August 13, 2019 (Steven O’Reilly) – [Updated 8/21/2019] Over at Where Peter Is they recently published an article by Pedro Gabriel on the doctrine of mitigating circumstances. This article attempts to find ways by which it can be said that acts of adultery might under certain circumstances be considered venial. And, here, of course, Where Peter Is has in mind a defense of an interpretation of Amoris Laetitia whereby the divorced and remarried (D&R) living more uxurio could, under certain circumstances, licitly receive sacramental absolution and receive Holy Communion.
My rebuttal will focus on a couple aspects of Mr. Gabriel’s article, and why I believe it to be erroneous. I do so because arguments such as his are misleading and harmful to souls, for as it is written: “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).
Mr. Gabriel’s arguments are essentially the same as those found in Mr. Walford’s book, The Pope, The Family and Divorce. I have previously ‘penned’ a three part rebuttal to Mr. Walford’s book, the first part dealing with Mr. Walford’s moral arguments (see The Errors of Mr. Walford’s ‘Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce’). Consequently, there is no need to go into great detail here. I point the reader to my detailed rebuttal of Mr. Walford’s book.
Now, with regard to the current article on ‘mitigating circumstances,’ Mr. Gabriel correctly points out, there are three conditions which must be present for an act to be a mortal sin. For the act to be mortal sin it must involve (1) grave matter (which adulterous acts are), (2) full knowledge and (3) full consent of the will. No one questions that adulterous acts are grave matter, so Mr. Gabriel focuses his attention on finding escape hatches to turn adulterous acts venial in certain cases. He suggests there may be cases where one or more of the parties in an adulterous union lack either full knowledge or full consent of the will. Whenever such exceptions exist (i.e., lack of full knowledge or consent) for D&Rs, Mr. Gabriel argues the D&R couple’s adulterous acts may only be venial sins.
Lack of Full Knowledge
I recommend the reader take a look at Mr. Gabriell’s full article. In his discussion of the condition of “full knowledge,” Mr. Gabriell writes in part:
If “full knowledge” is a necessary condition for a sin with grave matter to be a mortal sin, then ignorance can act as a mitigating factor. Sin remains objectively a sin, but ignorance diminished the culpability of the sinner, so that he may not be in mortal sin. On this point, the Catechism teaches:
“Mortal sin requires full knowledge (…) It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law (…) Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense”
Please note, unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a sin with grave matter (like adultery.) This is doctrine, inscribed in the Catechism since St. John Paul II’s pontificate. It is not an innovation from Pope Francis.
Granted, the Catechism also states, “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” However, this cannot be interpreted as meaning that ignorance cannot ever exist. Otherwise, the Catechism would be self-contradictory. Rather, it means that the principles of the moral law are written in the conscience of every man, so every man has the potential to understand them. No one is unable to understand that a particular sin is wrong, but they can be ignorant of the sinful nature of a particular act at a specific time.
Ultimately, the writer wants to suggest that the lack of “full knowledge” might make adulterous acts only venial, thus providing an exception whereby D&Rs could receive Holy Communion. However, this specific condition is clearly not possible for the D&R situations Mr. Gabriel envisions. The prohibition against adultery is a Divine law, one of the Ten Commandments, and is opposed to the natural moral law. The Catechism teaches, emphasis added:.
“Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man….” (CCC 1860).
Mr. Gabriel grants this and even quotes from the citation above (i.e., CCC 1860). Yet, after making this admission, the writer asserts the Catechism would be “self-contradictory” if after saying “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense” it should be interpreted to mean ignorance “cannot ever exist.”
That much is true. I agree with Mr. Gabriel. However, Mr. Gabriel’s goes on to explain that this therefore:
“…means that the principles of the moral law are written in the conscience of every man, so every man has the potential to understand them. No one is unable to understand that a particular sin is wrong, but they can be ignorant of the sinful nature of a particular act at a specific time.”
This appears nonsensical, certainly in the case of adultery. Certainly, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is something known to all Catholics, so it hard to accept, as Mr. Gabriel seems to suggest that a Catholic while understanding this universal (“no adultery”) could credibly be said to be ignorant that having sexual relations with other than ones own spouse in a particular instance is adultery.
Let’s set that aside. Okay, but you may say, you agree with Mr. Gabriel there can be a type of “unintentional” ignorance (i.e., non culpable ignorance)? How then might we account for a sort of non culpable ignorance, that exhibits a true lack of full knowledge? Is it possible for an act which is objectively adulterous to be engaged in without full knowledge that it is adulterous? Yes, in extreme cases. St. Thomas Aquinas 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), but here the Angelic Doctor has in mind a defect in intellect that causes an involuntary ignorance where one believes a sin is not a sin, e.g., one might be crazy, an imbecile, etc (cf Summa Theologica, I-II, Q88, A6. R. 2). While all these examples exhibit a lack of full knowledge, none of them apply to the arguments made by Mr. Gabriel or Mr. Walford with regards to D&Rs.
It is difficult to imagine what sort of “ignorance”, beyond those I outlined via St. Thomas Aquinas, that Mr. Gabriel believes could possibly excuse an intrinsic evil like adultery. He seems to have something unstated on mind when he quotes a Vadecum published under St. John Paul II (emphasis added): “The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid.” However, we’ve already discussed “invincible ignorance” in the examples above. Other sorts of “ignorance” are actually culpable. Consider, St. Thomas Aquinas again:
“If the ignorance be such as to excuse sin altogether, as the ignorance of a madman or an imbecile, then he that commits fornication in a state of such ignorance, commits no sin either mortal or venial. But if the ignorance be not invincible, then the ignorance itself is a sin, and contains within itself the lack of the love of God, in so far as a man neglects to learn those things whereby he can safeguard himself in the love of God.” (see Summa Theologica, I-II, Q88, A6. R. 2)
Here, the Angelic Doctor says ignorance of the moral law, if one is not a madman or imbecile, is itself a sin (i.e., thus not invincible), as the man “neglects” to learn what he ought, due to a “lack of the love of God” (and here he speaks of fornication, but adultery is a still greater sin)! [(NB: I recommend readers read this article (and watch the video of Fr. Crean, O.P.) in which Father makes this very point]. In such cases, ignorance actually magnifies the sin, not lessen it.
So, in sum, while there can be extreme cases where one might imagine a lack of full knowledge (e.g., a defect in the intellect) with respect to adulterous acts, none of them pertain to the D&R situations that would convert an otherwise mortal sin into a venial one (or to no sin at all).
Lack of Full Consent
The second part of Mr. Gabriel’s argument suggests adulterous acts in D&R relationships might be venial, in certain cases, due to a lack of “full consent.” Mr. Gabriel writes, in part (additional emphasis bolded):
“So, when the papal critic says that mitigating circumstances do not apply because all that is needed to overcome ignorance is to instruct the sinner, he is doing a sleight of hand where he disregards the most important foundation for the new sacramental discipline: consent.
The detractor does this because he does not think full consent is impaired in most situations. Most of the time, he is influenced by a libertarian outlook, where the only way to coerce someone is through physical violence. However, libertarianism is a post-Enlightenment philosophy, and we wish to focus our attention into what Catholicism actually teaches. If we look at doctrine, we notice that orthodoxy takes a much broader approach to the question of impaired consent than the reductionist view limited to the libertarian non-aggression principle. After all, sin not only darkens the intellect, it also weakens the will.
Returning to the Catechism’s section on Mortal Sin, and reading what it has to say about full consent, we can see that “the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.” Also on the Catechism’s section on Freedom, we can read that imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified, not only by ignorance, but also by “inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.”
Please note, what was said above refers to “responsibility for an action.” There is no qualifier for what that action might be. Any action is encompassed in this reasoning, including intrinsically evil acts like adultery. However, sins of the flesh, being driven by passions and concupiscence, are particularly prone to this. In fact, there is precedent in the Catechism for evaluating mitigating circumstances impairing full consent for another intrinsically evil act of a sexual nature: masturbation.”
Above, Gabriel provides another portion of a citation of CCC 1860 in his discussion of “full consent.” He wants his reader to consider that the D&R’s in some cases may be sinning out of some type of weakness, and thus their sin may be only venial. Here is the full quote of the Catechism:
“Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.” (CCC 1860).
I note that Mr. Gabriel did not quote the emphasized portion of CCC 1860 above, i.e., that “Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.” The importance of which I will get to directly. Mr. Gabriel’s article does not provide an example of a hypothetical D&R couple he has in mind and the sorts of “pressures” or “pathological disorders” or “inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” such a couple may face. That is unfortunate, as it would have provided a concrete case to consider and evaluate.
Mr. Walford, with whom Mr. Gabriel’s argument bears great similarity, does provide an example of such a hypothetical couple sinning from weakness (cited and discussed here and here). In Mr. Walford’s example, the couple knows and admits what they are doing is wrong, but intend to engage in adulterous future acts anyway — supposedly –because of various ‘constraints’ they face (NB: It is worth reading the example to see the acrobatics to which Mr. Walford must resort to attempt, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to turn mortal sins into venials ones). Mr. Walford attempts, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to save his couple by saying they one day intend to not engage in adulterous acts — and that this is their “good intention.” He arrives at that point after citing St. Thomas Aquinas. Thus, Mr. Walford writes (emphasis added):
“St. Thomas Aquinas, in his 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 is that Mr. Walford’s couple, and I would assume the same for any example Mr. Gabriel might muster, willfully defer compliance with the Sixth Commandment until some later date, i.e., they intend to continue living more uxurio into the foreseeable future. Therefore, they exhibit malice and a deliberate choice of an evil (cf CCC 1860). Thus, what the Angelic Doctor also says earlier in the same passage above from De Malo applies, i.e., 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).
Therefore, it does not appear proper to say of the D&R couple who intend to continue sexual relations now and into the future that they are sinning “out of weakness” and that this exhibits a lack of consent, as theirs is a deliberate choice as they have a “fixed intention to sin.” It cannot be said of an adulterous D&R couple that “they intend and seek to do good but sometimes retreat from their good intentions” when in fact the couple, by deciding to remain in and continue adulterous sexual relations, are with respect to an ongoing adulterous act intending to commit intrinsically evil acts now and in the future. The couple does not extricate themselves from circumstances that supposedly constrain them to commit adultery, nor do they use such appropriate means where for grave reasons they must remain together, such as living together only as brother and sister as taught by Familiaris Consortio 84. The Holy Office with the approval of Pope Innocent XI (1676-1689), on March 4, 1679, condemned “Various Errors on Moral Subjects”. Among these:
“61. He can sometimes be absolved, who remains in a proximate occasion of sinning, which he can and does not wish to omit, but rather directly and professedly seeks or enters into.
62. The proximate occasion for sinning is not to be shunned when some useful or honorable cause for not shunning it occurs.
63. It is permitted to seek directly the proximate occasion for sinning for a spiritual or temporal good of our own or of a neighbor.”
(Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 1211-1213, p. 329)
Consequently, due to both the (1) intent to continue engaging in adulterous acts and (2) an unwillingness to withdraw from proximate occasions of sin, it certainly appears rash to suggest in such cases, the couple commits only venial sins in their adulterous acts, or even worse, that they can be absolved while such intentions remain (NB: In neither case, i.e., Mr. Walford’s example or Mr. Gabriel’s article, is it made clear whether the adulterous parties ever confessed to their original adulterous acts, before the onset of current circumstances that now constrain them and make their adulterous acts venial. Or, are they suggesting the original acts of adultery were also possibly venial as well?).
For one, St. Thomas Aquinas states “all intercourse with other than one’s wife is a mortal sin” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q 154, A 2). While a sort of ignorance may excuse, as in the case of the madman (as discussed earlier), the grave extremities which one faces is no excuse. 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 (really not different than an extreme constraint or coercion) – 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). We have previously quoted from the Holy Office under Innocent XI, which also ruled condemned and prohibited the following case (emphasis added):
“51. A male servant who knowingly by offering his shoulders assists his master to ascend through windows to ravage a virgin, and many times services the same by carrying a ladder, by opening a door, or by cooperating in something similar, does not commit a mortal sin, if he does this through fear of considerable damage, for example, lest he be treated wickedly by his master, lest he be looked upon with savage eyes, or, lest he be expelled from the house.”
(Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 1201, p. 328)
It is difficult to imagine that this case, condemned by the Holy Office with the approval of Innocent XI, does not apply to the hypothetical cases suggested by those arguing for “mitigated circumstances” with regard to D&Rs owing to lack of full consent, due to some fear or supposed coercion, such as loss of the children to the other parent, or having to leave the house, etc. The servant in the example above is not excused from mortal sin by the Holy Office. His fear of “considerable damage” or even being “expelled from the house” does not excuse him, or downgrade his sin to venial according to the Holy Office. In fact, the proposition it does so excuse him is specifically condemned by the Holy Office with the approval of Pope Innocent XI. With the example of the Holy Office in view, how then can it be suggested a D&R who intends to continue engaging in adulterous acts “does not commit mortal sin,” even if there is fear of “considerable damage” or being “expelled from the house”?
So too, Pope John Paul II taught “For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17), which of course would apply to the sin of adultery when one intends to continue to engage in sinful acts. Thus, we can understand why Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and later Pope Benedict XVI, could say that reception of the sacraments by D&Rs is “intrinsically impossible.” He wrote (emphasis added):
“In other words, if the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Concerning Some Objections to the Church’s Teaching on the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful 1998)
What appears evident in examining the sort of cases where it is alleged acts of adultery might only be venial sins, in certain cases, is the following: D&Rs (1) cannot be deemed ignorant of the moral law which forbids adultery, and (2) that they do intend to continue engaging in adulterous acts, now and into the foreseeable future. To suggest these are venial sins only, or that the D&Rs are not bound to not engage in adulterous acts certainly appears to run afoul of the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that a justified man, however perfect he may be, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church but is bound only to believe, as if the Gospel were merely an absolute promise of eternal life without the condition that the commandments be observed, let him be anathema”.
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, entitled Pia Fidelis, set during the time of the Arian crisis. The first book of the Pia Fidelis trilogy. The Two Kingdoms, should be out later this summer or by early fall (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA).
- Perhaps, as another hypothetical example, it is possible that a man quietly breaks into a couple’s home and incapacitates the husband, and then goes into the darkened bedroom and engages in relations with the wife, who believes it to be her husband. Still, even this case is not what Mr. Gabriel or Mr. Walford proposes.
- In Mr. Walford’s example, found on p.102-104 of his book, The Pope, The Family and Divorce, the focus is on a couple, where both spouses share the same mutual duress or coercion. Both decide to continue their adulterous sexual relationship in the face of their supposed constraints. Dr. Jeffrey Mirus, in a September 13, 2016 article on CatholicCulture.org, offers an example where one of the spouses decides to continue sexual relations under supposed “duress” (see Not heretical: Pope Francis’ approval of the Argentine bishops’ policy on invalid marriages). Cardinal Coccopalmerio offers a slight variation of the supposed hard case in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America (see here), which I commented on here. The cardinal’s scenario is the same in the essentials. A spouse who knows what is right, intends to act contrary now and into the future. The rebuttal made in my present article applies to all these cases.
- Fr. Matthew Schnieder, LC, writes “Moving on to a doctrine that Trent defined, we get to the truth that a priest cannot absolve a person who intends to commit another mortal sin. This specifically refers to an intention to sin and not just a probability of sinning.” (see https://www.catholicstand.com/reading-amoris-laetitia-light-trent/). The Council of Trent taught in Chapter 4 of its Decree on the Doctrine of Penance : “This feeling of contrition is, morever, necessary at all times to obtain forgiveness of sins, and thus for a person who has fallen after baptism it especially prepares for the remission of sins, if it is united with trust in divine mercy and with the desire of performing the other things required to receive this sacrament correctly. The holy Synod, therefore, declares that this contrition includes not only cessation from sin and a resolution and a beginning of a new life, but also hatred of the old…” (Council of Trent, Session XIV, chapter 4. Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, p. 274)
- Council of Trent, session 6, canon 20 (DH 1568).