Cardinal Wuerl’s ‘Amoris’ Guidelines Bring Clarity, but Confusion Remains

COMMENTARY

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The new pastoral plan for implementing Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in the Archdiocese of Washington, “Sharing the Joy of Love”  (SJL), achieves with its clarity a greater confusion.

The clarity comes from Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop (see related In Person). The remaining confusion arises from Amoris Laetitia (AL) itself. First, the clarity. No one familiar with the long episcopal service of Donald Wuerl will be surprised at the high quality of SJL. A prodigious producer of catechetical materials on all aspects of the Catholic faith, Cardinal Wuerl has issued a text in his customary accessible and comprehensive style.

The pastoral plan is about the “other seven” chapters of AL. Pope Francis and others have long lamented that those chapters have been ignored in all the controversy over Chapter 8. Fair enough, but could anything else have been reasonably expected?

If a pontifical document on the Blessed Mother had seven brilliant chapters, but an ambiguous footnote in Chapter 8 could be read to suggest that some of the faithful, sincere in their consciences, were correct to worship her as God, where would the attention fall? SJL makes more accessible the rich teaching on marriage and family life contained in the “other seven” chapters of AL and acknowledges that many people, including many regular parishioners, have never truly heard the fullness of the Gospel vision for life and love lived in marriage and the family.

There is much practical advice, including advice on how the parish secretary should speak with couples who call the office to inquire about a wedding date.

The major strength of SJL is that it addresses concrete challenges to the flourishing of marriage and family life and offers suggestions for how parishes can respond. A particularly creative section is the one on “accompaniment,” which speaks about accompanying the “distracted” and the “anonymous.” SJL is a resource that will serve the parishes in Washington — and far beyond — very well.

Yet it will cause confusion, too. The clarity of SJL is forthright, if discreet. And the more clearly anyone speaks about AL, the more evident its contradictions become.

For example, Cardinal Wuerl does not address directly the question of admission to Holy Communion of those living in a conjugal union while being validly married to someone else. But then neither does AL. So if AL proceeds by hints and ambiguities on that question, Cardinal Wuerl proceeds by hints and clarities. And as in AL, the key is in the footnotes.

Some critics of SJL have argued that it gives too much deference to subjective conscience and not enough to the objective moral law, identifying this key sentence:

“Priests are called to respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith, since no one can enter the soul of another and make that judgment for them.” Yet that needs to be read in light of how SJL treats conscience as a whole. Cardinal Wuerl is too responsible to attempt what the drafters of AL did, namely to ignore entirely Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), Pope St. John Paul II’s authoritative magisterial teaching on the moral life and conscience.

SJL addresses the question of conscience in this key paragraph:

“The personal culpability of any of us does not depend solely on exposure to the teaching. It is not enough simply to hear the teaching. Each of us has to be helped to grasp it and appropriate it. We have to have ‘experiential’ and not just ‘objective’ moral knowledge, to use the language of St. John Paul II in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor, 63 (The Splendor of Truth). Our consideration of our standing before God recognizes all these elements. We cannot enter the soul of another and make that judgment for someone else. As Pope Francis teaches, ‘We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them’ (AL, 37).”

SJL refers to what Veritatis Splendor, 63, teaches: “It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good. …”

Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it is culpably erroneous, that is to say, “when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin.”

No pastoral accompaniment would seek to leave someone with an erroneous conscience, either culpably or not, as a result of which he continues to live in a manner “which does not cease to be evil.”

SJL is not quite as forthright as the guidelines from the Catholic bishops of Alberta, Canada, who quote the entire section on conscience in Veritatis Splendor, 57-64. But any reference to Veritatis Splendor is fatal for the suggested doctrinal innovations in AL about conscience and the moral act.

Cardinal Wuerl does not expect his readers to be wading through citations and looking up encyclicals. In a big, colored box he makes it abundantly clear:

“The Church’s teaching has not changed!

“No, the Church’s teaching has not changed; objective truth remains unaffected.

“Yes, the ability of the individual to understand and appropriate the teaching and its meaning is still a determining factor in assessing personal culpability.

“No, prudential judgments of individuals about their own situation do not set aside the objective moral order.

“Yes, one’s culpability before God follows on one’s conscience, and a decision of conscience to act in one way or another requires guidance and spiritual formation.

“In Catholic pastoral ministry there is an interaction of objective moral directives and the effort to live them according to one’s ability to grasp them and thus make appropriate prudential judgments.

“Accompaniment is that aspect of pastoral ministry, particularly in our heavily secular and relativistic culture, that tries, in light of all the above points, to weave a faithful and realistic pathway to the Lord.”

That is clear and straightforward. Consciences must be formed and guided toward the “objective moral order.” That is what pastoral accompaniment means.

Confusion will arise because what SJL teaches — and what the Alberta bishops have taught — is not the same as what has been taught in Germany or Malta or Buenos Aires, about the last of which the Holy Father declared that “there are no other interpretations.” But there evidently are other interpretations. Amoris Laetitia itself calls for bishops to provide them. Even the Buenos Aires guidelines acknowledge that bishops in their own dioceses will provide their own guidelines.

Comparing the pastoral guidance and specific advice of “Sharing the Joy of Love” and the Alberta bishops to the Buenos Aires guidelines is like comparing a four-course meal to a bowl of thin gruel. It would be absurd to think that the Holy Father wants the entire Church to be nourished by thin gruel. Yet the priority given to Buenos Aires creates confusion by suggesting exactly that.

Cardinal Wuerl — not for the first time — has provided a service to the wider Church. So it bears repeating: His pastoral plan is intended for Washington parishes, but its impact will be much wider still.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is the editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.