Fornicating in Self-Defense

When is fornication not really fornication?

Well, if reports are accurate, according to Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, dubbed by some as Pope Francis’ “closest theological adviser,” if a sexually active, unmarried couple lives together, he says it is “licit to ask” whether such sexual activity “should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of ‘fornication.’”

I’ll go out on a moral-theological limb at this point—yes, Your Excellency. Yes, such sexual activity should indeed always fall within the negative precept of “fornication.”

Ah, but I haven’t been patient enough to hear him out more fully. He has more to say. He bases his remarkable claim on another remarkable claim. He says that “one cannot maintain [that] those acts in each and every case are gravely dishonest in a subjective sense.”

Remember the good old days, when Catholic moral theology was actually quite concretely based upon objective moral norms? Surprise! Nowadays, if something is not “gravely dishonest in a subjective sense,” why then I guess the merely observable fact that the same something remains gravely dishonest in an objective sense is no longer that important.

But wait—aren’t there really objective moral norms? Sure. But, according to Fernandez (again, if accurately reported), there’s a big problem—not with the norms, but with their formulation: “It is the formulation of the norm that cannot cover everything, not the norm in itself,” the archbishop says. He says that a formulated norm is “incapable of addressing each and every situation.”

Got it?

So, fornication is always wrong as a general norm. But, when you fornicate with the same person under the same roof, that’s a situation that falls outside the norm’s “formulation” and might really be “subjectively honest” and therefore shouldn’t really always count as violating the negative precept against fornication.

I haven’t gotten around to telling you the best part of all this—this is part of Archbishop Fernandez’s “systematic defense” of the problem passages of Amoris Laetitia, which he is credited by many as having helped draft. He even claims that the infamous Amoris Laetitia footnote 351 was intentionally crafted to have the Church move pastorally closer toward letting some divorced-but-not-annulled Catholics who invalidly attempt another marriage to receive Communion without having to cease sexual relations.

Okay, maybe that’s not the best part, either. Maybe the best part is the archbishop’s insistence that Pope Francis gave the Church an “authoritative interpretation” of the vexing Communion issue via his papal letter of thanks to the bishops of Buenos Aires for their guidelines on this question (which allowed for discerning cases in which such couples would be permitted to receive Communion). In that letter, Pope Francis himself states there is “no other interpretation” besides theirs.

But I’ll beg to differ and offer a quite non-authoritative counter-interpretation of what Fernandez himself seems to be saying: I find his claims to be, at face value, a false and inelegant sophistry of the highest order.

If there is any truth whatever to his claim that a footnote in a pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation is deliberately intended to “discreetly” undermine existing and clear Church teaching, then that footnote should be ignored, excised, or otherwise eliminated from the conscious recollection of faithful Catholics. Test everything—retain what is good.

I already know there is no truth whatever to the convoluted claim he makes about fornication. But let’s hammer a few nails in that particular coffin anyway.

If the archbishop’s take on fornication is correct, then I should be able to fornicate in self-defense.

Indeed, he himself compares killing in self-defense and stealing to feed the starving as examples of “exceptions” to otherwise absolute norms. But here’ s the problem with the “self-defense” comparison—any time we are compelled by circumstances to do something that results in an evil effect, that evil effect is excused by the fact that we had no choice, such as with killing in self-defense, or stealing food to keep the family from starving.

The fornication example is entirely different. The preservation of one’s life and the right to food are both matters of justice. They involve values that arise from the inviolable dignity of the human person.

Fornication, on the contrary, involves in itself one of those inviolable values attached to human dignity—the reality that marital relations are reserved only for real marriage. Not false marriage sanctioned by the state. Not cohabitation. This is an absolute norm that cannot be altered, regardless of the “formulation” it may receive.

There is no “right” to sexual activity that must be safeguarded or protected as a matter of justice. And this is particularly obvious for those who are not even married! Rather, there is a responsibility that a non-married person has to completely avoid fornication.

Not only can there be no such thing as the ridiculous notion of “fornicating in self-defense,” but there can also be no such thing as any claim to fornicate to avoid starvation (as in the stealing comparison). Imagine if it were permissible. The so-called “world’s oldest profession”—prostitution—would be morally permissible, as long as it was a subjectively “honest” attempt to make a living wage from it.

There is an unbelievably acute madness at work in the so-called “logic” of these claims. While the Church has clearly taught through her existence that only that which is true is authentically pastoral, now we are facing a twisted perspective in which we’re being told that the only truly pastoral path requires that we set aside that which is true because, if we don’t (once more according to Archbishop Fernandez), we’re just stuck in a “death trap” that is a “betrayal of the heart of the Gospel.”

Serial fornication by cohabiting couples does not deserve a label of “subjective” honesty. Such claims—even from clergy—must be repudiated as contrary to the Catholic faith. Truly pastoral accompaniment does not, cannot, mean forfeiting the objective reality of sin just because those committing the sin are subjectively not seeing their act as gravely dishonest.

Similarly, as faithful Catholics we must studiously and steadfastly reject any claim that sometimes the “best” a person can do in concrete, lived situations is to freely and deliberately commit sin. Coming to that conclusion means robbing the human person of his or her most precious interior freedom to make moral choices. The human person ought not be diminished and objectified by such tormented reasoning.

We’ve all heard it: well, a person whose spouse leaves him or her just has to find a new partner and certainly can’t be expected to make the right moral choice of remaining faithful to promises made to a now-long-gone spouse unless and until that marriage is declared null. The divorced-remarried can’t be expected to untangle the mess of “remarriage” (so-called) now that this “irregular” union has borne children!

Just like the illogic of fornication in self-defense, there is simply no way to make “adultery in self-defense”—that is, attempting marriage again, without annulment, after separation from one’s legitimate spouse—justifiable or logical.

Yet, that is what is now happening before our very eyes. Highly placed churchmen are moving away from months of ambiguity regarding Amoris Laetitia and now making unambiguous claims about its intentions. Tragically for the universal Church, these profoundly bankrupt claims are being hailed by some as genuine “progress.” Yet, I can think of nothing quite so regressive, nothing quite so reckless and damaging to souls. Just like the nonsensical concept of fornicating in self-defense, assertions that fornication isn’t fornication and adultery isn’t adultery are indeed not the least bit pastoral. Furthermore, such “accompaniment” of wounded souls will only lead them further away from God’s kingdom, not closer to it.

With due respect to the as-reported views of Archbishop Fernandez, the “death trap” here is pretending that things aren’t what they really are. The path to life, and the preservation of the Gospel, is to be found solely in the truths that we owe to ourselves and to everyone else.

The truth is ultimately inescapable. We can’t change it with artful sophistry posing as pastoral accompaniment. We can either learn the truth now, or learn it later.

And learning it now is far easier.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)

Deacon Jim Russell


Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective. He can be reached via e-mail at