Since the publication of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, a document which contains a cautious opening to the possibility of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, a number of writers have commented on, or objected to, the pope’s use of the word “ideal.”

A recent post at the well-known blog Rorate Caeli, dedicated to the promotion of the extraordinary form of the Mass, asked if Pope Francis had inadvertently (or maybe even intentionally) called Saint John Paul a “heretic.”

While this is just one example of the difficulties some have had with reading Amoris Laetitiae, Rorate is not alone.

On June 9, Pope Francis said in his daily homily, “This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well.”

Rorate contrasts that with this text from Veritatis Splendor 103, “It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a ‘balancing of the goods in question.’”

But with all things, context is key, because Pope Francis and St. John Paul II are not using the word “ideal” in the same way.

John Paul was concerned that certain things would no longer be seen as objectively wrong.  “Objectively wrong” refers to the act itself, apart from other factors.  For example, it is not objectively wrong to tackle someone, because depending on context the act might be a violent attack on another person or just a football play.

To use a common example from moral theology, to throw crates of supplies off a ship could be destruction of property or saving a sinking ship.  On the other hand, it is objectively wrong (always wrong) to commit adultery.

Referring, then, to the erroneous belief that the Christian life is just some “ideal” for some people but not for all, John Paul says in Veritatis Splendor 104, “An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.”

Pope Francis has not done or said anything to indicate that he thinks the moral law does not apply to all.  He bases his own understanding directly on that of John Paul, referring back to his remarks distinguishing between the “law of gradualness” and “gradualness of the law.”

In Familaris Consortio 34, Saint John Paul wrote, “what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.”  Gradualness of the law means that what is objectively wrong for some is not objectively wrong for others, whereas the law of gradualness means that while the objective demands are the same for everyone, there are various mitigating circumstances that might lessen the culpability of someone as they begin the process of conversion.

Pope Francis has not called heretical those who believe in the objectivity of the law, but those who deny that there is a legitimate law of gradualness.

It is this law of gradualness that underlies his entire remarks regarding what he terms “irregular marriages” in Amoris Laetitiae.  In fact, Pope Francis says that as part of conversion, the person in question cannot claim that their state is objectively moral (AL 297). They may not yet realize that it is immoral, but the community must speak the truth in love.  No one can say that something always immoral is, on the other hand, moral for some people.

However, the reality is that the situation exists, and how to begin to rectify it will take on various forms, and with a competent confessor or spiritual director they are to be guided to an “awareness of their situation before God” (AL 300).

This is not anything radically new.  In a 1997 document from the Pontifical Council for the Family entitled “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life,” the same reality of mitigating factors and subjective culpability is present along with the acknowledgment that the law is objective.

Priests are to give “advice which inspires all, in a gradual way, to embrace the path of holiness.”  It notes that “In general, it is not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in invincible ignorance of their evil, or due to an inculpable error of judgment. Although these sins are not imputable, they do not cease, however, to be an evil and a disorder.”

That is, all are called to perfection, but some are ignorant of their objective sins.  The acts remain objectively wrong, but the person, from a subjective standpoint, is not culpable.

The “Vademecum” continues, “The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin.”

“Nonetheless, in these cases, the confessor must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God’s plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church.”

It may seem amazing to some, but here one finds a document from the era of Saint John Paul, published by a Vatican congregation, teaching that it remains okay for a priest to leave a penitent in ignorance about wrongs they are doing until an appropriate time.

Pope Francis therefore is relying on an established distinction taught by St. John Paul II, and is not contradicting any of the principles laid out by him. What is new is the application to certain marital situations, which Pope Francis recently affirmed the document intended on a return flight from the island of Lesbos.

As Father Thomas Michelet OP noted in a recent article on the French website Riposte Catholique, this distinction between objective acts and subjective guilt makes perfect sense within a virtue ethics like that of Saint Thomas, but not within a law-based ethics like that of Kant.  Many people today have been unknowingly influenced by Kantian ethics.

Michelet also noted that the application of the rule “those in irregular unions must always refrain from Holy Communion,” was for St. John Paul, a pastoral and prudential choice, in order to avoid scandal, and one based on the fact that most Christians were aware of the obligations of the moral law.

Now, Pope Francis has judged that, while the rule to avoid scandal must still be maintained (AL 299), there are instances where, due to the increasingly distorted consciences of Christians in the modern world, some people committing objectively immoral acts might be subjectively not culpable. To acknowledge this fact does not lead one to a gradualness of the law and therefore scandal, but a pastoral conversion for the Church in favor of a path of pastoral accompaniment in which sinners are invited to personal conversion.

Pope Francis might be wrong about this language of “ideal” and this new pastoral practice: maybe it will cause scandal.  But what Pope Francis is certainly not doing is calling the very man he canonized a “heretic.”

Father Donato Infante III is a priest of the Diocese of Worcester and holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome.