morality and mitigating circumstances


                     “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

In Amoris Laetitia (no. 302), Section 2352 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is cited in support of of the mitigating circumstance doctrine developed by Pope Francis in order to justify reception of the Holy Eucharist for Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried. Section 2352 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which pertains to the sin of masturbation, reads as follows:

“By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”138 “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”139

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2352). “

The Pope’s reliance on CCC 2352 is clearly misplaced. If we were to use the mitigating circumstances doctrine to allow people to stay in sin, rather than to overcome it, then we have completely misused the doctrine and have even shown a lack of confidence in God’s grace to assist the sinner. The hypothetical person in CCC 2352 acknowledges that masturbation is a sin, and that he wishes to break with that sin, but laments that the force of acquired habit has made overcoming the sin difficult (for which due allowance for mitigating circumstances is allowed). He therefore continues to seek God’s grace and mercy in order to deliver himself from this sin and to live chastely. Quite to the contrary, the divorced and remarried person in the Pope’s example does not wish to change his situation; he wishes to be granted the privilege of remaining in his objectively immoral situation and to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist in a manner which profoundly contradicts the teaching of Jesus regarding the indissolubility of marriage.

In the encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, Saint Pope John Paul II warned about the inherent danger of making one’s own weakness the criterion of truth and the tremendous confusion this type of “mercy” would cause in the church. He said:

“In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances” (no. 104).

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. ‘As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified? Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice’ (no. 81).”

In the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio ( no. 84) Pope John Paul II wrote that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics positively could not receive Holy Communion, for two very profound reasons:

“However, the 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.”

Finally, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance (a document highly relevant to the proper reception of Holy Communion), Pope John Paul II warned the Church against trying to create a theological category out of psychological considerations and mitigating circumstances, stating:

“But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to the construction of a theological category, which is what the ‘fundamental option’ precisely is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin.

While every sincere and prudent attempt to clarify the psychological and theological mystery of sin is to be valued, the Church nevertheless has a duty to remind all scholars in this field of the need to be faithful to the word of God that teaches us also about sin. She likewise has to remind them of the risk of contributing to a further weakening of the sense of sin in the modern world (no.17).”

The mitigating circumstances doctrine cannot be used to justify keeping a person in his sinful condition (see CCC 1754 referenced below, which clearly confirms this). Pope John Paul II clearly warned us about trying to justify such an untenable position.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.

Reference: See also: CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, NO. 1754, which states:
“The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.”

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