“Amoris laetitia”, conscience, and discernment

Two months after the release of Pope Francis much discussed post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, here are four observations about the document by a moral theologian who teaches in Rome.

Nearly two months after the release of Amoris laetitia, a careful reading of the text confirms its very positive analysis of the meaning and of the implications of love, its valuable suggestions and pastoral guidelines both for those preparing for marriage and for the assistance of those living out the marital vocation in its varied stages and circumstances, and its focus on seeking to help people struggling with crises and/or in irregular situations. 

Similarly confirmed are the profound concerns that conscience may be gravely misunderstood and its proper formation imperilled by what the text states and by what it omits. The following observations seem in order:

1. The status of the exhortation

The suggestion that this text does not constitute an act of magisterium is mistaken. Apostolic exhortations have followed most synods of bishops, in which the Pope has presented key aspects of the discussions of the bishops and has proposed authentic doctrine and pastoral guidelines in their regard; although mostly pastoral texts, some have provided important developments of doctrine, including moral doctrine.

Some people think that whatever a Pope says is right and must be followed, but the successor of Peter cannot do as he pleases. The Petrine office includes the power of the keys to bind and loose, but also specifically requires that he feed the Lord’s sheep and that he strengthen his brothers, not arbitrarily, but in the Catholic faith and in the moral life it demands of Our Lord’s disciples. Every Pope must hand on or transmit what Christ has revealed for us and for our salvation and so is bound by that revelation, by the Gospel in its broadest sense and by the living tradition of the Church, including its moral dimension. Although genuine development of doctrine is possible in the sense of confirming authentic new insights or new applications of moral truth to new situations, this can never include contradicting Christ’s revelation or previous dogmas or the constant teachings of the Church’s previous magisterium; by these every Pope is bound as a matter of fidelity to the Lord and to the living tradition and to the mission of the Church.

Pope Francis stated that the synod on the family of 2014-2015 was not intending to change doctrine, but only to examine matters of pastoral discipline. It must be accepted that he did not ‘change’ doctrine; hence, previous teaching remains fully in force. While pastoral discipline is not doctrine directly as such, it must express and be based upon doctrine; it must never undermine it. Thus, were a Pope to claim to introduce merely a new discipline, if that discipline appeared to contradict or to call into question the teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage, that of St. Paul that adultery excludes from the kingdom of God or the Church’s constant doctrine and practice that those intending to return to live in a state gravely at odds with those teachings cannot be absolved or receive communion, that Pope would be under a grave moral obligation to explain clearly to the faithful how, in his view, such a disciplinary change did not in fact do that.

2. Doctrine and fidelity to Christ

Suggestions in AL that doctrine is a question of adherence to arid rules, lacking in motivation, devoid of mercy, and that pastors wish to cast stones at people in real difficulties are generic; they are unjust to those genuinely concerned to remain faithful to Christ on the indissolubility of marriage. Benedict XVI, humble and compassionate, saw no way of changing discipline here without compromising fidelity to Jesus. From Pius XI to Benedict, doctrine on marriage was also positively and pastorally motivated; these Popes were not guilty of heartless, Pharisaic legalism.

3. The formation of conscience

Magisterial texts in AL are distorted when quoted selectively or ignored almost completely. Repeatedly presenting conscience as the sanctuary where man finds himself alone with God (Gaudium et spes, 16) suggests it is only a private matter between the individual and God, while references to invincible ignorance and to other factors reducing responsibility risk implying that people rarely sin or are rarely culpable. Grave misinterpretations of conciliar doctrine on conscience, corrected in Veritatis splendor, are basically ignored in AL. Conciliar and papal teaching that no one can act in good conscience who disregards magisterial teaching or who treats it as mere opinion (Dignitatis humanae, 14; John Paul II, Allocution, Nov., 1988) is not mentioned. Distinguishing right from wrong by dialogue and example in families and beyond does not occur automatically; it lacks the clarity, the coherence and the justification afforded by education also on the Decalogue and on the Church’s moral teaching, necessary for youngsters to be convinced and to defend objective moral truth before their peers.

4. Casuistry or discernment?

Ignatian discernment is no substitute for proper formation of conscience. AL rejects legalism and casuistry. St. Thomas’ statement that, applied concretely, moral law binds in the majority, but not in a minority, of cases is mis-represented. Thomas had excluded earlier all intrinsically immoral acts (murder, adultery, perjury, etc.); his axiom applies to choosing between different positive, morally good actions and to merely human laws when these do not preclude intrinsic or objective moral wrong. Love is incompatible with immorality. Morally good living demands the virtue of prudence (informing conscience through advice—and on the basis of magisterial teaching—, distinguishing common and exceptional features in different situations—asuistry). Ignatius knew this, as did Suarez and Vasquez, Jesuit moralists who helped form consciences of people in the midst of persecution, war and injustice. Later, priests advising kings often manipulated moral truth, inventing excuses to permit or condone immorality. Genuine Ignatian discernment excludes this. 

AL, though, could well give the impression of something even worse, of privatising conscience, of encouraging or permitting persons to refer to priests ignorant of or dissenting from magisterial teaching. The risk of situation ethics, of laxism, of moral relativism and of widespread contradictory pastoral practice, despite the Pope not wishing anything like this, seems to be considerable.

Related: “Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium” (April 9, 2016)

About Fr. George Woodall 0 Articles
Fr. George Woodall is professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university. A former director of the secretariat of the Pontifical Academy for Life, he is also an expert in Canon Law and has published many articles and books on moral theology and bioethics.