7.0 Slippery Slope

This objection is that, as the principles contained in AL would equally apply to access to the Sacraments by people who commit other objectively grave sins (i.e. same-sex relations, abortion, suicide / euthanasia, artificial contraception etc), the ability of the Church to witness against these grave evils will be impaired.

7.1 The D&R the Exception, Not the Rule

However, the teaching of the Church before AL already allowed some people whom commit these objectively grave sins to access the Sacraments, on a case by case basis in accordance with precisely the same principles outlined in AL for the D&R.

7.2 Reduced Culpability and Canon 916

For example, prior to AL, the Church already taught there are factors which can limit full knowledge and complete consent, and thus reduce subjective culpability for objectively grave sin from mortal to venial such that Canon 916 would not always apply.

The application of these principles, which are considered in relation to the D&R at 1.0 Mortal Sin (particularly at 1.3 Reduced Culpability and Mortal Sin), to these other objectively grave sins can be seen in the following magisterial precedents:

  • Same sex relations –
    • The 2001 CDF Notification at 2 b) stated that for Catholic doctrine “there is a precise and well-founded evaluation of the objective morality of sexual relations between persons of the same sex,” while “the degree of subjective moral culpability in individual cases is not the issue here”.
    • 1986 Letter on Homosexuality at 11 states “[T]he Church’s wise moral traditionwarns against generalizations in judging individual cases … circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance … 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”.
  • Abortion – EV 18 provides “Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future. Such circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices which in themselves are evil”.
  • Suicide – EV 66 provides “Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act”.
  • Euthanasia – The Declaration on Euthanasia at II states – “Although in these cases the guilt of the individual may be reduced or completely absent, nevertheless the error of judgment into which the conscience falls, perhaps in good faith, does not change the nature of this act of killing, which will always be in itself something to be rejected.

Further, in relation to artificial contraception, the following magisterial precedents supporting the application of reduced culpability are available:

  • HV 29 (1968) – Encourages couples who struggle to live this teaching to go on seeking the grace of God by receiving the Sacraments “more often and with great faith”.
  • Pastoral Directives (1968) by Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney – “Should the penitent still affirm that he cannot in conscience accept the teaching of the encyclical, let the priest remember that it is not always easy for persons immediately to change their attitude on a matter so closely affecting their manner of life. Some time of adjustment may be required … [such a penitent] who sincerely promises to follow the directions of his confessor, could be judged disposed for absolution. His conscience is objectively erroneous, but through no fault of his own, he cannot at the moment see the light of truth and form a true conscience”.
  • Human Life in Our Day (1968) by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA) – “There are certain values which may not oblige us always to act on their behalf, but we are prohibited from ever acting directly against them by positive acts. Truth is such a value; life is surely another. It is one thing to say that an action against these values is inculpable, diminished in guilt, or subjectively defensible; it is quite another to defend it as objectively virtuous”.
  • Statement of Theological and Pastoral Principles (1971) by the Congregation for the Clergy – “Particular circumstances surrounding an objectively evil human act, while they cannot make it objectively virtuous, can make it inculpable, diminished in guilt or subjectively defensible”.
  • 1974 Australian CDF Letter – “There can, however, be situations in which a couple have, in good faith, come to the erroneous conviction that in their particular case the use of contraceptives is justified. In this case, the use of contraceptives, although objectively unlawful, is subjectively excusable, on condition that the judgment of conscience is made on the basis of sufficient information and after serious reflection before God. This is traditional catholic doctrine on personal conscience as the norm for responsible human action”.
  • 1974 Australian Pastoral Letter – “It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in this matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault”.
  • The Moral Norm of ‘Humanae Vitae’ and Pastoral Duty (1989) by the CDF at 3 – “This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception”.
  • 1997 Vademecum at 3.7 and 3.8 – “In general, it is not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in invincible ignorance of their evil, or due to an inculpable error of judgment. Although these sins are not imputable, they do not cease, however, to be an evil and a disorder. This also holds for the objective evil of contraception, which introduces a pernicious habit into the conjugal life of the couple … The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin”.

7.3 Public Scandal and Canon 915

Further, prior to AL, the Church already taught these objectively grave sins would not always (or even usually) be manifest / public in a manner which would require Canon 915 to be applied.

Rather the application of Canon 915 was generally limited to those who promoted these sins in public, instead of merely committing them. For example Raymond Cardinal Burke, in his article in Periodica de Re Canonica Vol. 96 (2007), stated:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws)”.

This is further shown by the notable conservative canonist Dr Edward Peters, who has advised a same sex relationship without civil recognition or public proclamation would not automatically engage Canon 915, as:

Manifest. The additional requirement that gravely sinful behavior be manifest prior to withholding the Eucharist helps distinguish Canon 915, which operates in realm of public order, from Canon 916, which informs one’s personal responsibility to receive the Eucharist worthily. Reception of Communion at Mass is a public action in service to rendering liturgical worship to God; it is not the place for the proclamation of another’s private behavior. However sinful it might be, conduct that is not already widely known in the community is not manifest as canon law understands that term in this context. In something of a parallel to Canon 1340 § 2 (which prohibits imposing public penances for occult transgressions) and Canon 1330 (which prohibits any penalties in cases where no one has perceived the offense) the public withholding of the Eucharist for little-known sins, even though they might well be grave, is not permitted under canon law”.

Similarly the use of artificial contraception, without public promotion, would normally be an entirely private matter which could not attract the application of Canon 915.

Accordingly the teaching of AL in this regard, whose application to the D&R is considered at 3.0 Public Scandal, cannot be said to create an inconsistency with, nor provide a precedent for greater laxity in, the sacramental discipline of the Church in regards to individuals whom commit other objectively grave sins.

Back – Previous Section          Continue – Next Section

Back – Introduction

5 thoughts on “7.0 Slippery Slope

    • Chec,

      Examples could also be provided from the pre-VII moral manuals and canon law commentaries which confirm the principles. I am currently preparing a review of the opinions of the canon law commentaries of the 1917 Code for instance, which will show some of these.

      For the present piece however I was focusing on the doctrinal coherence of Francis with his immediate predecessors, rather than between pre and post VII, so I didn’t seek to include those older examples here.


  1. The 1997 Vademecum you cited is kind of blowing my mind…

    “The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin”.

    What level of magisterial teaching is this? Leave penitents in the dark if you know they won’t accept a hard teaching? I don’t wanna be a tough guy, but this seems kind of crazy to me.

    Is the idea that the penitents will grow in holiness to the point that they will eventually discard contraception of their own accord?


    • It is sourced from St Alphonsus Liguori, who is a Doctor of the Church. So not infallible, and not necessarily my preference, but generally accepted as a safe opinion.

      The idea basically is, if you don’t think they will change if informed, giving them full knowledge may just put them in mortal sin (and thus harm their chances of salvation).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s