Gerard O’ConnellMarch 23, 2021
Pope Francis greets family members as he arrives to lead his general audience in the San Damaso courtyard at the Vatican in this Sept. 9, 2020, file photo. The "Amoris Laetitia Family Year," called for by the pope begins March 19. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis today called on Catholic moral theologians, missionaries and confessors to follow the example of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, the famous moral theologian and founder of the Redemptorists, who showed how “to keep together the demands of the Gospel and human fragility.”

He invited them, following the example of the saint and bishop, “to enter into a living relationship with the members of God’s people and to look at life from their perspective in order to understand the real difficulties they encounter and to help heal their wounds.”

Moral theology, the pope said, cannot be only about principles and formulations, but must respond to the reality of the person in need, “because knowledge of theoretical principles alone, as St. Alphonsus himself reminds us, is not enough to accompany and sustain consciences in discerning the good to be done.”

Moral theology, the pope said, cannot be only about principles and formulations, but must respond to the reality of the person in need.

“It is necessary that knowledge becomes practical through listening and welcoming of the least ones, the fragile ones, and the one who is considered discarded by society,” he added.

Pope Francis emphasized that “the radical call of the Gospel must not be set against human weakness” and insisted that “it is always necessary to find the road that does not alienate [people] but brings hearts closer to God.”

The remarks are representative of Francis’ general pastoral approach, as reflected in “Evangelii Gaudium,” which he referred to eight times in today’s message and has followed throughout his pontificate. And even though, as America has learned, Francis wrote today’s message prior to his recent trip to Iraq, the remarks may hold special significance to Catholics hurt by last week’s response from Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that states priests should not bless same-sex unions.

[Related: Vatican, with Pope Francis’ approval, says priests cannot bless same-sex couples]

Pope Francis’ high praise for St. Alphonsus came in a message to Michael Brehl, C.Ss.R., the Canadian-born superior general of the Redemptorists, on the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696–1787) as a doctor of the church.

He recalled that St. Alphonsus, in light of his missionary outreach, had to “review” the theological and juridical training he had received in his early years, “which was marked by a certain rigorist approach.” This reevaluation, Pope Francis said, led the saint to adopt “a merciful approach and an evangelizing dynamism” that attracted people.

“It is necessary that knowledge becomes practical through listening and welcoming of the least ones, the fragile ones, and the one who is considered discarded by society.”

Pope Francis recalled that “in theological disputes,” St. Alphonsus “preferred reason to authority” and “did not stop at the theoretical formulation of principles but allowed himself to be questioned by life itself.” He became an “advocate of the ones who are least in the world, the most fragile, those discarded by society and the poor” and “put himself at the service of consciences that tried, even through thousands of difficulties, to do good because [they felt] called by God to holiness.”

Drawing on the saint’s writings, Pope Francis emphasized that “the proclamation of the Gospel in a rapidly changing society requires the courage to listen to reality, so as to educate consciences to think in a different way, in discontinuity with the past.”

The Jesuit pope called St. Alphonsus “the master and patron of confessors and moral theologians.”

“He offered constructive responses to the challenges of the society of his day through popular evangelization, by indicating a style of moral theology that was capable of keeping together the demands of the Gospel and human fragility.”

Pope Francis emphasized that “the proclamation of the Gospel in a rapidly changing society requires the courage to listen to reality, so as to educate consciences to think in a different way, in discontinuity with the past.”

Turning to our own day, Francis highlighted the many challenges we are faced with: “the pandemic, and work in the post-covid world, to assure care is provided for all, the defense of life, the input that comes from artificial intelligence, the safeguarding of creation, the anti-democratic threat, and the urgent need for human fraternity.”

“Woe to us if, in our evangelizing commitment, we separate the ‘cry of the poor’ from ‘the cry of the earth,’” he added.

The first Latin-American pope encouraged the Redemptorists as well as Catholic moral theologians and confessors to engage in the important task of helping “to form consciences for good.”

He said the attitude of the good Samaritan, as explained in “Fratelli Tutti,” spurs them to do so.

“Moral theology,” he concluded, “must not be afraid to receive the cry of the poor and make it their own.”

Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

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