Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

What has Pope Francis Changed?

A lot of good men and women, many of them my former teachers, have said that if Pope Francis allows communion for the divorced and remarried, it will either explicitly or implicitly contradict orthodox Catholic teaching about the Eucharist and/or marriage. The result is that for a while people have been banking on the Holy Spirit preventing the Pope from making such a decision. In other words, some faithful folks reason as follows: a) allowing divorced and remarried people to receive communion would be – at least practically – tantamount to heresy; b) the Pope can’t officially commit heresy (that’s one of the main reasons we have a Pope); c) so the Holy Spirit won’t allow the Pope to officially allow communion for the divorced and remarried.

Okay, but now it’s starting to look like the Pope has made the decision to allow the divorced and remarried to receive communion. So all the folks who relied on the above reasoning are going to be tempted to doubt the institution of the papacy, or the irreformability of Catholic teaching, or the Holy Spirit, or all three.

In other words, I’m afraid that because of the Holy Father’s recent statements a lot of good Catholics are going to start questioning their faith.

So here’s my message: it’s okay if Pope Francis changes the Church’s current practice. It’s okay if people in adulterous relationships aren’t prevented from receiving communion. It doesn’t mean adultery isn’t adultery, and it doesn’t mean the Pope isn’t the Pope, and it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t generally refrain from receiving communion when they’re conscious of having done something gravely wrong.

All it means is that there can be a change in pastoral practice to reflect the distinction between grave matter and mortal sin.

This is an old distinction that most of us are familiar with. Grave matter means doing something really bad, like murder or blasphemy or adultery. Mortal sin means when you do something really bad, with sufficient knowledge and sufficient freedom.  Mortal sin (not grave matter!) is what kills the life of grace, what sets you on a trajectory towards hell, and betrays Jesus Christ. Got that? IT IS MORTAL SIN, NOT GRAVE MATTER, THAT KILLS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. You have to have enough knowledge and enough freedom to actually commit a mortal sin, even if your behavior objectively constitutes grave matter.

But then how do we know when somebody has enough knowledge and enough freedom for their gravely evil act to qualify as a mortal sin? We don’t! Most of us can’t read souls, and so we lack any sure metric for sufficient knowledge or sufficient freedom. There’s no gauge for morally adequate knowledge. There’s no freedometer. So even though we can say that a certain act was really, really bad, we can’t know for sure if it was a mortal sin. We can judge the act, not the person.

Pastorally, this distinction comes up pretty frequently. For instance, in the CDF’s 1975 document, Persona Humana, even though it says that masturbation is always grave matter, also says, “modern psychology provides much valid and useful information for formulating a more equitable judgment on moral responsibility and for orienting pastoral action. Psychology helps one to see how the immaturity of adolescence (which can sometimes persist after that age), psychological imbalance or habit can influence behavior, diminishing the deliberate character of the act and bringing about a situation whereby subjectively there may not always be serious fault.” Got that? So masturbation is always really bad (=grave matter), but there may not always be serious fault (=mortal sin).

Or take the case of suicide and Catholic burial. It used to be that, in order to express the gravity of suicide, any one who had committed such an atrocity was refused a spot in the Church cemetery. Now, of course, that policy is no longer in force. Why? Did the Church suddenly change its teaching about the objective gravity of suicide? Of course not. It simply changed its pastoral practice to reflect the fact that someone who has committed grave evil may not be fully responsible and therefore may not have committed a mortal sin. “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of harship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide… We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC #2282-2283). Many suicides seem not to be malicious, but to be confused and weak and hurting, and it was precisely to these that Christ came to bring His mercy.

Someone might say, “Fine, but masturbation isn’t a public sin, and the issue of suicide has nothing to do with communion, so these pastoral distinctions between grave matter and mortal sin don’t really relate to the question of communion for the divorced and remarried.”

Fair enough, but what about this case: “The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love… A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, ‘given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged.’” (CCC #1399). What’s this saying? Well, to put it not too ecumenically, it’s saying that those in schism – people who have repudiated the papacy and rejected the Catholic Church – should not only be allowed to receive the Eucharist, but should be encouraged to come to communion with us – even without formally repenting of their schism.

Schism is a violation of the first commandment. It’s grave matter. But we don’t assume it’s mortal sin: “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ…” In other words, we don’t assume it’s their fault that they don’t accept the papacy or the Catholic Church. The Orthodox are in a grave situation; objectively they’re schismatics, but subjectively we don’t take it for granted that they’ve committed mortal sin. So, under certain circumstances, we welcome them to communion. It used to be we didn’t, but now we do, because our pastoral practice has changed to reflect the distinction between grave matter and mortal sin.

If Pope Francis allows communion to those who are objectively living in adulterous situations, this will signal absolutely no doctrinal change. Marriage is marriage and adultery is adultery and the pope is still the pope. Plenty of people won’t be really enthusiastic about this kind of change in pastoral practice, just like plenty of people don’t much care for altar girls, or communion in the hand, or even mass in the vernacular. And if you want to let Pope Francis know that you think this isn’t a great prudential move, fine. But please remember two things:

First, he’s not changing doctrine. Pastoral practice has changed before, and it’ll change again, and every time it changes it expresses something different but compatible with what went before. It used to be our burial practices expressed the evil of suicide, and now it expresses hope in God’s mercy for suicides. Those two truths go together. It used to be our communion practices expressed the evil of adultery, and soon it will express our hope in God’s mercy for adulterers. Those two truths go together as well.

Second, he’s the Pope, and he has the final say on what prudential policies get enacted in the life of the Church. So let’s not get too worried about whether his judgment calls are the ones we would have made. God knows we’ve got enough of our own judgment calls to worry about.

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2 Responses to “What has Pope Francis Changed?”

  1. Dick Neves says:

    No offense, but this reads like a justification for relativism (no absolute truth, societal influences on the conscience and morality of people), which has been condemned by former Popes.

  2. Fran Sheehan says:

    Having just read about Pope Francis’ approval of the guidelines written by the bishops of Buenos Aires, I have been trying to reflect and understand, so your article now is very timely and somewhat helpful. However, i am having difficulty with the thought that this more merciful pastoral approach can be so universally applied that it further blurs the line between truth and moral relativism in all actions. I understand that only God can judge the heart and mind and all of us. Where do we draw the line between “it’s between God and the sinner” and the right and responsibility of the Church to guide and direct us to objective truth? It’s beginning to sound like “because of the hardness of their hearts, Moses permitted divorce.” I’m sure I need to ponder and pray further.

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