warn of “a certain dreadful expectation of judgment” from apostasy, nor to the judgment of the martyrs themselves, St. Phileas, bishop of Thmouis and martyr:

        Culcianus: “Sacrifice to the gods.”
        Phileas: “I do not sacrifice.”
        Culcianus: “Why?”
        Phileas: “Because the sacred and divine scriptures say, ‘Whoever sacrifices to the gods, and not to God alone, shall be uprooted’ … I do not sacrifice. I spare my soul.”

        Was he mistaken in that last line? By your argument certainly so. He could also have sacrificed, in fact lived a life of sacrificing to the gods, and not have imperiled his soul given that he was under threat of death. I am not at all saying your argument necessitates that he *should* have sacrificed, but you are most certainly saying that he was mistaken in his interpretation of the Scriptures and mistaken that his soul was in the balance.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. ThomasL,

    I think this conflates objectively grave sins and subjectively mortal sins, does it not? Adultery or denying Christ are objectively grave – This is why Canon 915 applies to them if manifest (regardless of if they are subjectively mortal in any given case). Mitigating factors don’t eliminate that objective reality, which is what the Church holds can cause scandal (again, if its public).

    In terms of St. Phileas, he was not wrong, as his reward in heaven will be the greater for having not sinned. It cannot be thought his soul would be automatically lost, even if having sacrificed was a mortal sin, as God’s forgiveness would still have been available to him while his life lasted.


    • Scott,

      No, but let me rewind a bit to explain why.

      Considered in itself “mortal sin can never become venial” (I-II Q8A6), so if an action is committed that is mortal sin in its genus, as are both apostasy or adultery, there must be some imperfection in the act.

      This could be from ignorance, but ignorance is not in play for two reasons. Firstly, because both “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” are “written on the heart” (heb 10:16) of God’s children, so no Christian can claim an inculpable ignorance of them, and culpable ignorance would not diminish the sin but add to it (Q88A6 Ob.2). Secondly, because AL301 already stipulates that it is not talking about ignorance, as one may “know full well the rule”. So the only kind of ignorance left that could be in play are the really strange cases we needn’t worry about for this discussion, like thinking you were making an offering to God but you actually weren’t (eg, you somehow ended up a heretical sect but didn’t realize it) or the person was not who you thought that they were (eg, Jacob and Leah). Suffice to say, not really the main issue.

      What is left is a defect in the choice to act, since as St Thomas succinctly points out “a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason” (still Q88A6). In colloquial language we have common phrases such as “I don’t know what came over me,” “I lost my head”, “heat of the moment”, &c. to describe the experience of some sudden or overpowering outside influence of panic, fear, anger, pain, and the like which puts someone momentarily “beside himself”. In more technical terms, “a kind of subtraction, namely, of deliberate reason… the result is that by such a subtraction the species of the act is destroyed.”

      The main point here is not the particular source of the emotion or pressure, but the effect that it has on the faculty of deliberate reason and that in its sudden apprehension can “cause an act before the higher or lower reason has time to deliberate,” more colloquially, before he has “snapped out of it.”

      The error you have made, and continue to make, is in locating the mitigation in the outside influence itself rather than its effect on deliberate reason, so that you say things like that it will “continue to mitigate for so long as it remains.”

      No, it does not, it continues to mitigate until the capacity for deliberate reason is recovered. A sudden single act or series of acts might be understood in this way, but it is absurd to argue that one is without deliberate reason indefinitely, “for so long as [the threat] remains”.

      Once the use of reason is again intact and deliberate consent is given, the act is mortal, since “that it be a venial sin before the consent is given, is accidental, viz. on account of the incompleteness of the act: which incompleteness ceases when the deliberate consent has been given, so that therefore it has its complete nature and is a mortal sin.” (I-II Q74A8).

      Which is why St. Phileas, who was obviously in possession of his deliberate reason while being interrogated by Culcianus is completely correct that the fate of his eternal soul hung in the balance on his choice.

      Your approbation of his choice is utterly inadequate to the question at hand, because you deny the principles of his judgment. You affirm that “his reward in heaven is greater” while he is clearly articulating that the choice is between the loss or salvation of his soul, not the magnitude of his inevitable reward. Neither is it pertinent that had he fallen “forgiveness would still have been available to him while his life lasted,” since that has never in the least been in question, but rather whether apostasy in such a case would have necessitated him to ask for forgiveness at all. He and I maintain yes, while you maintain almost certainly no, and not only for that single act of apostasy, but for as many as necessary to secure his safety, since the threat of death would “continue to mitigate for so long as it remains.”

      As above, this is a completely wrong notion of how mitigation has come about, which was an imperfection in the act from something impinging on the capacity for deliberate reason, which is gone as soon as one has “come to one’s senses” and “that which in the sudden movement was not a mortal sin, becomes a mortal sin in virtue of the deliberation which brought it into the light of a higher consideration.” (Q74A10).

      Liked by 1 person

      • ThomasL,

        Thank you for this. It is the best summary, and most rooted in Aquinas, of the argument that duress only mitigates while it overwhelms the intellect I have seen.

        I will take sometime to consider this, and its implications for my views, properly. It links with a suggestion which has been made to me, that I overly bifurcate limitations to intellect and will (i.e. knowledge and consent), in a way which may be considered a type of voluntarism opposed by Aquinas.

        I am not sure if my understanding of what Aquinas teaches in this regard, or its interaction with other masters such as St Alphonsus Liguori, will change. But it is certainly very serious and helpful food for thought, and I will be going back to the sources you refer to.

        Thank you again for taking the time to provide this.


    • ThomasL,

      I have now had a chance to thing properly your objections in respect of mitigation being limited to where deliberate reason not able to be applied. I have added a new Section 2.4 to my Apologia which outlines my considered view of what Aquinas teaches in this regard.

      In essence, my understanding is that for Aquinas fear does not mitigate in the same way as a sudden movement, which occurs before deliberate reason is able to be applied. Such sudden movements would be almost wholly involuntary, such that a person could say they “lost their head” or “didn’t know what came over them”.

      Conversely, for Aquinas fear is not so completely involuntary, and indeed within a set of circumstances is precisely voluntary (i.e. I choose to throw a cargo overboard, because I make a considered choice that given the storm it is better than having the ship sink, not because I panic).

      And yet, despite fear being voluntary in this sense, Aquinas still holds it is involuntary and mitigating in the sense it is a type of violent coercion apart from the circumstances (i.e. throwing the cargo overboard is not what I want to do, and I would not do it if the storm was not going to sink the ship).

      Accordingly the fact that I deliberate and indeed try to discern a course of action, doesn’t mean any decision to sin is completely voluntary or done with complete consent, as it is the compulsion provide by the grave consequences themselves (not limits on my ability to reason) which reduces culpability.

      That does not of course mean every fear will mitigate a sin from mortal to venial, as fear of evil consequences could be inordinate, and thus a mortal sin itself. However if the evils are sufficiently grave and certain, it seems to me Aquinas would allow such reduced culpability could exist for so long as the evil is threatened.


  12. And yet, despite fear being voluntary in this sense, Aquinas still holds it is involuntary and mitigating in the sense it is a type of violent coercion apart from the circumstances (i.e. throwing the cargo overboard is not what I want to do, and I would not do it if the storm was not going to sink the ship).

    Scott, I don’t think you have hit the nail on the head yet. You still have to ACCOUNT for the way in which it is “voluntary” in one sense, and “involuntary” in another sense, such that the “involuntary” constrains the freedom of the will to diminish responsibility so much that it is not a mortal sin.

    To take the ship example, I think we would normally say that the choice to throw the cargo overboard is the reasonable choice given the circumstances, and the person most likely is praiseworthy for taking that right action. And he would be blamed for refusing to throw the cargo overboard, even though fear of death were goading him; we would normally account that as an inordinate attachment to physical goods overcoming an entirely reasonable fear for his life. So, even though when he throws the cargo over he may be acting “from fear” in one sense, in the more proper sense he is acting virtuously, uprightly, and this means that the act is more properly voluntary than involuntary.

    it is a type of violent coercion apart from the circumstances

    Of course, as AL points out, the actual discernment of the moral status of a concrete act (including its guilt) cannot be separated from the concrete facts of that act, including the circumstances like the storm.

    What you have to do, then, is to figure out the principle behind why St. Thomas is saying it is involuntary in one sense and voluntary in another, and how to apply that.

    And, after you do that, you have to account for how it is that fear operates on the will so as to obstruct it from acting freely, in such wise that sometimes fear leaves the will free, and sometimes not. I suggest that one hint is that the more distant the harm that is threatened, the less likely it can overrule mind and will to such an extent as to reduce the sin to venial: a person cannot think that a death that will occur in 10 years if he doesn’t do something now is something that causes such sort of fear as to undermine mortal guilt. This is the reason that ThomasL and I have both suggested that immediacy DOES have a role in whether the fear reduces guilt that much. Fear is a passion, and passions have an ebb and flow, and normally they are considered do diminish culpability because at high flow passion interferes with … what? I suggest that it interferes with the intellect’s presentation of the proper good to the will: passion “talks louder” than the intellect, in us damaged humans. But this depends on strong passion, and THAT depends at least to some extent on the immediacy of the threat, doesn’t it?

    To return to the notion that the culpability is reduced as long as the threat remains: If you are caught unawares by a kidnapper telling you “kill a city councilman or I kill your child” on one day, the fear for your child may obscure your right thinking for a time. But if the kidnapper tells you have to go on killing a new state legislator every other day until he says to stop, don’t you at some point have an obligation to reconsider and reflect and – when it is no longer a surprise – think about how you are going to DEAL with this threat other than simply cave in to it permanently? When you have come to that point, then the threat MUST recede to some extent as an immediate influence over your will. An ongoing threat that requires a new action repeatedly, and that will foreseeably require that into the future, must be subject to reasoned analysis because ALL foreseeable problems are, even ones that are emotionally difficult. Because passions wane after they have waxed strong, when the person’s fear recedes he has an obligation to consider WITHOUT overwhelming fear.


    • Tony,

      In relation to your queries, my current understanding is as follows. In the event you are aware of anything which would invalidate my view, please do let me know.

      You still have to ACCOUNT for the way in which it is “voluntary” in one sense, and “involuntary” in another sense

      From the portions of the Summa I refer to in my new section, I think Aquinas clearly thinks it is voluntary in the circumstances, and involuntary outside of them. In other words, given the storm I choose to dump the cargo (i.e. voluntary), but it is the circumstances which force me to dump the cargo (i.e. involuntary).

      To take the ship example

      The thing to remember here is that circumstances which can completely excuse where things are not intrinsically evil, only diminish responsibility where they are intrinsic evil. For example Canon 2205 in the 1917 Code provided:

      “Grave fear, even relatively such, necessity and also great inconvenience, excuse as a rule from all guilt, if there is question of purely ecclesiastical laws … If, however, the act is intrinsically evil, or involves contempt of faith or of ecclesiastical authority, or the harm of souls, the circumstances spoken of in the preceding paragraph do indeed diminish the responsibility but do not take it away”.

      I suggest that one hint is that the more distant the harm that is threatened, the less likely it can overrule mind and will to such an extent as to reduce the sin to venial

      I absolutely agree the less grave, the less certain and the more distant the harm, the less it is to be feared, and the less it will mitigate. A fear of such more distant evils could well be inordinate, and this a mortal sin in its own right, as Aquinas notes.

      However it seems to me circumstances mitigate less in these circumstances, not because they incite less passion per se, but because they have less force with which to compel. For example a gun to the head would strongly compel me not to eat chocolate, whereas the chance getting fat in 30 years only very weakly compels me not to.

      If you are caught unawares by a kidnapper telling you “kill a city councilman or I kill your child” on one day, the fear for your child may obscure your right thinking for a time. But if the kidnapper tells you have to go on killing a new state legislator every other day until he says to stop, don’t you at some point have an obligation to reconsider and reflect

      In that example, the ever increasing evil of caving in likely means a reconsideration will quickly become urgent. But if the initial balance of evils remains, I don’t think the same conclusion follows. If you lie to save people from Nazi’s killing them, I don’t think the fact they have been trying to kill them for 4 years rather than 4 days, means the mitigating circumstances have ceased to reduce your culpability for committing that intrinsic evil.


  13. Scott,

    I don’t have much to add to the excellent arguments provided by Thomas and Tony to help you see that you deeply misunderstand Aquinas on this matter. I think this discussion is arriving to a dead end.

    I would like to suggest that you take a step back and reflect on your methodology, which seems to me to be strongly inductive. By that I mean that you start from a preconceived idea or goal (i.e. to show that AL’s idea to allow d&r to receive Holy Communion is orthodox) and wrongly reinterpret various Magisterial documents and other writings by Aquinas in order to support that idea.

    This is exactly the same problem we find in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis starts from a goal (allow d&r to receive Holy Communion) and mistakenly quotes, for example, Gaudium et Spes and Aquinas. This may not be Pope Francis fault directly, but of his ghost-writers. Nevertheless, as some thomistic authors have pointed out, it is a deep concern that a papal document contains such obvious errors, and he must correct them.

    Today we learn that Cardinal Muller has stated that the requirement to live in continence is “not dispensable, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments. The confusion on this point also concerns the failure to accept the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” with the clear doctrine of the “intrinsece malum.””

    So there it is, without referring to specific guidelines (Buenos Aires or Malta being the most relevant because of endorsement, direct or indirect, by Holy Father), he refuses the interpretation of continence as an option to be made by a couple in conscience, in line with traditional moral theology.

    Let’s recall what the Buenos Aires guidelines say (emphasis by me):

    6) In 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 is acknowledged that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes he/she would incur a subsequent fault by harming the children of the new union, Amoris laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).

    I think is obvious that Cardinal Muller is directly rejecting the Buenos Aires guidelines. Continence is not an option, is an indispensable requirement by catholic moral theology. Because of his position at the CDF, he’s not able to say it explicitly without causing a de facto schism in the Church.

    Once that complete continence has been sincerely accepted by the couple, if they fall again due to weakness, they are accepted to Sacrament of Penance and be able to receive Holy Communion. That has always been the case.

    Of course, if due to a rush of passion or fear that results in a “substraction of deliberate reason” they commit adultery, their subjective guilt could be reduced to the point that the sin becomes venial and they don’t need to confess it. But note that the requirement to decisively break with what the person recognizes as mortal sin is fundamental in moral theology, and we cannot possibly claim reduced culpability prospectively because of a mitigitating factor that is present here and now.


    • Jorge,

      At present I am comfortable I have not misunderstood Aquinas, and indeed that sudden passion just can’t be what Aquinas is speaking of in relation to a fear which mitigates (given the extent he maintains actions under the influence of such fear remain deliberate). I remain open however to pointers to any specific teachings of Aquinas, or any knowledgeable commentators on him, which may suggest I am mistaken.

      A stronger case might be made that the extent to which fear mitigates may not be sufficient in many cases to mean a sin is not mortal, given Aquinas holds fear means an action is a mixture of voluntary and involuntary (but more voluntary than not). However that would be a case by case argument, which can’t deny discernment is possible in specific circumstances.


    • Jorge,

      In terms of Cardinal Muller, I agree his reported statements if accurate are a direct rejection of AL, as the Pope has been shown to understand it in the Buenos Aires guidelines.

      This is clearest where he is reported to have said “For example, it cannot be said that there are circumstances according to which an act of adultery does not constitute a mortal sin. For Catholic doctrine, it is impossible for mortal sin to coexist with sanctifying grace.

      At present I am not entirely sure these comments accurately reflect the Cardinal’s view, as based on recent reports he has supported different somewhat contradictory views every time he has spoken publically over the last few months.

      But if they are accurate as to his view, I don’t see how they could possibly be accurate as to Catholic doctrine. The application of mitigating circumstances to even intrinsic evils like adultery is accepted by Veritatis Splendor and the Dubia. To posit adultery is per se a subjectively mortal sin seems to me an error, and indeed perhaps even a heresy.


  14. Scott,

    Indeed, the last time Cardinal Muller talked about this he said that “Amoris Laetitia is very clear in its doctrine and we can read into it all of Jesus’ doctrine on marriage, all the doctrine of the church in its 2,000 year history.”.

    Some people, both conservatives and liberals, understood it as a support of Holy Communion to d&r and a rejection of the arguments made in Dubia, but to me it was pretty clear that he was avoiding the issue in a sort of mental reservation (i.e., there´s no problem with AL…because I only accept the orthodox interpretation that is in continuity with 2,000 years of Church teaching). We need to understand that his position as Prefect of the CDF doesn´t allow him to speak his mind clearly without causing a great crisis, if not schism.

    As for the point you make, I don´t know if it is a translation issue, but he clearly does not deny the very well established Catholic teaching on mitigating factors. A review of the numerous writings he has will quickly disipate any doubt. Actually, I think they are very carefully chosen words (given his delicate position) in line with the Dubia.

    He could mean two different things (or both at the same time) when he says that “it cannot be said that there are circumstances according to which an act of adultery does not constitute a mortal sin. For Catholic doctrine, it is impossible for mortal sin to coexist with sanctifying grace”:

    – “…does not constitute a [SUBJECTIVE] mortal sin”. It is not possible to claim reduced culpability due to circumstances so that one lives in a state of grace when adultery is PERMANENT/ONGOING and it is chosen with sufficient deliberate consent in the context of spiritual direction, as AL seems to indicate according to your interpretation.

    – “…does not constitute a [OBJECTIVE] mortal sin”. He is condemning situation ethics, which claim that circumstances make EXCEPTIONS for intrinsically evil acts, so that they are not objectively mortal sins. Plain reading of AL certainly permits that interpretation, in fact situational language is heavily present in Chapter VIII.

    To me, both BA and Malta guidelines imply one of the following:

    1. God´s grace is not sufficient to avoid mortal sin. If adultery is admitted to be a mortal sin always and living in continence could be IMPOSSIBLE or NOT FEASIBLE under some circumstances, then sufficiency of grace is de facto denied.

    2. Adultery is not always an objective mortal sin. If God´s grace is always sufficient and it is impossible to live in continence under some circumstances, it can only mean that having sexual intimacy is not a objective mortal sin under certain circumstances.

    This is a major mess and can only be clarified with a direct and explicit intervention by the Holy Father.


    • Jorge,

      Yes, I’m going to have to say I don’t know precisely what Cardinal Muller meant. And I agree Bishops and Cardinals fighting over what the Pope means is quickly becoming untenable.

      A further intervention by the Pope seems inevitable, though it seems the wait for that will be longer than desirable.


  15. Following up on something Jorge said: if the D&R doesn’t have firm purpose of amendment (i.e., trying to live as brother and sister), then the sin (sexual relations with a non-spouse) can’t be absolved in Confession. To which Scott replied that if reduced culpability applies, then the adultery may be venial and therefore not required to be confessed. I ask, could Scott be conflating two separate sins here? There is the sin of adultery (that which one does) and the sin of not trying to change (that which one tries). The former can conceivably become venial in precise circumstances, but what attenuating circumstances can there be for the latter, for not trying, assuming the D&R has knowledge of the objective situation? Anybody can try and fail, and there can be attenuating circumstances. But what about the one who obdurately will not try? That strikes me as culpable mortal sin.


    • Ryan,

      My understanding is that which makes it unlikely a person can form a firm purpose of amendment, is the self same thing which mitigates guilt for the underlying sin.

      For example, external coercion which means one has less than complete consent for the adultery, is also the reason why the adultery continues.

      Therefore I don’t think the lack of amendment should be identified as a further sin, but rather it should be identified with the mitigating factor itself.


  16. For example, external coercion which means one has less than complete consent for the adultery, is also the reason why the adultery continues.

    And many of us doubt that the supposed external coercion can mitigate from the guilt of mortal sin, in one who knows the ostensible nature of the grave sin involved, for a long time (such as months and years).


    • Tony,

      Yes, that appears to be the sticking point for many. I think I have made a reasonable Thomistic argument for its ability to mitigate for an extended period. At the very least I think I have put the best case available forward for that view.

      But I remain open to any refutations based on Aquinas, or indeed on the idea Pope St John Paul II may have “developed” Aquinas in a more objective direction (which has been suggested to me, but not with sources which show when or how that might have occurred).

      For example I can see the argument that Pope St John Paul II’s teaching on intrinsic evils means St Alphonsus Liguori’s idea that following erroneous conscience is meritorious (Theologia moralis. Lib. 1; Tract. 1; Cap. 1; n.6-7), must now likely be seen as an outlier in the Tradition, and it in fact can only reduce culpability for intrinsically evil acts (i.e. the position of Aquinas must be preferred to that of Liguori).

      But I don’t yet see any such development restricting mitigation in the way many people seem to feel it should be restricted.


  17. Scott,

    Excellent article. I really enjoyed this.

    I am confused on the point of venial sin and the firm purpose of amendment. My understanding, which your authorities seem to support, is that a firm purpose of amendment does not extend to venial sin since, per Chapter XI and Canon 23 of Trent Session 6, no matter how holy and just a person may be, they will at least fall into venial sin.

    So if a priest and a penitent discern that sex in a new union may be a venial sin, are not the Buenos Aires bishops saying the following:

    1. Because it is a venial sin, it is not feasible to have a firm purpose of amendment not to commit it anymore.
    2. Nevertheless, absolution can still be granted in confession because the firm purpose of amendment does not extend to venial sins.
    3. Sex in a new union should always be confessed prior to reception of Holy Communion, because it is still an objectively grave sin, and there is no way for the penitent to be sure in each and every case that sex was not a mortal sin.
    4. This is consistent with Canon 916 referring to objectively grave sins rather than subjective mortal sins.

    Moreover, can it not be the case, even for mortal sin, that the firm purpose of amendment can be accepted where there is a desire to stop sinning but the circumstances of the penitent make him or her worry that they will be able to stop sinning? Isn’t this what Pope Saint John Paul II was getting at in paragraph 5 of this: https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP960322.HTM

    I wrote an analysis from this perspective here: http://pluniaz.blogspot.com/2017/11/amoris-laetitia-and-council-of-trent.html

    Would love your feedback.


    • Hi,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      In terms of your questions, my thoughts are as follows. Please note these are based on my proposal regarding mitigation and absolution, but their are other orthodox proposals worth considering, such as that given by Cardinal Coccopalmerio.

      1. I think we can have a firm purpose of amendment for venial sins normally, even though we know we won’t successful avoid all of them. As noted in some of the authorities your blog post mentions, its the intention to try to avoid them that matters, not how successful we are (or how much we reasonably fear failure).

      However, in the specific case of sins mitigated by lack of consent, I think it is right it would be hard to form a firm purpose of amendment (ie as the very factors which mitigate make it difficult).

      2. I would say absolution can be given for mortal sins, because the venial sins for which we can’t form a firm purpose of amendment don’t actually need to be confessed (ie confessing venial sins is pious, not required).

      3. We can never be certain we don’t sin mortally, but Amoris indicates we can have a “certain moral certainty”. The drafter of Amoris, ++Fernandez, has published a good explanation of the nature of this limited assurance we can have.

      4. Are you referring to Canon 915 or 916 here? As confirmed by John Paul II, c915 relates to objective grave sin, and c916 to subjectively mortal sin.

      In terms of a firm purpose of amendment, which can’t be actioned due to circumstance, that is essentially Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s approach. I prefer my proposal, but I’m perfectly happy to concede Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s way is also an orthodox way to think about this question.


      • Thanks for the reply Scott. My thoughts:

        1. Agreed. I think we are called to have a firm purpose of amendment not to commit any sins again, but the recognition that we will commit at least venial sin again, absent a special privilege from God, does not detract from that purpose. In fact, it takes the special grace of final perseverance not to commit mortal sin again before we die, and we don’t dare presume that we have that grace, but we still have a valid firm purpose of amendment.

        2. I think point #3 covers my concerns on your last paragraph in 1 and all of 2.

        3. Where does Amoris Laetitia say we have any certainty regarding whether we have committed a mortal or venial sin? I think this is the heart of the issue: neither the priest nor the penitent can know for certain whether an objectively grave sin was subjectively mortal or venial, so absolution needs to be sought for each objectively grave sin. Pope Francis in AL and the Buenos Aires bishops seem to be encouraging priests to grant absolution in these cases because (1) it might be venial, in which case the requirements for a firm purpose of amendment aren’t as strict and (2) even if it is mortal, the penitent might sincerely want to stop committing the sin but feels overwhelmed by their concrete circumstances such that they don’t see how, apart from the grace of God, they can stop.

        4. I don’t see where Pope Saint John Paul II explicitly says that Canon 916 is referring to subjectively mortal sin. My concern is that your approach seems to be: “Persons who have sex in new unions can skip confession and go straight to Holy Communion if they believe it wasn’t a mortal sin.” Whereas I am reading Pope Francis as saying: “Priests can and should grant absolution to persons who confess sex in new unions if the priest and penitent discern that mitigating circumstances are present that reduce culpability.”


      • Hi,
        Just to quickly respond to your specific questions:
        1. AL303 refers to people being able to have a “certain moral security”. Archbishop Fernandez, who drafted Chapter 8 of AL, expands on this point here (https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2017/08/full-text-pope-francis-ghostwriter-of.html?m=1).
        2. In terms of Canon 916, as I note in Section 1.6 of my article, being “conscious of grave sin” in Canon 916 is to be understood as subjective mortal sin rather than merely objective grave sin. This can be clearly seen by reference to its predecessor, Canon 856 in the 1917 CCL, which states “No one burdened by mortal sin on his conscience, no matter how contrite he believes he is, shall approach holy communion without prior sacramental confession”.

        This became an issue in the canonical literature in the 1990s, as many canonists understood the references to “grave sin” in both Canons 915 and 916 to relate to subjective mortal sin, rather than just objective grave matter. However due to a number of interventions from John Paul II, they were eventually forced to concede the reference in Canon 915 related to objective grave matter, whereas being “conscious of grave sin” related to subjective mortal sin.

        The articles of Patrick J. Travers in the Jurist are instructive in this regard (refer The Jurist 57 (1997) 517-540). Please note, this article may be behind a paywall if you don’t have the right library access, but I’d be happy to email a copy to you on request.

        3. As to your broader proposal, as I say, I think you are essentially agreeing with the view put forward by Cardinal Coccopalmerio. The Cardinal essentially proposed that the divorced and remarried can have a firm purpose of amendment, but due to the threat of grave harms to kids if they carried it out, find it impossible to action their firm purpose. In other words they want to stop the sin, but find themselves unable to do so, for the same reasons which mitigate the sin.

        My main concern with Cardinal Coccopalmerio proposal is not doctrinal, but rather that I think it would be psychologically difficult to form the state of mind he posits as necessary to receive absolution / communion (i.e. wanting and not wanting to stop), meaning that very few would ever be able to take advantage of it. Particularly since this very difficult psychological state isn’t going to achieve much in reality – An absolution not required to receive Communion, and which is going to lapse every time one goes home to bed.

        On the other hand, I do find Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s proposal to have some attractions, including the symmetry of how it deals with the impediments to Communion (i.e. ones unactionable desire to amend avoids Canon 915 because one isn’t obstinate, and Canon 916 because one can be absolved).

        Therefore I accept Cardinal Coccopalmerio proposal is an orthodox approach to the theology behind the practice instituted by AL. Or in other words, if you prefer the good Cardinal’s proposal to mine, I think that is entirely reasonable and I won’t argue with you!


  18. And, I have to say that I find this notion from Card. C. rather incoherent.

    The Cardinal essentially proposed that the divorced and remarried can have a firm purpose of amendment, but due to the threat of grave harms to kids if they carried it out, find it impossible to action their firm purpose. In other words they want to stop the sin, but find themselves unable to do so, for the same reasons which mitigate the sin.

    I do not believe that one can properly characterize this as “firm purpose of amendment”. Not at all.

    Here is an example of firm purpose of amendment with regards to the sin of fornication: a man and woman have been living together for 2 years, and they are engaged to be married in 3 months. They realize now that they are not supposed to be having sex, and they form a firm purpose to NOT do so. They cannot swing the financial burden if they had to break up the apartment (the lease terms, etc), and determine that they are going to stay in the apartment. Knowing their own weakness, resolve not to sleep in the same bedroom – they will take turns on an air mattress in the living room. They both know that this may not, by itself, be enough given human weakness, but they intend not to sleep together for 3 months, until they are married. They intend, at the time of confession, to not commit the act of fornication at any time in the 3 months.

    The picture you described, though, I would say is characterized by a pleasant wish, not a “firm purpose of amendment”. They have a pleasant wish that the world and their own circumstances did not put them in a bind where they had to do something very hard in order to follow the moral law. They have a pleasant wish that they were free to marry each other. They have a pleasant wish that if they stopped living together, this would not cause at least some material harm to the kids’ welfare. They have a pleasant wish that if they lived as brother and sister, the emotional and psychological tension, and the desires of concupiscence, would not be severe trials. They (or one of them) has a pleasant wish that the other person might see their way to being willing to go along with the moral law. They may even have a pleasant wish that, IF some conditions were to come along that resolves one or more of the causes of the above problems (e.g. the death of the first spouse), they would THEN intend to resolve to fix their marital situation.

    What they don’t have is a “firm purpose” not to sleep together. Quite the contrary, they quite definitely and concretely INTEND to sleep together for the near future. It is morally incoherent to say that they have a “firm purpose of amendment” while they have an ACTUAL intention to go on sleeping together. The “amending” idea is not a “firm purpose” precisely because they have NO INTENTION to let it be pursued in action. Intending to NOT put it into action is just exactly contrary to what the notion of “firm purpose of amendment” in its core meaning: in order to be a firm purpose, there must be – at the absolute minimum – at the moment of absolution, a positive intention to carry it out in action. Anything lesser just does not qualify. Indeed, the whole point of putting the qualifier “firm” in there to begin with is to preclude the wishful thinking of “well, I would change if only X were different”. That is a pleasant wish that X be different than it really is. It’s not reality, so the “I would, if only” is not an actual intention of amendment, but a wishful sentiment.


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