Keys to a better understanding of "Amoris Laetitia" and its controversy

The publication of "Amoris Laetitia"The Pope's approach to accompanying people in an irregular marriage situation, especially if they have remarried, brought about a certain controversy. In this interview, the author tries to explain the message Pope Francis was trying to communicate, centered on three verbs: accompany, discern, integrate.

Stefano Grossi Gondi-August 10, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes

©Sandy Millar

In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Amoris Laetitia"The Pope proposed that Christians should accompany people in complex marital situations more closely. His perspective was received with reservations in some sectors of the Church. Omnes interviews Stéphane Seminckx - a Belgian priest, doctor of medicine and theology - to discuss the most controversial issues in the document and shed light on its interpretation.

In chapter VIII of "Amoris Laetitia" Pope Francis proposes to accompany, discern and integrate fragility. His reading has provoked many comments. How to understand these three verbs?

- Of these three verbs - accompany, discern, integrate - the second is the cornerstone of the Church's pastoral approach: accompaniment fosters discernment, which in turn opens the way to conversion and full integration into the life of the Church.

The "discernment"is a classic concept. St. John Paul II already uses this term in "Familiaris Consortio" (no. 84): "Pastors must be aware that, for the sake of truth, they have the obligation to discern well the different situations". Benedict XVI recalls almost literally the same idea in "Sacramentum Caritatis" (no. 29).

How can discernment be defined concretely?

- Discernment means arriving at the truth about a person's standing before God, a truth that, in reality, only God fully knows: "Though I am guilty of nothing, I am not justified: the Lord is my judge" (1 Cor 4:4).

However, "the Spirit of truth (...) will guide you into all truth" (Jn 16:13). The Holy Spirit knows us better than we know ourselves and invites us to know ourselves in Him. Discernment is our effort to respond to the light and power that the Spirit of truth gives us. The place par excellence for discernment is prayer.

Discernment begins with the circumstances that have led to the estrangement from God. Speaking of the divorced and remarried, St. John Paul II gives the following examples: "Indeed, there is a difference between those who have sincerely sought to save a first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there is the case of those who have contracted a second union for the upbringing of children, and who sometimes have the subjective certainty in their conscience that the previous marriage, irretrievably destroyed, was never valid." (Familiaris Consortio 84). Knowing these circumstances allows the sinner to evaluate his responsibility and to draw experience from the evil committed, and the priest to adapt his pastoral approach.

Discernment also means assessing - typically in the hands of the confessor - whether there is a desire for conversion in the sinner's soul. This point is decisive: if this sincere desire exists - even in the most basic form - everything becomes possible. A path of accompaniment and return to full communion in the Church can be set in motion.

Thirdly, discernment means discovering the causes of the estrangement from God, which will also determine the path of conversion. "Amoris Laetitia" explicitly recalls number 1735 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even suppressed because of ignorance, inadvertence, violence, fear, habits, disordered affections and other psychic or social factors."

Could you give us some concrete examples of this point in the Catechism?

- Confessors are well aware of these factors, which often play a decisive role in the situation of a soul. At present, the first and most important is the ignorance of the majority of the faithful. "Today there is a growing number of baptized pagans: by this I mean people who have become Christians because they have been baptized, but who do not believe and have never known the faith" (Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI).

The priest should evaluate the penitent's level of formation and, if necessary, encourage him to form his conscience and nourish his spiritual life, so that little by little he may be led to live fully the demands of faith and morals.

Factors such as depression, violence and fear can affect the exercise of will: they can prevent some people from acting freely. If, for example, a person suffers from depression, he or she will need medical help. Or if a woman is treated violently by her husband or forced into prostitution, it makes no sense to confront her with the precepts of sexual morality. First of all, she must be helped to get out of this abusive situation.

Obsessive or compulsive behaviors, addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, etc. seriously impair the will. These pathologies often have their origin in the repetition of acts that are initially conscious and voluntary, and therefore guilty. However, when addiction sets in, the pastor must know that the will is sick and must be treated as such, with the resources of grace but also of specialized medicine.

The point of the Catechism recalled by Pope Francis also mentions "social factors": there are many immoral behaviors that are widely accepted in society, to the point that many people no longer realize the malice involved or, if they do, find it very difficult to avoid them without endangering their image, or even their professional, family or social situation. On certain moral issues, one cannot express oneself outside a certain single thought without being denounced and pilloried, or even persecuted.

Perhaps we should also remember what discernment is not?

- Discernment does not consist in judging one's neighbor: "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Mt 7:1). The examination of conscience is always a personal exercise and not an invitation to scrutinize the conscience of others. The confessor too will be careful not to see himself as the Supreme Judge who puts the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left (cf. Mt 25:33), but will see himself as the humble instrument of the Holy Spirit to guide the soul to the truth. Therefore, a priest never refuses absolution unless the person consciously and deliberately excludes any will to conform to the law of God.

Discernment does not consist in changing the medication, but in adjusting the dosage. The means of salvation and the moral law are the same for everyone in the Church, yesterday, today and tomorrow. One cannot, under the pretext of mercy, change the moral norm for a particular person. Mercy consists in helping him to know this norm, to understand it and to assume it progressively in his life. This is the so-called "law of gradualness", which should not be confused with the "gradualness of the law": "Since there is no gradualness in the law itself (cf. "Familiaris Consortio" 34), this discernment can never be exempt from the evangelical demands of truth and charity proposed by the Church". ("Amoris Laetitia" 300). As St. John Paul II says, mercy does not consist in lowering the mountain, but in helping to climb it.

Nor is discernment an attempt to substitute for the conscience of persons. As the Pope points out in "Amoris Laetitia," no. 37: "We are called to form consciences, but not to pretend to replace them." This observation is fundamental because we are the actors of our own life, we do not "live by delegation", as if we were suspended from the decisions of a third party or from the prescriptions of a moral code. Each of us is the conscious and free agent of his own life, of the good he does and the evil he commits. Taking responsibility for the evil we do is a proof of our dignity and, before God, the beginning of conversion: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you" (Lk 15:21). (Lk 15:21)

The whole challenge of education - and of our formation as adults - is to forge true freedom, which is the capacity of the person to discern the true good and to put it into practice, because he wants: "The highest degree of dignity of men consists in the fact that they are not led by others to the good, but by themselves" (St. Thomas Aquinas). (St. Thomas Aquinas). This challenge, therefore, also means to form the conscience well, which is the norm of proximate, immediate action.

How can this training be achieved?

- Through education, centered on the virtues, ongoing formation, experience, reflection, study and prayer, examination of conscience and, in case of doubt or complex situations, consultation with an expert or spiritual guide. This formation leads us to acquire the cardinal virtue of prudence, which perfects the judgment of conscience, as a kind of GPS for our actions.

The Ten Commandments have been and always will be the basis of moral life: "Before heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one tract of the Law shall pass away" (Mt 5:18). They are the revelation of God's law inscribed in our hearts, which invites us to love God and neighbor and points out a series of prohibitions, that is, "acts which, in themselves and by themselves, regardless of the circumstances, are always gravely illicit, because of their object" ("Veritatis Splendor" 80). The Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates what grave sins are, in particular in numbers 1852, 1867 and 2396.

The fact that morality includes prohibitions may offend the contemporary mentality, for which freedom resembles an omnipotent will that nothing can hinder. But every right-thinking person understands that, on the road of life, red lights and STOP signs protect us from danger; without them, we would never reach our destination.

Where do you think the differences in interpretation of this chapter of "Amoris Laetitia" come from?

- In my opinion, there is a great misunderstanding in "Amoris Laetitia": morality does not become objective when it limits itself to the "external facts" of people's lives, but when it strives to reach the "truth of subjectivity", the truth of the heart, before God, because "the good man brings good out of the treasure of his heart, which is good; and the evil man brings evil out of his heart, which is evil: for what the mouth says is what overflows from the heart". (Lk 6:45) and "God does not look as men do: men look on the appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Sam 16:7).

For example, one cannot condemn a person for the mere "external fact" that he or she is divorced and remarried: this is, so to speak, a marital status, which does not say everything about the moral situation of the person in question. It may be, in fact, that this person is on the road to conversion, putting in place the means to get out of this situation. On the other hand, a man who appears to everyone's eyes as a "model husband", because he has been at his wife's side for thirty years, but who secretly cheats on her, is in an apparently "regular" marital situation, while in reality he is in a state of grave sin. The truth of these two situations is not what our eyes perceive, but what God sees and makes the person discern in the depths of his heart, with the possible help of the priest.

The authorStefano Grossi Gondi

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