Monday, October 26, 2015

Divorce, remarriage and communion

I've been thinking a bit about one of the key issues of the recent Synod on the Family, whether Catholics who have divorced and attempted remarriage without an annulment should be allowed to receive communion. As I understand the disagreement (I found this quite helpful), it's not really about the nature of marriage.

The basic case to think about is this:

Jack believes himself to be married to Jill, and publicly lives with her as husband and wife. But the Church knows, although Jack does not, that Jack is either unmarried or married to Suzy.
Should Jack be allowed to receive communion? After all, Jack is committing adultery (if he is actually married to Suzy) or fornication (if he's not actually married to Suzy) with Jill, and that's public wrongdoing. However, Jack is deluded into thinking that he's actually married to Jill. So Jack isn't aware that he's committing adultery or fornication. Jack may or may not be innocent in his delusion. If he is innocent in his delusion, then he is not culpably sinning ("formally sinning", as we Catholics say) in his adultery or fornication.

This is a hard question. On the one hand, given the spiritual benefits of the Eucharist, the Church should strive to avoid denying communion to an innocent person, and Jack might be innocent. On the other hand, letting Jack receive communion reinforces his delusion of being married to Jill, making him think that all is well with this aspect of his life, and committing adultery and fornication is good neither for Jack nor for Jill, even if they are ignorant of the fact that their relationship is adulterous or fornicatory.

One thing should be clear: this is not a clear case. There really are serious considerations in both directions, considerations fully faithful to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition that adultery and fornication are gravely wrong and that one should not receive communion when one is guilty of grave wrong.

One may think that the above way of spinning the case is not a fair reflection of real-world divorce and remarriage cases. What I said above makes it sound like Jack has hallucinated a wedding with Jill and may have amnesia about a wedding with Suzy. And indeed it is a difficult and far from clear pastoral question what to do with congregants who are suffering from hallucinations and amnesia. But in the real-life cases under debate, Jack really does remember exchanging vows with Suzy, and yet he has later exchanged other vows, in a non-Catholic ceremony, with Jill. Moreover, Jack knows that the Church teaches things that imply that he isn't really married to Jill. Does this make the basic case clear?

Well, to fill out the case, we also need to add the further information that the culture, at both the popular and elite levels, is telling Jack that he is married to Jill. And Jack thinks that the Church is wrong and the culture is right. I doubt we can draw a bright line between cases of mental aberration and those of being misled by the opinions of others. We are social animals, after all. (If "everyone" were to tell me that I never had a PhD thesis defense, I would start doubting my memories.)

At the same time, the cultural point plays in two opposite ways. On the one hand, it makes it more likely that Jack's ignorance is not culpable. On the other hand, it makes it imperative--not just for Jack and Jill's sake, but now also that of many others--not to act in ways that reinforce the ignorance and delusion. Moreover, the issue for Jack's spiritual health isn't just about his relationship with Jill. If Jack puts more weight in the culture than in Catholic teaching, Jack has other problems, and may need a serious jolt. But even that's not clear: that jolt might push him even further away from where he should be.

So I don't really know what the Church should do, and I hope the Holy Spirit will guide Pope Francis to act wisely.

In any case, I think my point stands that this isn't really about the nature of marriage. One can have complete agreement that adultery and fornication are wrong and that Jack isn't married to Jill, without it being clear what to do.


entirelyuseless said...

I agree that the moral issue is not automatically resolved by a doctrinal argument. However, it is clearly the case in practice that that admitting such couples to communion, in the long run, would lead to a situation equivalent to the Orthodox practice. As far as I can tell they do not have a formal doctrine that true sacramental marriages can be dissolved, but they have one in effect, and many Orthodox theologians propose one in practice. In the long run the same thing will happen in the Catholic Church if it adopts the same practice.

Heath White said...

The link is indeed helpful.

It seems to me, though, that permitting Jack communion stakes out a general policy of the form: so long as Jack is nominally a Catholic, no matter what Jack is doing, if (i) the culture thinks it’s okay and (ii) Jack listens to the culture, then the Church should give Jack communion. This theory would have been very handy back when the big cultural issue was burning incense to the emperor.

StMichael said...

Part of the difficulty is that the people in favor of admitting the divorced and remarried to communion are apparently revisionists about sexual morality. So they do not merely say the person thinks themselves to be innocent subjectively, but that the persons in the second union are not guilty even objectively. It's that part that is quite troubling; classical moral theology has strategies for formation of conscience for those who are subjectively innocent, by which you lead them via "gradualism" to accept the moral law. However, the issue is that the advocates of this position advocate another strategy, which is to counsel the person that they might be admit themselves to communion anyway if they personally decide what they are doing is not sinful, due to love of the other person and children. So there is an implicit claim that, despite the prior union not being called into question, the second union no longer is really sinful. They also, possibly, understand communion and penance to not require repentance of grave sin and attempt to avoid "near occasions" - including situations like sleeping with someone who is not your spouse. This is the reason for the emphasis on "mercy" by Card. Kasper and the position he advocates - a revisionist theory of sacramental life. At least, those are the issues as I understand them.

sgirgis said...

Whether to give the remarried guy Communion seems to me to be an open question only where--though there hasn't been an annulment investigation--the guy believes that his first marriage was (*by the Church's moral principles and positive canon laws*) invalid, and his second is (*by the same standards*) valid.

It's not enough for him to believe, *out of innocent ignorance or otherwise,* that his second is valid on the ground that, say, marriage is dissoluble.

Why not? Well, because the Church has definitively taught that it's indissoluble. To receive Communion, you have to be in full communion with the Catholic Church, which means (inter alia) accepting everything she has definitively taught. So even if the guy isn't culpable for adultery, he's not in full communion. (By contrast, if he is in full communion, in that he believes all that the Church has taught, then either he's failed his duty to form his conscience according to the Church's mind, or he has but is flouting his conscience--either being a serious sin.)

Besides, the Church's positive canon law currently requires weddings of Catholics to adhere to a prescribed form to be valid--a form that was (by hypothesis) not observed in the case of the second wedding. Again, to receive Communion a Catholic must accept the Church's power to bind and loose, which is what she exercises in canonically imposing extra conditions for the validity of marriages involving a Catholic.

But even if I didn't think this example was settled as a matter of principle, I would think the prudential case against allowing Communion is overwhelming. If the Church's norm were "give people Communion if they label themselves Catholic and don't believe themselves guilty of serious sin," then every time the culture deviated from the Church, the sin in question would be no practical impediment to Communion. The Church's moral witness to the culture--precisely where it was most needed--would be destroyed.

Gorod said...

Sorry, but I must be missing something in the logic of Crisis Magazine article, and so also in the article here and some of the comments.

If a person is married in the Church, yet believes he is not;
He then finds someone else and decides to "truly" marry her;

BUT the rest of the story does not go "so he innocently marries the second person in the Church and believes he is married to her".

Instead, he goes to the Church to get his second marriage and does not get that chance. So he knows he is not (in this second marriage) married in Church, and for a Catholic, that tells him he is not married to this second woman at all.

So he might be subjectively innocent of adultery if he thinks his first wedding didn't happen, but he is always guilty of fornication except if he is completely unaware of the most basic things in catholic morality. But I don't think we're having a Synod to discuss those cases. Those cases are solved with basic catechesis.

Please explain if I am seeing this wrong...

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think the really unfortunate thing is not that the Eastern Orthodox admit the divorced and "remarried" to communion, but that they celebrate (admittedly with penitential prayers) marriages for people who are already married.


That's a good point.


My understanding is that it is not widely questioned (though there may be individual bishops who do) that it's wrong to marry someone else while you have a living spouse. The talk of "mercy" in fact constitutes a tacit admission that the activity is wrong. For it is not mercy to refrain from penalizing someone who has done no wrong--it is justice.

Maybe I am being overly charitable. But in any case, the mere fact that someone is advocating a policy for bad reasons does not demonstrate that the policy is a bad one.


"To receive Communion, you have to be in full communion with the Catholic Church, which means (inter alia) accepting everything she has definitively taught."

I am not sure about this principle. It's true that you can acquire a _latae sententiae_ excommunication for heresy, but there are significant conditions that need to be met for the excommunication to apply.

If the principle is true, then the question is fairly clear in most cases. (Exceptions: cases of people who have been misinformed by their pastors or others as to what the Church's teaching is; cases of insanity; etc.) But I don't see the principle in Canons 912-923 which seem to be the relevant ones.

Admittedly, it is materially a grave sin to reject what the Church has definitively taught. But it need not formally be a grave sin if one is invincibly ignorant that it is one's duty to accept what the Church has definitively taught.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"So he might be subjectively innocent of adultery if he thinks his first wedding didn't happen, but he is always guilty of fornication except if he is completely unaware of the most basic things in catholic morality."

There are two ways to understand "unaware of the most basic things in catholic morality": (1) one is unaware that the Church teaches thus-and-so, and (2) one is unaware that thus-and-so, which the Church teaches, is *true*.

It's going to be relatively rare for people to be unaware that the Church teaches in these situations that the "remarriage", and consequent sexual cohabitation, is wrong.

However, the difficulty is with people who are aware that the Church teaches it but are not aware that what the Church teaches is true. What's needed is not just catechesis in the sense of teaching about what the Church teaches, but apologetics: convincing people to believe that what the Church teaches is actually true.


One may find it strange that a person would think that the Church is so badly wrong on an issue so important to people's lives, and still *want* to be in communion with the Church. But there are explanations of this. First, social ones. Second, the intrinsic attractiveness of Catholicism, together with grace, really does draw people to the Church. I often see this pull in Protestant friends who think the Church is wrong about some important things but are nonetheless attracted to Catholicism.

Unknown said...

Suppose that a woman who is divorced and remarried believes without fault that sexual intercourse with her current partner is not mortally sinful. And suppose she is truly contrite for and confesses any sin she recognizes as mortal. And suppose her confessor, knowing nothing about her divorce and remarriage, which she never mentions, absolves her, and she receives Holy Communion. Nothing will prevent her reception of the sacraments from being both valid and fruitful. But if that is so, one may reason, neither should making her marital situation known to the confessor prevent him from absolving her.

If divorced and remarried persons who have made their marital situation known to a confessor are to be absolved, however, so also should penitents be absolved who reveal any other thought, word, deed, or omission in grave matter that they think they need not give up. No less than other sacraments, though, the sacrament of reconciliation is a sacrament of faith. If people bring to confession something the Church teaches to be gravely wrong yet deny that teaching, a good confessor tries to help them see that they are mistaken. And if they nevertheless persist in their erroneous opinion, a good confessor does not give them absolution.

Were the Church’s moral teachings laws of human origin—like the traditions dear to the Pharisees whom Jesus denounced—requiring their acceptance as a condition for absolution would be pharisaical. But far from being mere human traditions, the Church’s constant and firm moral teachings are saving truths about what really is good and bad for men and woman, families, and other communities.

Jesus’ Church can never stop teaching his disciples all that he commanded. Part of it is what he, and no one else before his time or during it, drew from Genesis about marriage—and shocked his disciples by teaching—namely, that human beings may not try to dissolve the God-given indissoluble covenant.

Suppose Pope Francis decrees that confessors are to absolve penitents who seem sincere in believing themselves innocent of mortal sin even though they are aware that the Church teaches that something they have disclosed to be grave matter. In that case, the Catholic Church would no longer be asserting the truth of the moral norms she teaches but only offering them as optional guidelines. She would have abandoned her mission to teach Jesus’ disciples all that he commanded.

That is why Pope St. John Paul II taught that the divorced and remarried
". . . are unable to be admitted [to Holy Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. . . . By acting in this way, the Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth."(Familiaris consortio, 84).

Significantly, John Paul II calls the deleterious effect on the reception of the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage a “special pastoral reason” for rejecting the now debated proposal. He does this because, although sound pastoral practice is more than the application of doctrine, no practice is authentically pastoral unless it both begins by proclaiming the Word (see 2 Tim 4:2) and involves nothing that would prevent the Word from bearing its fruit of faith.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Professor Grisez:

"If people bring to confession something the Church teaches to be gravely wrong yet deny that teaching, a good confessor tries to help them see that they are mistaken. And if they nevertheless persist in their erroneous opinion, a good confessor does not give them absolution."

This is plausible in general.

But I am not sure that it is an exceptionless principle. Suppose, for instance, that the penitent does not trust the confessor, erroneously but innocently believing the confessor to be a deceitful and wicked man, but goes to confess as no other confessor is available. In that case, an unwillingness to be convinced by the confessor of the truth of the Church's teaching seems compatible with a good and repentant disposition, and "[i]f the confessor is in no doubt about the penitent's disposition and the penitent asks for absolution, it is not to be denied or delayed" (Can. 980).

It seems to me that there could be cases where the good confessor will lay out the best case he can for the Church's teaching, but seeing that the penitent is in good faith unconvinced and is truly repentant of all the sins he is guilty of will grant absolution, hoping to be able to press the case more effectively next time (perhaps making a note to himself to read more on the subject so as to have more convincing arguments), rather than having the penitent avoid confession altogether. This seems fully in keeping with the importance of proclaiming the Word. Or at least it is not *clear* that there are no cases like that.

And all I was claiming is that the question is not clear. Nonetheless, your comments do shift the balance of evidence for me to be in favor of the current practice.

Angra Mainyu said...

Clearly I'm not a Catholic, but the whole debate within the RCC looks rather odd to me.

In particular, I'm not sure why there is so much debate within the RCC on that issue, but not in others that appear relevantly similar from the perspective of RCC moral beliefs, like Catholics who use highly effective contraceptive methods (all of which are condemned by the RCC as gravely immoral), or Catholics in same-sex relationships, just to give two examples.

Moreover, in practice people who use condoms, etc., seem to take communion without a problem in practice (even if in theory they should not, according to the RCC), but people who divorce and remarry usually do not.

Do you think that those cases are difficult ones too?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There are two separate issues. The first is that people who know are aware of their culpability for a mortal sin should refrain from communion unless they go to confession first (with a special provision for cases of danger of death). This is up to individual conscience and not enforced externally. This is a matter of fundamental doctrine, and cannot be changed.
Second, current canon law says that clergy should deny communion to those manifestly and publicly in a state of sin. Contraception is not a public sin typically. On the other hand, cohabitation with someone whom one isn't married to may be, especially if the couple behaves as if this was a sexual relationship. This is what the case of remarriage is like. Denying communion in the case of obvious objective sin is a matter of long-standing Church practice and canon law, but probably not of fundamental doctrine, and so it's probably changeable.
The Church tends to be very careful about avoiding public shaming of private sinners. Thus even if a priest knows that a couple is contracepting, as long as this isn't public knowledge, he cannot deny communion. (This is obvious if he found out in the confessional, but also applies if he was told in a nonconfidential setting.)

Angra Mainyu said...

Thanks for the explanation.

It seems to me they wouldn't be publicly shamed if the priest were to deny them communion, in places in which the practice is generally accepted - just as people who divorce and remarry aren't publicly shamed, either; the social pressure would probably be on the RCC instead -, even if withholding communion were to result in public knowledge that they use contraception. But if that's the rule, I get why the priest does that (though I'm not sure why so many Catholics seem willing to take communion despite the fact that they use contraception, but not so many are willing to do that if they divorce and remarry - which they could with a priest who doesn't know them).

Anyway, am I correct in thinking that same-sex relations that are publicly known are relevantly similar, then? (even if their behavior is believed to be worse)
Both behaviors are public, and considered grave sins by the RCC. Also - and in the context of your points - in both cases, those who engage in those behaviors usually disagree with the RCC's position on the matter, and also, they behave in a way that is widely socially accepted (at least, in some social contexts).

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. Those who are openly in same-sex sexual relationships (e.g., by being civilly married to someone of the same sex, or by cohabitation and introducing someone as a partner) would be in the same boat.

2. I agree that most people who are denied communion could just go to a parish where they're not known. But sneaking around like that would likely feel humiliating to a lot of people. On the other hand, maybe sneaking around just comes with the territory when one disagrees with a non-peripheral moral teaching of an institution one is a member of.

3. An interesting question would be whether perhaps Catholics who are divorced and remarried feel guilty about it in a way that Catholics who contracept. If so, that would suggest that the divorced and remarried are less likely to be following the dictates of their conscience, and it would explain the greater willingness on the part of the contracepting Catholics to receive communion.

4. By the way, it's not clear to me that the same-sex case is worse than that of divorce and remarriage. Someone whose spouse is alive and who is sexuality cohabiting with another person is committing adultery. Adultery violates the sacrament of marriage, and is contrary to vows, in a way in which same-sex sexual activity by unmarried people does not. On the other hand, same-sex sexual activity differs from morally permissible sexual activity more significantly than adultery does.

Angra Mainyu said...

1. Okay, so I'm not sure why there isn't much debate in the Catholic church regarding whether to give Catholics in those relationships communion. I thought maybe it was because they deem same-sex relations much worse, but your reply to 4. indicates otherwise. Is it because of the numbers? (i.e., there are plenty more opposite sex couples who divorce and remarry than same-sex couples?)

2. That's a good point, they may not want to sneak around. With regard to whether it comes with the territory, I think it depends on the case. For example, those who use contraception do not need to sneak around. They just don't say anything about it unless asked.

3. That's one possibility, but at least in my experience, that does not seem to match the rest of their behavior (i.e., they do not seem to express any guilt).
Perhaps, an alternative motive is that it's salient (people talk about the matter more or less frequently) that Catholics who divorce and remarry are not allowed to take communion, and most don't want to risk any sort of public confrontation, whereas very few people talk about Catholics who use contraception and communion. In other words, they can take communion like others do (others who, like them, use contraception) and no one will make a fuzz about it.

4. Thanks for the clarification. (just to clarify too, I didn't mean to say that the same-sex case was worse - or wrong at all. I meant it was deemed to be worse by the Catholic church. But your reply indicates it's not clear which one is worse according to Catholic beliefs).

Anonymous said...

I doubt that remarried couples feel guilty in some way that contracepting couples do not, at least in most cases and most of the time. The difference is that the Church says that communion is to be refused to people who are known to be divorced and remarried. That feels insulting to people. There is no corresponding case with contraception because it is not a matter of refusing communion to people; you are obliged to refrain from communion on your own, and people can follow that obligation or not.

I suspect that people would feel equally insulted, or more so, if there were a registry were couples were obliged to sign a statement saying that they were not using contraception, and if they refused to sign, they would be refused communion.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Wouldn't it be better to leave this up to the persons' personal conscience? If they feel they shouldn't receive communion, they should refrain from it and if they don't feel that way, it's their own choice. Ultimately, God would be the judge, not the priest.

This type of 'following your own conscience' has been suggested by various bishops ever since Humanae Vitae and is already the way lots of priests handle this problem.
I understand that changing doctrine once it has been declared immutable would look bad on the Church, but a more pragmatic use of doctrine might actually help the Church to keep up with modern society.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The problem with leaving it to individual conscience is that, as Germain Grisez points out in his eloquent comment, the Church is a teacher, and denying communion to those who manifestly engage in grave sin is a way of teaching (whether or not they are culpable). Moreover, we humans have immense capacities for self-deceit, and it is all too easy to convince ourselves that our conscience says P when it would be convenient for our conscience to say P. Such self-deceit is probably sometimes culpable and sometimes not, but whether culpable or not, it is very harmful. And allowing the continuation of receipt of communion can feed into that self-deceit.

On the other hand, while I think the weight of argument is with the current practice, I do feel a pull to thinking that we shouldn't deny communion to those who are innocently ignorant of the wrongness of what they are doing.

The reason for not changing doctrine declared immutable is not that it would look bad, but that the doctrine is true. :-) And because of the Church's infallibility, it would be impossible to definitively change it. Sure, some bishops could teach against it, and even a pope could non-infallibly preach against it. But if an Ecumenical Council or pope attempted to definitively change it, God would somehow or other stop the Council or pope. (There is some empirical evidence for this, namely that over 20 centuries, despite times when popes and many cardinals were corrupt, no definite changes happened, and even cases of popes non-definitively preaching against settled doctrine are extremely rare, perhaps only two in number in history.)

Ryan Miller said...

Dr. Pruss, I think what you suggest is interesting and might be plausible, but it seems clear that it's not the proposal of Cardinal Kasper et al, because of their continued reference to a "process of penance." There's no sense in doing penance for a sin you don't know you've committed, as you recognize above.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't understand the "process of penance" business. I guess one possibility is that in many cases while culpability is reduced to a venial level, it is not reduced to zero, and hence a process of penance is still needed. But even that doesn't make much sense, since we already have processes of forgiveness for venial sin: they are the Sacrament of Penance, the Confiteor, the Lord's Prayer, the Eucharist, and probably many others.

I wonder if the proposal of a "process of penance" isn't just an incoherent attempt at a compromise.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

Denying communion is definitely one way of teaching, but not the only way. Leaving this matter to the individual conscience while at the same time telling that remarrying is against Catholic doctrine seem a better way of teaching this, because it would be an incentive for people in that position to thoroughly consider their own conscience, and in doing so, actually reduce the risk of self-deception instead of feeding it.
the bottom line is, I think, that it is impossible to distinguish between people who are innocently ignorant and people who are deceiving themselves.
Once you recognize that there truly are people who are innocently ignorant in this respect, denying them communion and in doing so making it impossible for them to receive what is considered by the Catholic Church one of the greatest gifts aman can get, seems compmletely against what Jesus is supposed to have taught.
Whether it is impossible to definitely change doctrine could easily be settled. Just try it. After all, what does the Church have to lose if it truly can't be done?
On the other hand, if it could be done, it would certainly look bad, which may be a better way to explain why nobody in 20 centuries ever really tried it.
Unless someone actually did, of course, but I have never seen any evidence for this.
Anyway, a more pragmatic use of doctrine doesn't seem impossible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is, however, a general presumption that when people do something, they are responsible for what they do. Moreover, the Catholic tradition holds that it's very risky to receive communion while guilty of mortal sin. It's another grave sin to do it -- so it's harmful to the soul -- and St Paul even suggests in 1Cor. 11:30 that people sometimes sicken or die from it. Many of the spiritual benefits of communion, on the other hand, can be had by "spiritual communion", where the person unites spiritually with Christ. So it may be that it's too risky to allow those who are manifestly doing grave wrong to receive communion. Yes, that's paternalistic -- but the Church is our mother, so that's OK.

"Whether it is impossible to definitely change doctrine could easily be settled. Just try it. After all, what does the Church have to lose if it truly can't be done?"

The Catholic tradition enumerates something called the "sin of testing God", which consists in doing something that would force God to intervene. This sin is a failure to recognize our proper place vis-a-vis God. When Satan was tempting Jesus to jump off the precipice, telling Jesus that the angels will catch him, that was the sin Satan was tempting Jesus to.

This is not actually as abstruse a sin as one might think. One finds Christians who "trust God" in various matters, say matters of finance or health (more often in the case of mental than physical health, I think), and refuse to take the natural steps needed, planning on leaving the issue to God to provide for by means of a miracle.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Yes, and when people take communion, they are responsible for what they do. And if people believe the Catholic Tradition, they know the risk and can decide for themselves.
That's what responsibility is all about. Denying communion is taking responsibility away from them.

Talking about testing something, it happens thousands of times every Sunday that people receive communion in a state of 'grave sin'. Yet, there is AFAIK no empirical evidence that they are harmed any more than people who don't receive communion, although I suspect one could always come up with some anecdotal evidence.

Anyway, I am sure that the CC can come up with a solution that doesn't involve changing doctrine or testing God. As an atheist, I personally don't care one way or the other, but I have several Catholic friends who do.

StMichael said...

Maybe one more comment on this issue. It is true that someone might have be 'living in sin' and not recognize it, but through invincible ignorance. These are the cases you've brought up, Dr. Pruss, in various other comments. The traditional moral teaching would say that the confessor is not to attempt, generally, to reveal to them their error unless he thinks they would accept it. He otherwise would slowly form them to accept the "big reveal" later in their spiritual life. Otherwise, he would in fact positively cause sin by making the penitent aware of their sin even though he knows that to do so would lead to them consciously and willfully committing mortal sin.

However, the cases in question at the Synod and by Card. Kasper were of a different nature. The above situations were classical and everyone agrees on them pretty soundly. The case in question in the contemporary circuit is where someone has already begun a 'marital' life with someone else, in some cases believing with conviction that their first marriage was not valid. They are considered by both sides not to have a marriage in the second union (following Kasper's initial speech) but, if they are willing to accept the duties of their new state and admit guilt in allowing the first one to end, the proposal offers that they be admitted to penance and communion.

The crux of the matter is that a penitent is required to leave near and voluntary occasions of sin - in this case, refraining from sexual relations. Moral tradition gives an unequivocal yes. While some might be in invincible ignorance, and we would treat them as the formerly stated cases, I would think that most would not be in that state. But to compromise the principle that a penitent needs to avoid voluntary near occasions of sin strikes me as a horrible idea. What would we make of a Church that absolved a Nazi commandant in charge of gas chambers at a camp without requiring that the commandant stop gassing prisoners or give up his position? Even if the commandant subjectively believed it to be moral and that he had a duty to the Fatherland which excused him? I am not convinced it is an ambiguous case. What differs in the divorced and remarried is that moral obligations might be incurred in the new relationship to the children or a non-believing spouse, etc., but I don't see these as nullifying the general principle of what is required for "repentance."

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. "While some might be in invincible ignorance, and we would treat them as the formerly stated cases, I would think that most would not be in that state."

That's not clear to me. For instance, a majority of American Catholics thinks that pre-marital sex is sometimes OK. Thus, if they think the previous marriage is not in force (either because they think it was invalid from start or because they erroneously think that a civil divorce terminates a valid sacramental marriage), they will be very likely to think that the new committed sexual relationship is morally acceptable--after all, either the new relationship is a marriage or it's pre-marital sex.

It seems not unlikely, thus, that the majority of the persons involved are ignorant of the wrongness of their action, though of course they probably also know that the Church says that the action is wrong, but are not convinced that the Church is right on the point. The question then is whether they are culpable for their ignorance.

2. I agree of course that the moral tradition gives an unequivocal yes to the requirement that the penitent be committed to ceasing formal sin.

3. However, there are circumstances where one can use Double Effect to justify being in a near occasion of sin. For instance, I think it is permissible for me to go to a philosophy conference. Yet every philosophy conference is for me a near occasion, and typically an actual occasion, of sins of vanity. Admittedly, these sins are probably venial, but if enough is at stake, it must be permissible to accept being in a near occasion of mortal sin. Of course, in those cases the person who accepts the near occasion of mortal sin must make the utmost reasonable effort to avoid falling into actual sin.

4. Suppose the commandant thought it would be a mortal sin for him to give up his position. Then it would be a formal mortal sin for him to give it up. This would be a tough case, because the confessor should not counsel someone to commit what would be a mortal sin! In practice, in this case there is little danger, though, in the confessor's counseling the commandant to give up his position. For the commandant is very unlikely to give it up unless he becomes convinced that he is morally obliged to do so, and so there is very little danger that the commandant will give up the position while still thinking it's a mortal sin to do so.

But one can imagine other cases where someone is convinced that some objectively gravely sinful action A is grave duty, but who might be moved by a confessor to refrain from doing A. I suspect such cases are rare, though, and so as a general rule it's safe to counsel penitents to leave near occasions of objective sin.

Angra Mainyu said...


If the majority of the persons involved, and the majority of those around them, do not believe that the behavior is immoral, are they still "manifestly and publicly in a state of sin."?
How is that expression to be interpreted?
Let's say that the behavior is not manifestly immoral, or publicly believed to be immoral. Does it still count as "manifestly and publicly in a state of sin" if the behavior is publicly known, even if the wrongness of it is not? (assuming, of course, that divorce and remarriage is immoral, which I strongly disagree with).

Also, after further consideration, I think the causes for invalidity of a marriage may well not be publicly known, or even demonstrable. If so, then why should it not be a matter of personal decision?

Suppose Alice says her first marriage was not valid, but she cannot prove it, because there is no way she can find evidence given that the events happened privately. She lives with Bob, her husband under civil law - and even according to Catholic doctrine because her first marriage was in fact invalid; it's just that she can't provide the evidence of that. So, she says she wants to be given communion, she's not doing anything wrong. Does she get communion?

entirelyuseless said...

Angra: if Alice's first marriage took place in a Catholic ceremony and the invalidity depended on some non-visible fact such as that her first husband did not have the right intention, then according to Church law her second marriage would be invalid unless she gets an annulment first, despite the invalidity of the first marriage.

Alexander R Pruss said...


entirelyuseless has it right. Relevant piece of background: the Catholic Church sets the rules for baptized Catholics to get validly married, and one of these rules is that apart from desert-island-type scenarios, it must be a proper Catholic wedding with a priest or deacon. So even if the first attempt at marriage did not succeed, the civil ceremony also fails to produce a valid marriage. And having a civil rather than Catholic wedding is typically a matter of public record. (The rules only apply to baptized Catholics.)

I *think* "manifestly and publicly in a state of sin" means something like this: They manifestly and publicly did X, where X is in fact objectively sinful (or perhaps: where X's sinfulness is a definitive part of Catholic teaching), without having been reconciled to the Church. The fact that the public at large doesn't recognize this as a state of sin is not, I think, relevant here. Take for instance the case of a Catholic in the first century who burns incense to the emperor. That would count as being manifestly and publicly in a state of sin, even though most people in the society would think that what was done was good.

Angra Mainyu said...

entirelyuseless and Alex, thanks for the info.

So, it seems to me if she was baptized as a child and can't prove that the first marriage was invalid to the satisfaction of the church, she can never marry validly according to Catholic beliefs (her first marriage is not valid, and she can't get a valid one), and so if she ever has sex (no matter who the other person is), she behaves immorally according to Catholic moral beliefs. Also, hence, if she ever has any children, she behaves immorally according to Catholic beliefs (if she had sex, because of that; if not, because assisted fertilization is deemed immoral too).

Is that correct?


Thanks for the clarification on the rule.
With respect to your incense example, would the immorality of the behavior not be public within Christian communities at least?
The divorce example is one in which the immorality of the behavior is not publicly known among Christians, Catholics, etc., either. But of course, given your explanation of the rule, that wouldn't matter, either.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, one can get stuck and be unable to marry in the case of an invalid marriage whose invalidity one can't prove. Such things are going to happen in the case of rules that have general application. Suppose, for instance, the only person willing to marry Fred is Patricia, but there is significant evidence that Fred and Patricia are siblings, and they cannot show otherwise to the satisfaction of the Church. Then Fred can't marry.

Note, too, that if x can't prove to the satisfaction of the Church that her first marriage was invalid, it is unlikely that she has evidence sufficient for a very high credence that the first marriage was invalid. So it's typically safer for her not to marry, so as to avoid years of living with someone who isn't her husband.

Angra Mainyu said...

Regarding Fred, I think at least in many (most) cases, even consensual sex between adult siblings would be immoral. I hold that that is not not always the case, but I do agree that sometimes, a person is in a situation in which having sex and/or children would be immoral (e.g., in addition to the incest case, let's say a person knows he has an incurable contagious illness and there are no countermeasures available, etc.)

So, that's not a difficulty. I was just surprised that that would be the Catholic position in this particular case - i.e., I already knew I disagree with the Catholic view on most cases of sexual morality (that are actually considered; else, there are infinitely many cases on which I would agree after reflection, and infinitely many on which I would disagree, and probably no difference in cardinality), but I wasn't expecting this one, so I was kind of surprised.

On the second point, I think that depends on the case.

For example, maybe she was directly coerced, but those who coerced her (close family members and the "husband") won't talk, and it was done out of public view. That's conclusive evidence, but she can't prove it to the satisfaction of the church.

Another example: she does not have the money to pay for the annulment procedure, the lawyers, etc., and the local church fails to provide an adequate alternative. So, due to the fault of the local church, she fails to prove her case.