by Anthony Egan SJ

A first reading of a 250-odd page theological text read very rapidly is dangerous, since it misses not only the details but also the subtleties of the argument. A very provisional attempt to draw something from Amoris Laetitia (AL) should be seen as precisely that. But I shall try anyway.

The most striking thing for me about this document is that while not changing any doctrine Pope Francis presents it through a new lens and treats his subject with a degree of frankness that one seldom has seen in official Catholic texts on the family. Doctrines haven’t change, indeed much of the text is informed by the usual clutch of official texts on the subject. (And many of these teachings still need, many would say, to be re-examined in the light of wider human and biological sciences). But something is different in Amoris: there is a new way of reading them. Certain recurring underlying approaches to interpreting the document stands out: discernment, dialogue and conscience formation. All three of them force us to move away from blind rule-following and engage with the teachings for ourselves.

Discernment is the invitation to find out what God is saying to us in our particular situation and to reach a decision on how to respond. We do this in dialogue with others, taking for granted neither what we or others think. And we ultimately respond through acting on formed and informed conscience: a decision made by ourselves, having weighed up the moral issues, informed by Church teaching and in dialogue with others.

This method that informs Francis’ approach to things is most clearly apparent when he deals with irregularities in marriage in chapter 8. Titled “Guiding, discerning and integrating weakness”. From the start the tone is set by a reminder of his famous ‘field hospital’ image of the Church, one that cannot turn people away. (Much earlier in AL he affirms that no divorced and remarried person is excommunicated). He argues that we need to recognise the complexity of people’s lives, particularly those who live in apparently irregular situations and to avoid sweeping and harsh judgments.

He is clearly unhappy with an overly legalistic ‘one size fits all’ approach to the problem. Already in the document he reaffirms the importance of shorter and simpler marriage annulments that he’s introduced, including a much greater space for a bishop to grant them in many cases. (Whether this is happening in practice needs to be investigated). But here he calls upon the couple themselves and their pastor to do some faith-filled discernment in conscience.

Francis is not offering anyone – not parish, not people, not bishops – a quick-fix set of answers for pastoral response to irregular marriage situations. He makes no new law that we must blindly follow, no new doctrines that we are bound to believe. He wants us to actually discern for ourselves what the right thing is and act in conscience on it. He wants us to look very closely at the particularities of each case and to act accordingly, remembering always the principle of mercy is at the heart of Christian faith.

It is interesting that in one of his many excursions into the theology of Aquinas, he cites approvingly Thomas’ emphasis on particularities over sweeping moral principles, however important the latter are. This is fundamental to moral conscience too: I do not ultimately make sweeping generalisations about my practice, because my practice is particular in each case. I apply the principles that inform and form me to the particular issue I must address in my life. And I discern what I may do next.  

So Francis ultimately refuses to tell us what to do about irregular marriages in the chapter, leaving it up to the local church to make its own informed discernments, once again done through the mediation of mercy. This may seem a radical step to those unfamiliar with the history of a Church that we have grown to see as highly centralized, with doctrines, laws and practices sent down from on high to us to be applied in every case.

We are no longer in the late 19th Century with its ironically radically modern (centralizing, homogenizing) reaction against modernity. If anything we are back in the Middle Ages where much greater space existed for the application of universal teaching to the local context, where Aquinas’ thought on conscience applied. But this time it’s a ‘premodern’ vision that ‘postmodernly’ addresses our post-modern and complex age.

This is a daring step if we think of it. By restoring conscience and discernment to such a central place, Francis has forced us all to think and pray about what we believe in, and how we live our lives. A lot of people – bishops, priests and laity alike – may find applying Francis’ vision difficult. Some bishops may feel threatened by this call to pastoral discernment and the application of conscience: will they lose authority in the process? For some who have deferred to Rome and merely carried out orders from above for so long, the fear may be they will make mistakes: Will my decisions be too harsh or too lenient, and what will my brother bishops – and the Bishop of Rome – think? Similar questions will be asked by priests: what will my bishop think? And how will I help the people make correct decisions without a strict template to go by? Will I lose my authority in my parish? Some laity too will feel uneasy – they can no longer get away with being passive members of the Church, the ‘acted upon’, the ‘receivers’ of sacrament and sanction.    

Without changing official church practice, I think Francis has embarked on a new process: changing the way all Catholics think about themselves. Passivity and inertia is no longer an option. This exhortation does not resolve and sew up the issue of irregular marriages but moves the Synod into the pews – and into the consciences of Catholics.

What happens now depends on the responses of bishops, clergy and laity, on the quality of dialogue we have – which should be done, I think Francis is saying, in a spirit of love and mercy – with each other. The Church’s teaching is a standard and a point of reference, the goalposts and goal of all our dialogue and discernment, but the game is played (under the rule of love and mercy) in the field of daily life.