One year after the release of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) on April 8, 2016, there has been no shortage of commentary about its teachings on the moral status and sacramental discipline for couples living in conjugal relationships without being validly married.

While the principal focus has been on couples who are validly married but living with someone else after a civil divorce and remarriage, the case of cohabiting couples is also relevant. One year after the release of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) on April 8, 2016, there has been no shortage of commentary about its teachings on the moral status and sacramental discipline for couples living in conjugal relationships without being validly married.

Elsewhere, I have reviewed the various twists and turns over Amoris Laetitia, but it seems that, stepping back, a critical dimension of the Amoris Laetitia debate is a confusion over the nature of grace. Specifically, the differences between sanctifying grace, actual grace and sacramental grace.

Grace is a participation in the very life of God (Catechism, 1997).

That life is shared with us in different ways.

In baptism, the soul receives “sanctifying grace,” or, as the Catechism is bold enough to call it, “deifying grace” (1999). God’s own Trinitarian life now dwells in the soul.

For this reason, a person who dies in a state of sanctifying grace cannot be separated from God, because God cannot separate himself from his own life, freely given and shared. Catholics have generally spoken of this as being in a “state of grace.”

“Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love,” the Catechism states (2000).

To receive holy Communion, a soul must be in a state of grace.

If someone knowingly and freely receives Communion when not in a state of grace, he commits a further grave sin.

This sanctifying grace can be lost, or rendered “dead” in the soul, on account of grave or mortal sin. Mortal sin requires that the person acts with full knowledge and consent. Such a soul is spoken of as not being in a state of grace, or in a “state of mortal sin.”

Upon death in such a state, the person would not have the life of God within him, and so would not be able to be in God’s immediate presence in heaven, for God does not share his life with those who have freely chosen to reject it.

The usual way that those who have committed grave sin return to a state of grace is the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), which requires a confession of sins, contrition for them and a firm purpose of amendment.

Is the soul in a state of mortal sin, deprived of sanctifying grace and then left to itself, severed from God without his help? Hardly the case.

God desires that the sinner be reconciled and comes to his assistance. He gives him the help of his grace, but here a distinction is made between sanctifying grace and “actual grace.” The former is habitual, or enduring, a state of the soul. The latter is a discrete act of God’s help.

“Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces, which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification,” the Catechism states (2000).

Every day, God showers actual graces upon all, prompting them to deepen their lives of discipleship. We often ask precisely for such graces in this or that particular circumstance.

For those in a state of grace, actual graces confirm and deepen an existing relationship with God. For the unbaptized and those in a state of mortal sin, actual graces are not lacking, for God prompts them to seek conversion and reconciliation.

Often those actual graces take the form of the promptings of conscience. Actual graces are what permit those not in a state of grace to live uprightly in various respects. Thus even the soul in a state of mortal sin need not be distant from God or cut off from his care.

The Catechism also speaks of “sacramental graces,” which are “gifts proper to the sacraments” (2003).

For example, the sacramental grace of confession absolves sins, returns the grave sinner to a state of grace and helps him to live the virtues. The grace of marriage unites the spouses in an indissoluble bond and provides for them a source of divine assistance to live their marriage vows.

So how does this apply to Amoris Laetitia? The document goes to great lengths to say that a person, validly and even sacramentally married, might leave that marriage to live in a sexual relationship with another and not be in a state of mortal sin, even while knowing that the biblical teaching of Jesus is unambiguously clear that such a union is adulterous. “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” Amoris Laetitia  states (301). “More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. 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.”

That passage is difficult to reconcile with the teaching of the Catechism, or St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Can a grave sin (an adulterous union) be fully known and freely chosen without a loss of sanctifying grace?

It would appear not.

So perhaps what Amoris Laetitia No. 301 is addressing is some diminishment of freedom, and consequent culpability, that might impede a fully free choice. That is how some readers of Amoris Laetitia read it in continuity with previous Church teaching.

There is another consideration, though, that might be at work. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a person, full of good faith and a sincere desire to live according to the Gospel, seems trapped in a situation from which there is no easy path out. That person might regularly be at Mass and yearn for sacramental confession and holy Communion.

Can it be said that such a person is somehow cut off from God and that grace is not active in his life?

Such a soul is benefiting from many actual graces, but is not in a state of sanctifying grace. If that person was sacramentally married, he still has the grace of that sacrament to help him live in accord with his valid marriage vows.

God will not withhold from him the actual graces he needs to make difficult changes. The Church — and in particular his pastor — can obtain for him many actual graces by prayer and sacrifice, which is an authentic form of accompaniment.

In the discussion around Amoris Laetitia, there is an implication that to consider an “irregular couple” as not in a state of grace and so unable to receive holy Communion is to somehow put them altogether outside the Church’s care and the work of grace.

That is not the case when one takes into account the abundance of actual graces. Yet actual graces are neither sanctifying grace nor sacramental grace.

In an important address to Rome’s pastoral congress in June 2016, Pope Francis spoke of marriage and grace in a way that suggests some confusion of categories is afoot. The address became notorious for the Holy Father’s initial claim that a “great majority” of marriages are invalid. That was quickly corrected in the official record to read that a “portion” of marriages are invalid.

Yet another part of that address — which dealt with the situation of couples in certain parts of Argentina who simply do not marry, even after years of living together and having children, perhaps for superstitious reasons — was not corrected.

“In Argentina’s northeast countryside, couples have a child and live together. They have a civil wedding when the child goes to school, and when they become grandparents, they get married religiously,” the Holy Father said. “It’s a superstition, because marriage frightens the husband. It’s a superstition we have to overcome. I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage; they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity.”

There is no doubt that such situations can include fidelity, sacrifice and perhaps many virtues. Those would be the fruit of actual graces. Yet such a couple could not have the sacramental grace of marriage without having received the sacrament of marriage and is likely not in a state of sanctifying grace. There is a loss of distinctions here, which may explain, a year after Amoris Laetitia, why pastoral confusions endure and contradictory guidance is being given.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.