“Ok, Father, but how would you make that a bit simpler so that average people can understand it?” This is a question I have encountered more than once from our Boston College media relations liaison when we are preparing tip sheets for journalists on various church documents. Pope Francis, however, needs no such reminder. My colleague likely will appreciate that this is exactly what the pope is trying to do throughout his post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).
Probably the only significant critique either of us would likely make is on the length of the 52,500-word, nine-chapter, document, which includes 325 numbered paragraphs and 391 footnotes. The average Catholic is not likely to read the whole thing, but those who do so will find the content remarkably accessible and with very little technical jargon. The document clearly is focused on helping everyone from teenagers to the elderly, and those in every state of life or relationship with the church, reflect on how they can enter more deeply into this lived mystery of God’s love, which always starts with where we are, and not in some hypothetical point of where we might or should be.
I tell my students that the lived response to the church’s moral teaching can be summed up in one key principle: “Always follow your formed and informed conscience.” Though the word “conscience” appears only 20 times in the Italian version of the exhortation, what the pope has given us is what I would call a “thick description” of what following a formed and informed conscience looks like in the concrete. While Pope Francis clearly believes there are few, if any, simple “recipes” or “one-size-fits-all” concrete, absolute norms, neither does he fear that the attempt to discern what God is asking of us is impossible to find and put into practice.
Understandings of conscience, especially in connection to its relationship to the church’s magisterium, were hotly debated in both the 2014 extraordinary and 2015 ordinary synod, as well as in a host of commentaries and interviews. When the Instrumentum Laboris for the October 2015 synod appeared, its paragraphs on conscience earned considerable critical attention even before the synod opened. Particularly problematic seemed to be paragraph No. 137, which suggested that couples “under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide,…[could] make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will,” and that these might strike a balance between the “objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily” and seeing that “moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources.”
The possibility of a married couple discerning a choice that might not be in full objective material conformity with paragraph No. 14 of “Humanae Vitae” certainly raised more than a few ecclesial eyebrows, and discussion in some of the synod language groups called for this paragraph either to be dropped entirely or modified extensively. However, instead of disappearing, the word conscience more than doubled its appearance in the 2015 synod final report—from three to seven instances. The exhortation makes frequent reference to both of these final reports, and the treatment of conscience clearly lines up with what was outlined in the 2015 final report, which the pope frequently notes expressed the consensus of the synod fathers present.
In the 2015 synod final report, the most contentious paragraph in the final vote was No. 84, which incorporated a bit of St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, “Familiaris Consortio,” No. 85. Some synod fathers wanted the whole of this paragraph inserted into the document, but this move failed. But the language from No. 85—which stated that those in irregular second marriages have “rejected God’s commands,” and whose “state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist”—was left on the cutting room floor of the 2015 final report and has not been picked up either in “Amoris Laetitia.”
What the pope does say over and over again, though, is that, while there is absolutely no change in the church’s teaching on marriage and related issues, this teaching cannot always be applied in exactly the same way to each and every person in the myriad situations and circumstances that make our world so morally complex.
Listening in Conscience
A concrete example of the pope’s approach appears in No. 222, which deals with the concrete discernment a married couple makes about responsible parenthood. This type of decision
presupposes the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’ (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 16). The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and his commandments (cf. Rom 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores.
Discernment, accompaniment and then letting the couple ultimately come to their own particular concrete decision respects the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which the pope says “still holds,” and which states that “the parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 50).
Now it is at this point that some would say “yes, but…,” since a correctly formed and informed conscience must always be in strict conformity with the current teaching of the magisterium in every detail. However, earlier in “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis raises some important cautions about this type of approach:
We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (No. 37).
This conscience-based decision of the couple, which “may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children,” is repeated while rejecting any forced governmental intervention “in favor of contraception, sterilization and even abortion” (No. 42).
Elsewhere in “Amoris Laetitia” the pope recognizes that there are times “even when our conscience dictates a clear moral decision, other factors sometimes prove more attractive and powerful” and this is precisely where our intellect has to be supported by “a thirst for the good that outweighs other attractions and helps us to realize that what we consider objectively good is also good ‘for us’ here and now” (No. 265).
“Amoris Laetitia” picks up this theme of conscience-based moral discernment in applying it to the pastoral situation of the divorced and remarried people who “can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment (No. 298).” Included in some of these cases are those who are “subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.” The principle outlined in the synod’s final report as that pastoral discernment must always carefully distinguish individual situations in the recognition that there are “no easy recipes,” a phrase that is drawn Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Seventh World Meeting of Families in Milan.
Cultivating Pastoral Discernment
Paragraph No. 300 probably is one of the most important sections dealing with the examination of conscience in discerning how those who find themselves in irregular situations should seek to live as fully as possible integrated into the life of the church. Here is where a pastoral conversation in the internal forum “contributes to the formation of a correct judgment [coscienza in the Italian] on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow.”
This sort of conscience-based pastoral discernment may in fact yield different responses in different cases, as Pope Francis explicitly notes in No. 302:
Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases.
In No. 303, he goes on to add that “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” Conscience “can do more to 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.”
The old moral manualist expression of “binding consciences” is found nowhere in this text, nor an endorsement of the old axiom of Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken, the case is closed). Absent also is any reference to a term from “Lumen Gentium”—obsequium religiosum, on “submission of the intellect and will” or “religious respect” for papal teaching. Yet, it is quite clear that Pope Francis is both teaching and desiring us to sincerely hold what “Lumen Gentium” states as following the pope’s “manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” “Amoris Laetitia” calls us all then to a deeper commitment to mercy, respect for God’s grace in the process of conscience-based discernment and finally to greater love itself.
In choosing the name Francis, the first Jesuit pope has brought together two important spiritualties that can nourish how each person in the church, regardless of what role he or she has, can exercise the conciliar call voiced in “Gaudium et Spes” of “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (No. 4). The Franciscan contribution may be that well-worn prayer that we ask God to make of us an instrument of peace rather than polarization or division. And from St. Ignatius of Loyola we could do well to do an examen of our conscience in the light of the presupposition given in his Spiritual Exercises No. 22, (also referenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s treatment on rash judgment, No. 2477-78):
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it, and if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
While Pope Francis concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family, I think the spirit of St. Augustine’s well-worn dictum also summarizes his thrust in “Amoris Laetitia”: In fide, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas (In faith, unity; in doubt, liberty; in all things, charity). This remains an important guide to genuine Christian moral discernment: Unity in faith is crucial such as on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, but in cases of practical doubt about what to do in a particular situation there can be a legitimate plurality of approaches. And the overriding principle that can never be jettisoned is to hold always to a stance of charity toward all.