Today cardinals and bishops are intensely divided over whether or not invalidly married Catholics living in adultery can receive Holy Communion. Fifty years ago, this kind of question would have boggled the minds of Catholics everywhere, because the answer would be both obvious and simple: “No!” The question has arisen today because a recent and controversial church document has thrown this question into doubt. Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis issued last spring, seems to be saying the answer can be “Yes!,” if it is necessary to protect a couple’s relationship and the good of their children.
This apparent doubt about Church doctrine has many Catholics thinking they are living in a nightmare. Is the Church breaking apart? Can I trust the Church anymore? How can I help my children understand what the Church teaches about marriage?
But, a similar situation of great confusion happened 1,500 years ago during the papal reign of Honorius I (625-638).
Can we learn a lesson from the strange case of Honorius I and apply it to the confusion that exists in the Church today? I believe so.
Honorius was pressured to react to a popular heresy Monothelitism, which held that Jesus Christ possessed only one will naturally. But the Church teaches that Jesus Christ has two inseparable but distinct wills or two distinct operations naturally. However, the Church also teaches there is only one will and one operation in Christ morally. In other words, there is no opposition between the two wills and two operations in Christ.
Although Honorius believed the Church’s true teaching, he wanted to avoid trouble in the Church and offending the Monothelitites, one of whom was the Emperor Heraclius. Similar to today, bishops wanted clarification, but Honorius counseled silence. He advised bishop Sergius saying:
That our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God, by whom all things were made, is Himself one, operating divine and human things, the sacred writings plainly show. Whether, however, on account of the works of the Humanity and Divinity, one or two operations ought to be proclaimed and understood, these things do not belong to us; let us leave them to the grammarians, who are accustomed to display to the young their choice derivations of words…. We exhort your Fraternity to preach with us, as we do with one mind with you, in orthodox faith and Catholic unity,—avoiding the use of the introduced terms, one or two operations—that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, most true God in two Natures, operating divinely and humanly.
Note that the Pope said, “…these things do not belong to us; let us leave them to the grammarians…” The Pope thought that the truth was plain enough and the Church didn’t need to clarify it further with terms, like two operations and two wills.
About 40 years after Honorius died, however, the Sixth General Church Council condemned the fact that Honorius had remained silent. Pope Leo II, the successor to Pope Agatho, accepted this condemnation with some qualification. In his confirmatory epistle sent to Constantine Pogonatus, Leo II stated:
We also anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, bishop of Pharan, Cyrus of Alexandria, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, ensnarers, rather than guides, of the church of Constantinople; and also Honorius, who did not illumine this Apostolic Church with the doctrine of the Apostolic tradition, but allowed it, while immaculate, to be stained by profane betrayal.
And, in his epistle to the bishops of Spain, Pope Leo II also stated:
Those, however, who contended against the purity of Apostolic doctrine, departing, have indeed been visited with eternal condemnation; that is, Theodore of Pharan, Cyrus of Alexandria, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter, Constantinopolitans; with Honorius who did not extinguish the incipient flame of heretical dogma, as befitted Apostolic authority, but, by neglect, nourished it.
Therefore, Honorius’s decision was condemned—not because he actively preached falsehood or heresy—but because he “neglected” teaching the truth. As Pope Leo II pointed out, even during the silence of Honorius, the apostolic tradition and teaching remained untouched and “immaculate.”
This ancient case helps us to relate to Amoris Laetitia. After all, Pope Francis has remained silent, apparently allowing his bishops to judge the meaning of the document for themselves without his help in the face of calls for clarity amidst confusion and anguish. Actually, while Honorius’s silence affected the doctrine of the faith (theory), Pope Francis’ actions are even more serious since his silence pertains to moral acts (practice) which more directly and rapidly affect the people.
When Pope Francis issued his apostolic letter Amoris Laetitia, he stated in paragraph no. 3 that the questions raised by the previous synod on the family did not need to be answered by the “intervention of the magisterium.” So even though a person may consider Amoris Laetitia a magisterial document by its form, the matter discussed internally in the document clearly shows that the mind of Pope Francis was not to officially decide any matter on faith or morals. The key unanswered question which is causing people so much anguish is: Can someone living in an invalid marital union, i.e., actual adultery, continue to have sexual relations and receive Holy Communion? A number of cardinals and bishops throughout the world, especially in Germany, are telling the press and their people that Amoris Laetitia gives permission to do so. But the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and other bishops and cardinals say that Amoris Laetitia does not give this permission.
While parts of Amoris Laetitia are susceptible to various interpretations, footnote 329 of Amoris Laetitia is clearly contrary to the Catholic Faith and Sacred Tradition of the Church. It uses footnotes in a deceptive manner to lead invalidly married couples to think that they can receive the sacraments and continue having sex—if their abstinence will be harmful to their own relationship and their children (as if each act of adultery is not always more harmful to themselves and their children!). Since footnotes are not part of the text, footnote 329 is probably not the work of the pope or the magisterium.
But, when Pope Francis was asked by cardinals to clarify the precise meaning of Amoris Laetitia, he refused.
This failure to act by Pope Francis has caused Church leaders around the world to spin off in opposing directions. No wonder Catholics are confused. For example, the moral position of footnote 329 was recently adopted by the Bishops of Malta who lead one of the first dioceses ever created in the Church. These bishops claim that, according to Amoris Laetitia, there are “complex situations where the choice of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ becomes humanly impossible.” Consequently, if “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 [sic] at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.” This effectively annuls Can. 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law.
However, while it may be very difficult at times to keep the 6th commandment on chastity, one cannot say that it is “impossible” for anyone. The Council of Trent (whose teachings are as valid today as they were during the Council years of 1545 to 1563) declared in an ex cathedra statement that: “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.” The Church has always taught that: “there are acts, which in themselves, independently of their circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy, murder and adultery. One may never do evil so that good may result from it.”
In other words one cannot appeal to the “end justifies the means” as a reason to justify “blasphemy, murder, and adultery” or a “sacrilege” “especially when committed against the Eucharist” (Rom. 3:8). A couple, therefore, cannot commit adultery or a sacrilege for the sake of their own relationship or their children.
So, why does Pope Francis remain silent?
As of today, we do not know, and this is why we must be careful. While we can advise, plead, and complain to the pope (like St. Catherine Siena) about his actions and lack of action, we cannot officially judge him. Only a pope can judge a pope, which is not the same thing as fellow archbishops and cardinals exercising their authority to correct false statements. Pope Francis and his Amoris Laetitia will certainly be judged by a later pope. Will he receive a better judgment than Honorius? Only God knows. But we do not know everything. There may be reasons unknown to us why Pope Francis is refusing to settle the dispute. And, when all is said and done, he may receive a better and more favorable judgment from future popes than Honorius received.
The lesson to be learned from all this is that popes do make mistakes, but sooner or later the Church corrects them and continues on safely under the care of the Holy Spirit.