Fidelity and Discernment: Reading "Amoris Laetitia"

With deference to Pope Francis’ magisterial authority as well as to his pastoral guidance as the chief shepherd of the Church, we offer a reading of Amoris Laetitia with the aim of aiding pastors and lay men and women in their understanding and application of the document. This deference urges a reading that both respects the direction in which Francis is leading the Church and reads his teaching in light of the tradition. Thus, we make no attempt to separate a hypothetical “spirit” from the “letter” of his words, as if he intended something different than what he wrote, but take Francis—a man marked by authenticity and transparency—at his word. In the following, we pay sustained attention to chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia since it is the part of the document which has garnered the most attention and, as Francis himself notes, is the one by which “everyone should feel challenged” (§7).

Pope Francis tellingly entitles chapter eight “Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness,” and in its first paragraph, recalls the synodal image of the Church as both lighthouse and torch (§291). The Church’s teaching is, therefore, a fixed beacon that leads all people to the fullness of truth; simultaneously, that same truth can be carried alongside men and women to light the path before them in the midst of darkness. The Church’s faith both accompanies and calls people to the fullness of life in Jesus Christ. Rather than “casting off” those who are in “irregular situations” (§296), the Church must accompany them and pastorally discern how best they can be integrated into the Church’s life, with an aim to bringing them into complete conformity with the teaching of Christ. This is a task that requires both imaginative discernment and fidelity to the teachings of the Church. In Francis’ words, “in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (§307), and, “at the same time . . . without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear” (§308). In light of this dual-purpose, we offer the following points:

Truth is the arena in which freedom matures and operates.

I. The entire document, and especially chapter eight, should be read within the framework of this attention to both the fullness of truth and the freedom of discernment in pastoral matters. These are not opposing points or elements that need to be balanced; rather, the latter is discerned with the goal of attaining the former. Truth is the arena in which freedom matures and operates. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in writing the Spiritual Exercises, emphasized the freedom of the imagination in contemplating Scripture and discerning the best possible choice for one undertaking the exercises. And yet, at the same time, he capped the exercises with “Rules for Thinking with the Church.” Ignatius saw no opposition between these two, and neither does Francis.[1]

II. This dynamic union of fidelity and freedom of discernment explains Francis’ use of gradualism as a pastoral practice. Gradualism itself is a manifestation of the pedagogy of God (cf. Gal 3:23–25 and Dei Verbum, §15). Francis’ use of the term reaffirms the claim of Familiaris Consortio that it should not be confused with a “gradualness of the law” (§295, Familiaris Consortio, §34); rather, it affirms that moral growth occurs incrementally, not in one fell swoop. Gradual growth, by its very nature, implies a goal—the fullness of the moral law. Thus, when Francis speaks of the Church’s vision of marriage as an “ideal,” we believe he is not claiming that it is an unreachable goal to which all should aspire. For Francis, “the law is itself a gift of God which points the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love” (§295, emphasis added). In fact, Francis makes repeated efforts to explain that the Church’s teaching is the fullness to which accompanying, discerning, and integrating are aimed (§§291, 293, 294, 295, 297, 303, 307). In sum, the Church’s pastoral practice of the law of gradualism “never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers the human being” (§307).

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Pastoral practice must therefore be faithful to both discernment and the gift of the law. In paragraph 300, Francis offers an Ignatian method as a framework for this practice: pastors must help men and women in irregular situations “understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop,” which leads the faithful “to an awareness of their situation before God.” Helpful for this purpose is an “examination of conscience” which includes “moments of reflection and repentance.” This leads to the formation of “a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow.” Finally, this discernment necessitates “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching” as well as a “sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.” For Francis, these last characteristics “must necessarily be present” for the discernment to succeed. The process requires one “who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church.”

III. We see this union of fidelity and discernment in Francis’ implications about ecclesial communion and sacramental Communion (fn. 351) for those in irregular situations. The background to his treatment is an analogical ecclesiology: there are diverse grades of belonging to the Church and these should be reflected in her practice (§§292, 297, 299, 307). The goal of this pastoral practice is maximal unity, without sacrificing the truth (one cannot have unity without truth anyway, so that would be counterproductive). Although Francis does not always, or even primarily, have the Eucharist in view, he does apply this to the issue of admitting people to the Eucharist. It is clear from the issues he raises that Canons 915 and 916 (though Canon 1387 is also relevant) seem to be guiding his reflection (§300). Canon 915 prohibits the distribution of Communion to public sinners and those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin (that is, persist after being corrected). Thus, the Canon is aimed at the potential scandal involved by giving Communion in such cases, though obviously it rests upon the requirements of grave sin and obstinacy. Canon 916 prohibits anyone who is conscious of grave sin from receiving the Eucharist, except with grave reason and no opportunity for sacramental Confession. Thus, whether in public or in private, it forbids the grave sinner from receiving Communion. Francis clearly intends not to mitigate these teachings. Yet, he does seem to envision that there are certain cases in which these Canons may not apply.

For instance, in regard to Canon 915, Francis has already ruled out those who “flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (§297). Yet, couldn’t one persist in a grave sin without flaunting it? For instance, a person in a second union might recognize the truth of the Church’s teaching and, without flaunting the second union, still feel that he or she must remain in it, perhaps, out of obligation to children (§298). Francis envisions that such a person might persist, but not in grave sin on account of their circumstances (§301). Such a situation raises the issue of whether moral dilemmas exist and one’s culpability therein, something which we address below. Furthermore, is it always the case that an adulterous relationship is manifest and causing scandal (in the proper sense of leading others into sin)? For example, a couple may have just moved to an area where no one is aware of their irregularity. In such a case, Francis points out that any pastoral discernment of admittance to ecclesial life (the Eucharist included) would need to be discreet, not scandalous (§299), and not harmful to the common good of the Church (§301).

Francis is urging the Church to realize that judgments of perplexity and culpability take quite a bit of discernment, whichever side of that open debate one is on. He clearly states that he is not abandoning the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage nor granting personal exemptions.

Regarding Canon 916, Francis offers several reflections on subjective culpability that are aimed at arguing for the possibility that one can be in an adulterous relationship without mortal sin (§§300, 301, 305). Classically, one has to have full knowledge, full freedom, and commit a grave act to be guilty of mortal sin. Francis repeatedly emphasizes the possibility that, in certain situations, one of these factors may not be present. For instance, some kind of knowledge may be lacking for which the individual is not culpable (§301, see the later section on conscience). Likewise, even with sufficient knowledge there may exist factors that mitigate a person’s freedom (§301). What factors could mitigate? Francis refers to the Catechism: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors . . . affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (§302). Francis also seems to draw on parts of the theological tradition when he claims that perplexity (§301, a dilemma), or even the judgment of perplexity (fn. 329), would constitute enough of a limitation on freedom to render one incapable of sinning mortally (§301). We recognize that there is theological disagreement about whether those who are in a dilemma because they previously sinned (perplexity secundum quid) are in fact bound to sin, or whether a dilemma of this kind actually mitigates freedom; however, as far as we are aware, the Church has no official teaching on points of perplexity and culpability. Still, what is quite clear is that Francis is urging the Church to realize that judgments of perplexity and culpability take quite a bit of discernment, whichever side of that open debate one is on. He clearly states that he is not abandoning the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage nor granting personal exemptions (what he calls a “double standard,” §300). Rather, he is asking pastors to “avoid hasty judgments” (§308) by discerning individual situations within the confines of Canon Law, with an aim of integrating people into the Church to the fullest extent possible.

IV. Regarding the issue of conscience: Francis writes 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” (§303). What is individual conscience? It is a judgment of the mind about the species of an action, good or bad. Given that it is a judgment and that humans are fallible, it is possible that one’s conscience can be mistaken—what is called an erroneous conscience. In such situations, one may or may not be responsible for this ignorance. This is something that can only be discerned in individual cases. If the conscience is not erroneous, one must avoid the evil and choose the good one knows. If the conscience is erroneous, one must still do the good and avoid evil, though the person’s judgment is incorrect. Yet the erroneous conscience still binds. This is why traditionally some have said that an erroneous conscience only binds per accidens, i.e. inasmuch as one thinks the evil to be good. The Church considers those who act according to an erroneous conscience and who are invincibly ignorant as not culpable. In either case, people are still responsible for continually forming their consciences. As Francis notes, “Every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace [to live the demands of the Gospel]” (§303, emphasis added). In this regard, the Church claims foremost authority in forming people’s consciences and judging them, and Francis does not shy away from this fact (§§265, 301, 302, 303). Nor does he shy away from the Church’s teaching that one’s conscience should be followed (§§37 and 298).

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It is within the framework of this traditional teaching that Francis sees conscience playing a role in the discernment of integrating men and women in irregular situations more fully into the life of the Church. As he explains, conscience can “recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel,” but “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” (§303). We recognize a tension within the text: for if a person knows and accepts that he or she is not in conformity with the demands of the Gospel, then it seems that that person could not be invincibly ignorant. A couple points are worth mentioning here: first, that Francis twice raises the issue of objectivity and refers to the “concrete complexity” of one’s limits harkens back to his previous discussion of subjective culpability and the “concrete factors” that can mitigate it. He says explicitly it is not an issue of knowledge, but of volitional inability (§301). Second, Francis seems to be drawing upon a theological tradition that proposes choosing the lesser evil in the midst of a moral dilemma. For instance, he mentions those in a second union who, while recognizing their “irregularity,” still feel in conscience that “going back” would lead to “new sins” (§298). Elsewhere, he mentions one who knows “full well the rule” of the Church, yet whose “concrete situation . . . does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (§301). Likewise, in footnote 329, Francis quotes Gaudium et Spes, explaining that “many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’” (quoting GS §51). Though the original passage in the conciliar document does not concern irregular situations, Francis seemingly applies it to such cases to express the possibility of a moral dilemma.

Francis seems to be drawing upon a theological tradition that proposes choosing the lesser evil in the midst of a moral dilemma.

According to this tradition which Francis has seemingly taken up, those in a moral dilemma must choose the lesser evil. This tradition has a long history, which continues into our own time. Some of its defenders include: Gregory the Great, Gratian, and William of Auxerre.[2] The claim of this tradition is that in choosing the lesser evil, the agent in a dilemma would not sin (or at least not gravely). Returning to the example of a second marriage with children, this tradition could argue that this is a true dilemma and, therefore, remaining in the second marriage and even remaining sexually active could represent the lesser evil; hence, those making this choice would not sin (at least not mortally). If that is the case, then their moral culpability (and therefore standing before Canon Law) would totally change. That is the pith of Francis’ argument.

We disagree with this position on three grounds. In this we are following St. Thomas Aquinas as interpreted by John Capreolus and Jude Dougherty[3]: first, we think that it is impossible to have irresolvable secundum quid dilemmas. The cause of the dilemma can always be removed or the conscience reformed. Nobody is forced to sin. One can cease sexual relations in the second marriage without sinning. Such a decision would undoubtedly come with challenges, but those challenges in themselves are not morally evil and can be overcome through grace and virtue. Second, a tradition that admits irresolvable dilemmas implies that God’s commands are sometimes impossible to follow. Yet, as Francis himself says, the moral law “can be followed with the help of grace” (§295). Likewise, St. Augustine says: “God does not command what is impossible” (De natura et gratis, 43.50). Third, even if one admitted the existence of irresolvable secundum quid moral dilemmas, they would not mitigate freedom and culpability. If one is the cause of the dilemma by their sin, one is responsible for the choices presented therein.

Despite these difficulties, this position on the existence of dilemmas and their resolutions has its defenders in the tradition in both ancient and modern times, as seen above. Again, much discernment is needed to work out these issues. What is clear to us is that, if indeed Francis does embrace this theological tradition, he does not mean to apply it to those who disagree with the Church’s teaching or those who flaunt sin as if it were the Gospel. Such people would not “remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (§303). This leads to our final point regarding conscience: Francis, by envisioning “new decisions” and a fuller realization of the Church’s teaching, clearly teaches that the use of one’s conscience in discernment is still subject to the law of gradualism. The goal of this discernment remains an eventual adherence to the fullness of the Church’s teaching.

V. Lastly, we see Francis’ dual focus on fidelity and discernment in his emphasis on the particular and the universal. Traditionally, as Francis notes in paragraph 304, the more one descends into particulars, the less clear it is what one should do. On the other hand, traditionally it is very clear what one should not do. One can never claim, as Veritatis Splendor clearly condemns, that in certain circumstances objective sin (to use Francis’ language) is the right thing to do. Francis signals that he is talking about a positive response and not what should be avoided: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (§304, emphasis added). Thus, Francis is not working from the perspective of the penitent who is discerning what he or she should not do. He is working from the perspective of the pastor (§293), whose pastoral exemplar is Christ (§294). What positively should I, the priest, do with this situation? How can I draw men and women under my care closer to the truth and to Christ?

In conclusion, while we are cognizant of tensions present in the text as well as theological traditions with which we disagree, we recognize Francis’ ultimate point in promulgating it: as the chief shepherd of the Church, he is encouraging pastors to discern how they can be more creative in helping people to leave their ‘irregular’ state and enter into full communion in the Church. Charity (the via caritatis, §306) does not abandon people, but walks with them and draws them toward the good. And the good, as Francis states, is the fullness of the Church’s teaching.

Furthermore, apart from these notes on chapter eight, we believe that the entirety of Amoris Laetitia deserves the attention of the entire Church—pastors and faithful alike—and that it provides ample material for reflection on the gift of marriage that Christ has elevated to the dignity of a sacrament. Because the family is the basic cell of society, the school of virtue for children and parents alike, and the domestic church, we believe that Francis’ desire to bring all marriages to the fullness of truth and life in the Church is one that is urgent and necessary. We hope that his overarching goal of reaching all couples through the union of charity and truth will be heeded by all of those involved in pastoral ministry and pray that all couples, sacramentally married or in irregular situations, find in his words an invitation to draw closer to Christ, who is truth and love itself.

[1] This point stems from a conversation one of the authors had with Nathan Halloran, SJ on the Jesuit order and the Spiritual Exercises. As Fr. Halloran explained, “freedom and obedience work together in the Church.”

[2] Jude Dougherty, Moral Dilemmas in Medieval Thought: from Gratian to Aquinas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 171.

[3] Ibid., 195ff.


John Meinert and Brian Pedraza

John Meinert is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Our Lady of the Lake College, specializing in Moral Theology/Ethics. His recent publications include “Alimentum Pacis: The Eucharist and Peace in Aquinas,” forthcoming in Nova et Vetera, and Life in Christ, a moral theology textbook. Brian Pedraza is Assistant Professor of Theology at Our Lady of the Lake College, specializing in Evangelization and Catechetics. His recent publications include “Blowing Away the Ashes: The Desire for God as the Bridge between the Faith and the World” in The Catechetical Review.

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