Amoris Laetitia


A deeper look at Amoris Laetitia

What is the meaning of “listening in conscience?” A concrete example of the pope’s approach appears in No. 222, which deals with the concrete discernment a married couple makes about responsible parenthood. There he wrote, “...The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and his commandments (cf. Rom 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores.”

Some would say yes, but…” to which Francis has replied in advance, “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal  bioethical and moral issues... we were providing sufficient support to families... We also 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...  We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (No. 37).

What is lacking is equally instructive. The old moral manualist expression of “binding consciences” is found nowhere in this text, nor an endorsement of the old axiom of Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken, the case is closed). Absent also is any reference to a term from “Lumen Gentium”—obsequium religiosum, on “submission of the intellect and will” or “religious respect” for papal teaching. Yet, it is quite clear that “Amoris Laetitia” calls us all to a deeper commitment to mercy, respect for God’s grace in the process of conscience-based discernment and finally to greater love itself.

In sum, St. Augustine’s well-worn dictum also summarizes the thrust of Amoris Laetitia: In fide, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas (In faith, unity; in doubt, liberty; in all things, charity).
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James T. Bretzke, S.J.,

Conscience, discernment and teologia del pueblo

Conscience. Not since Vatican II has the Magisterium spoken so forcefully about the importance of conscience. Gaudium et Spes had stated that conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. [And also:] There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart.” That one can listen to one’s conscience without the constant supervision of the church represented a break from the traditional emphasis on submission to authority. The primacy of conscience had also been a major counter-cultural force, often associated with anti-institutionalism. Both Vatican II and the counter-culture were quickly swept away by a top-down backlash. Now we return to Vatican II for good.

Discernment. The Second novelty of Pope Francis is his agenda of moving away from the restoration mentality based on rules and a rigid understanding of orthodoxy that has governed the church for the last forty years. Amoris Laetitia begins with the programmatic statement that it will not “provide a new set of general rules... applicable to all cases.”  The new agenda will be promoted not by rules and regulations but by spiritual discernment.

Applying discernment. What I find most striking in the Exhortation is Francis’ understanding of the sensus fidei fidelium.  Traditionally the sensus fidelium was expected to reflect the sensus fidei of the Magisterium. Now, instead of making general rules applicable to all, the church must “undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases,” with the understanding that “responsibility is not equal in all cases.” One’s sensus fidei depends on one’s education and life experiences which are different for each individual. The Holy Spirit can inspire the humble faith of the faithful, not just the Magisterium,  hence the church must listen before preaching. This is quite new. This teaching could lead to a renewed theology based on empirical and pastoral studies as well as a new theology of the laity.


The basic attitude of mercy and understanding found in this document is inspired by the  “theology of the people” (the Argentinian teologia del pueblo) based on respect for the sensus fidei of the people.  Pope Francis’ relationship with wealth and poverty − and also with family life − is a living example for lay action in the world, in light of his theology of the people. The whole church now needs such a theology of lay empowerment based on conscience and discernment. This Exhortation − on conscience and discernment − shows the way.


Defusing the culture wars within the church

That the document is a mix should be no surprise. There was considerable push back at the Synod on efforts to loosen church positions on issues such as homosexuality, same sex marriage, gender roles, and communion for the divorced and remarried. By situating himself between opposing positions (yielding some, but never all, to any one view) the Pope’s text reflects the balance of current opinion within the church. But the bottom line is that the document does open   doors by encouragig pastoral engagement, a “responsible, personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” over application of  formal rules, by underscoring the need for acceptance over condemnation, and by continuing the Pope’s efforts to defuse the culture wars within the church. All these are much needed steps forward if Amoris Laetitia   is not to experience the paradoxical fate of Humanae Vitae: much cited, overwhelmingly ignored.
Daniel H Levine,
University of Michigan

Pastorum et fidelium conspiratio

In his “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” (writing from his 1859 context) John Henry Newman asserted, “Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of the clergy in matters of faith, yet there is something in the pastorum et fidelium conspiratio, which is not in the pastors alone.”
            Pope Francis is opening up a space, and is inviting us to open up spaces, where, not only are we working through the issues, but where we are consciously working through the issues.  The church "from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful" (Lumen gentium, # 12) is consciously working on the issues.  We are invited, pastors and faithful, to ask what the conspiratio can and will be.
  Dan Finucane,
Saint Louis University

A loud positive note and a few stereotypes

            In this year of mercy, Amoris laetitia strikes a loud positive note. It exudes hope, understanding of the real world, and the ubiquitous pastoral responsibility of the people of God. As was noted, “Now we return to Vatican II for good.”
            I was delighted to see this clear distinction between doctrine and moral teaching. Many believe that moral teaching is as unchanging as the formulae. Hooray for the pope for not falling into this trap. Likewise he emphasizes the primacy of conscience, and its formation through unique personal experience.
            In the sections that treat “irregular unions” and other departures from the norm Francis begins to smell a bit deontological. He assumes stereotypical notions of women and men.  He speaks of “feminine genius” and “fatherly authority” or “gifts of masculinity,” evoking all too traditional categories. I can almost see a 1950’s mom, starched apron, fresh makeup, and high heels, telling a misbehaving child, “Wait ‘til your father gets home.”
            The rather odd distinction between the marriage of two unbaptized people as graced but not sacramental until they are baptized seems to belie Francis’ affirmation that grace is operative beyond Catholic sacraments. How can God’s sacramental action be constricted to seven ways?
            I would like to see deeper discussion about older married life--are we old folks really, as he assumes, done with sex?--and GLBT unions. The pope’s reasoning hints beyond the dichotomous “you are good but your actions are disordered” rhetoric, but not by too much. He notes there “are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous” to what he deems to be God’s plan for marriage and family (251). Nevertheless he does not close to door to the possibility of digging deeper. Gardeners, raise your shovels! Near the end of the document he asserts, “no one can be condemned forever.” (297)
  Dee Christie,
John Carroll University

Tolle et lege: continue reading

In his introduction to Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis tells us the document is long and should not be read at one but at several different sittings. While the exhortation does not change any of the controverted church teachings on marriage, divorce, and birth control it most certainly does three things: It shows what a synod should really be, first, an occasion for the Church in Rome to listen to the church universal from all corners of the world and, second, for the Pope to show that good teaching can only begin with good listening and, third, that the Church’s listening and teaching must embody the classical and ecclesial traditions of discernment and prudence.
The best that each of us can do is to follow the advice of St. Augustine, himself full of deep doubts and desires for more certainty in a blistery complicated world:  tolle et lege
Jim Kelly,
Fordham University  

A statement about episcopal and clerical responsibility

In terms of change in the Church, Amoris Laetitia is, in my view, a statement about episcopal and clerical responsibility. There is a message here to the members of the Church and/or public who want answers. "You have a right to demand them from your bishops and priests, where you live." Don't take rules for an answer (There is an old saying: Ask a Bishop or priest a question and they quote you a law or doctrine) or let them tell you that YOU don't understand! Challenge the intelligence of their responses." 

I think that the exhortation directs bishops and clerics to grow up and audete sapere. This may create an uncomfortable position and may weaken the Church if our "leaders" turn out to be shallow, unintelligent, and lacking in compassion, creativity, and imagination; if, in a word, our leaders are shown to be "not leaders."

We have work to do in the Church. We need to understand what it means to “be Church” and learn how to become what we believe. We need to discern the meaning of "governance" in and of the Church and learn how to govern.

More than asking about who the winners and losers are in this document, I think that its value lies in the implications it holds for a revolution in Church governance.
Richard Shields,
University of St. Michel’s College, Toronto