Does the Synod report reject Catholic understanding of mortal sin?

Does the Synod report reject Catholic understanding of mortal sin?

This is Part II of our series on the ambiguities and ideological distortions present in paragraphs 84, 85 and 86 of the Final Report of the Ordinary Synod on the Family. Part I, which discusses the problematic use of sociological terms in place of the traditional language of the Church, can be read [in the comment below].


Mon Nov 30 ’15 (Voice of the Family) — Paragraph 84 of the Fin Report, speaking of the “divorced and civilly remarried”, states that:

“they should live and mature as living members of the Church.”

This short sentence, which at first glance may seem uncontroversial, does in fact obscure, and even contradict Catholic teaching on the effects of mortal sin. It is our contention that this risks confirming the “divorced and civilly remarried” in their objectively sinful way of life and provides an opening for their admission to Holy Communion without seeking forgiveness through the sacrament of penance (confession) and amending their lives.

1. Are the “divorced and civilly remarried” also “living members of the Church”?

The Catholic Church, with reference to the life of grace, draws a clear distinction between “living members” and “dead members” of the Church. The Catechism approved by Pope St Pius X in 1908 gives clear definitions of these terms:

25 Q. Who are the living members of the Church?
A. The living members of the Church are the just, and the just alone, that is, those who are actually in the grace of God.

26 Q. And who are the dead members?
A. The dead members of the Church are the faithful in mortal sin.

St Thomas Aquinas explained the nature of the spiritual death wrought by mortal sin:

“For sin, being a sickness of the soul, as stated above, is said to be mortal by comparison with a disease, which is said to be mortal, through causing an irreparable defect consisting in the corruption of a principle… Now the principle of the spiritual life, which is a life in accord with virtue, is the order to the last end… and if this order be corrupted, it cannot be repaired by any intrinsic principle, but by the power of God alone…” (II-I q.88 a.2)

In other words mortal sin leads to the destruction of the life of grace in the soul. It causes the termination of “a life in accord with virtue” and, as Thomas says elsewhere, the sinner “forfeits the lustre of grace through the deformity of sin” (II-I q.9 a.7). An individual in the state of mortal sin cannot “rise by his own powers” (II-I q.9 a.7) but only by cooperating with the unmerited gift of divine grace which leads him to repentance and reconciliation with God and the Church, ordinarily through the sacrament of penance. God’s mercy is freely available in this sacrament to all who seek it with true repentance and with the intention to amend their lives.

The temptation to avoid speaking the truth with clarity out of a concern not to upset or offend must be resisted. It is neither charitable nor merciful to hide from people the truth about their spiritual state and thus deprive them of a profound motivation for amendment of life and, ultimately, finding true and eternal happiness in God.

Married Catholics who separate from their spouses and enter into a civil marriage with another party are committing the sin of adultery. Adultery is an objectively grave sin. If this sin is committed with full knowledge of its gravity and full consent of the will it will be mortal, that is, it will kill the supernatural life of grace in the soul. We cannot, of course, make the judgement that every married person who has entered into a civil marriage is subjectively guilty of mortal sin but we can expect an ecclesiastical document to reflect the objective nature of the sin under discussion. Such a document should clearly affirm that, except in individual cases where the subjective imputability of the sin has been lessened, the “divorced and civilly remarried” are not “living members of the Church”. This is the truly pastoral and merciful approach because it opens up the opportunity for people to truly transform their lives with the assistance of divine grace.

2. Why is it scandalous to refer to the “divorced and civilly remarried” as “living members” of the Church?

First and foremost it is scandalous because it is untrue, except in those cases where the sin is, for some reason, not subjectively imputable. It deceives the “divorced and civilly remarried” about the real state of their souls and refuses to provide the guidance and instruction that might lead to genuine repentance and thus to eternal life. The consequences of mortal sin are devastating for the soul. Among other consequences it:

(1) deprives the soul of sanctifying grace and of friendship with God

(2) leads to loss of the beatific vision in Heaven and to eternal damnation in Hell

(3) deprives the soul of merits already acquired, and renders it incapable of acquiring new merits for as long as the state of mortal sin persists

To effectively hide this reality from any man or woman, by assuring them that they are “living members” of the Church, is seriously harmful and misguided.

Secondly, it is scandalous because it can easily be used to provide an opening for the reception of Holy Communion by the “divorced and civilly remarried” without true repentance and amendment of life.

3. How does it provide an opening to the reception of Holy Communion by the “divorced and civilly remarried”?

The Catholic Church draws a clear distinction between the “sacraments of the living” and the “sacraments of the dead”. The Catechism of Pope St Pius X once again gives us the necessary clear distinctions. It teaches us that “the sacraments which confer first sanctifying grace, and render us friends of God, are two: Baptism and Penance” and these sacraments “are on that account called sacraments of the dead, because they are instituted chiefly to restore to the life of grace the soul dead by sin.”

The sacraments “which increase grace in those who already possess it are the other five: Confirmation, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony, all of which confer second grace.” These sacraments “are on that account called sacraments of the living, because those who receive them must be free from mortal sin, that is, already alive through sanctifying grace.”

We can see from this that the appropriate sacraments for “living members of the Church” are: Confirmation, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony.

The appropriate sacrament for “dead members” of the Church is Penance (Confession). (Baptism, which is also a sacrament of the dead can, by its very nature, only be received by those who are not yet members of the Church.)

By referring to the “divorced and civilly remarried” as “living members of the Church” the synod report implies that it is appropriate for the them to be admitted to Holy Communion.

The authentic return to the “sacraments of the living” for the “divorced and remarried” remains via “the sacraments of the dead”, which restore life to those who receive them. As Pope John Paul II taught in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio:

“…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.

“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage” (no. 84).

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One comment on “Does the Synod report reject Catholic understanding of mortal sin?

  1. Synod adopts alarming sociological approach in place of clear doctrine

    November 13, 2015 (VoiceoftheFamily) — Paragraphs 84,85, and 86 of the Final Report of the Ordinary Synod on the Family treat of the “pastoral accompaniment” of the “divorced and civilly remarried”. These paragraphs have provoked a variety of responses. Some members of the hierarchy, such as Cardinal Pell, have emphasised the important fact that the report does not explicitly permit the “divorced and civilly remarried” to be admitted to Holy Communion. Cardinal Pell has also expressed the view that there are other positive aspects to the report; he has said that it “rejected that there was any comparison between homosexual marriage and same-sex unions” and that there “was explicit rejection of the theory of graduality of the law.”

    Others have welcomed the report precisely because, in their view, it opens the way for changes to Catholic teaching. Cardinal Kasper remarked:

    “I’m satisfied; the door has been opened to the possibility of the divorced and remarried being granted Communion. There has been somewhat of an opening, but the consequences were not discussed. All of this is now in the Pope’s hands, who will decide what has to be done. The synod made suggestions. There has been an opening, but the question has still to be resolved in full and needs to be studied more.”

    This position is also held by Fr. Adolfo Nicolás Pachón, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, who was a member of the papal commission that drafted the report. He has said:

    “In everyone’s mind, on the commission, the idea was to prepare a document that would leave the doors open, so that the pope could come and go, do as he sees fit.”
    Vincent Cardinal Nichols, who has previously rejected certain aspects of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, is not waiting for any further word from Pope Francis. He has already used a pastoral letter on the synod as an opportunity to teach that many find “a new start, stability, and fruitful love” in relationships that the Church considers to be adulterous.

    Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who upholds orthodox Catholic doctrine, also considers that the synodal document can be interpreted as providing an opening for the reception of Holy Communion by the “divorced and civilly remarried”. In a recent article he wrote:

    “Yet during the Synod, there appeared those real new disciples of Moses and the new Pharisees, who in the numbers 84-86 of the Final Report opened a back door or looming time bombs for the admittance of [the] divorced and remarried to Holy Communion.”
    Voice of the Family, while recognising that the document contains some positive elements, considers that paragraphs 84, 85 and 86 contain ambiguities and ideological distortions that render the report a serious threat to the integrity of Catholic doctrine and to the good of the family and its most vulnerable members. In this multi-part series of articles we will be conducting a detailed examination of these troubling elements of the report.


    The final report of the Synod calls for the “integration” of the “divorced and civilly remarried” into the life of the Church, and for “discernment” about which “forms of exclusion” in their regard can be “overcome”. Paragraph 84 states:

    “The baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried are to be more integrated in the Christian communities in the various possible ways, avoiding every occasion of scandal. The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment, so that they be aware not only that they belong to the Body of Christ, that is the Church, but that they may have a joyful and fruitful experience.”

    It continues:

    “Their participation can be expressed in various ecclesial services: it is therefore necessary to discern which of the different forms of exclusion currently practiced in a liturgical, educational, pastoral, and institutional role that can be overcome.”
    The language of “integration” and “exclusion” is ideological

    The terms “integration”, “exclusion” and “social exclusion” are used a number of times throughout the final report. These are sociological terms that are very widely used, particularly by powerful international bodies such as the United Nations. The United Nations, which has a department dedicated to pursuing “social integration”, defines “social integration” as follows:

    “The goal of social integration is to create ‘a more stable, safe and just society for all’, in which every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play. Such an inclusive society must be based on the principles of embracing – not coercing or forcing – diversity and using participatory processes that involve all stakeholders in the decision-making that affects their lives.”

    It continues:

    “Social integration represents the attempt not to make people adjust to society, but rather to ensure that society is accepting of all people.”
    The concept of “social exclusion” is closely related to “social integration”. One major English dictionary gives the following very succinct definition of “social exclusion”:

    “the failure of society to provide certain individuals and groups with those rights and benefits normally available to its members, such as employment, adequate housing, health care, education and training, etc”

    This concept is often used by the United Nations, and other bodies, to pursue the “homosexual rights” agenda and to argue, for example, that homosexuals have a right to marry, or to adopt children, on the grounds that these opportunities are open to other members of society.

    The following statements are examples of such usage:

    “Many of the people we work with are excluded from development opportunities specifically because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, contributing to the staggering levels of inequality around the world.” (Helen Clark, Administrator of the UN Development Programme)


    “I am outraged that we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, discrimination, exclusion, criminalization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, not only in their homes, but in their streets, police stations and court rooms.” (Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme)


    “LGBT young people too often face rejection by their families and communities who disapprove of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This can result in high rates of homelessness, social exclusion, and poverty.” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations)
    It is deeply troubling that the authors of the final report should have had recourse to this kind of language, which could be interpreted in a way contrary to Catholic teaching, rather than making use of the clear and precise theological language that the Church has always used. Nowhere in these paragraphs do we encounter the words, “repentance”, “sin”, “confession”, “absolution” or “amendment of life.” In the absence of clarification as to the meaning of terms such as “integration” and “exclusion”, and in the absence of a clear restatement of Catholic teaching, the report opens up the dangerous possibility of the Church’s teaching being interpreted through the lens of modern sociology, rather than the according to the traditional doctrine of the Church.

    The usage of the words “integration” and “exclusion” in paragraph 84 of the synod report is strikingly reminiscent of the way it is used in documents produced by bodies such as the United Nations. We are given the impression that the “divorced and civilly remarried” are to be treated as an excluded group who must be integrated into the community as they are, after the manner of the United Nation’s definition, which makes clear that integration is not about making “people adjust to society” but making sure that “society is accepting of all people”.

    Furthermore the claim that the Church practices “different forms of exclusion” in her “liturgical, educational, pastoral, and institutional” life, will suggest to many that the Church has, up until this point, acted unjustly towards the “divorced and civilly remarried”. This is the reasonable conclusion of the claim that it is “necessary” to “discern” which of these “forms of exclusion” can “now be overcome”. Note that the report does not ask if there are any “forms of exclusion” that need to be overcome but rather which need to be overcome. In others words, the synod report assumes the necessity of at least some form of further “integration” of the “divorced and civilly remarried” into the liturgical, educational, pastoral and institutional life of the Church to correct the “forms of exclusion” previously practiced. It is perhaps in this context that we can make sense of the apology offered by Cardinal Nichols in his pastoral letter. Cardinal Nichols wrote:

    “Our final document of the Synod, which we presented to Pope Francis for his consideration, speaks often of this ‘pathway of accompaniment’, of that ‘reverential listening’, which is the first act of mercy, of the work of ‘discernment’, of wanting to come close to the reality of so many lives in their difficulties and trials. During the Synod discussions, many wanted us to express, humbly, a word of regret and apology that this often has not been the path we have taken. I am glad to do so now.”

    One “form of exclusion” that will immediately come to mind for many readers of the report is the “exclusion” of the “divorced and civilly remarried” from the reception of Holy Communion. Pope Francis himself has spoken of the Eucharist in terms of “inclusion”. At the Wednesday audience on 11th November 2015 he said:

    “Because Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a meal, there is a close relationship between families and the Mass. The togetherness we experience in our families is meant, in the family of the Church, to extend to all as a sign of God’s universal love. In this way the Eucharist becomes a school of inclusion, in which we learn to be attentive to the needs of everyone.“

    It is therefore extremely problematic that the authors of the document chose not to make it clear that the “exclusion” of the “divorced and civilly remarried” from Holy Communion can only be “overcome” by one means: repentance from sin and amendment of life.

    Repentance and reconciliation the only key to “integration” in the Catholic Church

    The papal commission responsible for the synod report have chosen not to follow the authentic approach to the reconciliation of the “divorced and remarried” with the Church. It will be helpful therefore if we briefly outline this approach here.

    The Catholic Church is a supernatural society. She is made up of those who have been brought to share in the life of the Most Holy Trinity, by sanctifying grace, through their incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church leads souls to the eternal enjoyment of the beatific vision of God.

    In order to share in this divine life it is necessary to repent of our sins. John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah by “preaching the baptism of penance, unto remission of sins” (Mk 1:4). Our Lord Jesus Christ began his public ministry by calling men and women to repentance:

    “And after that John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying: The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.” (Mk 1:14)

    Through baptism men and women are brought to share in the divine life of the Trinity; this divine life is lost by mortal sin and restored through true repentance and, ordinarily, the reception of the sacrament of penance.

    As already noted above, paragraphs 84, 85 and 86 propose the “integration” of those living in public adultery without ever speaking of “repentance”, “sin”, “confession”, “absolution” or “amendment of life.” Yet without repentance and amendment of life there can be no full “integration” of any human being into the Catholic Church.

    The report gives the impression that the “divorced and civilly remarried” are no longer to be seen as individuals who, in a wide of variety of circumstances, have fallen into sin and need to seek mercy from God but rather as a minority group suffering “exclusion”, that needs to be “integrated” without any amendment of life on their part.

    Such an approach is impossible to reconcile with the only authentic “key” to the “pastoral accompaniment” of those guilty of adultery, which was provided by Our Lord Jesus Christ: “Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.” (Jn 8:11)

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