The Errors of Mr. Walford’s ‘Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce’

October 8, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – It finally came in the mail, a couple weeks after ordering it. The “it” was Stephen Walford’s book on Pope Francis’ papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Entitled Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce, the book is 207 pages in length, inclusive of appendix which includes a personal letter addressed to Mr. Walford from Pope Francis.  This letter expresses the Pope’s sentiments that “I feel certain that your book on Amoris Laetitia will be helpful to families” (p. 207). We will see how prescient is Pope Francis, especially given his comments appear to have predated both the writing of the book and its initial sales date (August) by one year.

The commencement of my ‘career’ in the blogosphere was prompted by the felt need to respond to Mr. Walford (see here and here) over a year ago, and I have since published a number of responses to him on various topics since then, now compiled in the ever-expanding Summa Contra Stephen WalfordRoma Locuta Est does not do book reviews, so this will not be one as such. However, having committed unofficially thus far over the history of this blog to respond to Mr. Walford’s musings with those of my own, I therefore feel once again impelled to provide some commentary on Mr. Walford’s recently published book.  I could not bear the thought of letting the occasion of its publication come and go without making some remark on it. As I see it, what is ultimately at stake is the teaching of Pope John Paul II which states the divorced and remarried cannot receive communion (Familiaris Consortio 84)[see note 1].  John Paul II reiterated this teaching in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 34 [see note 2], and Pope Benedict taught the same in (Sacramentum Caritatis 29)[see note 3]. This same teaching was reaffirmed by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as “a constant and universal practice of the Church” which is  “binding” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful)[see note 5].  The teaching also appears in the Catholic Catechism 1650 [See note 4].

The task of rebutting Mr. Walford’s book seemed at first a daunting task. Consider. Pope Francis wrote a personal letter to Mr. Walford regarding his book – included in its appendix. Cardinal Tobin, Archbishop of Newark – of “nighty-night baby. I love you” fame (see here) – provided the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for the book. Cardinal Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa – who is dealing with financial and seminary scandals (see here and here) – wrote the foreward to the book. Along with Cardinal Tobin, embattled Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washingon D.C., and Cardinal Farrell (the  Prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life) – himself a subject of an Italian daily’s racy speculations here and here – were all acknowledged by Mr. Walford for their assistance with his book. Mr. Walford wrote he was “deeply honored to have been the beneficiary of their support for this venture.” Mr. Walford also thanked the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – of Saint Gallen mafia fame – who also has come into some scandal of his own posthumously (see here and here). I am impressed with the assemblage of such firepower behind Mr. Walford’s book, a veritable rogues gallery of prelates straight from the pages of  Archbishop Vigano’s testimony (see here). One name notably absent from Mr. Walford’s heroic team of theological “Avengers” is Cardinal Cupich who, no doubt, owing to his “ostentatious arrogance,” must be brooding somewhere for having been left out of such an august body – but perhaps he shows up in the next episode. In addition to the aforementioned prelates, I count something like fourteen other priests involved in one way or the other in Mr. Walford’s magnus opus.

Therefore, given such an assemblage of men in scarlet and black behind him, one cannot help but come away with the distinct impression that Mr. Walford’s project was very important to someone, as is clear from the fact so many prelates and clerics were put at Mr. Walford’s disposal. I think we know who that someone is.  Consequently, I am somewhat at a loss, dear reader, as I have no such assembly of personages at my disposal or my beck and call to assist me, your humble blogger. I sometimes can’t get my wife or sons to reply to my simple texts. Therefore, I will do my best – at not cost to you but your time – relying alone on the Magisterium of the Church, Sacred Scripture, St.Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Catechism and common sense to reply to Mr. Walford. Neither this nor any of my future responses will be a comprehensive, point by point rebuttal of Mr. Walford and his book. To do that would require a book length response – as well as a publishing contract! Therefore, I have set myself the task of selecting the two or three key points in his book that in my humble estimation were in greatest need of a solid drubbing.  This response, as presently planned (NB: I may tweak this as I go along), will come in three parts:

  1. Good intentions and the Firm Purpose of Amendment
  2. Doctrinal Development?
  3. Questions regarding the Magisterium of the Church

This blog article will deal with Mr. Walford’s discussion of the “good intentions” and a firm purpose of amendment  with respect to the Sacrament of Confession and Holy Communion with regard to individuals living in public adulterous relationships.

Not “realistic” to Expect Catholics to Obey the Sixth Commandment?

To begin, I’d like to give you a sense of where Mr. Walford is coming from for those who have not read his book. He favors the giving of communion to those in ‘irregular unions’ (i.e., manifest adulterers to you and me) in certain cases. I think the following passage sets the stage, as it encapsulate where Mr. Walford is heading in his interpretation and defense of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, particularly n. 351 (305).  He writes:

“At the risk of being misunderstood, we should clarify that the Church asks people in irregular unions who cannot separate for legitimate reasons to lives as brother and sister. This is not an “ideal” in a formal sense, but may seem it in the practical circumstances of everyday life. This teaching remains unaltered, contrary to the belief of some opponents of Pope Francis. But what of the scenario where a couple in a second, civil “marriage” already have children and who know that this celibate life is not realistic? Is this a dilemma with no way out? Is it an impossibility for them to refrain?” (p. 100)

As Mr. Walford recognizes – or at least professes to do with lip service – that the Church teaches that such couples he describes, if they are to receive Holy Communion, must separate – or if there are serious reasons to remain together – they must abstain from sexual relations, i.e., they take on the “duty” to live together as brother and sister (NB: cf.  Familiaris Consortio 84; quoted in note 1 at end of this article). Mr. Walford says “this teaching remains unaltered.” However, just when one thinks one can breathe easy and all is well, Mr. Walford introduces the notion that while the teaching is “unaltered,” it might not be “realistic” for some couples, thereby clearly foreshadowing that it really will be altered at least for some in practice.

This is the frustrating thing with proponents of this error, as is often if not always the case historically with all heretics, i.e., that while they may seem to affirm their acceptance of some particular truth, they in reality introduce something that really alters it.  Thus we have the same Mr. Walford who in one moment accepts as “unaltered” a teaching that says those in ‘irregular’ (i.e., adulterous) relationships must abstain from sexual relations to receive communion, and then with his next breath asks the question, what about those (i.e., adulterers) in a second civil marriage who see a celibate life as not realistic for them and for whom it is impossible to refrain from sexual relations – is there no way out for them?  The answer for Mr. Walford is found in St. Paul, who says that God’s grace is sufficient (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9). It is surprising that Mr. Walford asks this question, and then immediately follows it on page 100 of his book with a quote from the Council of Trent (emphasis added):

But no one ought to think that, because he is justified he is released from obligation to keep the commandments; nor is that rash saying to be used, “that it is impossible for a justified man to keep God’s precepts”; for God does not enjoin impossibilities, but commands and admonishes us to do what we can, and to ask his help for what we cannot perform, and by his grace we are strengthened. (Council of Trent, “First Decree on Justification,” Ch. XI)[2]

Ah! Maybe Mr. Walford gets it after all – or so one would think because he uses this quote. But one would be wrong. The teaching of St. Paul and of the Council of Trent should have stopped Mr. Walford in his tracks when he wondered about those for whom keeping the Sixth Commandment is “not realistic,” i.e., a seeming impossibility to keep. But, no such luck for us. Instead, Mr. Walford plows ahead regardless, writing (emphasis added):

Christian realism doesn’t deny that the sixth commandment is impossible to obey; rather, it recognizes that for ordinary Catholics who do not possess a high level of virtue or sanctity, the chances of avoiding sexual relations is slim. On this point we have an important teaching of Pope St. Gregory II. In 726, St. Boniface has written to the Pope with a series of questions, one of which related to a man whose wife was unable to has sexual intercourse. The Pope stated: “It were best if he could continue as he is and practise self-restraint. But since this demands exceptional virtue, the man who cannot live in continence has better marry.” St. Gregory stated that the man should still look after his first wife since her problems had arisen from health issues rather than anything else. (p. 101)

Now, “we see here” says Mr. Walford – pointing to the example above (p. 101) – a “subtle but truthful distinction that in all probability, those persons in possession of exceptional virtue would not be in a civil marriage in the first place; although that is not to discount the possibility that someone later finds their faith during a situation of objective grave sin.” Mr. Walford then points to the opinions of a “young professor Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI” as someone who agrees with this observation and who had himself in a 1972 essay “proposed a way for Holy Communion to be given in certain cases for the divorced and remarried, he referred to cases where ‘practically speaking abstinence presents no real possibility’.” Now it is worthwhile for us to here pause and consider the evidence Mr. Walford has thus far adduced. First, Mr. Walford has cited Pope St. Gregory II’s response to St. Boniface to bolster his point about an irregular union; however, Pope Gregory was not writing of a man in an irregular union but of a man in either an unconsummated or invalid marriage. Mr. Walford himself admits this, but this admission is relegated to a footnote (n. 30, p. 111). Had Mr. Walford given this context in the passage above, it would have undermined the very point he was trying to make. That is, according to Pope Gregory, the man would have “exceptional virtue” to remain with his wife who could not have relations with him, but if not and lest he fall into sin – he should remove himself from that situation, which in this man’s case might involve a valid marriage to another woman. Mr. Walford wants to twist this passage to create a false analogy whereby the man in an adulterous union could also be seen as having “exceptional virtue” for deciding not to have sexual relations with his adulterous spouse – just as the man in a valid, unconsummated marriage! Where in the original case, Pope Gregory II says failing this “exceptional virtue” the man could leave the woman and seek a different, valid wife with whom he could licitly have sexual relations; Mr. Walford essentially suggests in his example that failing the aforementioned “exceptional virtue,” we should accept as an ‘ordinary virtue’ that the adulterous man chooses to have sexual relations with the same adulterous spouse!  The analogy is ridiculous. But, this is Christian “realism.”

Mr. Walford’s second bit of evidence – the younger Ratzinger’s opinion on allowing communion in such cases – is also of dubious value because the older Ratzinger later amended his work to exclude his earlier, erroneous views – thereby correcting his opinion on the question at hand (see here). This fact could not have been unknown to Mr. Walford. Regardless, it is with such ‘evidence’ that Mr. Walford has brought us to the doorstep of his next subject, the firm purpose of amendment.

Mr. Walford’s Firm Purpose of Amendment: Neither firm nor an amendment

Having observed that Mr. Walford agrees with the “unaltered” teaching only to turn around and suggest an alteration, it is somewhat refreshing that he comes out and finally makes a clear, but startling revelation.  He writes (emphasis added):

Until recently the Sacrament of Confession has not been available to persons engaged in continuous sexual relations within an invalid marriage because it has been assumed that there is no repentance, or desire to change sinful ways, and thus sins cannot be forgiven. So how is this now possible? The answer lies squarely in the intention.” (p.101)

Mr. Walford tells us, that what had been a 2000 year old teaching of the Church has been recently changed. He asks rhetorically “so how is this now possible?”  Yes, that is something faithful Catholics wonder, too. Yes, indeed. How is that possible? In view of past Church teaching, the argument put forth by Walford is therefore a novel idea – and that in the context of 2,000 year-old Tradition is not a good thing. To accomplish this change, Mr. Walford wants us to consider the individual’s intention “separate from the act” (p. 101) and by this Mr. Walford will clear the path for sacramental confession and Holy Communion for the manifest, public adulterer. Mr. Walford explains how a proper intention with respect to a continuing adulterous relationship may clear the way to reception of Holy Communion – against 2,000 years of Church belief and praxis. Mr. Walford writes (emphasis added):

“Of course for most couples, invincible ignorance won’t be the issue, but avoiding further evil in the home most certainly will, and therein lies the intention. It is in this context that Pope Francis references Gaudium et Spes concerning couples who feel that “faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” if sexual intimacy is absent. In this case the danger of adversely affecting the spiritual lives of the children would be of utmost concern, because the rejection of their faith would become a real possibility and perhaps endanger their salvation.” (p. 102)

All concerned Catholic following the Amoris Laetitia crisis have certainly noted the strangeness of using the term “faithfulness” with regard to the inner dynamics of an adulterous union, let alone suggesting it as a component of an argument justifying what the Church has long regarded as sacrilegious communions. As before, Mr. Walford uses questionable proofs, but this time he cannot take the full blame. The quote from Guadium et Spes – regarding faithfulness and the good of the children being endangered by a lack of sexual intimacy between their parents – was used by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia. However, as many other commentators have long noted, this reference in full context is specifically said of spouses in a valid marriage, not –  as Francis and Mr. Walford use it – of spouses in an adulterous union. Mr. Walford knows this too, but he relegates an admission to this fact to a footnote (see n. 36, p. 111) wherein he justifies its use by noting that surely couples in “irregular unions” have the same passions as those in valid marriages.

While that much is true, the issue of course when thinking of both valid and adulterous unions is not the similarity of the sexual appetite as such, but rather its use in a proper and valid context – which according to Catholic teaching, must be reserved to those in a valid marriage. Unlike a valid union, an “irregular” (i.e., adulterous) union, cannot make any proper claim to the title of “faithful” in any Catholic sense, any more than we commend someone who has robbed us at gunpoint for his honor amongst fellow thieves. To the extent one must condescend to stretch the sense of “faithfulness” to those in adulterous unions, then – it seems to me at least – such ‘faithfulness’ between adulterers is not a good thing, as such “faithfulness” would be an obstacle to possible reconciliation with one’s ‘former’ valid spouse. Nor is Mr. Walford convincing when he suggests, as he does in the passage above, that the spiritual lives of the children could be helped by their parents’ continued acts of “sexual intimacy” (i.e., acts of adultery!) or that the children’s salvation might be otherwise imperiled without them! Mr. Walford does not adequately or convincingly explain to us in his book how the parents’ flouting of the Sixth Commandment serves as either a good example or an aid to their children’s  salvation.

Yet, Mr. Walford has not arrived at this point on his own. In Amoris Laetitia 305 (n. 351), an ambiguous reference is made to the “certain cases” in which an individual might receive the sacraments while being in an ‘irregular’ union i.e., violating the Sixth Commandment.  Examples of such “certain cases” have been hard to come by. Pope Francis, to my knowledge, has never publicly offered even one. However, his acolytes, inclusive of Mr. Walford, have attempted to do so (NB: I discuss other examples in Amoris Laetitia and the Confusion of those contradicting the Magisterium of John Paul II). In his recently published book, Mr. Walford has another try at it. Two years on since the release of Amoris Laetitia and nearly two years on since the dubia went public, Mr. Walford has had more time to think on the subject. Furthermore, as noted earlier at the beginning of this article – Mr. Walford also had at his disposal for this book a large panel of experts and advisers, inclusive of many cardinals put at his disposal by command of Pope Francis. So, together, with them, Mr. Walford presents – as a fruit of these labors – the perfect example of an adulterous union and the proper intention whereby adulterous ‘spouses’ should be able to receive Holy Communion. He writes (emphasis added):

“So what exactly is this situation to which we allude? It would be the case where children are born out of a civil, invalid union. The couple have at some stage returned to the faith and seek a loving relationship with Jesus.  They know and accept their union is wrong, but there is no going back. Former marriages are irreparably damaged. In this new union they have tried hard to live as brother and sister, but their attempts have caused great tension and constant arguments. The husband is now fighting temptations against impurity of various kinds. The peace of the home if fragmenting and the children are being affected. No longer are the arguments kept behind closed doors, but abuse is being hurled across the room while the children play. There is a real danger of the home becoming a quasi-war zone, and possibly a family break-up is imminent. Not only have the children had to experience this, but they have also not experienced for a considerable time any affection between their parents; on the contrary, coldness has been apparent even in “good” times. They are confused; what they hear preached at Church is not replicated at home. The older ones are asking questions why mom and dad no longer love each other, and there is the distinct possibility they begin to see nothing beneficial in Catholicism based on their experience at home, in fact, there is the danger of blame being attributed to the faith.

At this point, the parents make the decision that living celibate lives is unworkable. They say to God: “We cannot continue like this, we don’t have the strength even though we have tried. For our children, we are now witnesses for the devil more than you. We are spreading poison and it is ruining them. If we continue like this, we are causing greater evil, and we feel we may turn the children away from the faith.  Our conscience tells us we risk breaking the fifth commandment and in real sense, destroying their emotional and spiritual lives. It is our honest intention to flee from all these evils including the sexual relationship, and we long to live lives of purity. We ask your constant forgiveness even though our weakness means we cannot fulfill what you desire from us. We shall strive in whatever way we can to respond to your grace knowing that your love and mercy will lead us toward salvation. As proof of our good intention, what we lack now, we will make up for in other areas; in almsgiving and fasting.” (p. 102-103)

There is much to unpack in Mr. Walford’s example above. I will not even attempt, here, to address Mr. Walford’s suggestion one can prove one’s “good intention” to God, or how Mr. Walford or anyone can discern what is enough “almsgiving and fasting” to prove ones good intentions to God for what one “lacks now” – i.e., one’s unwillingness to immediately comply with the Sixth Commandment! (NB: I have touched upon Mr. Walford’s argument before, here) But, let us set that aside, and continue.

Mr. Walford contrives to present the perfect example of a public adulterer’s proper intention which should allow them to receive communion. To get there, he created as dire of a situation as possible, hoping to pull as many heartstrings as possible in the process.  He goes so far as to tell us in his example of the couple’s fear they might break the Fifth Commandment and kill each other! Incredibly, Mr. Walford’s example is so constructed that it is the couple’s own attempt to live according the Church’s teaching which is actually contributing to the loss of faith of the children, and presumably the parents’ faith as well! Thus, in the name of “Christian realism” we see how Mr. Walford, contrary to his prior lip service to it, sets aside the teaching of the Council of Trent which he himself had quoted: “God does not enjoin impossibilities, but commands and admonishes us to do what we can, and to ask his help for what we cannot perform, and by his grace we are strengthened” (Council of Trent, “First Decree on Justification,” Ch. XI). After giving the above example, Mr. Walford doubles down on it and assures us (emphasis added):

“It is certain that this example is not fiction for many couples who are trying to balance obedience to the faith with obligations to their children, and there will be other scenarios that may not involve children, but a partner who is perhaps suffering from some emotional, mental, or physical illness that creates great problems in trying to live as brother and sister.” (p. 103)

Despite Mr. Walford’s assertions as to hard cases, there can be no “balance” between what one ought to do and what one ought not do with regard to negative precepts of the moral law. Sacred Scripture teaches there is no real choice between obedience to God or to something other than God: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach….I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction…For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws” (cf. Deuteronomy 30: 11-16).  In the Gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ says, “if you love me, obey my commandments” (cf. John 14:15).  However, Mr. Walford’s example suggests one can choose not to follow the Sixth Commandment and still have a proper enough intention to receive Holy Communion. Before continuing with the examination of his argument, let us first recall how the Catholic Catechism defines mortal sin:

“Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC 1859).

If we boil away the histrionics of Mr. Walford’s lopsided example, we are left with the following:

  1. The couple is in an invalid union. They are in an objective state of grave sin. (Grave matter)
  2. The couple has full knowledge their union is “wrong.” The couple in the example admits this. This is also evidenced by their attempts to live according teaching of Familiaris Consortio 84, i.e, to live together as brother and sister and not as as man and wife. (Full knowledge)
  3. Per Mr. Walford’s example, the couple decides they cannot and will not continue to live in accordance with the Church’s teaching and will, instead, resume a sexual relationship for the foreseeable future (Full consent of the will)

Thus, it seems to me, in the best example Mr. Walford could construct for the purpose of making his argument, he describes a couple which appears to be sinning mortally.  He himself describes them as performing acts they know are objectively wrong, and doing so with full knowledge and consent of the will. Yet, Mr. Walford tells us such a couple can receive sacramental absolution without intending a firm purpose of amendment to end their sexual relationship and only then receive communion. But, as every practicing Catholic knows, the penitent must have contrition for sins to receive the sacrament of confession.  The Council of Trent defined and said of contrition: “Contrition, which holds the first place amongst the aforesaid acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of mind, and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future” (Council of Trent, On the Most Holy Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction, Chapter IV).  The Catholic Catechism likewise affirms, citing Trent: “Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451).

Thus, we see, that there must be a resolution not to sin again.  However, as we shall see,  Mr. Walford attempts to extricate himself from this obvious dilemma in order to allow adulterers to receive communion, in some cases. To do so, Mr. Walford makes the definition of intention so elastic that it encompasses the idea that an adulterer – constrained by his or her or their extenuating and complicated life circumstance (i.e., such as that already presented by Mr. Walford) – can truly have a good intention to defer the decision to extricate oneself from a continuing sexual relationship to some point in the indeterminate future, without actually having the intermediate good intention to give up the continuing sexual relationship before that moment.

If I may summarize Mr. Walford’s argument as I see it, he argues that (1) one only needs a firm purpose of amendment for mortal sins to receive sacramental absolution, (2) but since Mr. Walford’s example of an adulterer, due to his good intention and extenuating circumstances, is only committing a venial sin – this adulterer does not need a firm purpose of amendment, (3) he/she/they may – therefore – receive absolution and then receive Holy Communion, continuing all the while an adulterous sexual relationship. With regard to this good intention for his adulterer, Mr. Walford attempts to draft St. Thomas Aquinas into his error. He quotes St. Thomas (emphasis added):

St. Thomas Aquinas, in is moral and philosophical work De Malo (On Evil), says some interesting things applicable to this question. He states that the more emotions are involved the less serious is the sin, and “one who sins out of malice sins most seriously and most dangerously and cannot be recalled from sin as easily as one who sins out of weakness, in whom there remains at least a good intention.” (p.103, Walford cites: St.Thomas Aquinas, on Evil, trans. Richard Egan, Q III, 13 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 182.

The difficulty here for the reader is that Mr. Walford (1) forgets the particulars of his own example (i.e., the couple, though recognizing their present weakness, willfully put off compliance with the Sixth Commandment until some later date), and (2) fails to more fully read and quote St. Thomas who also says earlier in the same passage from De Malo that “those who sin out of weakness have a will ordained to a good end, for they intend and seek to do good but sometimes retreat from their good intentions” while “those who sin out of malice have a will ordained to an evil end, for they have a fixed intention to sin” (cf. De Malo. Q III, 13). That is to say, it cannot be said of Mr. Walford’s adulterous couple that “they intend and seek to do good but sometimes retreat from their good intentions” in that Mr. Walford’s couple, by deciding to continue adulterous sexual relations, are with respect to that specific sex act intending an evil act and cannot be said to be ‘seeking to do good.’ Much less can it be said they only “sometimes retreat from their good intentions” – as might be said of a true moment of weakness – because it is clear they have made a conscious decision (per Mr. Walford’s example) and willed to continue sexual relations against the Sixth Commandment only intending to stop doing so at an unspecified point of time in the future.

Thus, it seems to me, a more fitting example in line with and respectful of what St. Thomas meant by “good intention” and “weakness” above would be the case of a couple in an “irregular union” who both honestly attempt and do live as brother and sister in obedience to the Church’s teaching day in and day out, but who perhaps at some point through a moment of weakness (e.g., perhaps after too much drink at a party) come together sexually – and then regret and confess the lapse.  I  believe that is more of what St. Thomas meant by “good intention” and a “weakness” – certainly not Mr. Walford’s example. As an aside, Mr. Walford does not tell us of the spiritual dangers of willfully-delayed compliance with the Sixth Commandment, but Sacred Scripture suggests a fearful end for such presumption, as is said: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you” (Luke 12:20), or as is written “Do not say, “His mercy is great;  my many sins he will forgive. For mercy and anger alike are with him; his wrath comes to rest on the wicked. Do not delay turning back to the LORD,  do not put it off day after day. For suddenly his wrath will come forth; at the time of vengeance, you will perish” (Sirach 5:4-7).

The true, eminent Thomistic scholars out there can take a look at Mr. Walford’s argument – and comment on his, as well as my own amateur reading. I am neither “emminent” nor a “scholar” in a technical, theological-academic sense. Nor do I have the likes of Cardinals Tobin, Maradiaga, Wuerl, Murphy-O’Connor, etc., advising me. But, in all truth – for at least that much – I am indeed thankful. I remain just a humble blogger. However, reading the Angelic Doctor – with, I hope, at least a sufficient degree of common sense – it seems to me that Mr. Walford fails to make his case using St. Thomas. In Mr. Walford’s example of an adulterous couple, the couple clearly have a “fixed intention to sin” and thus, at least in my reading of Mr. Walford’s selection from St. Thomas, should therefore more properly be said to “sin out of malice.” Granted St. Thomas Aquinas elsewhere does allow that a “defect regarding the intellect lessens or totally excuses moral fault” (cf. De Malo Q II. 3. 9.), perhaps even with regard to an intrinsically evil act (e.g., fornication) when because of this defect in intellect one believes a sin is not a sin. However, that is not Mr. Walford’s argument, nor does he offer such examples. So, let us continue with the example actually offered by Mr. Walford:

“To return then to the dispute over the absolution for sinners who fit this description, what may we conclude? The question raised by dissenters of Pope Francis is: “How can you forgive someone who has no intention of refraining in the future?” What I have attempted to show is that that assumption is erroneous. These people have every intention, even if at present it is not possible to carry out, and they desire the Sacrament of Confession precisely because they are sorry for this sins.” (p. 104)

Again, it appears Mr. Walford neglects the fact that intention may be with respect to the end, which may be good in itself, or with respect to the means, which may be evil. Thus, that is why, in part, it is said “the end does not justify the means.” In the case Mr. Walford suggests, the couple knows what they are doing is wrong.  Such an example does not square with Sacred Scripture which says: “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17) and “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4).

Though I believe the point with regard to St. Thomas Aquinas was already made in rebutting Mr. Walford, let us take a look at where Aquinas appears to exclude the sort of intention that Mr. Walford suggests is possible.  St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (emphasis added):

Penance is to deplore past sins, and, “while deploring them,” not to commit again, either by act or by intention, those which we have to deplore. Because a man is a mocker and not a penitent, who, “while doing penance,” does what he repents having done, or intends to do again what he did before, or even commits actually the same or another kind of sin. But if a man sin afterwards either by act or intention, this does not destroy the fact that his former penance was real, because the reality of a former act is never destroyed by a subsequent contrary act: for even as he truly ran who afterwards sits, so he truly repented who subsequently sins. (Summa Theologica, Sacrament of Penance; Question 84; Article 10: “Whether the Sacrament of Penance may be repeated?”; Reply to Objection 4)

St. Thomas, above, references St. Gregory who said: “Penance consists in deploring past sins, and in not committing again those we have deplored” (Hom. xxxiv in Evang.) and St. Isdore who said “He is a mocker and no penitent who still does what he has repented of” (De Summo Bono ii). Therefore, we see the absurdity of the notion that the adulterers of Mr. Walford’s example can at one at the same time “deplore” their sexual sins, and be considered to have either “firm purpose of amendment” or a good intention when they in fact intend to continue doing the very sin they allege to deplore. It is clear Mr. Walford wrongly associates St. Thomas Aquinas with his argument, no matter how indirectly. In an example the Dubia Cardinals cited themselves (here) – the question regarding whether it is licit to commit adultery for a good intention, such as saving a kingdom from a tyrant – St. Thomas Aquinas replied (emphasis added):

“We should not agree with the commentator on this point, since one ought not commit adultery for any benefit just as one ought not tell a lie for any benefit, as Augustine says in is work Against Lying.” (De Malo, Question 15, Article 1, Reply 5. p. 421)

The Angelic Doctor denies one can commit adultery for any benefit, i.e., any good intention or any necessity. He only excuses serious sin for lack of deliberate reason in the cases of blameless drunkeness (e.g., Noah), maniacs, or the insane (cf. De Malo, Q. 15. A.2 R. 9). But again, these are not the cases which apply to Mr. Walford’s argument. What is quite clear to me at least is, Mr. Walford has abused the memory and writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, cherry-picking quotes that seemingly help him – but in reality do not – while avoiding those passages in which the Angelic Doctor specifically addresses adultery (see above), or those that specifically reject Mr. Walford’s argument, such as St. Thomas cited by the Catholic Catechism: e.g., “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means” (CCC 1759); or when St. Thomas Aquinas citing Sacred Scripture (Proverbs 6:30-32) says that while necessity may excuse theft, it can never do so for adultery: “…Secondly, theft is stated not to be a great fault in comparison with the guilt of adultery, which is punished with death. Hence the text goes on to say of the thief that “if he be taken, he shall restore sevenfold . . . but he that is an adulterer . . . shall destroy his own soul” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q 66, A 6, RO1). Even more specifically to the argument, the Angelic Doctor says (emphasis added): “It is written (Tobit 4:13): ‘Take heed to keep thyself . . . from all fornication, and beside thy wife never endure to know a crime.’ Now crime denotes a mortal sin. Therefore fornication and all intercourse with other than one’s wife is a mortal sin” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q 154, A 2). Why did Mr. Walford not address these statements? Maybe he had not read them.  But, if he had, these should have stopped our author in his tracks. A simple perusal of the Catholic Catechism might have helped Mr. Walford (emphasis added):

It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (CCC 1756 – see here)

Mr. Walford’s treatment of his subject matter is stilted and one-sided, and thus is both unfair to his reader and a disservice to the truth. He makes no real attempt in his book to rebut the substantial counter-arguments to the position he defends. While, for example, he tips his hat at various points to John Paul II and his writings (e.g., Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor), he neither quotes them extensively nor sufficiently explains how – for example – the argument he defends can be reconciled with John Paul II who wrote (emphasis added):

In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice. (Veritatis Splendor 81)

Thus, we see in this example above, Pope John Paul II states that adulterous acts cannot be justified as either subjectively good or as a defensible choice. In fact, Pope John Paul II quotes St. Augustine who condemns those who would dare say that for “good motives” these sins would either “no longer be sins” or “what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified.” However, it is precisely this “absurdity” Mr. Walford proposes and defends.  Mr. Walford is sincere – but he is sincerely wrong. The argument he defends cannot be reconciled with Sacred Scripture, the constant and universal practice of the Church, Tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas, or the papal magisterium (e.g., John Paul II, Benedict XVI) or the Catholic Catechism.

So ends my rebuttal of Mr. Walford’s moral argument for Holy Communion for manifest adulterers in “certain cases.” In the coming part II and part III of my response to Mr. Walford’s book Pope Francis The Family and Divorce, I will address Mr. Walford’s arguments based on development of doctrine and the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is married to Margaret O’Reilly.  He lives near Atlanta with his family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).


1  The pertinent extract from Familiaris Consortio follows, emphasis added:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. 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. 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.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can onlbe 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.” (Familiaris Consortio 84)

2.  “Numerous interventions during the synod, expressing the general thought of the fathers, emphasized the coexistence and mutual influence of two equally important principles in relation to these cases. The first principle is that of compassion and mercy, whereby the church, as the continuer in history of Christ’s presence and work, not wishing the death of the sinner but that the sinner should be converted and live,(197) and careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick,(198) ever seeks to offer, as far as possible, the path of return to God and of reconciliation with him. The other principle is that of truth and consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and evil good. Basing herself on these two complementary principles, the church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways, not however through the sacraments of penance and the eucharist until such time as they have attained the required dispositions. (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34) [Emphasis added]

3, “The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2- 12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist.” (Benedict XVI. Sacramentum Caritatis 29)

4. “Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”160 the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.” (Catholic Catechism 1650)

5. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Ratzinger, with the approval of the Pope John Paul II, issued a response (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). In it, the Cardinal Prefect says in part: “At the same time it (i.e., Familiaris Consortioconfirms and indicates the reasons for the constant and universal practice, “founded on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion”. 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.]

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