Cardinal Muller, the Dubia and the Formal Correction

October 31, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) –  Some of those defending the liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia – i.e., the heretical one which would allow communion for divorced and remarried persons who, bound by a valid marital bond to one person, continue to live as man and wife with a different person – were heartened by Cardinal Muller’s recent commentary on the controversy.  This commentary comes by way of an excerpt from Cardinal Muller’s introductory essay to Rocco Buttiglione’s book “Risposte amichevoli ai critici di Amoris laetitia” (NB: “Friendly responses to critics of Amoris Laetitia”) which comes out this November.

This essay was re-published in part in the Vatican Insider (see Communion to the remarried, Müller, “There can be mitigating factors in guilt”).  A quote from Muller ran at the top of the Vatican Insider page: “It is possible that the tension between the objective status of the “second” marriage and subjective guilt could open the way” to the sacraments “through a pastoral discernment in an internal forum.” So, what are we to make of this? Austen Ivereigh and Stephen Walford (known to readers of this humble blog and its Summa Contra Walford) tweeted the article and crowed in admiration of Muller’s essay. Ivereigh described the essay as “former CDF chief Cardinal Müller’s rejection of the & .” Granted, a closer look at the Cardinal’s words in full is necessary – and not just the excerpted version of the linked article above. However, it does not appear the Cardinal has quite saved Mr. Ivereigh’s or Mr. Walford’s position on the question – or released Pope Francis from the need to clarify his position. Recall, the first dubia, given below, asks the following:

“It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?” (See Edward Pentin’s article in the National Catholic Register, November 14, 2016)

Now, as quoted above, the first of the dubia asks if a person “bound by a valid marital bound” can be granted absolution in the sacrament of penance, and thus be admitted to Holy Communion even though he or she intend to continue a sexual relationship with a different ‘partner,’ i.e., not fulfilling the conditions provided by Familiaris Consortio, 84 to live as ‘brother and sister’ only.

Mr. Walford provided his answer to the first dubia in an article in the Vatican Insider last January (see “Amoris Laetitia: Where Truth and Mercy Embrace“), responding: “yes, but again, only in certain cases.” Another supporter of exceptions to the rule of Familiaris Consortio 84 is Rocco Buttiglione who says “yes” as well (see here) in answer to the first Dubia, giving by way of an exception the case of a woman forced by circumstances to continue her sexual relations with a new partner. Cardinal Coccopalmerio offers a slightly different spin on this case, suggesting an instance not where a woman is forced to have sexual relations with her second “husband”, but where she judges that by leaving him and his children from his prior marriage that they would be left in “great difficulty” without her (see here).  Mr. Walford suggested the following consideration in his article referenced above (emphasis added):

I firmly believe that canon 915 and 916 can be respected by priest and penitent even if Holy Communion is received by those in certain irregular relationships. I emphasize we are not talking of those in a state of mortal sin but those who either have a clear conscience (guided by the confessor) that their first marriage never existed, or those who know the situation is not right, yet love the Lord and the Church and desire to grow in a continual conversion. For some, with the grace of God it may well lead to the ending of the second relationship, or a possible ending of the sexual element of it; for others in particularly difficult circumstances with children, or a spouse who doesn’t share the same faith and penitential attitude, we must leave the judging to the Lord Jesus trusting that his divine mercy will prevail in the manner he sees fit. (see here)

Thus, Mr. Walford seems to suggest that there are those in a second relationship, although they have an existing, prior “valid marital bond” who can receive communion while continuing a sexual relationship. Here, the individual or couple know “the situation is not right” yet they “love the Lord and the Church,” and thus he advises “we must leave the judging to the Lord Jesus.” It would have been interesting to see Mr. Walford attempt to reconcile these specific statements of his with the Lord’s command: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). That aside, I think my description above is a fair reading of Mr. Walford’s position, which also appears in a similar form in another article of his on Pope Francis (emphasis added):

For Francis the prophet of divine mercy, Jesus doesn’t look to the past or just the present moment. No, his real interest is in future possibilities and his grace and patience work on that basis. But, some argue, how can there be true repentance if sexual relations continue? Of course, what these people should really be considering is how does Jesus weigh on the scales of justice these sins with the considerable amount of virtue and love possibly displayed in other areas of their lives? “Charity covers a multitude of sins”–as St. Peter, the first Pope, infallibly taught– and unless a soul is in a state of mortal sin, it is entirely possible that a path of sanctification is under way despite the irregular situation. (see Pope Francis: Mercy and the Pelagian Problem by Stephen Walford)

Now, my full reply to Mr. Walford may be found here (see Mr. Walford’s “Ode to Francis”). What is clearly evident in this last example from Mr. Walford and present in the other examples above to various degrees, is that we are being enticed to accept the erroneous premise that ‘doing something objectively wrong is okay if some good elsewhere is served.’  The apologists for this erroneous premise will deny they affirm this, or that Amoris Laetitia (300-305) does – but what they explicitly say they reject is implicitly present in their communion guidelines for the divorced and remarried, as we have seen in the preceding examples. However, their erroneous premise is contrary to an important principle of morality, which is: “one may not do evil that good may come of it” (cf Romans 3:8).  An act of adultery is intrinsically evil. Most readers of that last sentence are hopefully saying “well – duh!” right about now. No principle in Catholic moral theology allows one to choose to do an act, evil in itself, no matter how good the desired end. However, as true and obvious as this is, you do not see where Mr. Walford adequately addresses this problem within his argument. Instead, if the person of his example above continues in his or her sexual relationship, curiously, Mr. Walford says it is we – not the individual committing the acts(!) – who need to consider “how does Jesus weigh on the scales of justice these sins with the considerable amount of virtue and love possibly displayed in other areas of lives?  Of course, if you ask me “how Jesus weighs” such things, my answer is – “I don’t know, it is way beyond my pay grade!”  But, for that matter, neither does Mr. Walford know, nor can the man or woman who continues with the sexual relationship.  No one could know – without a revelation from God – how or even if God will cover specific deliberate acts of grave sin with the virtues from other areas of one’s life. It is sheer presumption.

What we see in these varied justifications for communion for public adulterers above is what one finds often with nascent heresies, i.e., a maddening mixture of ambiguity, and divergent and erroneous opinions. Previously, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under the then Cardinal Ratzinger (with the approval of Pope John Paul II) called the teaching of Familiaris Consortio 84 a “constant and universal practice of the Church” founded on Sacred Scripture.  In addition, at the same time, the CDF said: “The structure of the Exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations” [ Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. September 14, 1994].  Let us repeat that: “Cannot be modified because of different situations.” But that is something all the cases above attempt to do and to excuse, that they would modify the practice because of different situations.

So, where does this leave us with regard to where we began with Cardinal Muller? While the individuals above all say a “yes” to admitting to communion at least some public adulterers who have a ‘prior’ valid marital bond, Cardinal Muller is previously on record saying this is impossible.  In an interview with the Italian magazine Il Timone (quoted on Sandro Magister’s blog Settimo Cielo, translated into the English there by Matthew Sherry), the Cardinal responded to the following question:

Q: The exhortation of Saint John Paul II, “Familiaris Consortio,” stipulates that divorced and remarried couples that cannot separate, in order to receive the sacraments must commit to live in continence. Is this requirement still valid?

A: Of course, it 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. The confusion on this point also concerns the failure to accept the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” with the clear doctrine of the “intrinsece malum.” […] For us marriage is the expression of participation in the unity between Christ the bridegroom and the Church his bride. This is not, as some said during the Synod, a simple vague analogy. No! This is the substance of the sacrament, and no power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change it.

From the above February 2017 interview Cardinal Muller is seen to say Familiaris Consortio is not simply a discipline that can be dispensed. It is “an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments.” Thus, his views here appear to be consistent with the CDF guidance I quoted above. Based on this, it seems to me that Cardinal Muller, if pushed at that time, would have answered the first dubia with a “no” – in opposition to the position held to the “yesses” of Schonborn, Coccopalmerio, Buttiglione, Ivereigh, and Walford. What then to make of Cardinal Muller’s essay in Buttiglione’s book where he appears to favor that author’s arguments? While Cardinal Muller insists that Amoris Laetitia  “must be understood in an orthodox sense” and without a “magisterial shift” he does seem open to the possibility of communion where there is doubt as to the validity of the ‘first’ marriage.  He writes:

“In a matrimonial annulment procedure, therefore, the real will of marriage plays a fundamental role. In the case of a conversion in mature age (of a Catholic who is such only on the certificate of baptism) one can say that a Christian is convinced in conscience that their first bond, even if it took place in the form of a marriage in the Church, was not valid as a sacrament and that their current marriage-like bond, prized by children and with a living relationship matured over time with their current partner is a true marriage before God. Perhaps this cannot be canonically proven because of the material context or because of the culture of the dominant mentality. It is possible that the tension that occurs here between the public-objective status of the “second” marriage and subjective guilt can open, under the conditions described, the way to the sacrament of penance and Holy Communion, passing through a pastoral discernment in internal forum.” (see here; emphasis in the original article

Though Cardinal’s Muller’s “answer” to the first dubia remains a “no” to communion for divorced and remarried whose first marriage involved a “valid marital bond;” he now seems to intend something of an escape clause where the validity of the bond is in doubt. Muller’s out clause in the quote above from his essay relies on the subjective belief of the individual – and the discernment of the internal forum – that there never was a “valid marital bond” in the first marriage. By this device, I suppose he thinks he does not run afoul of Familiaris Consortio 84.

Now, in my opinion, Muller’s new (?) position on this sort of internal forum ‘annulment’ is no less destructive of the institution of marriage in the Catholic Church than is blessing the “yes, but” communion-for-public-adulterer cases where a valid marital bond certainly exists. Certainly, to the observer in the pew they are the same thing. The obvious temptation for divorced and remarried individuals in such a position would be to discover they ‘sincerely doubt‘ the validity of their own first marriage, thereby easing acceptance of their second. There are other problems in such a system, not least of which is the lack of transparency of process and justice for both parties to the first marriage – especially if the other spouse would contest the subjective conscience of the other party or the discernment of the internal forum. I just do not see how Muller’s position, if I understand it correctly, saves him from contradicting Familiaris Consortio 84 (FC 84) on two grounds. First, the denial of admittance to communion in FC 84 is not based on the subjective state of the divorced and remarried, rather they “are unable to be admitted thereto 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” (cf FC 84). Second, FC 84 also gives a pastoral reason for denying their admittance to communion based on the danger “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (cf Familiaris Consortio 84).

What the Muller’s essay suggests to me is that the Cardinal – as he did with his suggestion for a ‘theological disputation’ over Amoris Laetitia between both sides (see here) – is attempting to create middle ground for a resolution of the debate over Amoris Laetitia. My take on Muller’s attempt is, he has not found that hoped for middle ground – he has instead wandered waist deep into muddled ground. Cardinal Muller believes (assumes?) Pope Francis really holds the positions described in his essay as the “orthodox sense” of Amoris Laetitia –  that, or he hopes to give the Pope a face-saving means to back down (by suggesting the answers to him). However, nearly everyone has answered the five Dubia by now – theologians like Buttiglione, Cardinals like Schonborn, and even piano players like Walford, etc.  All but Pope Francis. The Pope’s silence with regard to the Maltese and German communion guidelines for the divorced and remarried suggests, at least on its face, that Cardinal Muller’s assumptions are wrong – i.e., the Pope’s silence does not even appear consistent with Cardinal Muller’s position on AL 305 (n. 351). That is why the Church needs the Pope to clarify his position – not his surrogates and not Cardinal Muller. Whereas before I had thought Cardinal Muller might join in and support a Formal Correction, it now seems rather evident he will sit it out.

Let us pray Pope Francis remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He can be contacted at


7 thoughts on “Cardinal Muller, the Dubia and the Formal Correction

  1. Many members of the Church seem to forget a certain Council called Trent. We are NOT able to judge ourselves.

    Council of Trent, 6th Session;
    CANON XIV.-If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.


    1. John, thanks for the comment. Clearly, a must read for those pushing the various the subjective-based scenarios which allow manifest public adulterers to receive communion. These folks seem to forget the principle of the double effect; warping it instead to allow both adulterous acts, sacrilegious communions and public scandal in order to save an invalid second union for some alleged good.


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