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Is Pope Francis a Heretic? Part I

Tim Staples

The apostolic exhortation of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (Latin, “The Joy of Love”), promulgated March 19, 2016, has caused quite a stir. Because my colleague Jimmy Akin has already written an excellent synopsis of it, I was not planning to write about it.

But because the questions about Amoris Laetitia, which I will refer to as “AL,” seem to keep coming—some few even accusing Pope Francis of heresy—I decided to jump into the fray. In this post I will outline the controversy.

There are nine chapters in the document, but I am going to focus on chapter 8 (though I will mention other parts as well) and the famous “footnote #351,” which has been the source of virtually all of the questions I have received. If you have not read the rest of it, I encourage you to do so. There is much in AL that is good, beautiful, and true and that helps you understand the whole document. It is packed with solid Catholic doctrine and practical application concerning our Faith. But, unfortunately, many seem to have overlooked the good due to the confusion caused mainly by what I argue are faulty interpretations of chapter 8.

Let’s see if we can clear up the confusion.

So what is the controversy?

In a nutshell, Pope Francis made a pastoral and prudential judgment to change the practice of the Church that in the past absolutely, and in every situation, forbade any Catholic who had divorced and remarried outside the Church to receive Holy Communion. No exceptions. But in so doing he made very clear he was not and is not changing a single doctrine of Catholic Faith. In fact, he did not even change a single law of the Church, notwithstanding all of the accusations to the contrary.

The Pope was quite simply applying what is a commonly held teaching of the magisterium—everyone who commits an objectively grave sin is not necessarily culpable of mortal sin—to the particular situation of people who have divorced and remarried without having received an annulment.

It is indeed the perennial teaching of the Church that In order to commit a mortal sin, one must:

1. Commit an act that is objectively grave.
2. Have knowledge that what he is about to commit is, in fact, a grave sin.
3. Freely engage his will in carrying out that gravely immoral act.

The Church also teaches that there are many factors involved in the process of human persons committing sins that can contribute to decreasing a person’s culpability to the point where he would not be culpable of mortal sin.

In AL 301-302, Pope Francis makes these same points clear, employing first the always lucid teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 65, art. 3 ad 2; De Malo, q. 2, art. 2) in paragraph 301, and then, and more importantly, the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 302:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (citing CCC 1735). In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (citing CCC 2352). For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person.

This is indisputable Catholic teaching, folks.

So is it possible that a married Catholic could find himself a situation where he is divorced and remarried outside of the Church and yet not be culpable of mortal sin? According to both Pope Francis and the teaching of the Catholic Church, yes, it is possible. A person could be living in an objectively grave state of sin but have his culpability for that sin either reduced to the level of venial sin, or even to the point of no culpability at all.

If we understand this to be so, the conclusion necessarily follows: A person living in a situation of objective grave sin (remarried outside the Church) yet not subjectively and mortally culpable for that sin would not have an impediment to receiving the Eucharist according to divine law. According to divine law, only a mortal sin impedes a validly baptized Catholic from licitly receiving the Eucharist. Venial sin does not so impede him (CCC 1457).

I say “divine law” here for a very important reason. That this was not permitted before, as we will see below, was a matter of the “practice” of the Church—a matter of prudential judgment, not doctrine—as presented by Pope St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio 84, a document I shall henceforth refer to as FC. This was never divine law.

But I get ahead of myself.

Though Pope Francis makes clear this possibility of a person living in an objectively grave state yet not mortally culpable is an “irregular” (AL305) and even “exceptional” (AL307) situation—and thus, I think we could argue, a rare situation—we have to acknowledge that here, on the objective level, the Pope is right. Hence, the now famous footnote #351 makes sense when it says of those in such situations:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.”. . . I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

In tomorrow’s post I will identify and respond to the three main objections to Amoris Laetitia. Stay tuned.

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