St. John Paul: “the Church does not agree to call good evil and evil good”

From St. John Paul’s 1984 Post-Synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia:

34. I consider it my duty to mention at this point, if very briefly, a pastoral case that the synod dealt with-insofar as it was able to do so-and which it also considered in one of the propositions. I am referring to certain situations, not infrequent today, affecting Christians who wish to continue their sacramental religious practice, but who are prevented from doing so by their personal condition, which is not in harmony with the commitments freely undertaken before God and the church. These are situations which seem particularly delicate and almost inextricable. [This certainly describes the civilly remarried.]

Numerous interventions during the synod, expressing the general thought of the fathers, emphasized the coexistence and mutual influence of two equally important principles in relation to these cases. The first principle is that of compassion and mercy, whereby the church, as the continuer in history of Christ’s presence and work, not wishing the death of the sinner but that the sinner should be converted and live, and careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick, ever seeks to offer, as far as possible, the path of return to God and of reconciliation with him. The other principle is that of truth and consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and evil good. Basing herself on these two complementary principles, [See that? The are “complementary” and not “conflicting”.] the church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways,not [NOT] however through the sacraments of penance and the eucharist until such time as they have attained the required dispositions.

On this matter, which also deeply torments our pastoral hearts, it seemed my precise duty to say clear words in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, as regards the case of the divorced and remarried, and likewise the case of Christians living together in an irregular union.


For all those who are not at the present moment in the objective conditions required by the sacrament of penance, the church’s manifestations of maternal kindness, the support of acts of piety apart from sacramental ones, a sincere effort to maintain contact with the Lord, attendance at Mass [still obligatory] and the frequent repetition of acts of faith, hope, charity and sorrow made as perfectly as possible can prepare the way for full reconciliation at the hour that providence alone knows.

And thus both compassion and truth are held out as complementary by St. John Paul II.

Are we ready to set this aside as no longer applicable today?  No longer relevant?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. nmoerbeek says:

    Our Lord said that divorce was permitted by Moses because of the hardness of their hearts.
    Is Christ always betrayed with a kiss?

  2. Clinton R. says:

    In a similar vein, this quote from St. Pius X (courtesy of Rorate Caeli):

    These rebels profess and repeat, in subtle formulas, monstrous errors on the evolution of dogma, on the return to the pure Gospel—that is, as they say, a Gospel purified of theological explication, Council definitions, and the maxims of the moral life—and on the emancipation of the Church. This they do in their new fashion: they do not engage in revolt, lest they should be ejected, and yet they do not submit either, so that they do not have to abandon their convictions. In their calls for the Church to adapt to modern conditions, in everything they speak and write, preaching a charity without faith, they are very indulgent towards believers, but in reality they are opening up for everyone the path to eternal ruin. April 17, 1907

  3. Martlet says:

    nmoerbeek – Sometimes, divorce is essential to protect the health, sanity and even the very life of a spouse and children. It was not hardness of heart that prompted my mother to divorce my father, over forty years ago. It was broken bones and horrific bruises. It was the other woman and her two little children by my father. It took my mother 20 years to do what my grandparents – good Catholics both – urged her to do even while I was in the womb, back in 1950, when my father would beat his pregnant wife – and yes, punch her in the stomach. Fortunately for me, I was raised by my maternal grandmother and only witnessed his violence during the occasional school holiday, but my memories are stark enough never to want a person to have to live in such a situation, and my heart broke when my mother’s poor body gave out when she was just 46 years old.

    Of course, today my mother would be tended by the Church, loved by the Church and freed from the conscience that forced her to live in a violent home. A husband with no concept of morality from the outset was no husband at all and her marriage would have been annulled without question, but let us not judge people’s marriages from the outside and declare that “hard hearts” cause people to file for divorce. For my mother, it was clear-cut and the world could see her bruised and battered body, but the outside world does not see the mental and emotional bruises that one partner can inflict upon another, or the damage living in a toxic relationship can do to the children. Sometimes, as I said above, divorce is necessary.

    It has not been easy to write any of this, as people can imagine, but there seems to be a lot of judgment going on when not one of us really knows what has prompted a person to leave a spouse. We must treat divorced people with love and with mercy, exactly as St John Paul wrote -thank you Fr. Z for finding the passage I could not remember when I mentioned it in a comment yesterday – and I don’t believe we can judge them even if they remarry without being free to do so. The urge towards building a normal family life is very strong, especially when one has been left with children to raise.

    I always urge those who have broken up to go first to their priest, even before consulting a lawyer. The Church is ready to shepherd them through the annulment procedure and to stay with them even if a decree is not granted. They can live a full and active Catholic life, even though they cannot receive Holy Communion. The Lord sees what brought them to where they are better than any of us can see, and I believe He blesses them for the effort they are making to remain within the Church and to raise their children within the Church.

  4. incredulous says:

    Marlet, that’s a secular viewpoint. The direct words of Jesus Christ say otherwise. Further, the teachings of the Church are clear and support Jesus’ words regarding the non possibility of divorce. I don’t know of any person who initiated a civil divorce who doesn’t think they were justified mainly due to the sinful nature of their spouse. So, coming up with all sorts of justifications to ignore Christ is commonplace. Also, every breakdown of marriage story has two sides. There is also the truth of the story is that we are all sinners and we all hurt each other.

    Secondly, your statement that an annulment would have definitely been granted is misguided. You seem to suggest the idea that the civil divorce was justified because an annulment would have been granted. However, that’s the biggest gap in the world. Much like our legal system demands an assumption of innocence, Church teachings are that a marriage is always assumed proper (not just assumed, but IS proper) until a tribunal rules nullity. So just like jailing somebody who you are sure is guilty but has not been proven so by a tribunal is unthinkable, acting on the belief that a marriage is null without having it proven so is folly.

    As a side, an annulment can only be granted for the states of mind and heart or other considerations at the time of the marriage. Civil divorce deals with the end of the marriage. So, the protection of Jesus’ teachings requires a level and vigorous understanding of the state of the people at time of marriage. Hence, the annulment process.

    Regarding the health of the battered spouse, the Church is clear. Separation is allowed under such extreme circumstances. However, the marriage still stands. But, also, we are to model Jesus as much as we can. Jesus suffered injustice and physical torture to the point of death. Our church is based on the blood of martyrs and is based on mortifications. We suffer for God and we suffer for others. So in my understanding, a Church based on the nobility and virtue of self sacrifice and suffering and also a very specific statement of Christ regarding the permanence of marriage, it’s hard to justify your position supportive of divorce.

    Isn’t the real deal that people feel they are entitled to their fulfillment of corporal desires? People feel entitled that no matter what the conditions (fornication, adultery or even marriage) we should be able to have sex and sleep side by side with another human (be it same sex or heterosexual)? Isn’t that the real issue?

  5. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Some years ago, Cardinal Burke spoke of his “discovery of Canon 915.”

    He said that, before this “discovery,” if he had been asked, he would have said that Canon 915 “was part of marriage law.” Of course, it is not. And this confession was from the pre-eminent canonist in the world.

    Another way to make the same point is that every word St. John Paul wrote in the passage Fr. Z. quoted, applies to ALL persons in situations of publicly-known grave sin. The DUTY of the Church’s ministers to deny Communion to ALL manifest grave sinners is PRECISELY, ABSOLUTELY the same, whether the sin is adultery, fornication, Mafia membership, or support for abortion. The SPECIES of the manifest grave sin is of ABSOLUTELY no relevance.

    And yet, with the exception of about a dozen bishops, the entire hierarchies of the U.S., the U.K, and the E.U. are all claiming that Canon 915 (and the moral norm it merely codifies) refers ONLY to sexual sins.

    It is difficult to know how to express what a simple, utterly rudimentary moral issue this is. The current situation in the Church is like a religious-science-fiction nightmare, in which virtually every bishop in the Catholic Church is revealed not to have graduated from the Fourth Grade.

  6. Gail F says:

    He put that so well! People seem unable or unwilling to understand that not being able to commune is not a punishment, it’s an acknowledgement of one’s actions. The Church has always understood that some people lead lives that are objectively sinful (in this case remarriage after a sacramental marriage). They are not cast out from the Church, but their actions have made them unable to commune.

    In many cases, these choices are nearly impossible not to make (I think of destitute women who were prostitutes when there were no other options — the fictional Fantine in “Les Miserables” was meant to be such a person, who never gave up her faith despite being driven to prostitution after having a baby because of an affair with a rich man she thought loved her — or women who remarried civilly in previous times because they were abandoned and faced destitution). In the West today, women rarely face destitution if they don’t remarry — but somehow the fact that civil remarriage is usually a free choice seems to make many people think that being held to the sacramental definition of marriage and not being able to commune is some kind of unbearable punishment.

    My intuition is that in the West marriage is so broken that people fear they can’t stay married, don’t know how to stay married, know no one will support them if they try to stay married and their spouse wants a divorce, and find it outrageous that the Church will not acknowledge what is in their minds a simple FACT. They are Westerners so they never want to be told “no.” But the Church doesn’t think that way.

  7. jhayes says:

    Lifesite gives this translation from an interview with Pope Francis published in an Argentinian newspaper:

    “The family is such an important issues, so costly for society and for the Church,” he says, adding, “There has been much emphasis on the issue of divorced people, and this is an aspect that undoubtedly will be debated. But, for me, an equally important problem is the new current, the new habits of today’s youth. Young people who are not getting married at all. It is a culture feature of our times. So many young people prefer to live together without marrying. What should the Church do? Expel them from its breast? Or, instead, approach them, embrace them and try to bring them the word of God? I’m with the latter position,” he says.

    “The world has changed and the Church cannot lock itself into alleged interpretations of dogma. We have to approach social conflicts, new and old, and try to give a hand of comfort, not to stigmatize and not to just impugn,” he says

    There’s no way of knowing how acurate that quote is. Fr. Lombardi says the Press Office knows nothing of the claimed interview.

  8. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick effectively sheds light on one of the phrases in an earlier post about changes in terminology, ” living in sin”.

    I do not know the history of that phrase, but when I searched for it at New Advent, not one of the results seemed to use it in the (once?) familiar sense putting the accent on ‘sexual sin’. Perhaps the phrase got narrowed to this emphasis in the course of the last century, and would benefit from as succinct as possible expansion of its reference along the lines of Fr. Fitzpatrick’s comment: not minimizing the gravity of sexual sin, but mercifully and pastorally stressing the gravity of other sins as well.

  9. Magpie says:

    But of course, we have new pastoral challenges that never, ever appeared in the life of the Church over Her 2000 year history. We need to get relevant, to get with it, so to speak.

  10. LarryW2LJ says:

    I read the various reports from multiple sources regarding this Synod and I sometimes feel like I’m watching a train wreck in slow motion. I have to take solace in putting my trust in the Holy Spirit and keep repeating Fr’s words in my head that Synods “are messy”.

  11. Kathleen10 says:

    Fr. Z., that was fairly well perfect, wasn’t it. Clear and concise. How could anyone argue against such a beautiful rationale?
    And Clinton R., the same. Oh for the days of definitive statements like these! They will return, if not in our lifetime, because it seems everything is cyclic. Old heresies, come popping out again and again. So do new heretics.
    @Martlet. I’m sincerely sorry for your experience. We had violence in my home as well and I well know the long lasting effects of it. Too many children have had to, and do, live in such nightmares, God help them.
    If I may suggest, try Dear, not to see discussions of these issues as judgment on your poor mother, God rest her soul. These topics are discussed in abstract ways, even though they often apply to specific situations. General statements are made, which in no way reflects on your mother. Her particular situation was well understood by God, which is all that matters.

    I fear, especially given what Pope Francis has said on the topic, that our fear of making “judgments” is going to incapacitate us in discussing and defining morality and right and wrong. I think it has crippled honest discussion, and is rendering so many people unwilling to draw natural conclusions about unhealthy and sinful behaviors, so fearful are we to commit what has become the greatest current cultural sin, that of being “judgmental” about another. Liberals and activists are using this against us with good effect.
    We need people in the church to speak out on judgment, again and again and again, not to give us the warnings against it, we’ve had those, but how we ALL must make “judgments” and without it, how could we survive this world or find heaven?. We have all had our heads turned around by these incessant warnings from the pulpit lo these many years. This has caused so much confusion!
    If people cannot state with confidence that X is wrong and Y is right, how can we defend against sin and evil in the culture?
    Right now, the next movement is rearing it’s ugly head, seeing now is the time. The New York Times printed the editorial that pedophilia should be decriminalized. There will be good people who will actually say, albeit quietly right now, “Who are we to judge?”. With all the promoted sins and evil we all see in the world today, if the culture sanctions adults who wish to use children as sexual outlets under the guise of “love” that is “good for them”, then we are surely at the end stages of being a civilized people at all. Can there be any hope for us if this happens. But we will be just as surely incapacitated perhaps by those words none of us want to hear, that we are being “judgmental” about the weaknesses of another. This strikes fear. These sick and perverted people are now being called “minor attracted”, and there are even some calls for considering this a “disability”, because “minor attracted persons” are being “unfairly stigmatized”. I’m not kidding you, those are professionals saying this, professors and doctors and so on. Disability classification will mean protections follow, not for the children but for the disordered adults! This is insanity. These people have moved into the realm of conferences with high-powered professionals and doctors, including Johns Hopkins doctor, Dr. Fred Berlin. But when I just called the perpetrators “sick and perverted”, didn’t that make you cringe a bit? It does because we have been disabled from our ability to make definitive judgments on morality. This is very bad.
    The church has not only been weak on calling out error, it has helped to make impotent the laity’s ability or willingness to draw moral conclusions of a negative nature about behavior and stand by them. Now we see that this has been partly due to lack of consensus within the church itself.

  12. Ferde Rombola says:

    Larry, that’s exactly how I feel. I keep telling myself to trust in the Lord, and I know the Lord is trustworthy, but I tremble nonetheless.

    Martlet, the issue is not divorce, but remarriage. The Catholics who fit the description knew, or should have known what they were doing when they decided to thumb their noses at the Church and remarry. Now they, and a number of heretic bishops, are clamoring for the Church to negate the words of Jesus Himself to accommodate them. I ask all faithful Catholics to pray with me that the Lord will encourage the current pope to resign and that Cardinal Burke will be next to sit in the Chair of Peter.

    BTW, I agree with you your mother’s marriage would be annulled in a heartbeat. May God bring you peace.

  13. Mike says:

    While it is painful to witness the growing openness of apostasy, when the Synod concludes one hopes we can at least be thankful not to be laboring in such ignorance (sadly, perhaps, some amount of it willful) as we had previously. And we can pray for those whose souls are in danger, either through their own or others’ doing.

    As will frequently be noted on today’s feast of Blessed Cardinal Newman, in his own words: “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” Whether in respect to doctrine, dogma, or report, may we all prayerfully keep that in mind.

  14. Martlet says:

    Ferde Rombola – I understand the issues, but I see a lot of judgment about the issue of divorce itself, and was responding to a specific comment. I remember some years ago – back in the seventies – when a priest’s housekeeper divorced her husband. There was an outcry among some, demanding that she be fired. As for those who have remarried outside the Church, I leave that business to priests. I know what the Church teaches, understand what the Church teaches, and agree with what the Church teaches, but judging souls is above my remit. How would I know, for example, as an EMOHC, whether Mrs Smith is living as the sister as the man who is helping her raise her children? What started out sexual might have moved into a fraternal relationship, under careful pastoral guidance, but the priest is not about to share that information with me, is he?

  15. Martlet says:

    By the way, thank you for your “peace” prayer. As I said to someone recently though, much as I would have liked to have been raised by a loving mother, my grandmother more than made up for any lack, and what some may see as a curse has been turned into a blessing which helps me to understand – although not condone – certain behaviour.

  16. Bosco says:

    In addition to a firm purpose of amendment, is it not true that ‘imperfect contrition’ (‘attrition’) suffices for the absolution of sin(s)?

    My understanding is that ‘attrition’ is “supernatural sorrow and hatred for sin which arises from reflection on the heinousness of sin, from the dread of the loss of heaven, or from the fear of Hell and its torments. Hence, the motive of imperfect contrition is the fear of God and His judgements.”

  17. Martlet says:

    incredulous – No, I am not making a secular decision. I know the circumstances surrounding the time of marriage, and based on that knowledge, I am certain that a decree would have been granted.

    Kathleen – I am sorry you had to live through violence, and please be assured that I do not take these discussions as a judgment on my mother. As for “who am I to judge,” I believe we have to judge sins, but we cannot possibly judge sinners. I can say in all truth that something is wrong, is a sin, but I cannot possibly know the degree of someone’s guilt.

    I don’t know to whom this comment was directed: But when I just called the perpetrators “sick and perverted, didn’t that make you cringe a bit?” It doesn’t make me cringe. We have to call sin for what it is, and sometimes we can describe a sickness of mind by the symptoms displayed, but I think there is a difference here. If marriage is a vocation (and I believe it is) can we judge those whose spouses abandon them in the same way we judge perversion? The basic thrust of marriage is towards good, towards the begetting and raising of children. The abusing of children can never be said to be good.

  18. Sonshine135 says:

    I think it is more than just a failure to call a sin a sin. If what LifeSite is reporting is true, then we have a number of the hierarchy that are receptive to the peddling of, for lack of a better term “feel-good Christianity”. I think many before have termed this the “Church of feelings”. In other words, their are a good number in the church making or supporting a statement that it is more important to make a person feel good or welcomed for their temporal existence then it is to assist the person to achieve salvation for all eternity. This thinking is then cleverly disguised as mercy. All the while, this is perhaps the most unmerciful thing you could do. The only way such a statement can logically be supported is if the person believes A. Life begins and ends on Earth- there is no eternity. Or B. Presume that God will just look the other way at our sin.

    Fr. Fitzpatrick said it best above when he said, “The current situation in the Church is like a religious-science-fiction nightmare, in which virtually every bishop in the Catholic Church is revealed not to have graduated from the Fourth Grade.” Absolutely! I have not attended the seminary. I have not been a Priest. I am not a Deacon or even a layperson who is thoroughly studied in all aspects of the faith, yet I can see this clearly. I can only imagine what is going through the minds of the clergy who think properly. While it remains to be seen what if anything results from this Synod, there is some very strange arguements trickling out from behind the doors. I would love to hear some honest and supportive reasoning behind how toning down church rhetoric will help anyone get to heaven.

  19. Martlet says:

    OTOH, Sonshine, is current language helping people to get to heaven? Yesterday (or was it the day before?) I was in a panic, but that has largely subsided, the more I have prayed about the Synod. Perhaps it isn’t about softening the language about sin and consequences, but about putting it in ways that people with little or no catechesis will understand. For example, during the last Conclave, I spent a lot of online time explaining in plain English what was going on. Later, a friend who attended the very same convent school I attended said she had learned more from me than from 12 years of Catholic education, back in the fifties and sixties. Maybe it is just about finding the right language so that people stop and listen?

  20. Genesispete says:

    Being married for over 30 years I feel that I can speak with some authority from inside the institution of Marriage. Quit whining and act like a real man or woman in your marriage! Unless the issue is Domestic Violence or child molestation, then Marriage is forever! If those two crimes exist the report it to the police and abide by separation. Stay close to God and keep in touch with your priest. The Institution of Marriage is greater then the sum of your parts. Respect it if you sometimes have a hard time respecting your partner. Stick it out with each other.

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