|For Those Unable to Separate: Continence
Those divorced and civilly remarried couples who for serious reasons cannot separate, in order to receive absolution in confession which would open the way to receiving Communion, must take on the duty to live in complete continence:
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”xi
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, Cardinal Müller, recently stated that this requirement, “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.”xii
The Apostolic Exhortation recognizes the difficulties inherent in couples living together in continence (cf. AL note 329) and insists that human frailty must be taken into account:
Perhaps out of a certain scrupulosity, concealed beneath a zeal for fidelity to the truth, some priests demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice. For this reason, it is helpful to recall the teaching of Saint John Paul II, who stated that the possibility of a new fall “should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution” (AL, Note 364)
Although this practice has been formally recognized as a valid pastoral solution since the time of the publication of the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, it is still an example of an extraordinary circumstance which will be examined in greater detail in the next section.
IV. Extraordinary Circumstances
Required Having established the ordinary discipline of the Church, it is now possible to examine extraordinary pastoral situations with much greater precision. These require special consideration precisely because, for one reason or another, the pastoral situation differs in important respects from those envisioned by the ordinary discipline of the Church. As Pope Francis stated, “While upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions and decisions is not the same in all cases” (AL 302).
The Help of the Sacraments
In very specific situations the Church’s help for those in irregular situations can include the help of the sacraments (AL, note 351). The conditions indicated in Amoris Laetitia for such a pastoral exception to the ordinary discipline of the Church (as declared in Can. 915, CCEO, Can. 855) are as follows: 8
The Law of Gradualness
1. First, the “law of gradualness” must be applied. With this moral principle we have the recognition that the fullness of God’s life-giving law must always be our aim, but also that moral conversion is often a slow and gradual process:
“…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 and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life” (AL 295).
From a ministerial point of view this moral principle requires that when facing difficult and irregular situations we must be “merciful and helpful”, patiently guiding and assisting people to advance, at whatever pace they require, toward the fullness of God’s law and loving design:
“… all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly”. That is how Jesus treated the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn. 4:1-26): he addressed her desire for true love, in order to free her from the darkness in her life and to bring her to the full joy of the Gospel” (AL 294).
What is critical to note is that “this is not a gradualness of the law” (AL 295). We are not speaking of accepting an irregular situation as normative:
Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion (AL 297).
Practically this means that there must be a firm purpose of amendment; the intention on the part of the recipient of Penance or Holy Communion to bring their lives into full conformity with the Gospel, even though there may be grave circumstances that presently prevent this.
Absence of Mortal Sin
2. Secondly, the person in this objectively irregular situation must not be in the state of mortal sin. Amoris Laetitia, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church (articles 1735 & 2352), insists that “a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved” (AL 302). Due to serious mitigating factors it is possible that someone be in an objectively sinful situation and yet not be in the subjective state of mortal sin:
The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace (AL 301).
Once again it is incumbent upon the minister to accompany the person in question to gain a true picture of the full pastoral situation:
Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition” (AL 296).
Danger of Further Harm
3. Finally, there must be a grave pastoral reason why embracing the ordinary discipline of the Church would only cause further harm. Several examples of such grave situations are specifically mentioned in the exhortation:
One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “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”. Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family (AL 298).
When Continence is not Feasible
Ordinarily, receiving the sacraments for those in an irregular situation requires continence, but there are extreme situations wherein abstaining from conjugal relations is not feasible. Below is a succinct explanation of just such a situation and the underlying moral principles involved:
The situation foreseen here is apparently that of one party desiring such abstinence [as required by the Church for those divorced and civilly remarried without a decree of nullity] but the other refusing and threatening dire consequences in the absence of conjugal life. The first party then agrees to sexual relations against his or her will, for example, to preserve the welfare of the children. In such cases, the practicing Catholic party may not be guilty of serious sin and could therefore, in some cases, be admitted to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. This case, it should be noted, could be treated in such a manner even before Amoris Laetitia, according to application of 10 the standard principles of moral theology and confessional practice, analogous to the determination of the moral culpability of contraception when the spouses do not agree.xiii
As noted, these were already accepted foundational principles of moral theology and confessional practice. The application of these principles explicitly to the divorced and civilly remarried in a magisterial document is seen by some as an example of the authentic development of doctrine.
The Need for Pastoral Discernment
Considering the nature of these criteria it is unlikely to encounter a large number of these cases. It is possible, however, to imagine other circumstances in which they could apply. This only emphasizes the need for careful attention to, and discernment of, each individual situation.