In the debate over Amoris Laetitia, many people have made reference back to Familiaris Consortio 84 where John Paul II commands that for Communion, the divorced and civilly remarried “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
It is important to review what this statement is based upon so that we can understand why it cannot be changed. A post-synodal apostolic exhortation, as both of these documents are, can contain infallible statements but is not infallible in its entirety. As we can see in Amoris Laetitia, the Pope will often make specific pastoral recommendations in such documents, and pastoral recommendations can always be changed. In contrast the anathemas of an ecumenical council like Trent, are infallible.
The teaching that there is no sacramental absolution or Communion for those who are divorced, civilly remarried, and not trying to live his brother and sister is based on several fundamental truths: basic catechesis and two doctrines defined in Trent.
I remember learning that a mortal sin requires a grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent as I prepared for First Reconciliation in third grade. I don’t think any serious Catholic doubts this teaching, although there is always some debate around the edges regarding what constitutes each of the three categories, such as how strong addiction must be before it removes deliberate consent.
I also think that there is little debate that sexual relations with anyone but your spouse is grave matter.
Third, we all learned not to go to Communion if we have an unconfessed mortal sin on our soul. This links Communion with the sacrament of Confession and lets us focus on the latter because if a priest can absolve the person of their mortal sin, they can go to Communion. Trent defines this but I need not elaborate.
No Absolution Without Intention to Stop Mortal Sin
Moving on to a doctrine that Trent defined, we get to the truth that a priest cannot absolve a person who intends to commit another mortal sin. This specifically refers to an intention to sin and not just a probability of sinning.
The council of Trent defines this doctrine in several related passages. It condemns as heretical (anathematizes) anyone who “denies that for the full and perfect remission of sins three acts are required of the penitent… contrition, confession and satisfaction.” (DH 1704) In the preceding section it gives contrition a first place among those acts and “the holy counsel declares that this contrition implies not only cessation from sin and the resolve and beginning of a new life, but also the hatred of the old.” (DH 1676) It further specifies that contrition must exclude the will to sin, and declares it false to believe that the sacrament of Penance confers grace without the disposition of the penitent.
Confession is not a magic rite that automatically washes away your sins. Instead, it is a key element of our return to God after our separation from him through sin. Absolution must be preceded by a desire to avoid that sin again.
Divorce is Impossible
Finally, we have to look at Trent’s teaching on the impossibility of divorce. The doctrine of a single spouse for life has always been the norm of the Church and Trent defined it infallibly.
Trent anathematizes the belief that “it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time,” (DH 1802) declaring that this prohibition is divine and thus eternal and unchangeable even by anyone or any group. It also declares all kinds of reasons that are forbidden for ending marriage. It goes so far as to call it “the perpetual and indissoluble bond of matrimony.” (DH 1797)
Thus, a person who is divorced is still married in the eyes of the Church so every sexual relation except with the one they divorced is immoral. If they remarry in a civil ceremony, this changes nothing with regards to their existing marriage but puts them in greater temptation of falling into adultery with whoever they are now civilly married to.
Nonetheless, the Church permits annulments when there was some error in the original marriage such as one of the spouses excluding an essential element of marriage like openness to children from their intention, or hiding something important like they are homosexual and using marriage as a cover. In these cases, the Church declares that the prior marriage never happened because at the moment of the marriage vows, something was not right.
It might create great suffering for some, but once the marriage vows are said and it is consummated, nothing can change the validity or indissolubility of that marriage.
Reading Amoris Laetitia in Light of Trent
Returning to the debate surrounding Amoris Laetitia, it should become clear that Trent makes it impossible for people willingly sleeping with someone other than their spouse to receive Communion. To deny or to go against Trent is to enter heresy. Thus, Amoris cannot be interpreted in opposition to Trent.
Francis would have run the draft by theologians far wiser than I, and they would have corrected him if Amoris allowed things contrary to Trent. Beyond that, the Holy Spirit also would have prevented him from publishing it if he intended to go against Trent.
Francis does emphasize mercy to the ignorant and weak as I said before, but he does not permit Communion for the divorced and remarried in a generalized sense.
It does not matter how much of a sob story or how difficult the person’s life is, the permanent nature of marriage doesn’t change. We can’t say that a paraplegic no longer has to obey the moral law because of how hard his life is or that a gay man can have homosexual relationships because it’s difficult, and nothing changes because of this particular difficult situation. We all have to bear our crosses and for some, their particular cross is more obvious.
Instead of letting people shirk their moral responsibilities, I hope the Church’s energy can be focused on strengthening them to be able to fulfill the moral law.
When we read Amoris Laetitia in line with tradition, it reaffirms Trent and John Paul II although with a new emphasis on mercy.
Note: DH refers do Denzinger-Hünnerman which is the standard reference book for older Church decrees like Trent, as a reference.