Sed Contras for Both Sides in the Amoris Laetitia Debate

Side 1: Conscience must guide the mature Christian. God speaks to us there, with the voice of the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” If my conscience does not accuse me, God does not accuse me. If my conscience bids me do something, God bids me do it.

amoris-laetitia-coverA good shepherd of Christ’s flock empowers, encourages, and facilitates obedience to conscience. There lies the true path to Christian freedom, to intimate friendship with God.

BUT! We sinners spend a great deal of our lives doing things which quiet the voice of conscience. We can render it practically inaudible. Attaining the discipline and fortitude we need to hear God speaking in the inner sanctuary, and promptly obey–that entails a long, hard struggle. No one is born with that kind of discipline and fortitude.

A good pastor must help his sheep anticipate judgments which conscience will make after the rush of passion has passed, after our self-justifications have all exposed themselves, in the cool light of day, as shallow half-truths.

God has given us a moral law, which clearly and unmistakably prohibits sex outside of marriage. A shepherd who does not repeat and emphasize God’s clear law to someone who asks for guidance–someone who knows perfectly well that his or her mind suffers from the buffets of passion and self-imposed confusion: that’s no shepherd at all.

Side 2: A second marriage, without an annulment of the first, always involves adultery. Marriage binds for life. The vows express this, echoing the teaching of Christ. Christ’s teaching about life-long marriage touches on the very heart of the Christian mystery, the Eternal Law of love. We human beings fail to stay faithful, but the triune God does not. God’s holiness makes lifelong marital fidelity possible, fruitful, beautiful; He makes Holy Matrimony an image of heaven, of the wedding day of the Lamb.

BUT! The law of the Church provides a set of criteria according to which a judge may declare wedding vows to be non-binding. Diocesan tribunals issue declarations of nullity every day. Christ is always faithful to a marriage that was properly established in the beginning. But not every couple succeeds in properly establishing the bond, because of something lacking at the time. A declaration of nullity implies no moral judgment on anyone. But it does mean that wedding vows become non-binding.

No one has ever proposed that the operations of diocesan tribunals are infallible. Here’s what the Apostolic See has said:

The discipline of the Church, while it confirms the exclusive competence of ecclesiastical tribunals with respect to the examination of the validity of the marriage of Catholics, also offers new ways to demonstrate the nullity of a previous marriage, in order to exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience. (Letter Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, September 14, 1994)


“To exclude as far as possible every divergence between the truth verifiable in the judicial process and the objective truth known by a correct conscience.” Therefore, some divergence is inevitable. Not everyone who should have an annulment does in fact have one.

By the same token, no one can judge his or her own annulment case. That’s a basic principle of law: You can’t render a just judgment on a case in which you have a personal interest.

Therefore, it seems to your unworthy servant that the question left before us by chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia actually is:

Can anyone legitimately appeal to a judge–other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar of the diocese–to apply the criteria by which we can conclude that a wedding vow does not bind?

In other words, can a parish priest effectively grant annulments? That would seem to be the ultimate meaning of the Holy Father’s suggestion that pastors can help couples in second marriages reach the point where they could receive the sacraments.

If the answer to this question is Yes, then we face a serious problem: It will no longer be possible to know for sure whether or not someone is married. Marital status is a matter of public record. But if a priest other than the duly appointed Judicial Vicar (or his delegate) renders a declaration of nullity, that anonymous judge has no real means by which to publish his decision. We would no longer have accurate records regarding the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Things could change in the lives of the people involved–one of them might ultimately want to marry someone else–and we would have no way of knowing whether or not that is possible. A mess.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the question is No, then we continue to have the same problem that we have had: Literate, educated, and relatively well-to-do people can and do successfully use the annulment process. But uneducated, illiterate, poor people? Not so much. The effect: Education and affluence give people an advantage in receiving the sacraments. Not good.

May the good Lord help us! No one ever said any of this was going to be easy.

3 thoughts on “Sed Contras for Both Sides in the Amoris Laetitia Debate

  1. Something tells me the Catholic Church is flirting with disaster when basic Catholic Doctrine is questioned and open to discussion to appease man’s wonton sinfulness.

  2. As a recipient of an annulment and most gratefully so, I like your description of “a mess” having parish priests involved. Many too many variables here. Years ago, we could not come close to affording even an application for an annulment. Good things have happened since then being no cost at all now. One comment – there are not enough priests around to even consider adding this to their many responsibilities. We have to rely on Canon Law and priests do not have the time nor can they deal with complicated situations marital situations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s