John C. Ford, Contemporary Moral Theology & Amoris Laetitia

Contemporary Moral Theology Volume 1 – Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology – By John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly

Fr. John Cuthbert Ford, SJ (1902-1989) was one of the leading American Catholic moralists of the 20th century. Writing in the year of Father Ford’s death, Richard McCormick, S.J., could still vividly recall a time when Father Ford enjoyed such a “towering” reputation that his verdict on a disputed case almost automatically qualified as “solidly probable opinion”—that is, as counsel well-founded enough to resolve a doubtful conscience.

Fr. Ford is best known today for being a member of the Papal Commission on Population, Family, and Birth Rate during the 1960s, who helped write the paper that became known as the “minority position” against artificial contraception, which was taken up by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, and later argued for the infallibility of that encyclical.

Fr. Ford therefore has unimpeachable credentials as an orthodox, conservative, pro-papal theologian active before the Second Vatican Council.

It is therefore interesting that Fr. Ford released, in 1958 just before Vatican II, a book of moral theology in the manualist tradition called “Contemporary Moral Theology”, which may be considered one of the last pre-Vatican II English language moral manuals.

Further despite the age of this book, it in fact deals directly with two the questions which have been contested in light of the release of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis, the authority of papal teaching and the application of reduced culpability to otherwise mortal sins.

The discussion of reduced culpability is of particular interest, as while it is in the context of interior constraints which were beginning to be discovered based on the then relatively new science of psychology, rather than the specific factors focused on by Amoris Laetitia such as harm to children or subjective certainty of nullity, it does cover the following disputed points in a manner which supports the orthodoxy of Pope Francis:

  • Heretical situation ethics vs orthodox reduced culpability;
  • How voluntary a partially voluntary act must be in order for subjective mortal sin to arise;
  • The level of consent required for subjective mortal sin as compared to a valid marriage;
  • The discernment of culpability in the confessional; and
  • If Holy Communion can be received where culpability is doubtful.

Unfortunately, in light of its relevance, it does not appear that the full text of this moral manual is freely available online at this time. Accordingly in this article, I will seek to provide the relevant extracts from Fr. Ford’s book, to help further inform the debate around Amoris Laetitia.

I trust these extracts will help interested observers see both that the teaching of Amoris Laetitia in relation to reduced culpability falls well within Catholic orthodoxy as it has been understood since before Vatican II, as well as that this orthodoxy is not required to be supported with overly extensive claims of inerrancy in every utterance made in public by a Pope in matters of faith and morals.      

Please note, these extracts have been directly transcribed from the book as originally published, with any omissions or added emphasis being explicitly noted. In relation to the discussion of reduced culpability, the omissions made mostly relate to discussions of psychological matters, which are not directly relevant to Amoris Laetitia.

  1. The Doctrinal Value of Papal Teaching (Chapter 2).
  2. Extracts on Reduced Culpability (Chapters 8 to 11).

7 thoughts on “John C. Ford, Contemporary Moral Theology & Amoris Laetitia

  1. However, subjective culpability is not the issue so this is really a moot point. This is a straw man that keeps getting repeated. The Church has never considered one’s subjective state to be the main factor in determining such things nor even in regard to the reception of the sacraments in general. The whole idea is actually a dangerous novelty. JPII and Benedict’s magisterium expressly addressed & rejected this claim, and in fact, all the arguments that have been put forth. See, e.g.,; You can also see a 1998 statement of the CDF on it & benedict’s sacramentum caritatis #29. You will note that the discipline is also of divine law, and thus cannot change, and that the prohibition is absolute & admits of no exception and any exception is “intrinsically impossible.”

    Even if the subjective argument were relevant, there are many other problems: someone in “accompaniment” and “discernment” under a priest makes it all the more probable they have the requisites for mortal sin. The very act of discernment, especially of a drawn out process, even presupposes proper knowledge, will; while the object of discernment cannot be whether or not to commit or continue objectively grave situations or acts. The Argentinian guidelines speak of people “discerning” and then intentionally choosing to continue adulterous acts, for the sake of the children. So, one deliberately wills intrinsically evils acts, something the Church has always taught as impermissible; and for the sake of a supposedly greater good. Oh, the many errors contained therein! Also, how does one who does not intend to stop a sin receive valid absolution? In these ways the material of Ford also must be distinguished from what has been proposed: Ford addresses someone coming into confession as usual(a singular occasion), perhaps even confessing the sin for the first time, and the priest judging them at that point, etc., versus someone undergoing a process of accompaniment. The latter changes things dramatically.

    The issue of papal authority is also somewhat of a straw man. No one is denying he has such authority but specifically that he cannot contradict the prior magisterium and that any “teaching” which does cannot be authentic; while the prior teaching on the issue is arguably infallible. So, this kind of refutes itself: how is it that what prior popes have said is no longer binding but what Francis says is? Just because he is the latest in time? Also, I have yet to see anyone able to tell us exactly what teachings on faith and morals we are being required to believe, especially relative to the argentine guidelines. Furthermore, such a claim presupposes there is something new being taught, something that now requires people to provide a (new) act of assent. Yet, depending on who you talk to, there are those who deny there is something new. We must also be aware of exaggerations of papal authority, & in this regard I will simply reference an article by cardinal Gerhard muller.

    As a final note, let us observe several recent happenings, in which people of note (e.g., a member of the pontifical academy for life and v.p. of the german’s bishop conference) have stated that A.L. and Francis’ thought permits contraceptive use and same sex acts. And more noteworthy, there has been no repudiation whatsoever of these positions by anyone in authority, if even informally. Is this just an accident that people are citing A.L. for their positions? This is also hardly the first time folks have done so and you will see such claims more and more, we can be assured.


  2. That’s rather bizarre- you seem to admit your claim- which are almost entirely based on the subjective culpability idea- is wrong/mis-directed? Or are you saying that because you cannot refute the points- which is not possible anyway because you then find yourself “arguing” with the entire previous magisterium- so to avoid it you now change tunes and say you didn’t think that anyway.


  3. Father Ford was my parent’s spiritual advisor. Because of previous divorce, they were not married in the church. He understood their situation and was empathetic; but he said they could not receive communion unless they lived as brother and sister. He was never unclear about it.


  4. Pingback: Gaudete et Exsultate – Impossibility and the Divine Law | Reduced Culpability

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