The notion of conscience in Amoris Laetitia and its significance for the divorced and remarried
Martin M. Lintner, Brixen
At the in-flight press conference from Lesvos to Rome on April 16, 2016, Pope Francis clearly affirmed that Amoris Laetitia (AL) has opened up new possibilities in the discipline concerning reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried. But he added, that a simple “yes” would not be enough, because the question is very complex and demands a differentiated answer.
Therefore, it is worthy to look for the theological and ethical basis of these new possibilities that can be found in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation. It is interesting to analyse the use of the term “conscience”, because it shows how Pope Francis basically not only takes up the advice of the Relatio Finalis of the Bishop’s Synod 2015, but also the position of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1973, i.e. to “show particular solicitude toward those who live in an irregular union, seeking to resolve these cases through the use of the approved practices of the Church in the internal forum, as well as other just means”.
New trust in the competence of conscience of the faithful
In AL the conscience has a significant role. The issue of the conscience runs like a red thread through the whole document. For the first time it is mentioned in nr 37, in a very self-critical statement: “We [the Church] […] 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 222 quotes GS 16 and affirms that “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”. AL 298–312 point out the importance of the conscience not only for the discernment of situations and for the clarification of personal responsibility, but also for the Church’s pastoral practice: “Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” (AL 303). Therefore the Church’s pastors are encouraged “to listen to them [the faithful] with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view” (AL 312).
Pope Francis overcomes a deep sceptical attitude towards the competence of conscience of the faithful that has characterized the Church’s position in the past papacies. At the same time he goes beyond a reductive normative-ethical notion of conscience: “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (AL 303).
An existential-ethical notion of conscience
In AL we find basically an existential-ethical notion of conscience; it is seen first of all as place of encounter and dialogue with God. AL 222 quotes GS 16: The conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart”. Therefore the ethical subjects in fidelity to their conscience are capable of responding as best as they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations (cf. AL 37). The conscience is seen as an ability to recognize the deep values of the Gospel and its ethical implications for one’s own life. In other words: One learns to look at one’s life “with the eyes of the faith” or “with the eyes of Jesus” in order to become aware of one’s situation before God (cf. AL 300). It is evident that behind this notion of conscience are the Ignatian principles of spiritual discernment and of indifference. The inner dialogue with God as well as the critical confrontation with other persons help one not only to find appropriate moral solutions, but also to become aware of one’s situation before God, to listen to God’s voice and his commandments (AL 222). The aim is to learn what the Gospel demands from a person and to enable her to respond as best as possible to the Gospel amid the existential conditions (AL 37, 303).
The relationship between conscience and moral norms
AL 296–300 stresses the need and the obligation to differentiate the various situations, and as a logical consequence it demands taking into consideration the mitigating factors in the pastoral discernment and the consequences as well as the sanctions of moral acts (AL 301–312). In those cases and situations which do not objectively embody the Church’s moral teaching or correspond to a general moral rule we have to differentiate whether it is a situation of personal sin or not. The process of discernment has also to consider mitigating factors and situations. “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know fully well the rule, yet has great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’” (AL 301). Beside the fact that of course a moral subject can sin and be morally guilty, there are other possibilities: the moral responsibility can be diminished or even nullified by various factors, e.g. by ignorance of a moral norm or by an existential inability to recognize the authentic value of a norm or to be convinced of it. In those cases, the person has an erroneous conscience. AL 301 also mentions the case that one could “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin”. Even though AL doesn’t mention explicitly the principle of Epikeia, in this case one has to exercise exactly this virtue. In brief, a person has to do justice to the authentic intention and spirit of a moral norm, not its letter. The conscience is the ability to recognize the authentic meaning of a norm as well as the very specific requirements of a complex situation and to know the needs of the involved person. Therefore, one can find solutions which are appropriate to the very singular complex situation. Quoting Thomas Aquinas, AL 304 affirms: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects.”
The way of the internal forum
This doesn’t entail moral subjectivism nor the denial of the binding force of general norms. AL stresses the need to form the conscience by listening to God’s word and commandments (AL 222), by the moral education and formation of character, and by being attracted to the moral goods which can be recognized by reason (AL 265). Also common counsel and effort (AL 222) and critical dialogue and confrontation with others, e.g. with a priest, spiritual guide or another educated lay person, helps one to become aware of one’s situation before God, to discover the paths of spiritual and human growth, and to know how to respond as best as possible to God’s will and moral demands (AL 312). AL 300 gets to the heart of this: “What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which ‘guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it’ (Relatio Finalis 2015, 86)”.
AL takes up the approved practices of the Church in the internal forum
As mentioned above, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1973 in regard to persons who are living in so-called “irregular” situations demanded “to show particular solicitude toward those who live in an irregular union, seeking to resolve these cases through the use of the approved practices of the Church in the internal forum, as well as other just means”. AL offers a clear ethical framework for discerning situations and cases and for sounding out the concrete possibilities and ways for affected persons. And it stresses the mission of the Church to offer the sacraments as a help for the growth in faith, grace, and humanity. “It is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305). In footnote 351, Pope Francis affirms that “in certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments”, and by quoting his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he makes clear that in some ways he has opened the way for this even much earlier. The Church feels obliged to offer this help in imitation of Jesus Christ who demands a profound logic and practice of integration and reinstating, not of casting off (AL 296).
To summarize: AL shows that there are good pastoral, theological and ethical reasons to not exclude divorced and remarried persons categorically from the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. AL has indeed opened up new possibilities in the discipline concerning reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried.
 Cf. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2016/april/documents/papa-francesco_20160416_lesvos-volo-ritorno.html (April 29, 2016)
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter regarding the indissolubility of marriage (April 11, 1973); http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19730411_indissolubilitate-matrimonii_en.html (April 29, 2016)
 Cf. Antonio Spadaro SJ: «AMORIS LAETITIA». Struttura e significato dell'Esortazione apostolica post-sinodale di Papa Francesco, in: Civiltà Cattolica 167 (2016), 122.
 In regard to the conditions for the admission of divorced and remarried to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (separation or – in the cases that they can’t separate for serious reasons – complete sexual continence; cf. FC 84, also Sacramentum caritatis 29, where sexual continence is not obliged as it is in FC 84, but simply encouraged), notice the following: Even FC 84 recognizes that there may be cases in which a separation can’t be demanded. The obligation to sexual continence anyhow has not a long tradition, since John Paul II in FC 84 is referring only to his own homily of October 25, 1980. Only in 1998 card. Joseph Ratzinger demanded this expressly with reference to the “approved practice of the Church” of which the CDF was speaking in 1973 (cf. Introduzione, in: Congregazione per la dottrina della fede [ed.], Sulla pastorale dei divorziati risposati [Documenti, commenti e studi 17], Vatican 1998, 17-18). AL in footnote 329 clearly says that the demand of sexual continence can endanger the goods of faithfulness and of the children (cf. GS 51).