Ever since it came out in April 2016, there’s been an avalanche of debate in Catholic circles about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s document on the family. At least in English, both sides seem to agree that it permits Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried who continue relations in some circumstances, and the dispute is over whether that’s a good or bad thing.

Yet if you read Amoris as papal documents are supposed to be read, meaning absorbing the full text in the context of Catholic tradition, the whole premise of the debate may be flawed – that is, Pope Francis may not have opened to door to Communion after all.

Pope Benedict XVI used the phrase “hermeneutic of continuity” to refer to reading as a whole and within tradition, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, has said that’s  the only way to read Amoris. That’s what I will attempt here.

Before we dive in, there’s a crucial distinction to make: There’s a significant difference between those who understand Church teaching and still choose to engage in sexual relations in a second marriage, and those who fail to live the Church’s teaching either from ignorance or weakness.

Pope Francis seems to make this distinction more clearly than previous Church teaching.

Here’s the bottom line: Contrary to popular opinion, the text of Amoris Laetita does not allow those flagrantly or intentionally having marital-like relations in a “second marriage” to receive absolution or Communion.

However, Francis emphasizes mercy for those who are either ignorant, or who intend to abstain from sexual relations but occasionally fail. Francis’s emphasis on mercy seems to come from a stronger emphasis on the wound of original sin in his anthropology.

I will now demonstrate that this is the meaning of Amoris Laetitia using four groups of texts.

Amoris Laetitia texts

First, Francis makes it clear he does not intend to make new rules. Paragraph 300 says, “Neither the Synod nor this document could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable in all cases.” Even when talking about gradually showing couples the reality of their sin, Francis notes, “Discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands as proposed by the Church.”

Thus, no matter what he says about discernment later, he has set up the already existing teaching of the Church as a fence around what can be discerned. Discernment is a process of deciding spiritually what to do – like if you should pray the rosary or liturgy of the hours daily – but a basic pre-existing condition for proper discernment is you can’t choose something outside of Church teaching.

Church teaching has been very clear that sacramental absolution, and thus Eucharistic Communion cannot be given to those who intend to commit more mortal sins. We usually assume a person coming to confession is not obstinate in wanting to commit more mortal sins, but if a priest knows otherwise, absolution should be denied.

This is distinct from weakness. In confession, a priest can absolve a man for drunkenness, even if they both know he’ll likely fall again; but he can’t absolve him if he says he wants to get drunk again this weekend. This section of Amoris Laetitia refers to the specific sin of having sex with someone who is your legal spouse but not your legitimate spouse.

The pope even reiterates this in 307: “In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.”

From these texts, it seems clear that those who live in open disobedience to the command of chastity for divorced and civilly remarried couples, as presented in St. John Paul II’s 1981 document Familiaris Consortio, cannot be admitted to absolution or Communion.

Second, he points out the difference between failing or ignorance, and flaunting sin.

In 297, Francis says “If someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches … this is a case of something which separates from the community.”

An “objective sin” is a sin insofar as can be seen from external acts, ignoring things like knowledge of the sin or degree of free will, and in this context indicates that nobody can claim sleeping with someone other than your legitimate spouse is moral. “Separation from the community” refers to separation from the Church, and thus from Communion.

When he talks about integrating the divorced and civilly remarried into the Church in 299, the pope says it must be “While avoiding any occasion of scandal.” Since “scandal” refers to those acts which may induce someone else to sin, it must mean that some forms of integration of some divorced and remarried couples are sinful as otherwise there would be no danger of scandal.

This shows some couples – those who try to live Church teaching – can be reintegrated, while others – those who intentionally do not follow Church teachings – can only be integrated partially (and not including Communion).

Third, he notes the responsibility for sin varies between the weak and those flaunting disobedience of Familiaris Consortio.

In 302 he notes, “While upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions and decisions is not the same in all cases.” Those who intend to continue sexual relations in opposition to existing Church teaching, and those who fall into it in a moment of weakness or are unaware of the Church’s teaching, definitely have differing responsibility for their acts.

In 304 he suggests that we discern in the concrete circumstances of an individual’s life, not just the objective actions’ correspondence to a general rule. A big focus of a concrete life situation is whether someone knows Church teaching and is trying to live it out or not.

Fourth and finally, he talks about mercy in the confessional towards those who are attempting to live the Church’s teaching as best they know it.

He notes in 311, “Mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth.” Thus, mercy in a confessional cannot be separate from the truth and justice which includes all previous Church teaching.

The famous footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitia must be interpreted in this broader context.

When footnote 351 says, “In certain cases, [help for those not fully living the Church’s objective teaching regarding marriage] can include the help of the sacraments,” it logically refers to those who are attempting to live previously established Church teaching as best they understand it – this is precisely the text preceding the footnote. This would apply both to those who don’t understand Church teaching on “second marriages,” and those who fail because of human weakness.

From what has been said above and following the tradition of the Church, it seems clear that the “certain cases” refers to the ignorant and weak, and not to those intentionally sleeping with someone who is not their legitimate spouse.

Beyond the texts already quoted, if we read within the tradition, ambiguity should be read according to what tradition says not in opposition to it. If a pope wants to change an existing pastoral practice, the weight of tradition would require him to state it clearly, not imply it through an ambiguous reading of a footnote.

This is not a novel interpretation but has been around since day one, and is the one that makes most sense in the context of the previous teaching. I gave it on the day it was released and in a study guide a few weeks later, but had not done a complete explanation and analysis before.

But the following objection might be in some of your minds: Paragraph 301 of Amoris says that not all those in irregular situations “are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” This leads us to recognize the distinction between objective acts and subjective culpability.

The Church has always taught that a mortal sin, depriving the person of sanctifying grace, requires grave matter, knowledge of the sin, and sufficient freedom. Many people in irregular situations either don’t realize the irregularity, or fail through habit but don’t fully choose sexual relations (in the sense they didn’t seek relations but consented against their firm disposition to avoid relations in a moment of weakness) – these people do not commit a mortal sin, and thus perfectly fulfill what Francis refers to.

Granted, I can see slight variations in emphasis when reading Amoris Laetitia. However, when read as a whole and within tradition, I do not believe that giving Communion to anyone in a “second marriage” who wants it can or should be read into the document, since it is not in the text and contradicts statements elsewhere in the text.

I admit the language could have been clearer, but implying some change of doctrine due to lack of clarity seems a bit of a stretch. The spirit of a document cannot contradict its direct words.

The direct words of Amoris Laetitia indicate there is no change in Church teaching, but a slight change in emphasis towards mercy for those who are either ignorant or attempting to live Church teaching but sometimes failing.