Questions and Answers
Note: This set of questions and answers has been prompted by the recent discussions over Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, and its “pastoral” consideration of allowing the divorced and remarried to be admitted to the sacraments. Here we set down the moral principles which should guide the answer to be given, not only to that particular problem, but also to a question that we are often asked in our ministry. (This set of Q&A is based on the excellent article by Rev. Fr. Hervé Gresland, SSPX, published in Le Rocher c’est le Christ n. 109, October-November 2017. )
What (or who) is a “public sinner”?
A “public sinner” is a person who lives habitually in the state of grave sin—which sin is also notorious and scandalous. “To live habitually in sin” means that the person has not simply committed isolated sinful acts, but lives in such a manner that the situation of sin is perpetuated. “Notorious” means that this habitual sinful state is known by many as a fact and is therefore impossible to conceal. Moreover, the sin committed has the particular malice of being “scandalous”—it offers the public a bad example which also encourages others to commit the same sin.
Among “public sinners” are to be counted those who have abandoned the Catholic faith, either by going over to non-Catholic groups or sects, or by habitually living in impiety, that is, habitually refusing to worship God, to follow His law, or to accept the truths of faith. Among such sinners are also to be counted those who have a state of life or an occupation that is gravely sinful (for example, usurers, prostitutes, “psychics,” etc.) and also those who live as husband and wife without being truly married.
What is the Church’s attitude towards public sinners?
From her origins and urged by Our Lord’s command (Mt. 7:6), the Church has maintained towards public sinners a severe policy of exclusion—they cannot be admitted to communion, they cannot act as godparents, they cannot receive a Catholic burial....To admit public sinners to the sacraments would constitute a formal cooperation in their public sacrilege and in the ensuing scandal, as well as an implicit acceptance or approval of the sin that has brought them to this state.
Such exclusion of the unworthy is a grave duty of the ministers of the Church, who must also act with supernatural prudence and fortitude. In this matter, the Church proceeds, not with the intention of offending or hurting anybody, but with the intention of defending the honor of God and of our holy religion, and saving souls. The sinner, who is thus excluded from the reception of the sacraments, must see this exclusion as a special call to penance, as the last recourse of a loving mother, the Church, to bring a lost sheep to the fold.
To be readmitted to the reception of the sacraments, the public sinner must dispose himself, first as “sinner,” by a sincere contrition, and second as “public,” by a public manifestation of his repentance and by repairing the scandal given. Therefore, if his sinful behavior is tied to a permanent external circumstance (such as living in concubinage, or keeping what he has stolen, etc.), he must publicly remedy that situation.
What should be our attitude towards public sinners?
The attitude of the Church teaches us how we are to behave with public sinners: we must follow what Catholic moral doctrine dictates regarding participation in an evil action perpetrated by another.
Although sin is a personal act, we share responsibility for any sin in which we cooperate in some way. We may cooperate in the commission of a sin by directly and voluntarily participating in it, or again by ordering, advising, praising, or approving of it. But we may also become responsible for a sin by omission, that is, by not hindering or denouncing a sinful action or by remaining silent when it is committed.
Sin cannot be approved or encouraged in any way. To approve of a sinful action is to associate oneself with the evil intention of the sinner, and thus renders one culpable of sin. Allowing another to commit a sin may also be culpable, because we have the duty not only of avoiding sin ourselves, but also of opposing sin. If there is no grave obstacle or inconvenience, charity towards our neighbor demands that we try to stop him from committing a sin or, at least, that we do not participate in his sin in any way, whether by our silence or inaction.
In today’s world, we see immorality all around us, widely promoted by the media, who also presses us to accept it in the name of tolerance and out of respect for our neighbor’s liberty to do as he pleases... The possibilities for confronting such an onslaught of moral deviance are limited, but we must at least be firm in defending the law of God and upholding especially the Catholic moral principles regarding family and marriage, which are currently under violent attack. We must strive to conform our personal lives to God’s law and, in the measure possible, to make His law respected around us, beginning with our own families. In this respect, one of our foremost duties will be (again, insofar as we are able) to protect our families from the scandal of public sinners.
What should we do when asked to attend a relative’s “marriage” that will certainly be invalid in God’s eyes?
The general moral principles stated above are clear, but their application to concrete cases is difficult and delicate: if we do not react, we risk getting used to sin and, in the end, accepting it as normal; if we react in the wrong way, we risk doing more harm than good...We cannot treat as husband and wife those who are not such in the eyes of God. To do so would be to participate, by our consent, in their sin. At the same time, the matter must be handled with great prudence, charity and fortitude.
Therefore, we should not attend the “nuptials” of a Catholic who marries outside the Church, because such a ceremony is not a true marriage. The Catholic “spouse” commits a mortal sin by attempting to marry in such a way, and enters into a state of life which will perpetuate the sin, thus becoming a “public sinner.” Likewise, we should not attend the reception after the “wedding,” for what is there to celebrate? That a soul has chosen to sin and to remain in sin? Certainly not.
To receive an invalidly married couple in the context of family gatherings undermines the very notion of the Catholic family, which must be based on true marriage. The family may receive one of its members who is in the state of sin, but alone, without the putative “spouse,” who is not part of the family. Perhaps the family member who is in sin will refuse to come without the “spouse.” Then, painful as it will be for the rest of the family, he or she will not be able to come – the moral good of the family must take precedence.
Outside of family gatherings, it is permissible to meet the so-called “spouses” in order not to break completely the family ties that may lead them back to the fold, however, there must be some basis for the hope that one day their consciences will be enlightened and open to grace. If such meetings do take place, it must be clear to the couple and to other, that they are not in approval of the sinful situation, even if years have passed since the situation began.
The firmness of these principles does not exclude charity towards the persons involved, quite the contrary! God hates sin, but inclines with mercy towards the sinner who is willing to return to Him. We must imitate Him. There is no need to lose our temper or to be unnecessarily hurtful. We must explain our attitude calmly and with great charity. True charity towards our neighbor demands both that we help the sinner abandon the state of sin and also that we do not allow the scandal of sin, by our inaction, to spread to others.
A prudential note...
These guidelines are dictated by the general moral principles, but what appears here as a straightforward analysis, is, in real life, a complex and usually painful decision.
Each concrete case will be different, according to the circumstances and the persons and families involved. In these situations, there are many variables which, when taken into consideration, may incline us more towards leniency or perhaps to greater severity.