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”.
“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 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”.
“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”.
“[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”.
“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 61 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:
- St Thomas Aquinas in his ST I-II, q.6 and ST I-II, q. 19.
- Pope Alexander VIII in his Decree on Jansenists.
- St Alphonsus Liguori in his TM Lib. 1; Tract. 1; Cap. 1; n.1-7 and Sermon XLVII.
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”.
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” , 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 Canon 1108 provides “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, 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”.
Accordingly reduced culpability may equally apply in relation to the objective sin of fornication, as the sinful avoidance of a valid sacramental marriage is not chosen by the parties nor required by divine law, but is instead made impossible 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.
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 in 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):
- 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.
“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, 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”.