The Catholic Conscience, the Argentine Bishops, and “Amoris Laetitia”

Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation is characterized by a false dichotomy between the objective and subjective realms of morality, contrary to Vatican II and St. John Paul II.

A group of Argentine bishops (ABs) recently published pastoral guidelines for implementing Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (AL). The ABs tell their clergy that under certain circumstances divorced Catholics in sexually active second unions may receive the Holy Eucharist, even without receiving an annulment.

The ABs sent their guidelines to Pope Francis to ask whether their pastoral approach was consistent with the meaning of AL. Pope Francis replied in a letter on papal stationary saying that their “document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia”; he then stated, “There are no other interpretations.” The authenticity of the pope’s letter was verified on Sept. 12 by the Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano and reprinted later by Vatican Radio. There no longer seems to be any doubt about where Pope Francis stands on the disputed “Kasper Proposal”.

Other authors have commented and reported on the papal reply, so I will not do so here. The purpose of this article rather is to critique the account of moral conscience implicit in the reasoning of the ABs and AL as defended in a recent article in National Catholic Reporter by Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman entitled: “In Amoris Laetitia, Francis’ model of conscience empowers Catholics”. The Salzman-Lawler (SL) duet made fame in 2008 for its publication of the book The Sexual Person, which set forth a fulsome defense of same-sex genital acts from Scripture, tradition, and natural reason, and which was censured by the Committee on Doctrine of the USCCB in 2010.

In the NCR article, the authors consider what they refer to as two “diametrically opposed” understandings of conscience, one which they say overly emphasizes the “objective realm” of moral truth, and the other which, in their opinion, rightfully emphasizes the “subjective realm” of freedom and individuality. Let’s call these the “objectivist” and “subjectivist” models.

SL say that St. John Paul II,1 Archbishop Charles Chaput (“Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia”) and Germain Grisez2 represent the objectivist model; and Pope Francis (in Evangelii Gaudium 231-232 and Amoris Laetitia Ch. 8), the German Jesuit theologian Josef Fuchs, and German Redemptorist theologian Bernard Häring represent the subjectivist school.

In what follows I will show that SL have set up a false dichotomy between the objective and subjective realms of morality; then demonstrate how that false dichotomy characterizes the account of conscience found in the ABs and Ch. 8 of AL; and finally offer a fair explanation of the John Paul II-Chaput-Grisez (and Vatican II) account of conscience. I end with some remarks on the question of whether Catholics are obliged in conscience to accept the papal prescriptions taught in AL, Ch. 8.

Proportionalism: “no intrinsically wrongful actions”

Before summarizing SL’s account, it’s important to understand a presupposition of their theory. They follow the reasoning of Fuchs and Häring, who in the years after Vatican II became Europe’s foremost defenders of the moral theory known as “Proportionalism”.3 Although it comes in different flavors, common to all proportionalists is the insistence that intending evil as an end or means (what defenders refer to variously as “premoral evil”, “ontic evil”, “disvalue”, etc.) does not by that fact make an action morally wrong. If there are “morally relevant circumstances” justifying the commission of the evil—what they call “proportionate reasons” (not to be confused with proportionate reason as used in the classical Principle of Double Effect)—then it can rightly be chosen.

Why do I say this is important to understand? Because Proportionalism denies the existence of intrinsically evil actions, types of behavior that when freely chosen always constitute a disorder of the will. If there are no intrinsically wrongful types of action, then the Church, when it has taught that there are (e.g., adultery), has taught illicitly. And so whereas according to the Church’s teaching, conscience never rightly deliberates over whether or not to have sex with someone other than one’s valid spouse, conscience in the proportionalist account may indeed (in fact sometimes must) remain open to it. Why? Because if there are proportionate reasons for doing so, then under the circumstances it may be the right thing for me to do.

The subjectivist model of conscience

SL argue that a proper understanding of conscience must look, as it were, in two directions, inwardly at the subject and outwardly at the objective world. Conscience expresses itself inwardly by affirming itself and the subject’s intrinsic goodness as made in God’s image and likeness. It expresses itself outwardly through its encounter with the “material content” of morality. Moral norms make up part of this material content; they are “external” and “objective”. For decision-making to take place, moral norms and the truths they express must “go through” the two expressions of conscience. The external norms themselves, however, only assist this going-through process—“nothing more than assistance.” The application of moral norms always needs to be contextualized in light of the complexity of particular concrete historical circumstances. This contextualizing can and often does result in one setting oneself against objective moral norms; SL mention in particular, “Communion for the divorced and remarried without annulment.”

They bitterly criticize Archbishop Chaput’s statement that “the subjective conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth.” On the contrary, they say, Vatican II’s advocacy for religious liberty demonstrates that what’s most central to conscience is its “sincere…search for goodness”, not necessarily its identification with what’s objectively good: “conscience is not at the service of doctrine.” To be sure, they say, objective moral truth is not irrelevant. But “the authority of conscience is not identified with whether or not it obeys the objective norm.”

We see the SL account introduce a split or double notion of moral truth: truth at the level of external, objective moral norms and truth at the internal, subjective level after contextualizing has taken place. It makes possible a conflict between truth at the two levels, thus justifying exceptions to objective moral norms such as the prohibition against adultery. Pope John Paul II censured this view over thirty years ago because, he said, it leads to the legitimization of “so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium” and justifies “a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept” (Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenetentiae [RP] 56).

The logic of the Argentine bishops

This double notion of moral truth is at work in the guidelines of the Argentine bishops. They teach that when “complex circumstances” prevail, and it’s impossible for remarried divorcees to obtain a declaration of nullity, “Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.” But these Catholics are engaged in sexually active relationships with individuals other than their valid spouses. The objective and universal norm taught since the time of the apostles condemns all such extramarital acts as adulterous. Therefore, following the logic, there must be a fundamental split between the truth of the external, objective norm and the truth as it applies to individuals in their concrete subjective situations. The bishops’ hackneyed language of “journey” and “discernment” masks the true logic of their policy: In the face of complex circumstances, the universal moral truth that adultery is always wrong does not apply to some individuals.

The Catholic Church’s understanding of conscience

This is precisely what John Paul II criticized in Veritatis Splendor (1993) when he refers to “currents of thought which posit a radical opposition between moral law and conscience” (no. 32). These views hold that objective moral norms “cannot be expected to foresee and to respect all the individual concrete acts of the person in all their uniqueness and particularity”; moral norms “are not so much a binding objective criterion for judgments of conscience, but a general perspective [—recall SL’s statement, ‘nothing more than assistance’—] which helps man tentatively to put order into his personal and social life” (VS 55).

This view cannot be squared with the teaching on conscience of Vatican II and Catholic theological tradition. Gaudium et Spes teaches that conscience is held “to obedience” by the moral law (no. 16). And Saint Bonaventure teaches that “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king” (In II Librum Sent., dist. 39, a. 1, q. 3, c.). The moral law it heralds is at once integrally subjective and firmly objective, subjective inasmuch as it is written by God on our hearts (Rom. 2:15), and objective inasmuch as, quoting Vatican II, it’s a law that man “does not impose upon himself…. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Rom 2:14-16)” (GS 16).

So pace SL, conscience in the Catholic view does indeed stand in obedience to the moral law. But this obedience is not servile and passive, not the obedience of a slave to his master. It’s the obedience of a scientist to the truth, or a famished man to a feast, or the ear to sound and the eye to color, or an explorer to his longed-for destination, or of a hunting dog to his quarry. Conscience is made for moral truth. It searches for, finds, probes and understands more deeply, then directs action as best as it can in accord with it. How can this be a threat? Is a hand a threat to a glove, or a key to a lock? A healthy conscience doesn’t close us down and restrict us. It opens us up to the good and ultimately to God. It makes possible the flourishing of the gift of freedom (See JPII, General Audience, Aug. 17, 1983, 2; Insegnamenti, VI, 2 (1983), 256).

Any account of conscience, therefore, that sets it in opposition to freedom (ala Salzman and Lawler) or makes it indifferent to objective truth (ala Argentine bishops) has misconceived not only conscience and moral truth, but human nature, the doctrine of creation and the Christian moral life. John Paul II says such a view “is the consequence, manifestation and consummation of another more serious and destructive dichotomy, that which separates faith from morality”; and that it represents “one of the most acute pastoral concerns of the Church” (VS 88)

Consciences with diminished culpability

What about consciences with diminished responsibility (as mentioned by SL, the ABs and AL, Ch. 8), for this is the category of individuals that apparently are inculpably free to violate the Sixth Precept of the Decalogue? We might ask first, what is an inculpably ignorant conscience? Catholic moral tradition refers to the case where a conscience (1) is in error because it judges to be good something that is objectively bad; (2) its ignorance is true, i.e., non-culpable; it doesn’t arise from the agent’s own moral failures, such as rationalization, self-deception, willful rejection of the teaching of rightful authorities, or the sinful absenting of oneself from occasions where one could have learned the truth, etc.; and (3) it is “invincible”, i.e., the agent is unable to overcome the ignorance by himself. In such a case, Catholic tradition affirms that there is no guilt associated with following this conscience; as Vatican II says, “it errs…without losing its dignity” (GS, 16). Why? Because it commands its act in the name of the truth which it sincerely seeks (cf. VS 62).

Perhaps the most serious error of the SL-AB-AL account is the failure to clearly affirm that the inculpable conscience derives its dignity not from its sincerity, subjectivity, or intrinsic value, but from the objective moral truth that it mistakenly considers to be true. The authors fail to say what must be said to understand properly Catholic tradition on the ignorant conscience, namely, that subjective error is not and must never be equated with objective truth, nor is the value of an act performed in invincible ignorance equivalent to the value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience (cf. VS 63). It is true that one who chooses evil in good faith does not incur guilt. But the objective bad he chooses is not anthropologically neutral. Given his human nature and the goods that fulfill it, the act is still bad for him. So the child of abusive parents who learns to inculpably lie, develops a habit of lying, which separates him from instances of human communion; and the girl who through fear of rejection and abandonment aborts her child, destroys the life of a human being and distorts her perception of motherhood; and the gypsy kid who learns to inculpably steal inclines himself to steal more, which deforms his notion of justice and separates him from human communion.

Solution? To form consciences!

This leads to an unavoidable conclusion. If faced with a putatively ignorant conscience, Catholic pastors should make every reasonable effort to assist it to step out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of moral truth. We should form consciences, not leave them in error. How can one “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2), if one lacks knowledge of God’s law and the principles of the moral order (cf. VS 64)? When JPII exhorts pastors to put themselves “at the service of conscience”, he means at the service of true human freedom. Unless consciences are formed in the truth, they won’t be able to avoid being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles (Eph 4:14).” Forming consciences assists them “not to swerve from the truth about the good of man,” it helps them, especially in more difficult questions, not only “to attain the truth with certainty”, but also “to abide in it” (VS 64). Only through a “frank and open acceptance of the truth” can conscience attain to authentic freedom.

To authors who say that it is better to leave people in ignorance than to teach them truths that might be hard for them to bear, we should reply that every conscience has a right not to be left in confusion and error (RP, 33). Pastors entrusted with the care of consciences have a responsibility to serve the truth.

Moral truth must always be communicated in charity, which requires that a proper concern for the disposition and receptivity of the hearer be taken into consideration. It might even be the case that a pastor withholds for a time the full truth because he judges that communicating it all at once to one who is too fragile or ill-disposed might be the cause of unnecessary estrangement. But doing so must itself always be in deference to the rights of conscience and at the service of the truth, which the pastor hopes gradually to communicate in its fullness.

But if in this way truth needs charity, it is even more the case that charity needs truth, lest it “degenerates into sentimentality” and by and by, under pretense of misguided compassion, it “comes to mean the opposite” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, no. 3).

Are Catholic obliged to assent to papal teaching in AL, Ch. 8?

The Argentine bishops following AL, Ch. 8 (no. 301) teach that the concrete situation of some remarried divorcees may not allow them to live chastely without committing further sin. In this case pastors may and even should affirm them in their lifestyle and free them to return to the Holy Eucharist.4

One of my seminarians recently came to me with a worried look on his face wondering whether because this was taught in a papal document he was obliged in conscience to accept it as true. I told him that Vatican II teaches that Catholics are obliged to receive the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium, which the teaching of Amoris Laetitia constitutes, with a “religious submission of mind and will” (“religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium”; Lumen Gentium 25). I said this obsequium is different from the “assent of faith” (de fide credenda) required for the truths of Divine Revelation (cf. CDF, Donum Veritatis, no. 23). Obsequium means we come to the teaching with intellectual docility, giving it a presumption of truth, with a readiness to assent to it, and, if it’s moral instruction, to apply it to our lives.

But neither intellectual docility, nor readiness of will implies that we accept the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium without subjecting it to the authority of faith and reason. We are obliged in conscience to accept what’s true. The Holy Spirit guards the Church from error when she teaches infallibly, and so we can be confident that teachings taught infallibly are true. But the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the pope and bishops when they exercise their Ordinary Magisterium does not guard them from error.

And so we must always consider these teachings of the Church in the light of what we already know to be true concerning Catholic faith and morals. If after careful consideration we conclude that some teaching of the pope or bishops is inconsistent with the teaching of Christ or with moral or pastoral issues that the Church has already authoritatively and rightly settled, then we have no obligation to assent to it and we may be obliged to oppose it.

This teaching that Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, who are living in sexually active relationships with those who are presumptively not their valid spouses, are sometimes free to return to the Holy Eucharist can only be true if one or more of the following seven propositions are true:

Adultery is not always wrongful.

But Divine Revelation definitively rules this out.

Not everyone who engages in sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s valid spouse commits adultery.

This presumes the proportionalist premise that adultery is properly defined as engaging in wrongful sex with someone other than one’s valid spouse; but the couples envisaged by the ABs and in AL have proportionate reasons to engage in extramarital intercourse; so they are not engaging in wrongful sex, therefore not in adultery.

This kind of reasoning is authoritatively condemned in Veritatis Splendor, which teaches: “Such theories however are not faithful to the Church’s teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandment so of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition” (no. 76).

A validly consummated Christian (i.e., sacramental) marriage is not absolutely indissoluble, therefore the dissolution of sacramental marriages is sometimes possible freeing the partners to validly remarry.

The Council of Trent infallibly defines that consummated Christian marriages are absolutely indissoluble (Session 24, Preface, Canons 5 & 7).5

Adultery is always wrong and is defined as sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s valid spouse, but pastors who are certain that a sexually active civilly remarried Catholic is invincibly ignorant of his objectively adulterous lifestyle may sometimes deliberately leave him in his ignorance while simultaneously encouraging him to return to Holy Communion.

Pope Francis rightly teaches that we can’t judge the consciences of others, not ever, which means we can neither condemn them nor acquit them; this means not only that pastors cannot have certainty that penitents have met the conditions for mortal sin, they also cannot be certain that civilly remarried Catholics who are in objective violation of the Sixth Precept of the Decalogue are invincibly ignorant and therefore not committing mortal sin; and if these people are in mortal sin and they return to Holy Communion, they add to the grave sin of adultery the graver sin of sacrilege. Conscientious pastors cannot rightly subject Christians to this kind of potential spiritual harm; nor can they rightly risk leading the faithful “into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 84; also Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 37); nor because the lifestyles of these persons “objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist” can they rightly free them to receive Holy Communion (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 29).

Sometimes it is impossible to avoid mortal sin without committing further and graver sins. Therefore, the “lesser evil” of adultery should sometimes be chosen to avoid greater evils.

The Council of Trent infallibly condemns the proposition that it is sometimes impossible for Christians to keep the Commandments (Session 6, Canon 18).

It is not always gravely sinful for unrepentant adulterers to receive Holy Communion.

This contradicts the teaching of St. Paul, the Council of Trent, Catholic Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

St. Paul: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corr. 11:27).

Trent: “In order that so great a sacrament may not be received unworthily, and hence unto death and condemnation, the holy council establishes and declares that, granted the availability of a confessor, those burdened by an awareness of mortal sin, however much they may feel themselves to be contrite, must first avail themselves of sacramental confession. But if anyone presumes to teach, preach or obstinately assert the contrary or even defend it in public debate, by that very act he hall be excommunicated” (Session 13, Canon 11)

See also CIC, can. 916; CCC 1385, 1415.

Penitents can receive absolution for sins when they manifestly and resolutely lack resolve to reject those sins and avoid them in the future.

This contradicts Catholic Canon Law: “To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God” (CIC, Canon 987; also Canons 959, 980)

I sincerely cannot see how the pastoral instruction permitting unannulled remarried Catholics to return to Holy Communion while their first spouses still live is compatible with the faith, morals and disciplinary practice of the Catholic Church.

(Editor’s note [Sept. 21, 2016]: In the section titled “Are Catholic obliged to assent to papal teaching in AL, Ch. 8?”, the essay referred three times to “the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium”; those have been corrected to read “the Ordinary Magisterium”.)


1 See St. JP II Familiaris Consortio (nos. 8, 76, esp. 84).

2 See Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1: “Christian Moral Principles,” ch. 3

3 See SL’s, The Sexual Person, p. 225.

4 “A subject may know full well the rule, yet…be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (AL 301).

5 It should be said that because of the diriment impediment instituted by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (Session 24, Tametsi), Catholics cannot validly marry merely by a civil ceremony. Thus, civilly remarried Catholics, even if their first marriages are invalid, are not validly married in virtue of the civil ceremony.

Related at CWR:

• “Five Serious Problems with Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (April 22, 2016) by E. Christian Brugger 
• Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium” (April 9, 2016) by CWR Staff

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About E. Christian Brugger 5 Articles
Dr. E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian living in Front Royal, Virginia.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “Pastoral” and other weasel words

Comments are closed.