Is Amoris Laetitia Inconsistent in Its Treatment of Conscience?

Is Amoris Laetitia Inconsistent in Its Treatment of Conscience? May 4, 2016

Amoris laetitia

Francois Chifflart, “La Conscience” (illustration for Victor Hugo)

Note: This is Part 3 of a five-part response to Dr. E. Christian Brugger’s critique of Amoris Laetitia. Part 1 can be found here. Dr. Brugger’s article can be found at Catholic World Report here. Amoris Laetitia can be found here.


Of five “serious problems” Dr. E. Christian Brugger claims to find in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, the third is “its account of the role of conscience in acquitting persons in objectively sinful situations.” Specifically, Dr. Brugger finds the pope’s account self-contradictory.

He begins by quoting the following passage from AL 303 [bolding mine]:

We can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.

Dr. Brugger finds the latter part of this to be “in direct opposition” to the first. “An individual’s conscience,” he says,

may both: [1] judge that some action does not correspond to the overall demands of the Gospel; and [2] judge that God is asking them to perform that action. In other words, God can be “asking” someone to live in a life-state in which they are objectively violating grave matter.

But the pope does not suggest that God is asking anyone to perform grave sin. Dr. Brugger reads that into the passage, and does not explain why it is the necessary reading. At no point ask whether he may have misread the text. He does not seek any consistent sense in which one might read this passage.

But the pope’s exact words are “what is for now the most generous response that can be given to God.” That is “what God is asking.” Perhaps you may not, overnight, be able to abandon a sin you have been guilty of a long time. Things you do by habit you often need to abandon in stages. Yes, I avail myself of the confessional; I make a firm purpose of amendment; but perhaps in three days I fall again. The “most generous response” is to recognize the error, return to confession, and try again. God does not say, “I want you to keep sinning.” He does say, “If you can’t abandon your sin overnight, I want you to move in that direction.”

This is why the pope uses words like “for now” and “yet not fully.” He is telling us about a process; and he is fully consistent with his earlier discussion of the Law of Gradualness.

Dr. Brugger seems to understand this when he speaks about penitents who are “weak” and “struggling with a compulsive condition.” Why he does not see the application to AL 303, I can not explain.

Nor does he quote the very last sentence of 303:

In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.

The pope is speaking of people who are moving toward the moral law, but not in one great leap. Where is the inconsistency?

The pope speaks of the development of conscience in light of the Law of Gradualness elsewhere, such as §222. There he says:

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.

The pope understands that some people’s sinful behaviors, particularly in divorce and remarriage, can originate in “subjective caprice” and “prevailing social mores”; but he understands that the corrective to that is more than justs the word “Stop.” It’s a process in growth of conscience; one moves gradually in the direction of the moral law. God, in the pope’s view, does not ask us to sin; He asks us to abandon our sin, even if it may take time and effort. The “most generous response,” then, is to try—not necessarily to succeed right away.

That’s what AL 303 is saying.


Part 4 can be found here

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