Among the more controversial paragraphs from Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (AL), 298 seems to be a real ideological Rorschach test. Some people see the problem with it, and some don’t (or choose not to). Since it has come up several times in various online discussion, I’d like to try to break it down in the hopes of providing some clarity. There’s nothing harder to explain, in my opinion, than the obvious, so please bear with me as we take the time to pick it apart.
Let’s start with the relevant portion of paragraph 298:
The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”.329 [emphasis added]
The second and third sentences are referencing a specific hypothetical situation — “a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity…” — and it is on this that we must concentrate to find our answers.
Let’s start by unpacking the language:
- “A second union consolidated over time” — here we are speaking objectively about an adulterous second relationship after a valid marriage. It may be a second “marriage,” it may be a case of cohabitation, the specific context is unclear. But the preceding sentence says “the divorced who have entered a new union,” so we know what it isn’t: a valid, sacramental marriage in which sexual intercourse is licit.
- We know that this union has, at least at some point, involved sexual intercourse, inasmuch as it has brought forth “new children.”
- We know that since this union is not a valid, sacramental marriage, that any sexual activity engaged in by the couple is adulterous.
- We know that this situation has some longevity to it, since it is described as having “proven fidelity.” This isn’t a one night stand, or even a relationship of a few months. There has been time for the conception, pregnancy, and birth of at least one new child.
- Those involved in the union have “a consciousness of its irregularity”. This is a very strange way of putting it. The document does not, as far as I’ve been able to find, define “irregular” (nor can I find such a definition in the Code of Canon Law) but context makes this much clear: irregular unions, in the way that AL refers to them, are relationships that are sexual in nature but do not meet the requirements for valid, sacramental marriage. This means that there’s really no other way to explain this “consciousness of…irregularity” than to say, “Those involved know they’re living in a relationship that violates the 6th Commandment, and/or Our Lord’s general teaching on marriage.”
It appears then that we have a fairly clear picture of what we’re discussing in this hypothetical: long-term non-marital relationships that have generated children, and are acknowledged by the participants to exist in violation of the Church’s/God’s teaching on marriage. (This last part is important, because it handily dispenses with any claim of ignorance.)
The section of AL 298 in question continues: “…a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.”
This is very odd language. What does it mean?
- “the great difficulty of going back” — the obvious meaning here is, “to separate from this union and to return to the original spouse.”
- “Without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins” — this is extremely vague. It could mean almost anything. New sexual sins? Sins of abandonment of duty to another or dependent children? What kinds of sins? And how does “feeling” a thing change the moral obligation one is under to make an act of the will based on an informed conscience?
Now let’s look at the last sentence of that section:
“The Church acknowledges situations ‘where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate’.329”
I left the footnote on there, because it’s very important, but we’ll get to that in a second.
The assertion in this sentence exists in contradiction to prior Church teaching as expressed in the encyclical Casti Connubii (CC). CC quotes St. Augustine when it says:
By conjugal faith it is provided that there should be no carnal intercourse outside the marriage bond with another man or woman; with regard to offspring, that children should be begotten of love, tenderly cared for and educated in a religious atmosphere; finally, in its sacramental aspect that the marriage bond should not be broken and that a husband or wife, if separated, should not be joined to another even for the sake of offspring. This we regard as the law of marriage by which the fruitfulness of nature is adorned and the evil of incontinence is restrained. (CC 10; my emphasis)
Familiaris Consortio (FC), Pope John Paul II’s own post-synodal apostolic exhortation on marriage and family, also deviated from this prior teaching by admitting the exception of those who live in such unions while living in perfect continence — the complete abstaining from any conjugal relations. (You’ll note that CC argues that it is by separation that the “evil of incontinence is restrained”, but FC posits that these couples can, in fact, live together chastely.) FC also upheld the prohibition on allowing those in such unions to receive Confession or Communion without repentance and a change of life. From FC 84:
[T]he 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 only be 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.”
Though this paragraph of FC is referenced in footnote 329 of paragraph 298 of Amoris Laetitia, its specific formulation of the requirement to live in continence is not directly cited anywhere in the document. (In fact, the word “continence” appears only twice in AL — both as a reference to purposefully chosen virginity, which is therein diminished from its properly-defined role [Trent; 24th session, 10th definition] as a higher calling than marriage.)
This same prohibition was also conspicuous by its intentional omission in paragraph 51 of the 2015 final Synod report, which quoted only the part of FC 84 that supported the narrative we now see in AL 298:
Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.
Do you see the way the teaching on this is being gradually repealed over the course of time? What appears in Casti Connubii explicitly is revised so that it appears with an exception in Familiaris Consortio, which is itself revised so that it doesn’t appear at all in Amoris Laetitia. (Introducing error through gradualism is a favored post-conciliar trick, and it reminds me very much of the replacement of the first and greatest commandment with the second in Evangelii Gaudium 161, which itself first coalesced in a less egregious conflation in Gaudium et Spes 24.)
So let us return to 298, and its attendant footnote.
We have been presented with the situation of second union in which the participants know they are violating God’s law (and, consequently, that of the Church) but feel that they are unable to separate for the good of their children and for fear of falling into some other, undefined sins.
Now, with that as our context, we look to footnote 329, which states:
329 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), 84: AAS 74 (1982), 186. In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51). [emphasis added]
This is where we see the big issue. Let’s parse it again:
- “In such situations” — ie., second unions which are knowingly adulterous
- “many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them” — these individuals also understand that the Church calls them to live in perfect continence.
- “point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers'” — here is where the rubber meets the road, folks. These couples have understood and accepted the existence (and perhaps the correctness?) of the moral proposition of continence in illicit unions, but then go on to “point out” something contrary to it. Namely, that when “certain expressions of intimacy are lacking” then “faithfulness is endangered” and “the children suffer”.
This “acceptance” of the command to live as brother and sister while objecting to it is a principle corroborated in another paragraph from AL — 301 — which states, in part:
Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.
When the Church itself through her Supreme Pontiff creates an official document that makes excuses for obstinacy in sin, we are in very dangerous territory indeed.
So, to return to footnote 329 and wrap this up: when you read the phrase, “certain expressions of intimacy”, what does it call to mind? Doing taxes together? Watching a movie? Playing soccer? Maybe a nice game of Boggle?
“Intimacy” is a word which by its definition indicates a very close relationship. “Expressions of intimacy” between members of the opposite sex primarily connotes physical affection, up to and including sexual intimacy. If I were to “express intimacy” with a woman who was not my wife — even if sex were not involved, only holding, kissing, etc. — would that be, do you think, a form of adulterous act? Would my wife think so? Would you, if it were your spouse? Would you feel cheated on, perhaps?
Of course, “expressions of intimacy” which are so important that without them “faithfulness is endangered” are much more likely to be sexual in nature. Not to be crass, but in modern culture, we hear incessantly about how when sexual needs are not met, affairs tend to follow. A plain reading of this text makes clear that this is what is being expressed. I’ll paraphrase it for clarity:
“In second marriages or committed post-divorce relationships, many people, understanding that the Church calls them to abstain from sexual contact of any kind, point out that when this sort of intimacy is not a part of the relationship, it’s far more likely that one (or both) of the spouses will fall into infidelity (again), which could hurt the children who have come from that union.”
These are people who have already been excused, in 298, from separating — as Casti Connubii once indicated was morally necessary to avoid falling into further adultery. Now, we see yet another excuse: “If they’re not allowed to engage in at least some of the acts proper to spouses, the second union might fail, too. They should be allowed to do it. You know, for the kids.”
This is, as written, an implicit promotion of the continuation of adultery — in a document issued by a pope.
Originally published on May 2, 2016. This post has been updated.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.