On a Correct Understanding of Amoris Laetitia: Which is it? (Part I)

February 3, 2021 (Steven O’Reilly) – Perhaps it should go without saying that when defending the Catholic Faith, Catholics should first and foremost be defenders of orthodoxy. Though it seems to some, being defenders of orthodoxy does not always entail being first and foremost a defender of the pope, any particular bishop, or any one else for that matter. This is undoubtedly true when we look back at the history of the Catholic Church (e.g., Pope John XXII, Pope Honorius)[1]. Unfortunately, in our times, there are those who seem to fall into the latter category in practice if not intent, regardless of the issue or facts.

One of the controversies before us in recent years has been, what is the proper understanding of the teaching of the Catholic Church on the question of communion for the divorced and remarried, who live more uxorio (i.e., having marital relations). This might seem an odd question given the teaching and practice of the Church had been crystal clear for Catholics up until recently. In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II spoke– I would say authoritatively — stating “the Church reaffirms her practice, ” of not admitting the divorced who have remarried to communion. This practice, he taught, is “based on Sacred Scripture.” John Paul II taught these individuals, in an objective state of sin, cannot be granted absolution in the sacrament of Reconciliation unless they have repented of this sin, and if they must continue to live together, to do so as “brother and sister”.  John Paul II continued in FC 84 to state that the Church “by acting in this way” — i.e., the Church’s practice just outlined — “the Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth.”  Thus, the implication is clear: to have acted or to act in any other way, the Church would be acting contrary to Christ and to His truth.

Recalling the “doctrine and discipline of the Church,” Cardinal Ratzinger of the CDF affirmed “in fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ” that (1) the Church cannot affirm a new union as valid if a prior one was valid, and (2) if the divorced are remarried civilly, they objectively contravene God’s law, and therefore (3) they cannot receive Holy Communion. Indeed, the CDF document approved by John Paul II – which participates in his Magisterium – confirms this teaching is a “constant and universal practice” that is “founded on Sacred Scripture.” The CDF says this practice “is presented as binding” by the Pope and “cannot be modified because of different situations(see 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).

Confusion over the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia

Such clarity — “the Church reaffirms” and “the Church professes” in “fidelity to Christ” — has unfortunately become obscured following the release of Amoris Laetitia.  Leaving aside who is to blame for this, the obscurity remains. Average Catholics may have friends or family impacted by a right or wrong interpretation. Souls are potentially at stake. Which is the correct understanding of Amoris Laetitia? It is not an insignificant question. Yet, as Cardinal Müller has observed: “Unfortunately, there are individual bishops and whole episcopal conferences that are proposing interpretations that contradict the previous Magisterium, admitting to the sacraments persons who persist in objective situations of grave sin” (Lifesitenews in November 2017: Cardinal Müller clarifies: There are ‘no exceptions’ to ban on Communion for ‘remarried).  And, here, the Cardinal had the German bishops in mind (e.g., here).

Reading commentary by Cardinal Müller, both old and new (e.g., here), it has seemed the Cardinal sees there are at least three groups in the Church with three different perspectives on Amoris Laetitia.  Though it is obvious, I think it important to indicate them at a high level:  (1) those who interpret AL as being erroneous or heretical; (2) those who interpret AL as consistent with orthodoxy; and (3) those who propose erroneous or heretical interpretations of AL. I do not reject that Amoris Laetitia can be understood in an orthodox sense in conformity with prior teaching, the problem is navigating the sort of interpretations Cardinal Müller warns against, i.e., interpretations that fall in the third category above, those which might be qualified as erroneous or heretical.

Cardinal Müller’s view of an orthodox interpretation of Amoris Laetitia

Cardinal Müller has consistently said Amoris Laetitia must be interpreted in an orthodox fashion. He has said, the Dubia are “authoritative and clearly legitimate” (see here).  He has reaffirmed the clear teaching outlined earlier (e.g., FC 84, CDF guidance on interpreting FC 84), for example, saying D&Rs can only receive communion if they live “in complete continence” (see here). While there was some initial confusion regarding an essay he wrote for Rocco Buttiglione’s book (see here), the alleged exception he seemed to potentially allow for seems to involve questions of nullity/validity of the first marriage — and not regarding cases “bound by a valid marital bond,” the subject of the first Dubia. Even in the these nullity cases, the Cardinal still maintained the parties must submit to the requirements of the sacraments. Further, Cardinal Müller continues to maintain: “We are talking about a right conscience, one that cannot say “I don’t have to respect God’s law.” Conscience does not free us from God’s law but gives us the guidance to fulfill it” (see here).  Regarding his view as to whether D&Rs can continue to have marital relations, and still confess, and receive Holy Communion, the Cardinal has explicitly stated “it cannot be said that there are circumstances according to which an act of adultery does not constitute a mortal sin. For Catholic doctrine, it is impossible for mortal sin to coexist with sanctifying grace.” The Cardinal most recently summed up his view on the matter in his Manifesto of Faith: 

“From the internal logic of the sacrament, it is understood that civilly remarried divorcees, whose sacramental marriage exists before God, as well as those Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Faith and the Church, just as all who are not properly disposed, cannot receive the Holy Eucharist fruitfully (CCC 1457)” [Cardinal Müller, Manifesto of Faith, 3)

Cardinal Müller’s view is completely consistent with Cardinal Ratzinger who has written:

“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.” (see here)

Taken together, the logic and implication of the views of Cardinals Ratzinger and Müller on the “instrinsic impossibility” of D&Rs receiving communion where there is a valid prior marriage, would justify the declaration of Cardinal Brandmuller that “Whoever thinks that persistent adultery and the reception of Holy Communion are compatible is a heretic and promotes schism” (see here).

Another view of what an orthodox interpretation of Amoris Laetitia should be?

Thus far, we have surveyed the “constant tradition and practice” of the Church on the question of Holy Communion for D&Rs with a valid prior marriage, and we have surveyed Cardinal Müller’s view of how Amoris Laetitia should be understood and interpreted in an orthodox way.

But what of other interpretations of Amoris Laetitia that have been in the popular Catholic media over the last few years–and which may be representative of other interpretations that have gained currency in the Church? One of these interpretations is that of Stephen Walford. Mr. Walford authored a book, entitled The Pope, The Family, and Divorce, and he also authored a number of articles. In his book [2], Mr. Walford writes that there are certain cases when a divorced and remarried spouses — with an existing, valid marital bond to another person — can still receive absolution in Confession, and the Eucharist without having to abstain from adulterous sexual relations. What are these “certain cases,” these situations he has in mind?  In his book, Mr. Walford presents one detailed example of such a Divorced and Remarried (D&R) couple and the proper intention — in his view — whereby these ‘spouses’ could receive Holy Communion while continuing their sexual relationship. 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 is 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)

Of all the “exceptions” offered by various writers that I have seen to date, Mr. Walford’s appeared to me to be the most extreme. There are many problems I see in this scenario[3] but it is not the point to go into them all here. The couple is said to be aware their union is wrong (e.g., ‘they know their union is wrong‘). Although they had formerly lived in continence as brother and sister they now make a conscious decision to resume marital relations going forward — undoing as it were, their former firm purpose of amendment. In such a case there can be no contrition, nor firm purpose of amendment present with regard to committing adulterous acts in the future–because they intend to resume them. Yet, the case is presented as an example of a couple which might receive both sacramental absolution (i.e., due to “reduced culpability”[4], and Holy Communion.

In the case presented, the couple even seems to believe they can bargain with God, offering him almsgiving and fasting, in place of observance of the moral law. Here, Mr. Walford might have in mind AL 303’s reference to the “most generous response” [5] to God.[6]  Regardless, there is much more wrong in Mr. Walford’s example, not least of which is the couple seeming to rationalize the breaking of the Sixth Commandment in order to avoid breaking the Fifth. Surely, St. Thomas Aquinas would have rolled his eyes at that one (e.g., De Malo, Question 15, Article 1, Reply 5).

So ends, Part 1 of this two part series.  Part 2 may be found here:

On a Correct Understanding of Amoris Laetitia: Which is it? (Part II)

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 author of Book I of the Pia Fidelis trilogy, The Two Kingdoms. (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com  or StevenOReilly@ProtonMail.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA or on Parler: @StevenOReilly).


  1. When it comes to Pope Francis, there are many things, in my opinion, which are understood with common sense and an understanding of the Catholic Faith to be troubling, confusing, and in need of clarification and answers. With regard to some of the ‘complaints’ against Pope Francis, I have defended him, such as whether he committed formal heresy in Amoris Laetitia 297 (see Does Amoris Laetitia (297) Deny Hell?). Other things are more problematic, such as his claim God willed a diversity of religions, and then there was the Pachamama debacle, and also his Scalfari interviews. Then, on the topic of this article we have the Pope’s unwillingness to answer the Dubia. I do not claim Pope Francis is without a  doubt a “heretic.” I do not claim Pope Francis is without a doubt a “formal heretic.” I have said the allegations in the Open Letter are significant and serious, and deserve a hearing and review by the bishops/cardinals. All of these things, and more, taken alone or as a group raise serious questions–and have confused the faithful.  If we look at the case of Honorius, for example, even granting him the benefit of the doubt on his orthodoxy, this did not save Pope Honorius from being branded a “heretic” by the 6th Ecumenical Council, even though his words could be and were arguably meant to be understood in an orthodox sense. Accordingly, given all these controversies, and the harsh sentence of Honorius when he was, in fact, orthodox, it would not surprise me in the least if Francis in the end — given all the confusion, etc. — met a similar papal and conciliar judgment as did Honorius in the sense intended by Pope Leo II. (NB: My rebuttal to Mr. William Webster’s treatment of Pope Honorius from his book The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (my rebuttal originally found in This Rock/Catholic Answer may be found here: Guilty Only of a Failure to Teach) and (2) my direct rebuttal to Dr. James White’s attempt to come to Mr. Webster’s defense and reply to my article (see my rebuttal of Dr. White entitled White is Wrong also originally found in This Rock/Catholic Answers).
  2. The Pope, The Family, and Divorce by Stephen Walford.
  3. See the Pope Francis, the Open Letter and the Pesky Preface
  4. Mr. Walford goes on in his commentary (p. 105) to explain why the same principles, which might allow adulterers to receive Holy Communion, would not be extended to some other type of sinner such as a serial killer. Here, Mr. Walford has walked through the looking glass. As part of his explanation, he tells the reader that the adulterer, unlike the serial killer, acts out of “mutual attraction” and “they consider it a loving act.” His analysis is nonsensical, as even some serial killers, like the nurse who euthanizes unsuspecting patients, “consider” murder a loving act. Then there is the circularity of his argument here. The “mutual attraction” and the “loving act” he speaks of in defense of his couple are acts between two people with other spouses — the very acts that constitute their adultery!  There is certainly no virtue here in either their “mutual attraction” or “loving act.”  Of course, Mr. Walford not does raise the most obvious reason why the serial killer of his example cannot be absolved. It is because he does not have a firm purpose of amendment, i.e., he intends to murder again. And we know why Mr. Walford will not draw our attention to that simple fact; because it reveals a fundamental flaw in his argument — his couple intends to commit adulterous acts.
  5. Amoris Laetitia 303 (emphasis added):  “…Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”
  6. Of course, I do not know how Dr. Fastiggi might view this, but in an example offered in their rebuttal to Dr. E. Christian Brugger’s analysis of 303, Drs. Fastiggi and Eden give “living in continence” as their example of the “most generous response” to God (see Drs. Fastiggi/Eden here). Would Dr. Fastiggi consider “almsgiving and fasting” the “most generous response” to God in such case as presented by Mr Walford?  I don’t know.  I have no idea.

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