‘Amoris Laetitia,’ Malta and Conscience

COMMENTARY: According to the logic of the Maltese bishops and their defenders, in the area of sexuality subjective conscience can annul universal moral principles.

(photo: Pixabay)

The Church opened 2017 with another ride on the Amoris Laetitia roller coaster, with bishops issuing contradictory guidelines on the interpretation of its ambiguous eighth chapter.

The most notable intervention was that of the bishops of Malta, who wrote explicitly that Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, should they feel “at peace with God,” can receive absolution in confession and holy Communion.

Bishop Steven Lopes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter wrote a few days later that the Church’s traditional teaching had not been changed and cannot be changed; couples who are not validly married but living a sexual relationship cannot receive absolution or Communion without at least an intent to abstain from sexual relations.

The Maltese guidelines were published in L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, suggesting that Pope Francis favors the proposed change in the traditional sacramental discipline.

I had written last year that Amoris Laetitia is destined to be forgotten, as it does not itself address with sufficient gravity the key issues at stake. The relevant canons from the Code of Canon Law (915 and 916) are simply never mentioned. Indeed, the question of Communion is never explicitly mentioned, only hinted at in an ambiguous footnote.

Given the long and detailed tradition it was attempting to modify, if not overturn, Amoris Laetitia would have had to address the relevant issues forthrightly and with a great deal more sophistication than it does. The magisterium is a public act of teaching; it cannot proceed by stealth.

I stand by that earlier assessment, but before Amoris Laetitia is set aside for practical purposes, it is now likely that there will be several years of confusion, conflict and even rancor, unless the Holy Father chooses to resolve the crisis. He does not appear inclined to do so.

Given that Amoris Laetitia itself is the cause of the contradictions now arising, it is not evident that a further papal intervention would resolve the matter. It is possible that it would produce a genuine crisis.

We can see hints of that coming. Austen Ivereigh, author of a fine biography of Pope Francis and one of his most enthusiastic defenders, in a thoughtful column about the Maltese guidelines, advances an argument for the modification in sacramental discipline without a change in doctrine. The argument aims to save Amoris Laetitia from contradicting Catholic teaching, but puts much more of the tradition in peril.

However, it is the only path Pope Francis has left open to supporters of a change, as he has persistently insisted that Amoris Laetitia changes nothing in the teaching about marriage, confession and holy Communion. If none of the general principles (doctrine) have changed, but the practice (discipline) has, the only possible path is to suggest that the general principles somehow do not apply in particular circumstances. If that cannot be done, then a change in sacramental practice means that the teaching has effectively been changed and that the Church no longer teaches the indissolubility of marriage, the necessity of a purpose of amending one’s life before absolution can be granted, or the need to be in a state of grace to receive holy Communion.

So the stakes are very high, and it is necessary, for these supporters of change, to show that general principles can be maintained but do not apply in particular circumstances.

(This does not address the question of public scandal addressed in Canons 915 and 916, where there is “manifest” grave sin. The question of scandal was not addressed by the Maltese bishops, but was by the Buenos Aires bishops, who envisaged Communion being given in private in order to avoid that.)

The obvious starting point for advocates of change is that one might commit an objective mortal sin but not be subjectively culpable for it due to a lack of full knowledge or full consent. There is nothing problematic about that, as it is standard confessional practice to make that distinction. However, in the Amoris Laetitia approach, there can be no lack of knowledge that the behavior is objectively wrong, as the lengthy accompaniment that Amoris Laetitia proposes (Chapter 8 is entitled, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”) requires not only a knowledge of the Church’s full teaching, but a “love of Church teaching.”

It is difficult to love the Church’s teaching and simultaneously judge that it does not apply in this case, or that God does not want it to apply in this case. It is, though, possible to imagine a situation where there may be some defect in full consent. That is the narrow ground on which defenses of Amoris Laetitia must stand.

Those who have argued for the change in practice suggest that in particular circumstances one party might be coerced into sin by the other party and therefore is not culpable (Rocco Buttiglione), that a lack of faith might reduce culpability (Buenos Aires bishops) or, now, that abstinence from sexual relations might be “humanly impossible” (Maltese bishops).

This brings to the fore the question of conscience, which is the “judgment of reason” that applies general moral principles to particular circumstances. The argument being advanced is that personal conscience might judge that universal norms do not apply. Indeed, as the Maltese bishops put it, they might be “humanly impossible” to observe.

While this approach is an attempt to save Amoris Laetitia, a much greater crisis is being invited. Ivereigh admits as much, which defenders of Amoris Laetitia have heretofore been reluctant to do.

“The even more substantial departure, arguably, is from another of John Paul’s teaching documents, Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which argued against moral relativism and the misuse of conscience to justify a subjective morality,” writes Ivereigh. “The four cardinals who signed the letter challenging Pope Francis over Amoris specifically cite Veritatis, asking if it still holds that, as they paraphrase it, ‘conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object.’ Grasping the nature of this shift that so concerns the Amoris critics is key to understanding this dispute.”

Indeed it is. It makes the dispute all the more grave, touching the entirety of the moral life, not marriage alone.

“The law’s core principle, that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist, still stands,” continues Ivereigh. “But while Amoris is very clear about not wanting to create new norms or laws, it is also very clear about fostering a new attitude. What Amoris seeks is a new attitude on the part of the Church toward those who are in irregular situations, one that moves from a primary focus on defending the law and the institution from contamination toward a focus on the need for accompaniment and healing of the victims of divorce, especially those seeking integration into the Church.”

Ivereigh accepts that a plain reading of Amoris Laetitia’s eighth chapter is at odds with Veritatis Splendor. But the latter deals with the whole of the moral life, not just the painfully difficult cases of irregular marriages. Does the “new attitude” of Amoris Laetitia apply beyond marital matters?

For example, imagine a situation where, over many years, a businessman has built up a large factory, perhaps several. The business is profitable in part because he keeps the wages of his workers low. Attempts to unionize the workforce have not been successful, mainly because the owner has made explicit threats to shut down the business rather than negotiate with a union. Secretly, he has threatened union organizers with violence against their property, against their families and against their persons.

Now the businessman has a conversion of heart and begins to practice his Catholic faith once again. In confession, knowing the Church’s teaching about economic justice, he confesses to exploiting his workers and frustrating their right to unionize. The confessor asks him if he intends to change his labor policies. The man replies that his business does much good, is the most significant employer in the town, and a network of suppliers depend upon him. The business might not survive if it adopted better labor practices. Indeed, it seems to him “humanly impossible” to do so.

In any case, having thought it through, the businessman has concluded that what God is asking him to do in this situation is to continue to run the factory as he always has. He tells the confessor that he is at peace with God.

Should the confessor absolve him of his grave sins, tell him to receive holy Communion and continue as before?

Or consider a man who traffics in young domestic workers, exploiting them for their labor, but nevertheless he supports his entire extended family on what he extracts from his clients. He now regrets the situation into which he has fallen, recognizing his patterns of sinfulness are largely due to malign influences in adolescence after his drug-addled parents left him to fend for himself on the streets. Yet to give up his immoral trade would throw his entire extended family into poverty. He genuinely fears that his “business colleagues” might kill him if he tries to get out. He considers it humanly impossible for him to do so.

Is his judgment of conscience — that he is doing all that he can and that the usual moral prohibitions do not apply to his situation — valid?

Or if a marital situation is preferred, what about a wife whose husband is rendered impotent in a traffic accident while she is only 25? Let’s say she is exemplary in caring for him and utterly devoted to their two children, the second of which she was carrying at the time of the accident. Yet two or three times a year she engages a male prostitute because she finds it impossible not to have sexual relations on occasion.

Given the complexity of her situation and good efforts as a wife and mother, could not a confessor accept that she is “at peace with God”?

Those situations are deliberately dramatic to make the point. But there are other far less dramatic situations, where extricating oneself from a habitually sinful situation would be more difficult than sexual abstinence for a couple in an irregular situation.

Neither the Maltese bishops nor Ivereigh — and certainly not the Holy Father — are explicitly advocating that conscience operates differently in marital situations. However, if Veritatis Splendor is undone by Amoris Laetitia, which Ivereigh is suggesting explicitly and the Maltese bishops implicitly, then it is incumbent upon them to show how the role of conscience can apply in one area of the moral life (sexual morality and marriage) differently than it applies in other areas of the moral life.

Veritatis Splendor was written in 1993 to correct a trend in moral theology that began in the 1960s, which was to create a special category for sexual matters in which conscience — understood in a radically subjective way — could override universal moral principles. It was frequently invoked in discussion of extramarital sexual activity, contraception within marriage and abortion, though to a lesser degree. At the same time, judgments about economic matters and social justice were made with ever greater force.

Invoking the magisterium of Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope Benedict XVI explicitly taught in Caritas in Veritate (2007) that the Church’s social teaching includes her teaching on marriage, family and life, trying to bridge the distance that had grown in the Church between “pro-life and pro-family Catholics” and “social-justice Catholics.” Amoris Laetitia threatens to exacerbate that divide because, as the logic of the Maltese bishops and Ivereigh makes clear, there is a category of behavior — sexual morality — in which subjective conscience can annul universal moral principles due to the difficulty — or “human impossibility” — of observing the moral law.

The Maltese bishops claim to be following the approach of Pope Francis. In his daily homilies and press interviews, and in Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father does speak about matters of marriage and sexuality differently than he speaks on other matters. The “Who I am to judge?” Pope when it comes to homosexuality daily delivers judgments, frequently harshly, on a wide variety of other behavior. Pope Francis has never spoken of the potentially excusing role of conscience when he excoriates business interests.

The Maltese guidelines may be the first time that bishops have officially taught that the moral law is impossible to observe, contradicting the plain teaching of the Council of Trent. Their guidelines expose the very shaky foundation of Amoris Laetitia, which is why it will not long endure.

But in raising the stakes to include the fullness of the Church’s teaching on conscience, it is more likely now that a great crisis will occur before Amoris Laetitia is set aside.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.