Does Amoris Laetitia Resolve Genuine Moral Dilemmas?

The interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by Cardinals Schönborn and Kasper is now well known. Communion for those in a second union represents a change in practice, not in doctrine. What Francis is doing is simply inviting the Church to insert her settled doctrine on mitigated culpability into her reflections on how the divorced and remarried can be integrated into the Church. In other words, the tradition is more flexible than it seems, and allows communion in certain cases for those in second unions. This interpretation, which has been approved by Pope Francis, has been enshrined in the Argentinian bishops guidelines for implementation. I’ve co-written elsewhere that the interpretation seems to be compatible with the doctrines of the indissolubility of marriage, scandal, and sacrilege (canons 915 and 916). However, those are not the only doctrines with which the new practice must be compatible. The real difficulties with this proposal come in its relation to doctrines of grace, the possibility of living God’s commands, and the choice of evil. These too must be taken into account and it seems to me that Amoris Laetitia runs counter to official teaching in these areas.

It is clear that Francis is arguing that those in the second union do not suffer from a lack of knowledge. For the person to qualify for the discernment in the internal forum, the person must be open to further growth, recognize that his or her situation is not in conformity with the gospel, and yet offer the most generous response possible. He envisions a volitional constraint on that response that precludes the fullness of Gospel teaching. The constraint Francis envisions is a dilemma (they sin no matter what they do). Certainly he does not use the term dilemma (or perplexity), but it is clear that he is thinking of a dilemma (see paragraph 301). Likewise, Francis is drawing on a particular account of dilemmas in the tradition. Central to this account of dilemmas, of which both Gregory the Great and William of Auxerre seem to be proponents, is the claim that moral dilemmas truly exist and that the right solution is the choice of the lesser evil. Francis merely applies this tradition to the concrete circumstances of some second unions and at least strongly implies that the lesser evil could be remaining sexually active. Francis never said the sexual acts in the second union are no longer grave matter, only that culpability is mitigated by the existence of dilemma (thus remaining in a state of grace) and there are ways to admit to communion without giving scandal. Since most commentators focus on indissolubility, scandal, sacrilege, and culpability (without mentioning dilemmas), they miss the very heart of Francis’s argument and the tradition on which Francis is drawing.

In the Church’s tradition, speaking broadly, there are three accounts of dilemmas. The first tradition claims that moral dilemmas can exist and that the right solution is to choose the lesser evil. In choosing the lesser evil culpability is either mitigated or destroyed by the existence of the dilemma. This is the tradition on which Francis seems to be drawing. The second tradition claims that there are true moral dilemmas, but only if you have previously sinned (and that sin is the cause of the dilemma). The actor will sin no matter what, but he or she is responsible for the situation in the first place, so there is no reduced culpability. St. Thomas is a proponent of this tradition. The third tradition is defended by certain interpreters of Aquinas, including John Capreolus (c. 1380-1444). According to this tradition, there are no true moral dilemmas. There is always a solution, a non-sinful way out of the dilemma. What you have are the appearances of dilemmas, but the cause can always be removed and the dilemma dissolved.

The Church has no official proclamation on which account of dilemmas is the right one. It is an open question. Defenders of Pope Francis suggest that the first scholastic tradition on moral dilemmas favor the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried; it is based on an open question. Those in second marriages seem to be in circumstances that resemble a dilemma—especially if ceasing sexual activity would be harmful, or there is coercion of some type at the suggestion of living as brother and sister—leaving and taking the kids, etc. Either way bad things will happen. Based on the tradition from which Francis is drawing, the person should choose the lesser evil. In doing so she or he is not fully culpable, and so as long as there is no scandal, they could satisfy Canons 915 and 916. As odd as quasi-involuntary sex sounds—a couple must engage in sex to avoid a immoral outcome—this is the argument backing it up.

Why the Appeal to Moral Dilemmas is Problematic
The problems with this account stem from the tradition of dilemmas on which Francis is drawing. I will give three problems here.

First, and most damning, is the claim that in certain situations (i.e. dilemmas) those in a state of grace are unable to fulfill God’s commands. Canon 18 of the Council of Trent reads: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” Yet this is exactly what the proposal requires: One in a state of grace finds himself unable to fulfill God’s commands to a) abstain from intemperate sexual relations and b) provide for his or her children. The second and third traditions of dilemmas would not run into this problem. On the second, the person will sin no matter what, but only because they voluntarily entered into a second union in the first place (thereby leaving the state of grace). On the third, there is a non-sinful way out of the dilemma. The spouse may leave with the children, but that is not her sin. It is outside her agency. Likewise, if she is in the state of grace, she possesses the possibility of choosing this option even though it is difficult. Only the second two traditions seem to be compatible with Trent. The first seems to imply that God commands the impossible or that he does not give the grace to live up to his commands. Neither are live options.

Second, this tradition of dilemmas seems to run afoul of the clear teaching of Veritatis Splendor that there are intrinsically evil acts. St. John Paul II writes, “These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.” Adulterous sexual acts certainly fall into this category. Yet, the first account of dilemmas claims that in certain circumstances the choice of what is gravely evil could be the right choice; it could be the lesser evil. Now one may retort that no one claimed it was no longer evil (hence, lesser evil), only that it should be chosen given the circumstances. However, that is precisely the point of the doctrine of intrinsic evils. There are no circumstances in which it is the right choice. To undercut this would not only change the Church’s sexual ethics, but her prohibition of all intrinsically evil acts. For example, maybe there are certain circumstances (a dilemma) in which it would be right to choose the lesser evil of targeting a few noncombatants in war. However, this would be morally unacceptable.

Third, even if the above two points can be rebutted and the first tradition of dilemmas shown as fully compatible with the Church’s teachings on the possibility of God’s commands and grace, the situations Francis has in mind do not seem to be true dilemmas. Difficulty on both sides is not a dilemma; bad effects on both sides is not a dilemma. One needs sin on both sides, not difficult vs. sin. Imagine a martyr who has children. If she confesses Christ, she dies and her children will suffer gravely. If she offers the pinch of salt, she will live to take care of her children. This is not a dilemma. You have sin on one side, and difficult hardship on the other. The judgment of the Church is clear. One is never forced to sin, God’s commands are always possible, and God’s grace enables that obedience. Likewise, even if you should choose the lesser evil in situations of dilemmas (it should be clear by now I do not think you should, if dilemmas even exist), is not one’s relationship with God first and primary in the virtue of charity? How could it be the lesser evil?

Nobody could write the argument implicitly in Amoris Laetitia except someone well formed in scholastic casuistry. Casuistry thrives on seeming conflicts, between the Church’s commands, God’s commands, and the exigency of everyday life. However, there is a reason why many moral theologians abandoned casuistry for virtue theory. Virtue theory can dispel conflicts. There is a place for cases, law, and conscience, but those cannot be the whole of moral reflection. We must promote chastity as the fullness of Christ’s revelation for human sexuality.

Inasmuch as Francis’s argument for the inculpability of sexual acts in a second union rests on the first account of dilemmas, it seems to be incompatible with other Catholic doctrines. It seems to run into difficulty with the Church’s doctrine of grace, God’s commands, and the choice of evil. Priests in the internal forum should use the Church’s doctrine on the possibility of God’s commands (and his grace) in counseling divorced and remarried couples.

Whether or not I am right above, there is another challenge in Amoris Laetitia (and Familiaris Consortio #84) for how we approach the divorced and remarried. In fact, this is the more pressing issue. Francis and St. John Paul II challenge us to avoid using the truth to repel people and cast them off. Charity remains committed to the sinner, accompanies the sinner. The truth is not a weapon to throw people out, but an invitation to the fullness of life. Likewise, this call to accompaniment is true for both the priest and the parish. Who have we cast off? Who have we abandoned? Are we looking for the sinners, inviting them back? Are we the kind of people, the kind of parishes, where the divorced and remarried will approach the priest and others for help along their journey? Without scandal, do we welcome them into the community? The truth is impotent without being animated by love.

John Meinert


John Meinert is an assistant professor of theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Baton Rouge, LA. Prof. Meinert earned his Ph.D. in Moral Theology and Ethics from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.