by Jeff Tranzillo
The controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia, chapter 8, shows no signs of letting up, even now that more than a year and a half has passed since the publication of the document. And that’s how it should be. For, while some prelates have been quick to turn our attention to the doctrine of marital indissolubility and assure us that the document hasn’t changed it, they have invariably failed to mention that chapter 8 introduces quietly a momentous change in the Church’s teaching on conscience and its role in the moral evaluation of human acts. That one change, which is not taught explicitly but simply urged “pastorally,” would ultimately undermine every theological and moral doctrine–and consequently every pastoral practice–that the Church has ever held dear, but for the fact that the divine Bridegroom, ever faithful to His Bride, will never stand for it.
The diabolical change in teaching that Amoris Laetitia (hereafter, AL) has unofficially but effectively instigated is tucked away neatly under the seemingly innocuous word “discernment.” The immediate purpose of that change is to supplant, in practice, both the Church’s perennial teaching on how to assess the morality of acts in conscience, and the spiritually salutary pastoral disciplines that flow harmoniously from it. Two such radically opposed understandings can obviously not coexist peacefully and amicably. And so, the controversy will rage on until God sees fit to scatter with His truth and goodness the darkness that now envelops the Church.
The purpose of this essay is to highlight the inherently untenable nature of the view of conscience and moral discernment that Pope Francis has presented in AL, chapter 8. First, I will lay out briefly the five main principles on which that view is based. These are the principles that Pope Francis and some bishops are invoking to justify radical changes in pastoral practice–especially sacramental practice. These are the principles that they claim to believe. Next, I will explain some of the reasons why these same principles are ultimately not credible, and so ought not to be believed. Finally, I will give examples of how the pope and some of the bishops claiming to embrace AL’s distorted view of conscience and discernment march to an entirely different tune when its literal application to certain situations would not yield the outcome they desire, or when anyone would dare question, in good faith, the compatibility of that view with official Church teaching. This gives us cause to wonder whether the pope and bishops such as these really do, in fact, believe what AL’s chapter 8 tells us about discerning the morality of human acts.
What Pope Francis and Some Bishops Claim to Believe about Conscience and the Discernment of Acts, as Presented in AL
In AL, Pope Francis presents his understanding of conscience and its role in assessing, or “discerning,” the morality of human acts mainly in his dealing with the problem of divorced Catholics who have entered a civil marriage and thus violated the Sixth Commandment; however, the understanding of conscience and discernment that he applies to that situation cannot very well remain confined to it, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why. For it is clear that the principles he sets forth for the moral evaluation, in conscience, of adulterous acts apply necessarily to the acts of persons who are routinely violating any of God’s commandments, or who are making a moral decision of any kind. For that reason, I will present AL’s five main principles of discernment apart from their specific application to adultery.
1. To begin, Pope Francis states that persons committing objectively grave sin “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” (AL, 298). In other words, the pope believes that the general categories we use to classify different types of sin (e.g., adultery, stealing, or murder) do not take into account the many details and complexities specific to concrete situations involving objectively serious sin. Why is that? Because, even though different people might be committing the same type of sin viewed objectively, the subjective reasons for their doing so, and the circumstances under which they act, can vary widely (see AL, 302).
Okay, fair enough. Consider, for example, that the Church’s moral teaching, and even secular law, has long recognized the difference between premeditated and unpremeditated acts–between, say, a murder that was consciously planned and freely executed, and a murder resulting from a spontaneous “crime of passion” that was, nevertheless, still willed deliberately. While the fundamentally heinous nature of the crime and its tragic consequences are on the same order, it is nevertheless reasonable to conclude that the degree of subjective guilt and culpability for committing the crime varies somewhat between these two cases. The process of discernment in conscience must attend to the circumstances and the subjective conditions that result in such variations before it can render the most reasonable judgment possible on the person’s subjective state at the time the act was perpetrated.
The pope does not make it entirely clear whether he thinks sinful situations that are objectively identical (since the persons involved are committing the same type of sin) should be classified differently when they have different subjective and circumstantial reasons underlying them. But the quotation from AL cited above could easily be interpreted in that direction without any inconsistency. Indeed, that seems to be exactly how the pope does interpret it, given his exclusive use of the term “‘irregular’ situation” to describe the objective state of fornication or adultery in which some Catholics are living.
2. In AL, Pope Francis focuses on situations that are willed with sufficient deliberation, and therefore premeditated. For example, he claims that some people “may know full well the [moral] rule” they are violating, and “yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’” (AL, 301). In consequence, the pope concludes that the subjective difficulty they’re having understanding the values that a fundamental moral precept (such as one of the Ten Commandments) aims to uphold constitutes a mitigating factor that relieves them of some or all of the subjective guilt and blame that they might otherwise have incurred for transgressing it–that is, for deliberately committing a sin involving objectively grave matter. If there had been no deliberate decision to sin, then the pope would have had no reason for discussing possible mitigating factors in the first place.
3. Pope Francis claims further that some subjects are quite conscious not only of the morally bad character of their situation, but also of the reasons why it is bad. Yet they are conscious as well “of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that [they] would fall into new sins” (AL, 298). Here, he seems to mean that they have decided to abide in a concrete situation of personal sin, not because they can’t understand the inherent values of the fundamental moral rule they’re breaking, but because conscience is telling them that their situation “does not allow [them] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (AL, 301; italics added). In a word, it is their moral duty, as formulated in conscience, to keep committing the same sin–to keep transgressing God’s moral law–in their present situation.
4. If a person transgresses God’s moral law because conscience urges him that he is morally bound to do so, then it would seem to follow that the transgression accords with God’s will for him. For the Church teaches that conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person”; it is the “place” where the voice of God “echoes in the depths of the heart” (Gaudium et Spes, 16; see AL, 222). In itself, that passage might seem to equate the “voice” of conscience that is urging someone to sin with the very echo of God’s own “voice” communicating intimately with the subject. Pope Francis seems to argue precisely along those lines:
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 (AL, 303).
So, the pope seems to regard the very persons who are intent on transgressing God’s moral law as the ones who are often, at the same time, in the best position to discern for themselves just how well they are responding to God’s call in their life by doing so. For they alone have an intimate knowledge of the limiting factors at work in their particular, complex situation. And that apparently renders them especially attuned to the voice of God inviting them secretly, in the depths of conscience, to disregard His Commandments–at least for now.
While it is true that Pope Francis insists on the responsibility of pastors to help grave sinners discern their situation in conscience according to Church teaching and “the guidelines of the bishop” (AL, 300), he charges, nevertheless, that pastors sometimes “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” (AL, 37). It seems, then, that the comfort level that sinners have, in conscience, with their sinful situation is the final arbiter of what constitutes moral good or evil in their lives. Any pastors involved in their discernment would therefore have to honor their decision to abide in evil, should they so decide.
5. Since Pope Francis believes that conscience–and perhaps God speaking therein–exonerates some subjects either partially or fully from the serious sin that they’re committing deliberately and persistently, he encourages us to take more stock of the “constructive elements” arising from their objectively sinful situation (see AL, 292; 298). He seems to regard those elements as “paths of sanctification that give glory to God” (AL, 305).
Why Pope Francis and the Bishops Should Not Believe AL’s View of Conscience and the Discernment of Acts
The reader might have found some aspects of the preceding summary to have the ring of truth about them. There is good reason for that: As do many seductive but false ideas, AL both utilizes and subtly distorts the truth in order to advance its viewpoint, which, in this case, serves to buttress the dubious pastoral conclusions that the pope and certain bishops seemed already intent on reaching to begin with. The truth that AL has fundamentally deformed is that of official Catholic Church teaching on conscience and its role in assessing the morality of human acts. It will therefore be helpful for us to examine, in the same order, each of the five principles covered above, giving some of the reasons why AL’s treatment of conscience and acts is wholly unacceptable. We will then look more specifically at the fundamental flaw underlying it all.
The Problems: A Point-by-Point Analysis
1. In order to try and establish, with reasonable accuracy, to what degree someone is subjectively guilty of committing objectively serious sin, it is indeed necessary to consider, to the extent possible, the relevant details and complexities (personal or otherwise) specific to the situation in which the act was, or continues to be, committed. The Church teaches us as much. But those same considerations are not necessary to determine whether the act or repeated acts are objectively evil in themselves. Nor, therefore, are they necessary to determine whether one is duty-bound to avoid such acts, regardless of the circumstances or one’s subjective state.
AL seems particularly reluctant to concede that last point. This lends itself to the temptation to classify sins, not according to their essence (that is, according to their object–their defining purpose, which sinners seek directly and deliberately to realize by committing them), but according to subjective criteria (such as the personal motives behind the sinful acts) and circumstantial criteria (such as the alleged benefits these sins will bring to others). In that way, sins belonging objectively to the same, specific category could be distinguished from one another, despite their essential identity. One might then presume to recategorize some of them under a new, more innocuous name. The new name and the subjective state that it implies would seemingly provide a basis, or at least a plausible excuse, for viewing and treating certain sins differently from others of the same type–almost as non-sins. After all, cohabitation sounds much less nefarious than fornication or adultery, and it seems to imply the “constructive elements” of commitment, stability, sharing, and so on, whereas the other two terms do not.
The fact is, however, that cheating on one’s spouse, whether because unhappily married or because it helps relieve stress while away from home, is still adultery. Unjustly taking and keeping someone else’s property against his reasonable will, whether for one’s personal gain or for distribution to the poor, is still stealing. And the deliberate killing of someone who has no manifest intention to kill anyone, whether one’s act is premeditated or unpremeditated, is still murder.
These (and all) gravely sinful actions ought always to be classified objectively for what they are. Otherwise, people could easily be lulled into thinking that subjective and circumstantial factors justify their enacting them in some cases. They do not. The choice for such actions, evil in themselves, entails necessarily a disordered will–a will that has set itself on committing the moral evil that defines the action itself. In the first place, therefore, the choice entails necessarily a decision about oneself: the decision to become an evil person by doing something that one knows to be evil.
The effects of evil actions extend also beyond the sinner, and even beyond the immediate victims or parties involved, so as to harm–to an unknown and incalculable degree–still others, society at large, and even the order of the world itself. Good intentions, human weakness, or difficult circumstances do not alter that fact. They can never remove completely either the direct or the indirect evils caused by an evil act.
So, while AL encourages personal and pastoral discernment to emphasize the importance of the subjective and circumstantial factors involved in objectively evil situations (often with the effect of whitewashing the latter), discernment has no power whatsoever to neutralize the evil unleashed by those situations merely by presuming to view them as somehow favorable under certain conditions. Nor, therefore, does it have the authority to reclassify an evil situation to make it seem relatively benign.
2. In AL, Pope Francis tells us that people “find” themselves in a variety of complicated (moral) situations (see AL, 297, 298, 312), as if to suggest that these subjects played no conscious role in constituting the situations in which they are willfully living and acting immorally. He thus makes them out to be merely hapless victims of circumstance. But the examples that he gives belie his words.
In number 2 of section one above, for example, I quoted the pope telling us about people who have full knowledge of the moral norm that they are routinely transgressing. Such knowledge indicates that they have put themselves deliberately in a situation that they know to be morally bad. But why did they do that? Because they supposedly had trouble seeing exactly why the situation is so bad. In the pope’s view, they simply don’t understand the purpose of the norm.
Is that a credible argument? Recall the context: Pope Francis is referring mainly to validly married Catholics who have civilly divorced and “remarried.” They “know full well” that Church law forbids that, and they know why: it is opposed to the Sixth Commandment (not to mention the Ninth) and to the words of Christ Himself (see Mt 5:27-28; 5:32; 19:3-9). And so they also know that they are committing the grave sin of adultery in having established a conjugal relationship with a second “spouse.”
If nothing else, these subjects cannot but know that they are bound to obey the precept against adultery because of the supreme authority of God, who commanded its observance unconditionally. But the values that the Commandments (particularly as interpreted by Christ) were established to uphold–reverence toward the Creator and toward one’s parents, the inviolability of human life, of marriage, and of a person’s good name, and so on–are so fundamental, so intuitively grasped, and so consonant with human flourishing that only a deliberate idiot could have “great difficulty” understanding them. They all fall within the scope of both the Silver and the Golden Rule (see Tobit 4:15 and Mt 7:12 respectively), which express principles of moral judgment that even young children have no problem assimilating. Their import cannot but resonate in a sincere conscience.
Granted, it is unlikely, given the lamentable state of fallen human nature, that any of us can appreciate fully the values that faithful observance of the Commandments protects, upholds, and fosters. Nevertheless, every reasonable person knows enough to know better than to transgress the moral law. We do, in fact, grasp sufficiently the inherent values of its precepts. The real problem is that we simply will to realize “values” opposed to them–even if only as a means of establishing a new “situation” in which to realize the objectively good values of the moral law, as AL suggests speciously and with unintended irony (e.g., see AL, 292, 298).
Clearly, then, the pope’s claim that one can know a fundamental moral norm but not understand its import is not credible. In making that claim, he effectively encourages grave sinners to abide in their sin. And he does so precisely by patronizing them–by making them out to be moral and intellectual idiots who don’t know their right hand from their left.
3. It is evident that the persons mentioned in number 3 of section one above, like those in number 2, are responsible for having put themselves in a situation of serious sin. They know that the situation is sinful, and they know why it is sinful. Yet they suppose that they had good reasons for entering the situation, or that they now have good reasons for remaining in it. And so, the pope tells us, they have become convinced that it would only lead to new sins if they were to go back. Go back to what? To the moral (even if “unhappy”) way of life they were living before they chose to live in sin. The context makes that meaning all too clear.
The immoral situation that these subjects have put themselves in has led to consequences that have increased the situation’s “complexity.” For that reason, they make a startling claim–one with which the pope seems entirely too sympathetic: a return to a moral way of life at this time would prevent them from tending morally to the new situation that they have created within their immoral situation. Let’s be more specific: they are claiming that conscience demands they continue transgressing God’s moral law, which would otherwise become the source of other sins. That claim is absolutely blasphemous. It is also contrary to a fundamental moral principle that obliges every human conscience: One must never do evil that good might come of it (see Rm 3:8).
4. In number 4, section one above, we recalled the Church’s teaching that conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person.” There, the voice of God “echoes in the depths of the heart” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). But then we must ask: Why would God ever urge anyone therein to violate the moral law that He Himself has established and publicly revealed, and that He has commanded us to follow absolutely? The moral law whose absolute truth the incarnate Son of God confirmed publicly, lived out perfectly, and died for selflessly? AL does not answer that question and, undoubtedly, does not want to call attention to it. For no reasonable answer is possible.
Nevertheless, we saw that Pope Francis claims God does, in fact, act thus in some situations. That claim, like the previous one, is absolutely blasphemous. What is more, it necessitates the fabrication of a false god that “mercifully” grants dispensations from the unconditional demands of the moral law–that is, from the most basic, concrete expressions of authentic love and respect for one’s neighbor and for God Himself. Ironically, the same claim also implies that the process of pastoral co-discernment, to which AL devotes so much attention, is often superfluous in practice, or even counterproductive.
Clearly, then, AL presupposes a radically false notion of conscience–one that presupposes and demands a radically false, thoroughly subjectivistic notion of God. A further look at Gaudium et Spes, 16, reminds us that while the processes of conscience take place within the subject, they testify to something that comes from beyond the subject. Indeed, they testify to God’s summoning us to do good and to avoid evil, and hence to obey the moral law, which He has written on the human heart. (Of course, that law is also enshrined in the Commandments, which the Christian conscience must welcome into its judgments in order to be true to itself.)
While conscience can err through no fault of its own without thereby losing its dignity, the conscience that errs because of the person’s disregard for truth and goodness, or because of the moral blindness that has developed out of his persistence in sin, compromises its own dignity. Right conscience, on the contrary, strives to be guided by the objective norms of morality. By allowing itself to be guided so, and by hearkening to God’s voice, it can avoid “subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores” in its judgments (AL, 222).
5. Because he is unduly confident that some persons persisting in grave sin are sinning in sincerity of conscience–and perhaps even under God’s secret instruction therein–Pope Francis suggests that we look at the “constructive elements” of their sinful situation. If a person’s good intentions and best efforts, amid his limitations, seem to reflect and to realize a high order of values, then the pope interprets the “good fruits” being produced thus as paths to sanctification. It does not seem to matter that the very existence of those fruits–of those “constructive elements” (subjectively reckoned as such by “discerning” observers)–depends on the sinner’s persistently transgressing a fundamental moral norm. But that is simply too great a destructive element for the pope to dismiss so lightly.
God Himself has established the precepts of the divinely revealed moral law as the paths of sanctification along which we are to walk, and thereby to glorify Him. He has commanded that we follow those paths because we cannot fulfill our dignity as children of God or respect that dignity in others if we depart from them. To treat ourselves or anyone else, knowingly and willingly, according to any standard less than what the Commandments demand constitutes both an attack against the human person and an affront to God. And that’s a sure-fire path to hell, not a sanctifying path to heaven. It would be utterly presumptuous to “discern” otherwise.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis doesn’t think we should look at things in such “black and white” terms (see AL, 305), lest we fail to appreciate that the violation of God’s commands can provide the occasion for the realization of “constructive” values, and consequently for growth in grace and charity–at least when mitigating factors seem to prevail. More simply, the pope is telling us once again that the end can justify the means, that we can do evil–even persistently–as long as so much good is coming out of it. It is no wonder, then, that as soon as AL was published, some prelates were eager to proclaim, on the basis of the document, that two men could persist in their sodomitic “relationship” when it has evidently introduced a constructive “stability” and other “positive values” into their lives. And thus goes, ad infinitum, the “logic” of the lawlessness woven so artfully into AL, chapter 8.
The Crux of the Matter: Where AL Goes Wrong
Like AL, Church teaching considers both the objective and the subjective dimensions of human action. Unlike AL, however, the official, irreformable teaching of the Church properly orders and duly measures those two dimensions when explaining how conscience evaluates the morality of an act. In that way, the Church upholds and fosters the proper relation between conscience and the moral law.
In choosing to perform a particular kind of act, the person wills deliberately to bring about directly a certain end. That’s his object. That’s what he aims to achieve immediately by the act. The object, therefore, is that which primarily and decisively defines, or specifies, the act as morally good or evil. Attention to the specific kind of act involved, therefore, has priority over subjective considerations in assessing, or “discerning,” the act’s moral quality. Practically speaking, this means that just because certain subjective conditions and concrete circumstances might seem to warrant one’s doing something evil in a concrete situation, conscience is not thereby permitted to judge validly that the direct (or even the indirect) willing of objective evil is a licit means of effecting good. Right conscience never justifies an evil act.
The act of conscience is a practical judgment of reason about the moral quality of human actions. As a function of the intellect–a spiritual faculty–conscience can know objectively what is the true moral good that one ought to do, and what is the concrete moral evil that one ought to avoid doing. It can apprehend–at least in a fundamental and sufficient way–both the essential nature of different types of moral actions and something of the real effects, for good or for ill, that they cause both in the actor himself and beyond him. Conscience is therefore morally bound to judge actions according to their true moral character. That explains the need and the moral responsibility of each person to educate, or inform, conscience as fully as possible. While the person is obliged to obey the moral imperatives of a properly formed conscience, he must never act on an ill-informed or a doubtful one.
The Church’s confidence in upholding the priority of the objective over the subjective in the moral evaluation of human action is not merely epistemological. It is supported further by the fact that conscience is assisted, in making its moral judgments, by its knowledge of the objective, divinely revealed moral law, and by the light afforded it by divine grace. AL does not take seriously the fact that a person’s persistence in an objectively sinful situation is often itself a sign of the rejection of these two divine realities, and hence also a sign of a bad conscience. Through persistent, serious sin, conscience can become so blind to objective truth and goodness, so subjectively self-justifying, so morally indifferent, as to be functionally dead.
While the Church gives priority to the type of act involved (together with its inherent aim) as the objective, the primary, and the decisive means by which to assess the act’s morality, she still recognizes the need to give due attention to any subjective and circumstantial factors that she can identify as relevant to that assessment in a given instance. For example, in the case of an act that can be morally good in itself (e.g., giving alms), those factors could cause the act to become morally bad (as when you give alms only so that others will praise you for it, or when you are willing to give away hardly any of your excessive wealth to help a needy soul). For, a bad intention (seeking glory rather than another’s good: hypocrisy) or a particular circumstance (miserliness in the face of extreme poverty) can be so constitutive of an otherwise good act that it determines, as evil, the end for which the will deliberately acts.
On the other hand, the inverse is never true: a good intention or a particular circumstance can never cause an act that is morally evil in itself to become morally good. While certain subjective or circumstantial factors can diminish or wholly eliminate one’s personal guilt and culpability for committing an act that is, objectively, morally bad (as when one lies due to fear, coercion, or invincible ignorance, rather than by a free and deliberate act); and while they can even diminish the moral evil of such an act (e.g., stealing a petty sum from a rich man out of desperation), they can never alter the fundamentally evil nature of an act that is intrinsically disordered in itself. Nor, therefore, can they ever eliminate fully the evil effects unleashed by the performance of the act, or justify one’s past, present, or future commission of the act (whether only once or repeatedly). Indeed, they might even increase the intensity of its evil (as when one steals a large sum from a poor man out of greed). So the intentional end, whatever the circumstances, never justifies the means used to achieve it.
In AL, Pope Francis trivializes that last point by urging us, as we “discern” the morality of acts involving grave matter, to give priority, not to the objectively (or intrinsically) evil character of the concrete act itself, but to the subjective motivations and conditions underlying the act, and to the concrete circumstances bearing on them. That subtle but fatal shift demands, in turn, a completely subjectivized notion of conscience. The objective evil is viewed, not according to practical reason, as that which I must avoid doing for any reason under any circumstances, but according to how I interpret it subjectively, based on what I intend to achieve by doing it for my reasons under my circumstances. I am then disposed to view and to experience the evil as something good (at least for the most part), given my motives, my limitations, and the complexities of my concrete situation.
It follows that I am entitled to have my own, personal truth about what qualifies as morally good or evil in my life, and that everyone else should have to acknowledge that “truth,” even if they have arrived at a different point of view based on their own experiences in life (see AL, 138). This “truth” would apparently include the “feeling in conscience” that my doing the objectively evil thing results in less sin than would my renouncing it, or that God is satisfied with my persistence in the evil at the present time because of the complexities in which I “find” myself.
If good intentions and limiting conditions constitute the main criteria of moral judgment, then it follows necessarily that there must be exceptions to every moral rule–including what God Himself has commanded in his public (or objective) revelation. This means that there are no moral norms that are absolutely binding on everyone in every time, place, and circumstance. Instead, the individual person, perhaps with the encouragement of “pastoral” counselors, determines whether it is appropriate, in a given instance, situation, or cultural context, to violate a general moral norm–even one that God has revealed definitely in Christ as universally and absolutely binding on conscience.
Clearly, then, Pope Francis’s inversion of the priority of objective over subjective factors, in what he likes to call the discernment of the morality of a situation, is nothing short of catastrophic, undermining the whole edifice of Catholic moral teaching. For, rational judgment regarding the real truth about moral good and evil is not possible without objectivity–without due attention to the deliberate object of the will in action, which defines the moral state of affairs for what it really is in essence and in truth. Good intentions are one thing. Using an evil means to realize them, and regarding that evil consequently as something good (even if not fully “ideal”), is quite another.
Once we reject the objective truth about the moral good and begin to live in an objectively evil way, our darkened mind and our prideful need to justify ourselves (itself an attempt to suppress God’s merciful call, in conscience, to repentance and conversion) will lead us to reject the objective truth about God Himself, as He has revealed Himself in Christ. Thus, moral corruption leads to theological corruption: we presume to tamper with the true doctrine of the only true God, with the result that the whole deposit of faith begins to unravel. In AL, for example, God’s mercy has become newly defined as moral indifference (a projection of our own), since chapter 8 would have us believe that God proportions His moral law to suit the situation of the sinner. From the fabrication of false divinities to justify our moral degeneracy, the slide into atheism and the worship of power, wealth, sex, deception, lies, violence, and terror–that is, the worship of self–is typically not far behind. This means nothing less than a total disregard for, and hence the destruction of, the human person.
Examples of Why Pope Francis and the Bishops Promoting AL’s View of Conscience and the Discernment of Acts Do Not Really Seem to Believe it Themselves
In the examples that follow, we’ll see that Pope Francis and the bishops claiming to believe AL’s view of conscience and discernment don’t always put it into practice. But there seems to be something more to that than sheer hypocrisy. They seem to be methodically selective about to whom they’re willing to apply the subjectivistic principles they profess to believe. For example, when faced with persons who voice objections to those principles based on the objective truth about how conscience and the moral law properly relate, they suddenly lose their pastoral zeal for accompanying the unique journey of each individual conscience and seek, rather, to smother quickly, sometimes ruthlessly, any voice expressing a judgment of conscience that has affirmed the inviolability of the natural moral order. This suggests, in turn, that the pope and the bishops promoting AL’s errors never really had a sincere conviction about its position in the first place: they seem to know already that it’s built on sand, and that it will collapse under the weight of truth. It is merely a means to an end.
The final remarks of the preceding section suggest that what these “pastors” are really after is to change (if not wholly demolish) the Church’s authoritative moral teaching. That change, as we saw, entails the need to change also her theology, so that it will accommodate the new “morality.” Of course, Our Lord will never permit such changes to really happen, for He is faithful to His Bride and cannot deny Himself. But the proponents of change seem not to grasp that. Rather, they seem intent on introducing changes to the Church’s traditional moral teaching (and therefore into her theology as well), first, by subterfuge–by novel “pastoral” practices and their specious rationales, which effectively deny Church teaching–and then by “solemn” declaration as resistance breaks down from the ongoing erosion of moral integrity. Instigating changes to the Church’s moral teaching, particularly in the area of sexual morality, has always been the ultimate goal of Catholic moral revisionism, whose method–that of promoting moral relativism and hedonism by redefining them as fruits of mature “discernment”–Pope Francis seems clearly to have embraced.
While those who scheme thus are foolish in their thinking, it is nevertheless true that many poor souls are buying into this sweeping “pastoral” rejection of the Church’s moral and doctrinal patrimony. As a result, they will gravitate naturally, if perhaps gradually, toward atheistic unbelief–at least in practice–and hence toward the utterly debased anthropology that goes with it. And that will bring to a head the degradation and the destruction of the human person initiated by AL’s insidious introduction of the new “morality” into the Church’s life and practice.
For now, let us simply note that AL’s position on conscience and discernment was contrived to accommodate the subjectivistic, self-justifying fantasies of sinners, not to promote the objective, universal moral good of the human person. It can therefore be applied to moral “situations” only insofar as it serves that purpose. When it does not, and especially when it comes to anyone who objects to that purpose on rationally sound moral grounds sustained by divine revelation and authoritative Church teaching, AL’s insistence on having respect for and boundless patience with a “discerning” conscience is immediately abandoned by the very ones who promote that approach and claim most to believe in it.
Opting for Objectivity: Pope Francis Does a 180 to Handle Ahiara
For four and a half years, the priests of the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria refused to accept the bishop that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed as local ordinary in December 2012. Last June, after having considered suppressing the diocese in response, Pope Francis decided instead to command each of the priests to send him, within 30 days, a personal letter asking for forgiveness and expressing both his “total obedience to the pope” and his willingness “to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.” Otherwise, the priest would be automatically suspended a divinis; that is, he would be forbidden to exercise his priesthood and would “lose his current office.”
Pope Francis also declared, “Whoever was opposed” to the bishop “taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the Church.” And “whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, it’s very serious.” The pope insists that his action was necessary because the priests have “scandalized” the people of God and must therefore “suffer the consequences.”
The situation in the Diocese of Ahiara was unquestionably serious. The pope certainly possesses the authority to act as he did, and he should, arguably, have acted precisely as he did–especially after less drastic methods had failed to resolve the situation. The point here is whether his words and actions in this case are consistent with the position on conscience and discernment that he espouses in AL. It does not seem so.
Where the priests of the Ahiara diocese were concerned, Pope Francis seemed to have dismissed out of hand any subjective, cultural, or circumstantial factors that he might have taken into account in dealing with the situation. While the priests had expressed concern that the bishop appointed to head the diocese–an ethnic outsider from another state–would be unsuited to serve the needs of the diocese, the pope judged that “we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.” And while he believed that the priests within the diocese were being manipulated by their brother priests living abroad or by others from outside the diocese, the pope still judged their actions an offense against the Church–a mortal sin–despite his having acknowledged that they might not have had “full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.”
So, the pope seems not to have considered the possibility that these or other mitigating factors might have caused the Ahiara priests to have “great difficulty” understanding the values at stake, or that such factors did not “allow [them] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” Nor did he seem to consider the possibility that these priests might have arrived at a “certain moral security” in conscience that God Himself was asking them to rebel against the episcopal appointment–this being the most generous response they could muster amid the concrete complexity of their limits.
On the contrary, it seems that Pope Francis based his judgment mainly on the objectively evil nature of the sin being committed: the priests were offending against Mother Church and thereby causing scandal to the faithful. The object of their deliberate will was evil in itself, and no degree of subjective inculpability could justify the pope’s allowing these priests to persist in the evil situation that they “found” themselves in. There was no need for an extended period of discernment about this grave matter. In consequence, the pope demanded–without qualification–that the Ahiara priests be totally obedient to him. One must therefore ask why the pope did not demand, in AL, that sinners exercise the same total obedience to God and His moral law, whose precepts forbid, absolutely and unconditionally, the commission of intrinsically evil acts such as adultery.
Pope Francis’s Dubious Response to the Dubia
Pope Francis’s dealing with the Ahiara situation involved a decisive intervention wholly at odds with the approach he espouses in AL. Ironically, his reasons for the intervention were consistent with traditional Church teaching on the discernment of acts. The manner in which the pope has dealt with Cardinals Meisner, Caffarra, Brandmüller, and Burke in their efforts to get him to resolve the ecclesiastical confusion and division that has followed, unabated, the publication of AL has involved a steadfast refusal to intervene. Yet that refusal is also at odds with the approach he espouses in AL.
If the pope had been inclined, in the present case, to act in a manner consistent with AL’s view of pastoral discernment and accompaniment, he would not have responded to the four cardinals by studiously ignoring them. Instead, he would have taken them under his paternal wing and tried to get at the limiting factors that were hindering them from understanding the subjectivistic position undergirding AL’s view of conscience and the morality of acts–the view that he claims to believe sincerely. At the very least, the conversation would have enabled him to discern their sincerity of conscience, their deepest conviction that, in view of the circumstances–namely, the ongoing confusion, acrimonious division, scandal, and mortal danger to souls that AL has caused–God is urging them to seek the pope’s intervention to stem the crisis. They are simply obeying God’s voice to the best of their ability, whatever their subjective limitations might be.
The pope’s refusal to reply to the cardinals and to the dubia they submitted to him is most telling: it only confirms that AL’s position on conscience and the morality of human acts is rationally indefensible. If that were not so, the pope would have had much to discuss with them. But the fact is, if the pope were to answer any of the dubia following AL’s lead (i.e., the first in the affirmative and the remaining four in the negative), then that would expose AL’s views as radically opposed to the authoritative teaching of the Church, whose truth, as truth, is always consistent, coherent, and rationally defensible in the face of uncertainty, challenges, or attack.
Pope Francis was therefore compelled to maintain his silence amid the questioning of AL’s questionable views. They simply cannot withstand intelligent scrutiny or the light of revealed truth. As a result, it has fallen on the more vociferous members of his inner circle and of the episcopacy to wage an unscrupulous PR campaign against anyone who would dare question AL’s doctrinal integrity or interpret the document differently from the way Pope Francis and they do.
The Maradiaga Method: Defending AL by Vilifying its Critics
A case in point is Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga’s merciless, ad hominem attack on Cardinal Raymond Burke in an interview published last May. Maradiaga heads Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinals, the pope’s nine closest advisors. Because Cardinal Burke has been especially forthright and consistent in publicly expressing his concerns about AL, and because he is one of the four cardinals who have sought papal clarification of some (but by no means all) of the problematic passages in AL, Maradiaga (who, in the interview, referred to Burke derisively as “that cardinal” and “this other”) mischaracterized him as “a disappointed man” who “wanted power and lost it.” In other words, Burke is doing nothing more than seeking attention after his fall from prominence. According to Maradiaga, Catholics of Burke’s ilk “seek power and not the truth.” They are “proud, arrogant,” believing that “they have a superior intellect.”
And so, Maradiaga summarily dismissed Burke’s substantial critiques of AL as merely “the words of a poor man” whose opinions “don’t merit further comment.” At the same time, however, he was helpless to mount a reasonable defense of the views in AL that he purports to champion, except to identify the pope facilely with the Church’s magisterium (perhaps implying that the charism of papal infallibility is unlimited, and consequently that AL’s errors qualify as truth). He sought thus to deny Burke, with equal superficiality, any apostolic teaching role whatsoever.
Now, if Cardinal Maradiaga were really convinced of AL’s subjectivistic view of conscience and discernment, he would never have feigned the ability to pontificate “infallibly” on what motivates Cardinal Burke’s respectful efforts to have the pope clarify the Church teachings that AL’s muddled remarks and deliberate distortions have obfuscated so effectively. After all, AL requires that he renounce the temptation to judge someone’s subjective state (poor, disappointed, power-hungry man) based on what he is objectively doing (seeking clarification from the pope). It requires that he acknowledge his spiritual illiteracy relative to Burke’s (or anyone else’s) interior state–at least until after he has “accompanied” him in the process of discernment, which allegedly enables one person to penetrate the soul of another in order to ascertain his spiritual standing before God.
If Maradiaga really did have any substantial grounds for thinking that Burke was in error and having difficulty “living God’s law to the full” (AL, 306), then AL would have his heart be moved with compassion toward the “wayward” cardinal. It would have him extend mercifully, to his brother, an invitation to travel the via caritatis together (see ibid.). Perhaps after a period of co-discernment, Burke would see things differently.
Or, perhaps Maradiaga would discern that his brother cardinal has been acting in good conscience, that he is wholly convinced that God would have him act in no other way, and that it would therefore be a sin for him to act otherwise. Maradiaga might even come to see some “constructive elements” in Burke’s actions. For example, Burke’s recourse to Pope Francis and his desire to serve him manifests both his loyalty to the pope, which Maradiaga has called into question, and his unflagging faith in the primacy of Peter’s successor–particularly as regards the pope’s divinely willed and historically eminent role in resolving, solemnly and authoritatively, questions about faith and morals.
The Joseph Tobin Method: Advancing AL by Discounting Critics and Ditching Discernment
Compared with Cardinal Maradiaga’s unabashed and calumnious denunciation of Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who now heads the Archdiocese of Newark in New Jersey, was considerably more reserved in his criticism of the four cardinals and the dubia they submitted to Pope Francis. During an interview, Tobin called the dubia a “naive” reduction of “difficult pastoral questions.” What is more, he opined that the dubia are “troublesome,” in that the four cardinals are thereby calling into question both the work of two synods and the pope’s effort to capture it in AL. But does Tobin give us reason to think that he really believes in the final product?
Back in April, the cardinal agreed to allow a pilgrimage and Mass for an LGBT group to take place at the cathedral of his new archdiocese. The event was held the following month. Its purpose was to “celebrate” the “identity” of the attendees, who are apparently oblivious to the fact that by their persistence in degenerate sexual behavior, they have betrayed the objective truth about their sexual identity as established by God “in the beginning.”
While Tobin was unable to stay for the duration of the day’s activities, he made it a point to be on hand to welcome the pilgrims unconditionally. The active homosexuals present, including some “married” same-sex couples, were all cordially invited to partake in Holy Communion at Mass, no questions asked. So much for “accompanying” them through a process of “pastoral discernment” and conscience-formation, which must “never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (AL, 300). And so much for “avoiding any occasion of scandal” in conducting this little experiment in “integration” (AL, 299).
According to Tobin, for him to have challenged the pilgrims to strive to live an authentically Christian life in accordance with the objective meaning and purpose of their sexuality would have spoiled his message of unconditional welcome. Instead, he thought it appropriate “to call them who they were”–that is, to indulge their pitiful and destructive self-deception. He could always talk with them about that some other time.
Cardinal Tobin’s words and actions in this matter suggest that he has no real regard for what AL purports to advise pastorally, even though he had defended the document in the interview mentioned above. On the other hand, perhaps Tobin is actually among AL’s more “discerning” interpreters, since he has obviously pinpointed its natural trajectory and taken it to its logical conclusion. AL’s pastoral recommendations, based on its subjectivistic view of conscience and human acts, lead inexorably toward the rationalization of sin, and hence toward moral anarchy. Episcopal attempts to qualify the meaning of the document do as little to change that simple fact as the qualifications present in the document itself do.
The Maltese Bishops’ Method: Might Makes Right
The preceding illustrations of contradiction between profession and practice are not exactly isolated cases. Last January, the bishops of Malta issued guidelines based on AL’s pastoral recommendations and entirely consistent with them. The guidelines address the situation of separated or divorced Catholics who have entered a new sexual relationship. These Catholics are deliberately violating the divine Commandment against adultery, yet the bishops claim that they “earnestly desire to live in harmony with God and the Church.” The bishops claim further that “there are complex situations where the choice of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ becomes humanly impossible and gives rise to greater harm.” And so they conclude that if such persons manage, “with an informed and enlightened conscience,” to believe that they are “at peace with God” by persisting in grave sin, then they must be allowed to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy communion.
In contrast, the archbishop of Malta told seminarians who disagreed with the guidelines and, by implication, with Pope Francis, “The seminary gate is open”; that is, they can leave the seminary if they don’t want to toe the line. Malta’s priests are also being bullied into complying. But if the bishops really believe their own guidelines, and hence AL, then why don’t they respect the fact that these seminarians and priests “earnestly desire to live in harmony with God and the Church” as their own conscience prescribes? On what grounds, by their own logic, did the bishops admonish those who are “at peace with God” in thinking it right to deny adulterers admission to the sacraments? Why do these bishops, and others like them, affirm the primacy of conscience in the case of persons who persist deliberately in their moral degeneracy, but not in the case of the morally upright?
Clearly, bishops such as these are acting in an unintelligible, inherently contradictory way, which tells us immediately that something is radically wrong. Following the pope’s lead, they have assigned priority, in the moral “discernment” of human acts, to the subjective factors and circumstances affecting conscience in a concrete moral situation, rather than to the object of the deliberate will, which conscience must judge rationally as either according with or departing from the objective order of the true moral good. The suppression of an objective principle of moral evaluation renders sane, moral judgment impossible, while guaranteeing arbitrariness and lawlessness in action.
The reasons why some bishops (and their collaborators) support the dismantling of rational and revealed norms of morality seem to range from a fawning cowardice that seeks to please men (especially Pope Francis) rather than God, to the unbelieving malice of those who would remake Christ’s Church into their own worldly image and likeness. But whatever the reasons, the result issuing from their eroding or moribund faith is the same: they must object to any effort to defend rationally, in the light of revealed truth, both the traditional norms of morality–particularly the sexual norms–and the traditional sacramental practices that relate to them. In consequence, they cannot allow their subjectivistic view of conscience and discernment, nor the pastoral “mercy” that is supposed to flow from it, to apply to anyone who would dare mount such a defense.
If these bishops were to apply their theory of moral subjectivism uniformly to everyone, they would be faced with the following contradiction: Men of good will who object, in good conscience, to their subjectivistic view of discernment would themselves have had to have “discerned” their moral duty to object according to the same subjectivistic principles that the bishops claim to believe. Those principles make the individual, in the privacy of his own conscience, the final arbiter of whether his actions are morally suited to the situation. And so there can be no argument. Among other things, this would mean that the bishops would have no choice but to honor the decision of all priests and priests-to-be who have chosen to continue following the traditional practice of excluding all grave sinners from the sacraments, since this is what they have discerned in conscience that God would have them do.
But then it would not be possible for these bishops or these priests to honor simultaneously the decision of the unrepentant sinner to approach the sacraments when his conscience urges him to do so. The very inanity of the bishops’ subjectivistic view of discernment thus forces them to take sides. For if they were to allow their priests and future priests to act according to their own conscience, the inherently self-contradictory nature of their position would be exposed. And that would defeat its purpose, which is to trivialize grave sin and to justify its continuation in “concrete” situations. Once that purpose has taken root, these bishops will then be in a better position to justify more “convincingly” their call for changes in the Church’s moral teachings. They seem to think that they can effect a doctrinal makeover once they have effected the demolition of morality.
And that is why, in the end, subversive bishops such as these must defend their unprincipled principles by recourse to yet another: “Might makes right.” Contrary to what they claim to believe about the primacy of the individual conscience, they must suppress the true freedom of conscience by which morally good men adhere to the moral law, so that they can foster the false freedom of conscience by which persistent sinners justify their sins. Though “mercifully” open to tolerating a sinner’s persistent disobedience to God in “good” conscience, they brook no disobedience to themselves from morally upright, God-loving men who know, in good conscience, that it is morally inexcusable to subject human souls so blithely to the possibility of eternal ruin by downplaying or dismissing the moral gravity of their situation–to say nothing of congratulating them for it by welcoming them to the sacraments. These bishops understand that any display of conscientious objection to the destructive principles and pastoral practices that they are promoting, based on AL, would make them (and their collaborators) look bad–and rightly so.
As a result, some bishops, such as those in Malta, have issued direct and indirect threats in order to get genuinely discerning seminarians, clergy, and others to violate right conscience. Sadly, many will. But no one ever should, regardless of the consequences. For, once a clean conscience gets dirty, it must justify itself in order to live with itself. And so it just keeps on getting dirtier. That’s what the subversives are counting on. Misery loves company.
The Fernández Method: The Maradiaga Method–Plus the Rod
The conduct of the Maltese bishops toward the seminarians and clergy of Malta displayed the same contradiction with their professed beliefs about conscience and discernment that we saw displayed in the other cases we examined. While AL-inspired examples such as these are many and ever increasing, other such examples, also on the rise, include the additional element of Cardinal Maradiaga’s proactive methods of character assassination.
Last September, for example, Archbishop Javier Martinez Fernández dismissed renowned Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert from the International Academy of Philosophy in Granada. Dr. Seifert’s offense? He had dared to publish an article that highlighted, accurately, the destructive implications of AL’s untenable view of conscience. Fernández claims that Seifert’s article “damages the communion of the Church, confuses the faith of the faithful, and sows distrust in the successor of Peter.” He adds that this “does not serve the truth of faith but, rather, the interests of the world.”
Now, all those claims are very well said and wholly justified, except for one thing: Fernández is blaming the victim rather than the culprit. It is Pope Francis, not Seifert, who has sown division in the Church, confused the faithful, and damaged both his own credibility and that of his office–precisely by denying the truth of faith in a flagrant capitulation to the ways of the world. The pope has done all this largely, but not exclusively, by incorporating grave anthropological, epistemological, theological, moral, pastoral, and textual errors and distortions into AL’s chapter 8.
But there is probably something more behind Fernández’ defamatory charges and punitive action against Seifert than he is willing to admit. It turns out that in October 2016, the archbishop had announced that his archdiocese would adopt the pastoral guidelines on AL published the previous month by the Argentinian bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region. Those guidelines, heartily approved by Pope Francis, allow priests to admit adulterous couples to Holy Communion in some cases–presumably only after a suitable period of “discernment,” of course. So, Fernández had already sided with the position on conscience and discernment espoused by the pope, which the recent Seifert article noted, quite rightly, “threatens to tear down the whole moral edifice of the Ten Commandments and of Catholic moral teaching.”
In the final analysis, then, it would seem that Seifert’s anxious concern about the real threat that AL poses to the absolute good of God’s moral law made the archbishop look bad. Fernández had therefore to deflect attention from himself, and likewise from the pope, by demolishing the credibility of a faithful, charitable, and erudite man acting in good conscience, and out of love for both the pope and the Church. In that way, he denied in practice the understanding of conscience, accompanying, and discernment that he claims, based on AL, to believe.
The USCCB Method: Fernández Lite
Josef Seifert provides us with a real example of what it means to have a faith-informed, reasonable conscience. Thoroughly committed to objectively knowable theological and moral truth, he was impelled, in good conscience, to raise legitimate doubts about AL’s own commitment to that truth. He was surely aware of the likely repercussions of his action, for he had already been relieved of his teaching duties the year before his dismissal from the university because of an earlier critique he had written about AL. Nevertheless, he was bound to obey the urging of right conscience.
The more recent case of Capuchin Father Thomas G. Weinandy provides a similar example of fidelity to right conscience, though the backlash, while essentially the same, was expressed in a somewhat more refined way. Fr. Weinandy is a renowned American theologian and a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. On November 1, the USCCB, in the person of the General Secretary, encouraged him strongly to resign his position as consultant to the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. The conversation with the General Secretary took place just a few hours after Weinandy publicized a forthright letter, dated July 31, that he had sent to Pope Francis. Weinandy resigned an hour after he was urged to do so, effective immediately.
In the letter, Weinandy enumerated his concerns about Francis’s pontificate. Those concerns include the following: (1) the pope’s studied ambiguity in AL’s chapter 8, which has fostered much error; (2) his calumnious remarks against Catholics who are faithful to authoritative Catholic tradition, and who interpret AL accordingly; (3) his seeming disregard for doctrinal truth and its relevance to concrete, pastoral matters; (4) his appointment of bishops who support and defend persons who espouse positions contrary to the faith; (5) his assault on the unity of the Church by promoting a form of “synodality” that results necessarily in a doctrinal and moral free-for-all; and (6) his intolerance of any charitable and justifiable criticism of what he says and does, thereby discouraging genuine dialogue and instilling a sense of fear.
Fr. Weinandy wrote his letter, in part, because he had accompanied many faithful Catholics who shared his concerns. So this was his way of letting them know that he had been listening. He also believed that the letter might do some good, and that God wanted him to write it. He was therefore bound, in conscience, to do so. In his letter, Weinandy expressed his love for the Church and his respect for both the office of Peter and Pope Francis himself. That seems to be what provided the initial impetus for his writing it.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, issued a statement on the day that Fr. Weinandy was effectively canned as doctrinal advisor to the bishops. He linked Weinandy’s departure explicitly with the letter that he had sent to Pope Francis, saying that this “gives us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of dialogue within the Church.” The sudden appeal to dialogue here seems a bit strange, except to suggest that Weinandy had no business speaking his mind to the pope in accordance with right conscience. DiNardo implies that Weinandy was airing theological and pastoral “opinions” in public in a way that was not helpful. Instead, he should have spent more time finding ways to interpret the pope’s confusing and alienating statements more charitably.
Charity also requires Christians to “acknowledge that legitimate differences exist,” and that it takes the whole Church to sort through those differences so as to grow in the “understanding of God’s truth.” Apparently, Weinandy had not conducted himself in a Christian manner such as that. Rather, he had overstepped his bounds by stating the obvious on his own. It seems that according to the new rules of dialogue (and the new epistemology that they imply), “truth” is arrived at by consensus only, following a process that has incorporated everyone’s experiential take on the issues as equally valid (as long as one agrees with the desired, predetermined outcome of those who commandeer the conversation, as happened at the latrocinia, or robber synods, on which AL is based). Perhaps unintentionally, DiNardo seems to imply that, unlike the U.S. Catholic bishops, Weinandy is not standing “in strong unity with and loyalty to” the pope.
The bottom line is that Fr. Weinandy’s letter to the pope made the U.S. bishops look bad, and so they publicly rebuked him for it. (Given the speed with which the rebuke was issued, however, it does not seem as though the USCCB spokesmen sought any consensus whatsoever among the bishops in deciding on their action.) The bishops (as represented by their spokesmen) did not want Pope Francis to view them as guilty by association. But let’s give them this much: At least they saw to it that they threw Weinandy under the bus in a more gentlemanly way than Josef Seifert was.
What the USCCB refuses to acknowledge, though, is that Thomas Weinandy’s letter to Pope Francis is spot on–supported, as it is, by the objective facts of the case. He cried out truthfully: “The emperor has no clothes! Your majesty, please cover your nakedness!” In reply, the USCCB said: “That’s just your opinion. We need to invite everyone to the table and build a consensus about whether God would have us see the situation that way. Besides, His Majesty has already declared that he is finely attired, and we who are in union with him concur.” It seems that dialogue now requires that we abandon a realistic epistemology and, with it, all logic and truth.
In the meantime, the Church continues to spiral downward into a paralyzing and polarizing condition of “chronic confusion” and disunity (which some prelates continue to deny). There is confusion because there is a crisis of truth. And the crisis of truth has resulted in division–a crisis of love. In the end, this means that we are now witnessing in the Church a crippling crisis of faith, enormous in its proportions. And it is being fostered attentively from the very top. AL, chapter 8, is a key part of the present crisis.
After a long period of soul-searching, Fr. Weinandy sounded the alarm starkly yet charitably, and he got slapped down for it. So much for the respect we owe to the primacy of conscience and to the process of “discernment.” It seems that the only thing that matters is to maintain a semblance of ecclesiastical unity–a “unity” built on systematic threats, coercion, retribution, and either brutal or more sophisticated PR campaigns designed to calumniate good people. The new “truth” is that which power can get everyone to perceive as true, despite its objective falsity.
We have seen that AL’s idea of assessing, or “discerning,” the morality of human acts in conscience has effectively dispensed with the need to consider seriously, and to give priority to, objective standards of morality that are absolutely and unconditionally binding on everyone, without exception. These standards, which are fundamentally contained in the Ten Commandments, highlight our common human nature, its fallen condition, and the kind of moral life that we all can and must lead, by God’s grace, in order to raise it up to the greatness and surpassing dignity for which God created it. By giving priority instead to subjectivistic and relatively extraneous–even contrived–circumstantial considerations in “discerning” the morality of situations that flout both rational and revealed standards of morality, AL has thrown in its lot with the worldly “spirit” of radical individualism, where each person can style his own morality as he sees fit.
Especially deplorable is AL’s suggesting that someone’s tailoring his own morality to suit his own situation could be the most responsible thing he could do in conscience, depending on his subjective limitations and the circumstances in which he “finds” himself. So, while the document purports to provide principles of moral discernment, it has actually provided a sure recipe for moral chaos and spiritual shipwreck.
Ironically, AL presents the whole process of discernment (and the “accompaniment” that it implies) as a means of reconciling persistent and unrepentant sinners with God, and also with fellow Catholics, who must, for their part, welcome them “as they are” into the Church and into her ecclesial and sacramental life. As we have seen, however, AL’s false understanding of discernment, along with the imprudent and sacrilegious pastoral recommendations that are based on it, leads to an irreconcilable impasse between those who, by the grace of God, are determined to uphold God’s moral law and to live accordingly, and those who are not. There can be no rapprochement between moral order and moral disorder, between the choice to honor human dignity and the choice to debase it.
AL’s incoherent position breaks down when scrutinized in the light of the Church’s authoritative teaching, which is always intelligible and salvific. Whereas Church teaching on conscience and the moral evaluation of human acts is always applicable to all, for the true good of all, AL’s position on the “discernment” of acts caters only to deformed consciences, while also covertly deforming them. It has no relevance to Catholics who are serious about doing God’s will according to right conscience, and who have therefore no interest in contriving a rationale to explain how they might continue committing grave sin while still remaining “at peace with God.”
While a number of bishops, including former Cardinal Bergoglio, have all but ignored completely (at least in practice) laudable papal initiatives from previous pontificates, they have manifested an unprecedented zeal for propagating and implementing the incoherent, hopelessly divisive pastoral recommendations advanced in AL, chapter 8 (such as the one permitting select grave sinners to receive the sacraments). These recommendations are based on the chapter’s equally incoherent and divisive understanding of “discernment.” Whatever qualifications we might find there about the importance of bringing the Gospel and Church teaching into the “discernment” that is supposed to take place as pastors “accompany” grave sinners back into full ecclesial communion, they are being routinely disregarded by individual bishops and groups of them, in their rush to interpret the chapter as loosely as possible. AL’s false understanding of discernment provides them with just the rationale that they and their accomplices need to mainstream (or “integrate”) the sins of grave sinners into the Church. They can then use the widespread contradiction between doctrine and personal “morality” that this will swiftly bring about to justify the call–already rather loud–to overturn the Church’s traditional moral teaching.
In this spiritually polluted climate, which so brazenly violates and undermines objective truth and goodness–and so, too, right conscience–real ecclesial unity cannot possibly be sustained. As we have seen, the only way for the pope and his subversive bishops to implement AL’s diabolical agenda is to feign unity by ruthlessly intimidating, threatening, or smothering every voice that is, in good conscience, rightly opposed to that agenda. We have also seen examples of one of their favorite preemptive tactics: that of hurling at innocent people outrageous accusations whose content actually applies rather conspicuously to themselves.
But even a deplorable tactic such as that doesn’t necessarily make fully clear to us what we’re dealing with. Right now, there is a titanic, perhaps definitive struggle going on in the Church between good and evil. We are witnessing an intense, revolutionary attempt by the devil and his minions, both human and demonic, to overthrow and destroy all that Christ has willed His Church to do and to be. So it is not surprising that the rhetoric we’re hearing in the Church these days has often a Marxist cast: The Church is guilty of having treated unfairly and discriminated against this or that “class” of people–especially grave sexual sinners of one kind or another. The people in that class, it is said, have been excluded from ecclesial life, marginalized, and made to feel unwelcome. The “oppressed” classes must therefore all be “integrated” into the life of the Church, and the Church must apologize for having oppressed them in the first place.
Marxist atheism demands that the new “Church” it seeks to fashion fabricate a false god–one that doesn’t insist on the observance of reasonable moral laws that foster human dignity, especially if someone has “great difficulty” understanding, in “conscience,” their relevance to his own situation, or if he has “discerned” that they would not be appropriate to follow at this time. Better yet, this “god” can ratify in a person’s own conscience his decision to sin gravely, given his personal limitations and concrete circumstances. In the end, moral subjectivism such as this leads to the denial of the existence of any morality at all, and hence to the denial of the existence of its Author, whose “voice” will then no longer be heard speaking through the objective moral law and its reflection in conscience, which has suppressed its summons to do good and avoid evil.
In the meantime, what about those who resist the congenial new god of moral flexibility, which is really just the idol of self, animated by the prince of darkness–the archetype and ultimate object of self-worship? Saint John Paul II’s analysis of Marxism in his great social encyclical, Centesimus Annus (1991), is particularly relevant here, with little need for modification. The conflict unleashed by AL can be resolved only by “class struggle” between those who are faithful to Christ and those who oppose Him. Those who would not have Christ as their King do not restrain this conflict “by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of [themselves]). . . . What is pursued is not the general good of [the Church], but a partisan interest which replaces the [true] common good and sets out to destroy [whoever and] whatever stands in its way. It is a question of . . . ‘total war’”–an attempt “to impose the absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies [and] terror tactics” (CA, 14).
It might seem a bit harsh to apply that passage to the current state of affairs in the Church and to some of her principal players. But recall that by invoking the objective and the subjective dimensions of conscience in the process of discernment and then inverting their order of priority, AL’s architects have taken a grain of truth and built it into a mountain of lies. Recall, too, that several proponents of those lies have not exactly been reserved about threatening, punishing, or voicing their disdain for those who seek to act according to right conscience, those who expose their lies in the clear light of Catholic truth, or those who ask them respectfully for a little clarity.
I would add that AL supports its position on discernment by recourse to sleazy, tendentious misrepresentations of numerous scholastic, conciliar, papal, and arguably even scriptural texts. I have given several examples of this in my other articles on AL. The violence done to these many texts–to these monuments of the Church’s Tradition–was not unintentional, nor did the corrupted versions of these texts, the passages cherry-picked from them, the false interpretations of them, or the misleading juxtapositions of texts somehow find their way into the document accidentally. They originated in the disordered will of the person or persons who selected and misused them, and they were purposely included in the document in a sorry attempt to give substance to its vacuous errors. This deplorable effort to manipulate other people’s way of thinking by appealing falsely to the Church’s tradition is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love. Rather, it attests further to a collaboration between influential Church figures and the father of lies, the rebellious murderer from the beginning.
The behavior of these prelates is inexcusable. God does not deny His light and grace to those who express their love for Him and for their neighbor by steadfast obedience to His commands. I have been especially struck by that enduring truth since moving to a semi-rural area of the country two years ago. The many decent, hardworking, down-to-earth family people with whom I have become friends love God and His Church above all else. Though they have little or no formal background in the teachings of the Church, their moral sensibilities are rock solid. They are imbued with the Spirit of divine Wisdom.
Precisely for that reason, my new friends recognize that something is radically wrong today in the Church, which seems, in large part, no longer capable of identifying and denouncing sins against God’s moral law, but which would rather entrust to the conscience of the sinner the decision about whether it is necessary for him to abide by that law in his concrete situation. My friends recognize that something is radically wrong with the members of the hierarchy who have orchestrated this pathetic state of affairs and who are aggressively promoting it. By doing so, these prelates have forsaken the Church’s mission to defend the true dignity, and hence the true temporal and eternal good, of the human person. In order to be faithful to that mission, they must uphold and promote God’s moral law without compromise, admonishing Catholics–and the world–to live by that law unconditionally, starting yesterday. That is the meaning of the mandate Christ gave His Apostles just prior to His ascension (see Mt 28:16-20). But many of their successors prefer to talk dignity and integration while promoting degradation and eternal ruin. They are thus opposing the Spirit of divine Wisdom.
At least the Pharisees knew the right things to say about the Law, even if they were hypocrites in practice. But an alarming number of Catholic bishops are unabashedly denouncing both God’s moral law itself (a strong indication that they are not keeping it themselves) and those who observe and defend it (thus sullying the good name of innocent people–a violation of both the Eight Commandment and the whole Law of love). A good Catholic must therefore do neither what they say nor what they do. Their minds are dark and their fruit rotten. Together with the grave sinners whom they’ve become wont to coddle in the name of a nonjudgmental god whose “mercy” precludes eternal condemnation for unregenerate sexual sinners, these bishops would do well to recall, with the rest of us, the following salutary Scriptural warning: “Perverse thoughts separate men from God, and when His power is tested, it convicts the foolish; because [divine] wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin” (Ws 1:3-4).
. In some legal systems, this type of unpremeditated murder is termed “voluntary manslaughter” to distinguish it from premeditated murder.
. It is now clear to all that with the pope’s blessing, some bishops or bishops’ conferences have issued episcopal guidelines based on AL that are radically opposed to the Church’s teaching and her traditional sacramental practice, both of which are grounded in divine law.
. Similarly, “mercy killing” sounds much less nefarious than premeditated murder, and it seems to imply the “constructive elements” of caring and compassion. But it is actually the very antithesis of these.
. The Church has always understood the so-called exception allowing “divorce” on the ground of “unchastity” (see Mt 5:32; 19:9) as referring either to an unlawful “marriage” that is null by definition (as in the case of incest), or to the permanent, legalized separation of a couple (because of sinful sexual behavior, such as adultery), where neither person is permitted to “marry” another.
. As we just saw, the same is ultimately true also of those who supposedly have “great difficulty” understanding the inherent values of the fundamental moral precept they’re violating. They cannot but have sufficient knowledge of why their situation is sinful.
. Even if one were to grant the debatable contention that the official Latin edition of AL, which was published only last June (in the April 2016 issue of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis), has scaled back or clarified the damning passage from paragraph 303 (cited earlier) to which I am alluding here, the more favorable English translation proposed by Drs. Fastiggi and Eden-Goldstein, based on the Latin, does nothing to explain away all the other questionable and damning passages that we find in AL. In fact, the original English translation of AL, 303, even if somewhat imprecise in certain particulars, is still consistent overall with the other passages we’re examining herein, bringing them to a fitting climax, as it were. On the other hand, the newly proposed English translation of AL, 303 is not at all consistent with those passages, to say nothing of other passages appearing in the document. The new rendering is strained and does not reflect the tenor of chapter 8 as a whole. See the following: Pete Baklinski, “Yes, Amoris Laetitia 303 Really Undermines Catholic Moral Teaching: Scholar,” LifeSite News (September 28, 2017).
. Here, AL is quoting from the final report of the 2015 synod on the family. AL would have done well to seize on and develop this point, especially in chapter 8. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s interpretation of the chapter depends on an elaborate contradiction of the same point.
. This seems to be the type of nonsense that Cardinal Cupich of Chicago (perhaps echoing Bernard Häring) has in mind when he says that AL calls us to “an adult spirituality.” In turn, the call to this “adult spirituality” seems to be the basis of his asserting that Catholics “must let go of ‘cherished beliefs.’” Cherished beliefs about what? Most likely, Cupich is referring to the Church’s perennial belief in the absolute and universal character of the divinely revealed moral precepts, particularly in the area of sexual morality and the sacramental discipline related to it. See the following articles by Pete Baklinski: “Cardinal Cupich: Amoris Laetitia is a Call for an ‘Adult Spirituality’ Where We Discern What is True,” LifeSite News (June 9, 2017); and “Catholics Must Let Go of ‘Cherished Beliefs’ to ‘Discern’ Like Pope Francis: U.S. Cardinal,” LifeSite News (November 2, 2017).
. I am using the term “theology” in the broad sense to include not just the doctrine of God, but also Christology, Christian anthropology, sacramental theology, and so on.
. Some bishops have sought to expedite the arrival of the final phase of this scheme by insisting that AL–chapter 8, in particular–is an act of the Church’s magisterium. By insisting thus, they want to affirm that the errors promoted in AL to which critics object are indeed “official,” even as they deny simultaneously that AL has introduced any errors at all.
. See, for example, Jeff Mirus, “Pope Francis and Bernard Häring: The Literally Infernal Cheek of Dissent,” Catholic Culture (March 7, 2017), and Pete Baklinski, “Francis Praises Major Humanae Vitae Dissenter in Rebuke of ‘White or Black’ Morality,” LifeSite News (November 24, 2016). See also note 8 above.
. Hannah Brockhaus, “Pope Francis Demands Obedience from Priests of Nigerian Diocese,” CNA/EWTN News (June 12, 2017). All subsequent quotations in this section are from the same article.
. Cardinals Meisner and Caffarra died while waiting for him to respond. Of course, the pope’s nonresponse was, in fact, his response. The four cardinals had initially interpreted it–perhaps wishfully or unduly charitably–as “an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion.” Edward Pentin, “Full Text and Explanatory Notes of Cardinals’ Questions on Amoris Laetitia,” National Catholic Register (November 14, 2016).
. See ibid.
. Staff, “Cardinal-Watch: Maradiaga Bashes Burke, as Benedict Lauds Sarah,” Crux News (May 19, 2017). All subsequent quotations in this section are from the same article.
. Of course, that would apply just as well to Maradiaga and all the other bishops; however, see Lumen Gentium, 23-25. It would be interesting to see whether Maradiaga would identify Pope Paul VI just as ardently with the magisterium relative to the clear and unadulterated teaching of Humanae Vitae.
. Claire Chretien, “‘At Best Naive’: New U.S. Cardinal Tobin Chides 4 Cardinals Over Amoris Criticism,” LifeSite News (November 21, 2016); see also, John-Henry Westen, “Rome is Buzzing with Questions on the Four Cardinals’ Objections to Amoris Laetitia,” LifeSite News (November 21, 2016).
. This particular singsong and its variations smack of the effort, under the present pontificate, to advance a radical concept of “decentralized” Church authority. The idea being floated suggests that national and regional episcopal conferences, and robber synods that include cherry-picked bishops, either have or can be granted an authority over doctrinal matters on par with that of an ecumenical council. An ecumenical council consists of a universal representation of bishops in union with, and convened by, the pope for the purpose of resolving matters of universal consequence for the Church–matters pertaining to faith and morals, and discipline as it relates to the other two. But the new concept of decentralization would allow a national or regional episcopal conference that has been hijacked by only a few to impose a particular agenda, with the claim that its decisions have a definitive, doctrinal status, to which the individual bishops and the flock within its compass must submit. At the same time, another body of bishops might decide otherwise on the same matter, requiring everyone within its compass to submit accordingly. The pope is therefore promoting the very “tribalism” for which he condemned the Ahiara priests, so that every culture or society can assert its own truth to serve its own interests. A case in point is the doctrinal and moral chaos being caused by the incompatible guidelines that various episcopal conferences are issuing on the implementation of AL. Of course, this only confirms what we know already from long experience: episcopal conferences can be totally inept at issuing, or intentionally unwilling to issue, doctrinally sound statements. The pope has no authority whatsoever to confer on these or any other merely human institutions a share in the charism with which Christ has endowed the office of Peter and the whole episcopal college united with him when they act formally to defend or interpret the deposit of faith for the good of the whole Church.
. Sharon Otterman, “As Church Shifts, a Cardinal Welcomes Gays; They Embrace a ‘Miracle,’” New York Times (June 13, 2017).
. Of course, the implications of the guidelines will inevitably be applied to other sinful contexts when expedient, and also as the moral sensibilities of both the Catholic hierarchy and the faithful continue to decline through ever increasing exposure to all the dark and sacrilegious practices to which AL has opened the door.
. Elsie Harris, “Maltese Bishops: Divorced and Remarried ‘at Peace With God’ May Receive Communion,” CNS (January 13, 2017). The subsequent quotations in this paragraph are from the same article.
. Strictly speaking, the moral life is humanly impossible for any of us to live out consistently. We require God’s grace to live it out resolutely. Sacred Scripture affirms that God does not deny His help to us when we are tempted to sin (see 1 Cor 10:13). This leaves civilly divorced Catholics with no excuse for having “remarried” and established an adulterous relationship in the first place. What is more, the Church’s doctrine on grace affirms that the observance of God’s Commandments is not impossible for those who are justified (see Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 1536, 1568). This means that the Maltese bishops have adopted Martin Luther’s position on justification by implying that even those justified and established in grace (“at peace with God” through an “enlightened” conscience) cannot keep the Commandments (i.e., cannot live as brother and sister rather than as adulterers). But given the true, Catholic teaching on justification, what these bishops have actually affirmed, unintentionally, is that Catholics persisting in their adultery are no longer just before God. For if they are finding it humanly impossible to keep His commandment, then they must have rejected the grace that He had provided to make it possible supernaturally. So, they are in a state of mortal sin, and hence (contrary to AL, 305) not growing “in the life of grace and charity.” Nor, therefore, are they properly disposed to receive the sacraments “in the midst of limits.”
. Edward Pentin, “Malta’s Archbishop: Seminarians Can Leave if They Don’t Agree With Pope Francis,” National Catholic Register (February 20, 2017).
. Pete Baklinski, “Archbishop Fires Renowned Catholic Philosopher for Questioning Pope Francis,” LifeSite News (September 5, 2017). The subsequent quotation in this section is from the same article. See also Josef Seifert, “The Persecution of Orthodoxy,” First Things (October 5, 2017).
. See the following: Carl E. Olson, “Fr. Weinandy: ‘The USCCB Strongly Encouraged Me to Resign,’” Catholic World Report (November 3, 2017).
. See the following: Edward Pentin, “Full Text of Father Weinandy’s Letter to Pope Francis,” National Catholic Register (November 1, 2017).
. Daniel N. DiNardo, “U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President on Dialogue Within the Church,” USCCB (November 1, 2017). http://www.usccb.org/news2017/17-203.cfm
. While Cardinal DiNardo might not have intended his statement to convey this meaning, it nevertheless feeds right into the false notion of “dialogue” being propagated in the Church these days and threatening to undermine the doctrinal and moral truth with which Christ has entrusted her. AL, note 329, provides an example of just where such “dialogue”–based on the “truth” of my experience–leads. The same idea underlies the equally false concept of “decentralization” mentioned in note 18 above, where the national or regional “dialogue” of bishops and other participants supposedly results in a “consensus” about how to interpret Church teaching to suit the fancies of the particular culture or society to which they belong. We must therefore look warily, in the current ecclesiastical climate, on statements like the following: “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. . . . Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (AL, 3).
. So goes the tune that German Cardinal Reinhard Marx sang in Dublin (June 2016) regarding his take on the Church’s alleged treatment of gays, whose same-sex “relationships” he thinks the Church ought to accept–at least when the two men are “faithful.” See the following: Pete Baklinski, “Catholic Church Should Apologize to Gays, Says Papal Adviser Cardinal Marx,” LifeSite News (June 24, 2016).