Gaudete et Exsultate – Impossibility and the Divine Law

Critics of Pope Francis, and his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, have often complained that his teaching on the divorced and remarried contradicts the Council of Trent (Session 6, Canon 18):

“If any one saith, that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.”

Following on from this criticism, in Gaudete et Exsultate 49, Pope Francis has provided a teaching which on its face may appear to confirm this contradiction[1]:

“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace.” [Emphasis added]


However, as many are aware from the debates surrounding Amoris Laetitia, the footnotes are often key to understanding the teaching of Pope Francis. And here, supporting the phrase “not everyone can do everything”, Pope Francis provides another very significant footnote (Footnote 47):

 “Cf. Bonaventure, De sex alis Seraphim, 3, 8: “Non omnes omnia possunt”. The phrase is to be understood along the lines of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735.” [Emphasis added]

This paragraph of the Catechism, 1735, relates to the mitigating factors which can reduce subjective culpability for objectively grave sin from mortal to venial:

“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 idea of reduced culpability is a major theme of Amoris Laetitia, particularly in relation to the reception of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. As noted by the Bishops of the Buenos Aires, in their Directive which Pope Francis has via papal rescript since made part of his “authentic magisterium”:

“If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302) … Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351)”.

This footnote shows however that for Pope Francis the idea of reduced culpability is relevant not only to the reception of Holy Communion, but is also key to when it may be impossible for an individual to avoid objective sin. That is, the grave sins we may identify as impossible to avoid, are precisely those sins where mitigating factors mean a person is only venially culpable.

These subjectively venial sins are, as explained by the great theologian and defender of Humanae Vitae Fr. John Cuthbert Ford SJ, those in relation to which it can be said:

“In moral theology it is common teaching that given a sufficient diminution in the degree of freedom, the subjective guilt of what is objectively a grave sin can be changed from grave culpability to venial culpability propter imperfectionem actus. We speak of semideliberate acts, and of imperfectly voluntary acts. These expressions mean that the acts referred to, though they are human acts, and ex objecto gravely sinful acts, are so lacking in deliberation or so imperfectly consented to that subjectively they cannot be more than venial sins.” [Emphasis added]

And in respect of these sins, subjectively venial sins, the Council of Trent does not impose an anathema against those who would declare they are impossible to avoid. On the contrary, Trent imposed an anathema on those who would say such subjectively venial sins can always be avoided (Session 6, Canon 23):

“lf any one saith … that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial, except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema.” [Emphasis added]

That Pope Francis’ teaching does not contradict Trent, but is in fact required by that Ecumenical Council, can be seen with reference to St. Alphonsus Liguori. The Doctor zelantissimus, as part of his defence of Trent’s teaching that keeping the commandments is not impossible, provides in his book The History of Heresies and Their Refutation that:

They object, thirdly, that St. John says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I. John, i, 8). We answer that the Apostle does not mean by that, that it is impossible for us to observe the commandments, so that no one can escape falling into mortal sin, but that on account of the present weakness of corrupt nature, no one is exempt from venial sins, as the Council of Trent declared (Sess. vi, cap. 11): … [For, although, during this mortal life, men, how holy and just soever, at times fall into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, not therefore do they cease to be just].” [Emphasis added]


The next question which may be raised is, accepting that there is a difference between subjectively venial and mortal sins for these purposes, why does Grace not enable all objectively grave sin to be avoided?

Some have suggested, based on passages like Gaudete et Exsultate 50, that the availability of Grace may be delayed. Grace is provided, but not all at once:

“Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. That kind of thinking would show too much confidence in our own abilities … Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words.” [Emphasis added]

However, while our response to Grace can indeed be gradual, to suggest Grace itself is delayed misunderstands the teaching of both Pope Francis and the Church on the nature of Grace and mitigating factors. As explained by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia 295, a passage which parallels Gaudete et Exsultate 50, we can only respond to Grace where we are free to act. And mitigating factors, which make up “our concrete and limited situation”, are precisely things which limits this freedom:

“Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth”. This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God …” [Emphasis added]

For a true understanding of the relationship between Grace and mitigating factors, we can again turn to Fr. John Cuthbert Ford, SJ, who writing before the Second Vatican Council rightly explained that:

[W]e should not interpret the phrase “My grace is sufficient for thee” to mean that God promises to preserve everyone even from material mortal sin [i.e. objective grave sin]. Suppose a case of a madman who goes berserk and murders his custodian. He commits a material mortal sin. Did this happen because he failed to cooperate with the grace of God? Was God’s grace sufficient to keep him from being tempted above his strength if only he had accepted it, then or earlier? No one believes any such thing, because such a person is simply incapable of any cooperation. Something similar could be true of one who is not so sick that he is incapable of a human act altogether, but is sick enough so that he is pathologically impelled to the commission of a sinful act …

At all events the promise “My grace is sufficient for thee” means sufficient grace to preserve from formal sin [i.e. subjective mortal sin]. It does not tell us that, no matter what the interior pressure, God’s help is always so abundant that there will be no material sin by one who cooperates with it.” [Emphasis added]


[1] The reason Pope Francis calls the view that all can be accomplished with God’s grace, if it is willed, by the name of the Pelagian heresy can be best seen by reference to the first book of St. Jerome’s work Against the Pelagians. In this dialogue St. Jerome’s fictional Catholic Atticus refutes the Pelagian view, that a man can be without sin if he wills it, in part by stating:

“That God has given possible commands, I admit no less than you. But it is not for each one of us to make all these possible virtues our own, not because our nature is weak, for that is a slander upon God, but because our hearts and minds grow weary and cannot keep all virtues simultaneously and perpetually. And if you blame the Creator for having made you subject to weariness and failure, I shall reply, your censure would be still more severe if you thought proper to accuse Him of not having made you God. But you will say, if I have not the power, no sin attaches to me. You have sinned because you have not done what another could do. And again, he in comparison with whom you are inferior will be a sinner in respect of some other virtue, relatively to you or to another person; and thus it happens that whoever is thought to be first, is inferior to him who is his superior in some other particular”.

11 thoughts on “Gaudete et Exsultate – Impossibility and the Divine Law

  1. Scott,

    It seems to me that you are taking the quotes by Liguori and Ford way beyond what they intended them to mean.

    When Liguori clarifies the meaning of I. John, i, 8, he is only saying that no one can avoid venial sin. He puts as an example the saints and the “light and daily sins” even they commit. This is to be understood as venial sins objectively, not as objective grave sins that become subjectively venial due to circumstances (and certainly not as permanent and intrisic evil “lifestyles”!), as you seem to extraplate without justifying it by reference to the same source. Only taking AL’s novelties can you justify such extrapolation.

    As for Ford, he is clearly talking about someone that is incapable to cooperate with grace (a “madman who goes berserk” and someone “pathologically impelled” to do evil). Everybody agrees with this, there are certain factors that are present with such force at the moment of acting that the person cannot reason properly and is not fully culpable for his sin (or not culpable at all in some cases). There’s a good discussion in your blog about how these factor play a role in diminishing deliberate consent. Is that what AL is talking about? I don’t think so.

    “Cf. Bonaventure, De sex alis Seraphim, 3, 8: “Non omnes omnia possunt”. The phrase is to be understood along the lines of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735.”

    I’m reading the text by Bonaventure and it seems to me it’s taken out of context. I will write more on this when I have time.


    • Jorge,

      The question of if “venial sins” in these types of authorities is to be understood purely objectively is one I’ve had myself – I haven’t been able to find anything which answers it one way or the other.

      If you are aware of anything which might shed light of that problem, I would be very interested to see it.


      • Can we really distinguish between “objective” and “subjective” venial/mortal sins? It seems to me venial or mortal are both subjective. The objective categories would be minor/grave matter.
        According to the CCC, 1862, “One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • The most troubling part for me in all this is the huge difference there seems to be between what traditional sources understand by “full consent” that makes a sin mortal and what is meant by that now. But this is not limited to AL. It’s like in the past it was very easy to commit a mortal sin and now you need to be a diabolical being without emotions.


      • Yes, it is certainly fair to say that since just before Vatican II, the threshold for culpability to be mitigated has been lower. This seems permissible to me on the basis the threshold was never strictly defined previously, but it is undoubtedly a change.


      • Hi Scott,

        It’s been a long time since I visited your blog for the last time. I just read your response to my comment, thank you.

        Notung suggested that there is no such thing as “objective venial sin” and that we should call it “objective minor sin”. While I agree Catholic tradition has long differentiated between grave and mortal sin (objective vs subjective), I have never seen that distinction made for “minor” vs venial. In fact, I have never seen the term “minor sin” to refer to “objective venial sin”. Please provide a reference to such a definition.

        As I said before, I think it is very clear that “venial sin” in Liguori’s quote refers to “objective” venial sin:

        “[…] no one is exempt from venial sins, as the Council of Trent declared (Sess. vi, cap. 11): … [For, although, during this mortal life, men, how holy and just soever, at times fall into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, not therefore do they cease to be just].”

        “Least light and daily sins” is a pretty powerful way of saying it is venial matter, unless we think that saints regularly committed grave sins that were reduced to “subjective venial sins” by inculpable ignorance or lack of deliberate consent, which is absurd and incompatible with a virtous life as that accomplished by the saints through the help of God’s grace.

        I honestly think your interpretation doesn’t hold.


  2. I am curious as to whether you think these principles can be applied to GLBT people who want to form legal, lifelong, monogamous relationships which include homosexual acts as part of their expressions of unity. Can a relationship which from the outside appears to be objectively sinful be free from culpability? Can sexually active, married, gay couples who, in their conscience, believe that they are doing the best they can with the grace of God publicly receive the Sacrament?


    • Stuart,

      The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, all the way back in its 1986 Letter on Homosexuality at paragraph 11 (, noted that reduced culpability can apply to homosexual acts.

      Nor, at least until the advent of legal recognition of same sex unions, were such arrangements ever considered by the Church to automatically bar people from the Sacraments (as they were not deemed to be automatically public). Indeed the main examples of homosexual couples being denied Communion I am aware of relate to people turning up in the Communion line wearing rainbow sashes – It wasn’t an ordinary practice applied to normal gay people.

      That said, in the example given, it would not merely “appear” to be objectively sinful, but rather it would in fact be gravely sinful from an objective perspective. Accordingly, keeping in mind especially the fact that we can mortally sin by failing to correctly form our consciences inline with Church teaching, it would still be a very bad situation.


  3. This is an excellent apologia and one that I tend to myself in understanding how this all squares with the Catholic moral tradition.

    I wonder though, how does one judge that one has crossed the threshold of objective mortal sin to subjectively venial sin? In other words, when a person commits a gravely wrong act, how does one judge that one is so pressured that it becomes venial? In the case of the divorce and re-married, is that determination left up to the individual along with the guidance of the priest?

    Let’s say you have a Catholic woman in a second invalid marriage. Let’s say her circumstances are such that it will become incredibly and psychologically difficult for her to leave the relationship. Let’s say she is disabled; she relies on her second partner for financial support. Would such psychological pressure be enough to lessen the guilt from mortal to venial?

    Just thinking out loud here. I know this is a few years old but I’ve found it very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      In relation to your question, the short answer is that as far as I can tell, the threshold so to speak hasn’t been defined very tightly over the years, so it is very much left to the judgement of an individual and their priest.

      However from what official guidance we do have, the threshold will vary based on the psychology of the person involved. For example the Catechism at 2352, which draws on the views developed about alcoholism and other addictions in the early 20th century, notes that:

      “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.”

      Accordingly I would suspect that the threshold for say a financially dependent women with fragile mental health, is going to be a lot lower than for a mentally well-adjusted man with a high paying job. So in your example, I would guess that even the potential loss of financial support for someone in a precarious position due to their disability may well be sufficient coercion to make the sin venial, especially if the harm would also fall on her children.


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