Pope Francis never ceases to challenge us across a spectrum of issues. How we treat the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, even nature itself are all matters of grave moral concern. He reminds us that we best confront these issues through our encounters with one person at a time, by being the hands of God’s own mercy.
Pope Francis bases his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) on several fundamental principles, which I hope to examine in future blog posts. Here, however, we consider briefly perhaps the most fundamental: the matter of the individual moral conscience. The expectation of the Church, well expressed by the Holy Father, is that we confront life’s challenges in a morally responsible and mature way. More about that in a moment, but first, what do we teach about the conscience?
The core of the Church’s teaching on conscience is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (GS), 16:
In the depths of conscience, a person detects a law which he does not give to himself, but which he must obey. Always summoning the person to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the heart: do this, shun that. For the person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.
One thing many observers forget, however, is that we are bound to follow our conscience, even if that means we are responsible for errors we make! GS 16 continues:
The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.
So, in summary: we must make every attempt to properly form our consciences, but we are bound to follow our conscience even if later that judgment is found to be in error. Saying that something is “in accordance with my conscience” does not mean that it is necessarily accurate or correct or infallible. It means that we take adult responsibility both for the formation of conscience and our actions taken in response to it.
With this as context (read more about the moral conscience in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), we return to Amoris Laetitia. In AL 37, the pope writes:
We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. . . . 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, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.
So we arrive at the first point I want to make about the conscience. The conscience is subjective: it belongs to each, individual, human subject. While other persons: family, friends, pastors, bishops, deacons, religious, catechists, scientists and teachers may assist me in the formation of my conscience, ultimately, as Vatican II teaches, I am alone with God in my conscience. Someone else’s conscience cannot serve as — or replace — my own conscience.
Therefore, my first reflection on the formation of conscience is simple: “Mind your (my) own business”! Consider the following scenario:
At Mass, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. John and Jane Doe, longtime parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish, Anytown, USA, join the communion procession, approach Deacon James Jones and receive Communion.
Mrs. Smith approaches Deacon Jones after Mass. “I’m scandalized, Deacon, that you gave Communion to those two! You know as well as I do that they’re divorced and re-married outside the Church! How dare you violate the Church’s law?”
After Mrs. Smith storms off, Dr. Baker heads over to the deacon. “What the hell is going on, Deacon? Those two people haven’t received Communion in years. Yes, I know they’re very active here, but they used to respect our church’s laws. Now, this? You know they’re divorced and all, Deacon, and you gave them Communion anyway! The bishop’s going to hear about this.”
The weekend after AL was presented to the world, a friend presented me just that scenario. “What would happen if a divorced and remarried couple, who had refrained from receiving communion for many years, began receiving communion again? That would be a terrible scandal, and the pope says we are to avoid scandal!” What if John and Jane Doe’s story included the fact that they had gone to the pastor and, under his guidance, pastoral judgment and advice, in consideration of many factors known only to the two individuals involved, both John and Jane decide in conscience that each should return to the reception of Holy Communion? This process of conscience formation, which as the pope reminds us, is not done with a view to sidestepping the law. However, it is done with due consideration of unique aspects of their own past experiences and current responsibilities for their children and so on. And, they each reach a decision point in conscience. And, “according to it [each of them] will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”
BOTTOM LINE: If a person winds up receiving Holy Communion unworthily, the responsibility for doing so rests with that individual, and no one else. We do not force our own conscience on someone else. “We are called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
So, consider a third possible reaction:
Mr. and Mrs. Williams approach the Deacon after Mass, beaming with joy. “It was so wonderful to see Jane and John receiving Communion this morning!”
- How do we assist others in the formation of conscience? Do we get to a point where we “let go” and let them arrive at their own decision in conscience?
- When we see someone acting in a particular way, do we presume that they are acting in good faith, or bad faith? Notice in the first two reactions above: the presumption was being made that John and Jane were acting “in bad faith” and flaunting their “irregular” situation. In reaction #3, however, the presumption was that they were acting “in good faith.”
- At what point do I have simply have to mind my own business concerning others?
Consider St. Paul’s advice to the Romans (14:1-14)(emphasis added):
1 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
Dcn Bill, Great thinking and writing resulting in great pastoral advice. Thanks for sharing it with us. Some of your thinking will probably be shared with the faithful Catholics of parishes in Minnesota and Florida. Vern
“What if John and Jane Doe’s story included the fact that they had gone to the pastor and, under his guidance, pastoral judgment and advice, in consideration of many factors known only to the two individuals involved, both John and Jane decide in conscience that each should return to the reception of Holy Communion?”
While it sounds lovely in the abstract, how, given the totality of Catholic teaching on marriage, could the couple have a properly formed conscience that would lead them to believe they are eligible to return to Communion absent living as brother and sister or receiving a declaration of nullity?
There is an objectively invalid marriage. If they are truly under the pastor’s guidance, pastoral judgment, and advice, how could they believe themselves to be eligible to return to the reception of Holy Communion absent invincible ignorance or obstinate refusal to acknowledge the truth of their relationship. They are objectively and publicly at odds with Church teaching.
Amen to the Advocate!
Dear Advocate and Deacon Jay,
Thanks for your comments. I would reply in two ways, prompted by your use of “objectively”. What, precisely, does the Church hold in such a case?
Let’s begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the nature of sin and, in particular, mortal sin:
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
In sum: while one may certainly engage in something that is considered “grave matter”, “sinfulness” is not determined by the objective act (or omission) alone. Rather, one’s degree of culpability and sinfulness is further determined by the subjective conditions of “full knowledge” and “deliberate consent”. (Or, as expressed in the old Baltimore Catechism, “serious matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.”)
For this reason, Pope Francis writes in AL 295:
“This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.”
The Holy Father continues in AL 305:
“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, 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.”
So, to respond to your comment, I would simply state that the possibility exists that in proper discernment of such matters with one’s pastor/confessor, a person might very well come to a position in conscience that might (or might not) permit a return to the sacraments.
Thanks, Deacon Vern!
Great response Bill.
In terms of the question posed by advocate, there are many possibilities that might lead each one of the couple to form a conscience.
Under the guidance of the pastor begs consideration in of its self. Pope Francis informs us and pastors too that guidance is to be offered, but that guidance does not “replace” conscience.
It is certainly canonically correct that a couple must have had prior marriages declared null via annulment before attempting a new marriage. That said, it is not absolute…. There are rare occasions in which circumstances allow for special treatment via the internal form.
It might be helpful to consider why Pope Francis has directed so much dialogue toward pastors while instructing them to be merciful. Is it possible to receive two different opinions from two different priests when discussing a given set of circumstances? I have seen diverging opinions from one speaking from a canonical background and another speaking from a theological background, yet I certainly could not consider one to be right, or the other to be wrong. They were just coming to the issue from different perspectives.
The words of Pope Francis “who am I to judge” ring true.