Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” has been accepted by most Catholics as a breath of fresh air. Its warm encouragement to families to place love at the center of their lives, its clear invitation to pastors to accompany Catholics in the “complexity” of their situations and its strong reminder that the church needs to recover an appreciation of the role of conscience have been welcomed by millions of Catholics as a sign that the church wants to meet them where they are.
But not by all Catholics. In a few quarters of the church it has not been received warmly at all. In fact, it was greeted with a vituperation that seemed to approach apoplexy.
Many critics were frustrated, alarmed and angered by the same thing. They claimed that Francis had muddied the clear moral waters of the church by elevating a concept that had landed St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order to which the pope belongs, in jail: the notion that God can deal with people directly.
The way that this notion is framed in the document is primarily through the lens of “conscience.”
The role and primacy of conscience is an ancient Catholic tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said that he would rather go against church teaching than against his conscience. “Absolutely speaking” every variance with conscience, “whether right or erring, is always evil (Summa Theologiae). The Second Vatican Council wrote, “Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 16).
But as most Catholics know, this must be a “formed conscience,” that is, one that knows and accepts the Gospels and church teaching, and is ready to put them into practice.
In that case, why was Pope Francis’ emphasis on conscience so alarming to critics? Why would a traditional teaching alarm so-called traditionalists?
Well, for the past few decades, the Catholic discourse on conscience has gone something like this: A person can make a good moral choice only with a formed conscience. (So far, so good.) But the sole test of a formed conscience is that it agrees with everything stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with no exceptions, no questions asked and no need to discern how to apply those rules to one’s life. If one didn’t accept everything in the Catechism without question, then one did not have a formed conscience.
Thus church teaching was often presented as a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all, set of rules. As a result, the space for allowing God to help people apply church teaching to their lives, or the room for discernment according to the “complexities” of one’s situation, was essentially removed.
In essence, you didn’t need conscience any longer. You needed only the Catechism.
In one of the most important passages in the exhortation Francis reminds us that this is not the Catholic tradition:
Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (No. 303).
That is, conscience doesn’t simply say, “This is the rule.” Conscience helps us say, “This is what the rule means in my situation, and this is how it is to be applied.”
Now, this presumes something that may be even harder for some critics to appreciate, and something that got St. Ignatius into hot water with the Inquisition: the idea, simply stated in the Spiritual Exercises, his manual for prayer, that the Creator can “deal immediately with the creature.”
That means that God deals with us directly, not only through the church, but one-on-one. God consoles us. God uplifts us. God invites us. God moves people’s hearts. And particularly in the decision-making process, God helps people.
Thus, it is not as simple as following a set of rules. Jesuit spirituality, in fact Christian spirituality, presumes that God will aid a person in making a good decision.
This idea landed St. Ignatius in jail several times, mainly because those leading the Inquisition were terrified that this insight might mean a lessening of the influence of the Catholic Church. So Ignatius was forced to explain, many times, that the church, to which he had committed his life, was in no way sidelined. After all, he asked his Jesuits to bind themselves to the pope by a special vow of obedience, “with regard to mission.”
By the same token, he was resolute: God could deal with people directly. And people could deal with God directly. For he had seen it—in his own life and in the lives of others.
In many critiques of “Amoris Laetitia” I hear a dismissal or denigration of that idea. And some critiques strike me as dismissive indeed. As if God couldn’t possibly be active in that person’s life. As if the People of God couldn’t be counted on to appreciate, much less understand, what this meant. Thus, some of these critiques seem not only a dismissal of grace but a denigration of the faith lives of adult Catholics.
The key, then, to “Amoris Laetitia” is the belief that God is at work in people’s lives. This is what some critics of the document are either missing, downplaying or ignoring. Or they simply don’t believe it.
But I do.
In over 25 years as a Jesuit I have seen God powerfully at work in the lives of countless people—men and women, young and old, rich and poor. In fact, being a spiritual director (someone who talks to people about their prayer and their experience of God in their spiritual lives) is an enormous aid to faith, because you see God actively at work. You see God dealing “immediately” with people.
How does this manifest itself?
In a myriad of beautiful, surprising and profound ways—all depending on the person. In some people, God’s activity manifests as a sharp goad to one’s conscience, reminding them that what they are doing is wrong. In others, it is an irresistible invitation to a new way of life. In another it is a comforting feeling of consolation that follows making a good decision. In others it is a vivid feeling of closeness to to the divine that comes in the midst of a powerful prayer experience. These experiences are hard to sum up, for they are so many, and so varied. Emotions, desires, insights, memories, feelings—all these are the ways of God’s working through our hearts.
Each of these experiences I have learned to reverence. There is an old saying among retreat directors. Often when a retreat begins they’ll say, “I’m not the real spiritual director. The Holy Spirit is.” It is a sign of the importance that we place on the supreme holiness of God’s activity, whose voice “echoes” in the hearts of people.
So what many critics of “Amoris Laetitia” are missing is this: God deals with people directly. God moves them, consoles them, urges them. God helps them to understand the Gospels and church teaching as they relate to their lives. God helps them to make good decisions.
This truth needs not to be denigrated or mocked.
It needs to be reverenced.