Meltdown in Malta

One of the most troubling and questionable affirmations in Amoris Laetitia is found in paragraph 301: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it 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.”

But how can anyone be so sure of the truth of this counter-intuitive assertion when applied to a particular case of an adulterous union? Isn’t there a greater probability that a Catholic who has separated from his spouse and entered a second “marriage” in a civil or non-Catholic ceremony, and then committed acts of adultery with someone who is not in truth his spouse, would be aware that his behavior was condemned by Our Lord Himself: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” (Lk 16:18)

And would he not thus would be guilty of offending God by his freely chosen sinful behavior?

Is it possible that he never heard of this teaching? Didn’t he attend Pre-Cana classes before marrying his spouse in a Catholic ceremony in which he vowed fidelity until death in the indissoluble bond of marriage? Isn’t it the reality that he couldn’t celebrate a Catholic ceremony for his second “marriage” because the Church does not consider a second union, while his spouse is still living, to be a marriage, but rather an adulterous union?

The Church’s discipline of denying Holy Communion to those living in a public state of sin is not uniquely based on her duty to prevent public scandal. It is also based on the plainly reasonable assumption that someone who freely commits objectively grave violations of God’s law in a matter with which they have sufficient familiarity (in this case, the recognition by a Catholic who has been married in a Church ceremony that he is never allowed to commit adultery) is, in fact, guilty of intentional violations of that law and thus has fallen into mortal sin.

Can a Catholic married man who, following a civil divorce from his wife, “remarries” and has ongoing sexual relations with a woman who is not his wife safely assume for any reason whatsoever that he is not guilty of mortal sin, and thus is free to approach the altar to receive Holy Communion?

Of course not! The Church is not in the business of supplying “get-out-of-jail-free cards” to people who violate God’s law and then search for excuses why that law does not apply to them in their particular cases. To do so is to treat God’s law on marriage, or any other matter, as merely a suggestion, subject to personal ratification before becoming obligatory.

Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech of Malta
Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech of Malta

The bishops of Malta have regrettably embraced the get-out-of-jail-free mentality. They recently chose to instruct their faithful as follows:

If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).

Thus Maltese Catholics who are living in an adulterous second marriage are now being told by their bishops that they can engage in gravely sinful behavior that is publicly known and not be denied Holy Communion when they “acknowledge and believe” that they are “at peace with God.”

What did Our Lord ever say that gave the bishops the impression that being at peace with God includes committing acts that are explicitly and strictly forbidden by God? Did Our Lord tell the woman caught in adultery “Go and sin no more, unless you have convinced yourself that you are exempt from obeying the Sixth Commandment, and that adulterous behavior in your case is pleasing, not displeasing, to God and should therefore be embraced as good for you by the rest of the Church community, including any spouse aggrieved by this behavior.” No. He simply said: “Go and sin no more.” (Jn 8:11)

How should Maltese priests who hear confessions respond from this point on to divorced and remarried Catholics who seek absolution without a firm purpose of amendment? Are they to cooperate in what is plainly an act of non-repentance of adulterous behavior, as in the case of a man who tells the priest in confession that he plans to continue committing acts that he was taught were mortally sinful but now, thanks to this new document, he believes he is at peace with God?

Are priests now to accept without question the “at peace with God” claim of divorced and remarried Catholics who come forward for Holy Communion in their parishes? Is there no harm and scandal given when publicly known behavior reprobated by God is treated as a matter of indifference by the Church – so long as the person engaging is such behavior has decided, against the plain words of Our Lord, that he is just fine with God. Or thanks to his bishops, he is now sure that God has no problem with his behavior, which he has judged to be good for himself in his concrete circumstances? Clearly, this is scandalous and destructive of faith and morals.

Should Pope Francis answer the dubia of Cardinal Burke et al.? The Maltese Bishops’ document is undeniable evidence that in the absence of a papal reaffirmation of the Church’s constant discipline and teaching about marriage, divorce, adultery, and the reception of the sacraments the integrity of the Church’s teaching and mission will be undermined by her own confused shepherds.

Unless the pope acts, we will witness a global fragmentation of what was once consistent, universal, faithful Catholic teaching.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.