‘The New Paradigm,’ Conscience and the Death of Catholic Morality

COMMENTARY: The Vatican secretary of state’s recent comments on Amoris Laetitia elevate conscience to a degree that relativizes the objectivity of the moral law.

(photo: Nattapat Jitrungruengni/Shutterstock)

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in a recent interview with Vatican News, contends the controversial reasoning expressed in the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) represents a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s reasoning, a “new approach,” arising from a “new spirit,” which the Church needs to carry out “the process of applying the directives of Amoris Laetitia.

His reference to a “new paradigm” is murky. But its meaning is not. Among other things, he is referring to a new account of conscience that exalts the subjectivity of the process of decision-making to a degree that relativizes the objectivity of the moral law. To understand this account, we might first look at a favored maxim of Pope Francis: “Reality is greater than ideas.”

It admits no single-dimensional interpretation, which is no doubt why it’s attractive to the “Pope of Paradoxes.” But in one area, the arena of doctrine and praxis, a clear meaning has emerged. Dogma and doctrine constitute ideas, while praxis (i.e., the concrete lived experience of people) is reality: “Ideas — conceptual elaborations — are at the service of … praxis” (Evangelii Gaudium, 232).

In relation to the controversy stirred by Amoris Laetitia, “ideas” is interpreted to mean Church doctrine on thorny moral issues such as, but not only, Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and “reality” is interpreted to mean the concrete circumstances and decision-making of ordinary Catholics.

If we look at the reality, we can see that large numbers (a majority?) of Catholics believe the norms of the Church’s sexual morality are “detached from the realities” of ordinary people. If knowing this we still prioritize an ethical model of obedience-to-doctrine, we dwell dangerously “in the realm of words alone,” clinging to “objectives more ideal than real” and demanding of simple sinners “angelic forms of purity” (Evangelii Gaudium, 231). Therefore — since realities are greater than ideas — the ideas (the moral doctrines) should be reconsidered dialectically to see whether some higher synthesis might be reached where both the ideas and the realities can be reconciled, privileging, of course, the latter.


Reformulating Conscience

Where can we find this higher resolution? By reformulating the traditional Catholic understanding of the moral conscience. The Church has always taught that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience, even if one’s conscience is in error. If the error is not one’s fault, then conscience preserves its dignity (see Gaudium et Spes, 16). This applies to everyone, to Christian and nonbeliever alike. All must abide by their consciences.

In fact, there is sin, even for the atheist, if the voice of conscience is rejected. So far so good.

But now a crack begins to form in the dike. From the maxim, it follows that although there is indeed an objective moral law — the “new paradigm” regularly spurns ethical relativism — that law represents the idea, whereas the reality is the subjective process of people making up their own minds about whether to follow the precepts of the law.

It further follows that if ordinary Catholics looking at their concrete experiences in light of what the Church has to say about some matter (civil remarriage, contraception and homosexual behavior) undertake a sincere process of making up their own minds about what they should do in relation to that matter; and if they conclude that the Church’s moral teaching is erroneous or inadequate; and if in acting on this judgment they choose contrary to the teaching of the Church, then their consciences do not forfeit dignity.

What follows now is entirely alien and inimical to Catholic teaching on conscience. The “new paradigm” holds that if a priest believes that the circumstances of such people don’t admit of simple resolution by conformity to the Church’s moral teaching; and he likewise believes that such persons have undertaken a process of discernment with a sincere desire to do God’s will, the priest, acting on this presumption, may free them to participate in the sacraments of the Church without a firm resolution to cease their objectively sinful behavior.

Although the “new paradigm” claims a kind of deeper and purer continuity with Catholic moral tradition, it actually constitutes a radical departure. I mention here four ways this is so, with no intention of being comprehensive.

It is fatally naïve from a pastoral standpoint.

For although people can be invincibly ignorant in choosing grave evil and so lack culpability, what priest or pastor can know this with certainty? The people themselves cannot tell him they are ignorant of the truth without bringing their ignorance dangerously close to contact with truth’s light. So the priest must infer it, and infer it with sufficient certitude to be sure these people have an inculpable conscience. But such certitude is not accessible to a priest or to any human being. The people may in fact be culpably ignorant, in which case guilty of mortal sin. Their ignorance might be the result of rationalization or self-deception. Or they may be feigning ignorance to convince the priest they are in good faith. Any good pastor knows — if by no other means than by looking at his own heart — the tendency of us sinners to justify our own evildoing.

It presumes that leaving people in invincible ignorance is better than guiding them into the fullness of truth, which implies that choosing gravely evil acts in good faith is neutral to human well-being.

This implication is manifestly false. Evil acts are bad for us even if we choose them in good faith. They deform our character, warp our view of good and evil and harm people, even if we are invincibly ignorant of their badness.

Civilly remarried divorcees, for example, who are freed by priests to return to the sacraments will very likely adopt a misconception about the true character of the Holy Eucharist, one in which the salutary fear of sacrilege has been exorcised. They may grow blind to the example they give to their children about marriage and its indissoluble character, and so become willing to do unjust harm to their children’s belief system. They may encourage other couples in distressed marriages to seek the “way of accompaniment and discernment,” even when the others are not in good faith. They may grow steadily blind to the scandal that their irregular situation threatens to vulnerable brother and sister Catholics.

Others who see them carrying on as if their lives are in full conformity with Christ’s teaching on adultery may come to believe that adultery is not always wrong, or that the question of the validity of the people’s first marriages is not all that important, or that not all consummated Christian marriages are absolutely indissoluble, or that bad acts may sometimes be chosen for good reasons, or that reception of the Holy Eucharist is compatible with adulterous behavior, or that the Eucharist is not all that holy.

In other words, despite being in good faith, they become the kinds of people who see and treat marriage differently from the way Jesus does in the Gospels and who begin to tolerate the unjust harm to others that their example threatens.

So even if they are invincibly ignorant of the fact that their lifestyles and actions are objectively gravely disordered (and some surely will not be), continuing to live in this state is bad for them and for the Christian community. The duty of a priest is to help them understand their knotty situation so they can order their lives according to the life-giving teachings of Jesus Christ.

It minimizes — to the point of rejecting — the truth that heaven and hell are what’s at stake in choosing grave evil.

To institute a pastoral policy leaving people in a putative state of invincible ignorance while they continue manifestly to commit objectively gravely sinful actions minimizes the reality of mortal sin and its consequences for salvation. For since no one but God can know with certainty whether these persons are in good faith, pastors who free them risk placing them in danger of losing their salvation.

Catholic faith teaches that “mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered”; this includes “every act of disobedience to God’s commandments in a grave matter.”

Sexual acts carried out with someone other than one’s valid spouse are always grave matter. Sexually active civilly remarried divorcees without an annulment may believe that their acts and lifestyles are pleasing to God. But their lifestyles are objectively sinful. And if their first marriages were in fact valid — a possibility that ordinarily only the canonical annulment process can rule out — then they are living, according to the explicit teachings of Jesus, in adultery. To assume they are in good faith because they appear to be and because they say they are right with God is spiritually reckless.

We have heard a lot recently about how we should trust in the unbounded mercy of God for our salvation. It might be noted that the Council of Trent infallibly taught that the faith that justifies is not about trust in God’s mercy alone, however boundless. It is trust working through charity. And Catholic teaching insists that the charity and grace that justifies are lost by every freely chosen mortal sin. Persons may have faith to move mountains, but if they don’t sincerely repent of their sins, their faith is dead and they remain dead in their sins. This is what St. James means when he teaches that “faith without works is dead.” It doesn’t save.

At the same time, anyone who has fallen into mortal sin can rise again by the grace of God. All they need to do is to sincerely repent of their sins in the sacrament of penance and resolve, like the woman caught in adultery, to sin no more.

Its account of conscience transforms the traditional idea of the subjective guilt of sinners into a kind of “get out of jail free” card for those struggling with keeping the Commandments.

Good Catholic priests and directors have not been pastoral Neanderthals. They have always been sensitive to the subjective guilt of sinners. They’ve always understood that complex situations can occur where people’s ability to understand what they are doing is psychologically obscured; and that this can influence their subjective culpability, even to the point of rendering them guiltless in their commission of objectively gravely evil acts.

As Pope John Paul writes in Veritatis Splendor:

“But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category … understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin” ( 70).

But this is what the “new paradigm” has effectively done. It has created a new category of persons who in the name of a sincere “individual conscience” are exempted from obedience to Jesus’ moral law. The “new paradigm” calls them “sinners on the way of accompaniment and discernment.” If they decide for themselves that the objective moral norms don’t apply to them, they are free not to follow them and remain Catholics in good standing. How can this square with Veritatis Splendor?:

When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality, we are all absolutely equal (96).

The “new paradigm” — although never explicitly saying it —  allows priests and bishops simultaneously to affirm that they accept the Church’s moral teaching and yet to liberate “individual consciences” that are not living by that teaching to continue not living by it, while approaching the Table of the Lord.

E. Christian Brugger is a senior research fellow of ethics

at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C.