Om - Amoris Laetitia

America: What some critics of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ are missing

13. april 2016

James Martin, S.J. skriver bl.a.

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).

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