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Conscience and Discernment

May 6, 2018 | (1,883 words)

Pope Francis is certainly a hotly debated topic of conversation these days. The discussion ranges from the uncritical praise of his every act or utterance, to the ruthless criticism of his every ambiguous gesture. And Lord knows there seems to be a new such gesture almost weekly.

But is it possible to look upon the present moment in the life of the Catholic Church without forcing oneself into a rooting interest? Is it possible for an average practitioner to simultaneously find oneself harboring an appreciation for the pastoral approach Pope Francis is trying to implement, and an equal appreciation for the doctrinal exactitude his many esteemed critics are insisting on?

Can we admire and respect both Raymond Cardinal Burke, to settle on one of Francis’s most consistent, articulate, and high-profile critics, and our current Pope, all at the same time? Can we bring ourselves to see each of these very different men as making an earnest attempt to “safeguard and promote” the deposit of faith, and advance “the salvation of souls,” according to his own lights?

Since the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love In The Family) was released in April 2016, there has been no end of criticism from the ranks of traditional-orthodox-conservative Catholics. All the people with whom I usually agree, at least on matters of etched-in-stone doctrine.


… an unfortunate ambiguity that can lead to heresy.


This time around, however, I just can’t seem to get with the program. Having read and re-read the offending paragraphs and footnotes, I can’t bring myself to stigmatize Pope Francis as being guilty of the ambiguity-leading-to-heresy his many detractors continue to accuse him of. Maybe I’m being obtuse.

If, in the wake of Amoris Laetitia (AL), there is confusion and doubt in anyone’s mind concerning fundamental issues such as the sanctity of marriage and the proper dispensation required for receiving the sacraments, maybe that’s because the critics have spent too much time publicly scrutinizing what they fear is a squishy loophole in a phrase or a footnote, and not enough time trying to digest the document in its totality.

AL strikes this general reader as a comprehensive attempt to tackle a fifty-year-old problem in the Church, which has been exacerbated exponentially in the ensuing years. It started when our clergy (including a young Father Bergoglio?) took a pass on preaching the hot potato of Humanae Vitae (July 1968).

In the wake of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), this left the average Joe and Jane to the healthy, now Church-sanctioned pursuit of “improving one’s material circumstances.” Marriage took on a secular connotation, as an intimate forum where “one’s needs are to be met.”

This is miles away from the sacrificial understanding of marriage, as a death-to-us part purgatory-on-earth, where the primary obligation of each marriage partner is to think about, work towards, and pray for the eternal salvation of the other.


… a new, secular understanding of marriage.


The nuanced teaching presented in Amoris Laetitia deserves contemplation, requires explanation, and should receive all sorts of unpacking. Francis himself has said the document warrants its own catechism.

Since we haven’t gotten any of that, it’s no wonder there has been an uptick in the general level of confusion across the land. By hammering away at this one note, over and over again, Cardinal Burke and others are not helping to illuminate or disseminate the admittedly difficult-to-grasp aspects of what AL is suggesting.

Is there really nothing of value in the entire document worthy of consideration? Is the only proper response the sounding of this widespread alarm at its more adventurous forays?

The new confusion critics have accurately identified extends to the errant advice certain priests are reportedly now handing out in confession, to the effect that they have been given the power by Pope Francis to annul a previous marriage – right there, in the confessional. This is a defect in one’s understanding of what Amoris Laetitia states, and should not reflect poorly on the document itself, especially given the complexity of what is being presented.

Without a doubt, AL is nuanced – perhaps a bit too much for its own good. From my humble perspective, though, the detailed pastoral approach Francis lays out is not so much heretical on its face, but rather incredibly difficult.


… not so much heretical, as incredibly difficult.


Consider, if you will, just how difficult (and time-consuming) it’s going to be for our clergy to personally engage each and every penitent now in an irregular living arrangement, and walk them through a process of discernment, listening to them attentively and showing them the maternal face of the Church. With the penitent, in turn, agreeing to place their whole life in the light of the Gospel and to practice charity. Do we have enough priests to pull this off?

If Francis’s critics would focus on this broad assumption that is folded into Amoris Laetitia’s teaching then I might be able sit at table and concur. But as things stand, I can’t help but think the high-profile critics, all of whom qualify as extremely well-versed in Church doctrine, are sort of missing the point of the entire document.

This is not about “permission” to have access to the sacraments, but a lengthy process of discernment that must be accompanied by a pastor. This path does not necessarily end in the sacraments, it is important to note, buy may lead, one hopes, to other forms of greater integration into the life of the Church. Such as would find expression in a greater presence in the community, an increased participation in prayer or reflection groups, and a renewed commitment to various forms of ecclesial service.

In other words, while Holy Communion represents the undeniable high point of Catholic life, there is much to be gained from Catholic practice, including attendance at Mass, even if one no longer possesses the proper disposition to go to Confession, or receive Communion. Yes, I wish AL also spelled this out in a clear and definitive manner, but as far I can gather it does not.


… attempting to address complex circumstances in a concrete case.


It does, however, go to great lengths to detail that in “more complex circumstances,” when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, and after undertaking a lengthy journey of discernment, one may arrive at a recognition that, “in a concrete case,” there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability, particularly when a person judges he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union.

In such “complex circumstances” of a “concrete case,” the possibility of access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist should, in an unprecedented manner, be open. This in turn, the logic goes, disposes the penitent to continue maturing and growing with the strength of grace.

Needless to say, this is a highly subjective assessment, placing great demands on our clergy, and leaving them open to second-guessing. Once one such complex circumstance is granted “leniency” in this matter, how to fend off and deny every other stray, lapsed soul who has not been similarly vetted, but who may happen to almost absent-mindedly wander in one fine Sunday morning, looking for a warm bowl of milk?

This strikes me as the conundrum at the heart of Amoris Laetitia, which to my way of thinking makes it problematic rather than heretical at its core.


… a subjective assessment that puts great demands on our clergy.


The critics tell us there is another aspect to the widespread confusion we are currently suffering through: the doctrinal ambiguity that refuses to acknowledge moral absolutes is now having a deleterious effect on the ability of faithful pastors and mentors to ask those placed in their care to do the “big sacrificial things.”

But this need not be the case. There is no reason for such pastors and mentors to hesitate in the least. The force of the natural law inside us has not diminished. The rules haven’t changed. Marriage is only supposed to happen once. Sexual activity outside of marriage is still contrary to what is written on our hearts.

When guiding young people who are in the early stages of their life as independent adults, we must be as firm as possible in pointing out the pitfalls of following the crowd. But isn’t Amoris Laetitia aimed at the legion of mature adults who have made some unfortunate choices in the decades since first reaching adulthood, and who now find themselves on the outside, and in a state of regret?

Are they not what one might describe as the victims of the age, victims of the false gospel that plagues us all: the pursuit of “maximum personal freedom”? These folks are our friends, co-workers, family members, and neighbors. With one or more “failed” marriages on their resume, complete with children from each supposed-to-be permanent arrangement in tow.

The aftermath of all this “emancipation,” fueled by the advent of artificial contraception, represents an emotional and spiritual crisis of epic proportion for all concerned. To those of us who have somehow managed to stay the course, despite more than a few hazardous detours along the way, are we not even a little bit concerned about appearing smug in considering their cause?


… the emotional and spiritual wreckage of so much “emancipation.”


Assuming the fallen-away do, in fact, regret their bad choices, and assuming they seek forgiveness with a contrite heart, what should be the Church’s response? People of goodwill can (and should) debate the list of sundry variations contained in Francis’s detailed outline.

Some of these pastoral vines and branches may be more structurally sound than others. Some may require further thought and strengthening. Some may have to be cut away and cast aside altogether.
Maybe we end up reconvening and redoubling our efforts at preaching abstinence from both sexual activity and the sacraments for all those who have mistakenly entered a second or third union without having the first properly annulled.

Maybe we actually try to implement Humana Vitae into the life our young married couples, like we should have done in the first place, starting fifty years ago. But in contemplating the appropriate way forward at this time, can we at least credit our unconventional Pope with taking an interest and giving it his best shot?

We hear a lot of talk concerning Francis’s arrogance in the execution of his office, lurking just behind the humble façade. I wouldn’t know, maybe he is an arrogant man at heart. There is a lot of that going around these days. But given how much effort he has put into this and every other aspect of his papacy, and the lack of positive reinforcement the self-proclaimed defenders of the faith have offered by way of recognition, well, I’d be a little cranky, too.

Instead of continuing to find fault with Pope Francis’s admittedly highly personal and very possibly unworkable pastoral approach put forth in Amoris Laetatia, pointing out the many transgressions against doctrine his willful “ambiguity” invites, what do you suggest? Are we to just sit back, fold our arms across our chests, and wait for all these lost souls to die off?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
May 6, 2018

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