How Amoris Laetitia Reduces Moral Culpability for Sin

In June 2016, the distinguished Austrian philosopher and friend of Pope John Paul II, Joseph Seifert, published a highly critical yet charitable essay on Amoris Laetitia (AL) that led to his dismissal from a teaching post at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Granada, Spain. In his essay, Seifert argued that the view of conscience expressed in paragraph 303 of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation could be employed to justify any kind of sin. Robert Fastiggi and Dawn Eden Goldstein responded to Seifert, arguing that the Latin text of that paragraph clarifies the Pope’s intention sufficiently to clear the document of any ambiguity. On their analysis, all that can be gleaned from the text is that “in certain difficult situations God is asking for a “generous response” (liberale responsum), an offering (oblationem)—that is, a step in the right direction.” A flurry of responses, counter-responses, and commentaries have subsequently appeared, but none of them seem to adequately address a particularly problematic proposition contained in Amoris Laetitia which seems to me not only to destroy the entire moral doctrine of the Church, but faith itself.

The major point of conflict centers on the mitigating factors that diminish subjective culpability for objectively disordered actions. Those who have a passing familiarity with the Church’s moral doctrine understand that culpability for a sinful action requires the conscious or deliberate commission of an act that is contrary to the natural or divine law. Thus one cannot be guilty of sin unless one both knows that the act in question is sinful and freely chooses to engage in that act. In Amoris Laetitia, much attention is given to the mitigating factors that affect not the freedom of the will, but the ability to know that one’s marital situation is contrary to the moral norms of the Catholic Church. In the first paragraph of the section on mitigating factors in pastoral discernment, the Pope writes: “A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great diffi­culty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide other­wise without further sin” (AL 301).

Presumably, the second half of that sentence indicates a state of perplexity arising from a moral dilemma: on the one hand, one judges that it would be a sin to cease cohabitation for it would be unjust to the children, on the other that it is a sin to remain due to the proximate occasion of sin such cohabitation entails. While it is clear that one may not choose evil in such a situation, such a state of perplexity may produce such internal turmoil that judgment becomes clouded, resulting in a diminished ability to properly consider the issue and thus diminish one’s responsibility for one’s subsequent actions. That is, moral perplexity can diminish culpability per accidens—not by itself, but on account of the inner turmoil it produces, hindering the right judgment of the agent. I am more interested in the first part of this sentence, however, which states that a subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” and what that has to do with the mitigation of sin. The plain reading of AL 301 suggests that not understanding the inherent values of a rule or norm suffices to mitigate or render one inculpable of sin.

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As is well known, one cannot be guilty of sin if one is “invincibly ignorant” of the moral norm in light of which we can judge an action to be sinful. That is, if through no fault of one’s own, one does not know that some action is contrary to the law, one is not culpable for its commission. However, such cannot be the case with one who “know(s) full well the rule” (prorsus sit normae conscius is how this is rendered in the official Latin). Thus, if there is indeed a mitigating factor being expressed in AL 301, it is the difficulty in understanding the rule’s “inherent values.”

Whence the Rules?
Rules or laws governing human action can arise from a variety of sources, such as law, custom or tradition, and revelation. I will here focus on law, understood as an ordinance of reason for the common good, which can arise from being promulgated by a human authority (positive law), from being grasped by human reason’s natural understanding of the good (natural law), and from being promulgated through divine revelation (divine law).

From the standpoint of human positive law, the proposition that not appreciating the inherent values of a rule mitigates culpability is absurd. Imagine the scenario of a man trying to argue out of a ticket for a traffic violation, such as running a red light. “But your honor,” says our hapless lawbreaker, “although I know that it is against the law to run red lights, I don’t understand the inherent values of following this law.” Such a defense would be viewed with nothing but contempt, and a ticket would be quickly forthcoming. Even ignorance of the law is not excused very easily in human courts of judgment. Knowing the law but not understanding its inherent values would be completely without value in the court of positive law.

What about the natural law? It is well-nigh inconceivable that one could be totally ignorant of the inherent value of the most general precepts of the natural law, such as “do not murder,” or “do not commit adultery.” What may admit of greater ignorance are the reasons why certain particular acts should be considered murder or adultery. A common doctrine of natural law thought is that the “primary” or more general precepts of the natural law are much better known to all than the “secondary” or more particular precepts, so while it may be known to all that murder is wrong, it may not be as clear that every instance of killing an innocent human being is murder. For example, while it is quite clear that one acts contrary to the human good when one kills an innocent healthy person, it is less clear to many people, especially these days, what human good is served by refusing “assisted suicide” to those who are in tremendous suffering from a terminal illness.

Likewise, while the sense that cheating on one’s spouse is quite universal, it is less clear to many that a marriage must be permanent, and that one would be guilty of adultery if one were to enter into a second marriage while one’s first spouse is still alive. Since our knowledge of the natural law depends in large part on knowing how the moral rules we are to follow serve the human good, it is at least possible that not understanding the inherent values of the more particular precepts of the natural law could mitigate one’s culpability for sin.

Divine Law and the Difference it Makes
However, it was due to this unreliability of the human intellect darkened by sin to discern the moral law that God revealed to us the law we are to follow if we are to be partakers of eternal life. As St. Thomas says when arguing that a Divinely revealed law was necessary in addition to the natural law:

…on account of the uncertainty of human judgment, especially on contingent and particular matters, different people form different judgments on human acts; whence also different and contrary laws result. In order, therefore, that man may know without any doubt what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid, it was necessary for man to be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God, for it is certain that such a law cannot err.

While positive law is constructed by natural reason, which is prone to error and may thus fail to be a right ordering to the common good, and natural law is discovered by natural reason which may err by failing to discern the more particular precepts of that law, divine law is promulgated by God who is completely inerrant. By the virtue of faith, we are made capable of assenting with certainty to all that God has revealed. Reason neither constructs nor discovers the divine law, but receives it from on high.

This is not to say that reason has no role in investigating the goodness of the divine law, but rather that we do not establish or discover the goodness of following the law by appealing in the first place to what reason can know about it. That a precept has been revealed by God is sufficient to enjoin our unqualified obedience to it, even if we do not understand how the following of that precept is connected to our salvation. Here faith precedes reason and guarantees a greater certainty than reason itself can afford. To say, then, that not understanding the “inherent values” of the divine law could exculpate one who disobeys that law is to make reason not the handmaiden of faith, but its ultimate arbiter. This is to invert the order that ought to exist between reason and faith, elevating reason above faith, and making the certitude of faith depend not on trust in God’s authority and goodness, but on reason’s ability to plumb the depths of God’s commands.

As an exercise, let us consider one who maintains an adulterous relationship because he does not understand the “inherent values” of God’s command. Let us posit that since he does not understand these inherent values, he sees the command as arbitrary, and since he does not believe that God is an arbitrary being, he does not consider the command binding. In rejecting the command, however, he rejects what God has revealed and thus shows himself to be without faith. His reasoning process should have been the exact reverse if he had faith: since God is not arbitrary, neither are his commands, and thus I should follow his commands even if I don’t understand their “inherent value.” By perverting the logic of faith, he has elevated his own judgment above the faith rather than conforming it to the faith. Failing to understand the inherent values of a rule, then, cannot be the basis of a kind of invincible ignorance of the law, either in itself or accidentally.

It is not without reason, then, that in their critique of Amoris Laetitia, the 45 theologians identified the passage I have been here considering, “heretical, contrary to Sacred Scripture, depraved, and perverse,” if understood as saying: “that a Catholic believer can have full knowledge of a divine law and voluntarily choose to break it in a serious matter, but not be in a state of mortal sin as a result of this action.” I have shown here that not understanding the “inherent values” of the law cannot serve to mitigate one’s moral culpability in disobeying a divine law.

To summarize, I have shown that while not understanding the inherent value of some natural law precept may serve to induce ignorance of the law as law since we come to know that law by means of knowing how it serves the human good, it may not induce ignorance of the divine law as law, for divine law is made known to us not by rational reflection on the truths of human nature, but by the revelation of God. To act contrary to divine law because one does not understand its inherent values implies a lack of faith in the content of revelation or a refusal to obey the good God who orders all things in his loving providence. To teach that not understanding the inherent values of a divine command absolves one from guilt in disobeying it, then, is to teach that a life of moral virtue in accordance with divine law is an impossibility for the ordinary Christian who does not devote himself to the study of moral theology—the moral life is only for the intellectually elite—and that the truths of faith are to be judged by merely natural reason.

(Photo credit: Antoine Mekarly / ALETEIA)


  • Charles Robertson

    Charles Robertson earned his PhD in philosophy from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, TX, in 2017.

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