Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” has been subjected to a level of scrutiny unparalleled in any recent papal magisterium. Chapter 8, in which Pope Francis calls for compassionate discernment for families in “irregular situations”, has been placed under a legal microscope by both detractors looking for heresy and supporters seeking clarification. This attention to legal detail is necessary: there are many good reasons why canon law exists. But this cannot be allowed to obscure the teaching of “Amoris Laetitia”, and the beauty and truth of the life it calls all to live. What is needed is a frame of reference that can reconcile the “legal” with the “lived”.
The needed frame of reference is the personalism of Karol Wojtyla, particularly as expressed in his essay “The Problem of the Theory of Morality”, discussed in this article by Fr. Robert Connor. Morality as a value only possesses meaning in the context of the acting human person, in the person’s “being” or “becoming” good: “…Moral good is that through which the human being as a human being becomes and is good, and moral evil that through which the human being as a human being becomes and is evil.”1 To quote the above referenced article:
“The moral value of good and evil comes from whether the “acting person” is good or evil, and that depends on whether that action is in accord with conscience, which in turn depends on whether conscience is grounded in the ontological tendency of the person as image of the Divine Persons. If the person tending by conscience to make the gift of self to God and others and in reality makes the gift, then the person is “good,” [we could more adequately say “improving” – “becoming”], the conscience is “good” – even if in fact the person may be in an objective state of mortal sin and therefore, bad.”
This is entirely consistent with Church doctrine pertaining to moral theology, restated from the perspective of the “actor” rather than the “act”. Traditional formulations of moral theology have always held that the judgement of conscience is definitive in determining the subjective goodness or evil of a particular act, even when the conscience is in error concerning the moral law2. Further, the Church has always recognized that in many complex and difficult circumstances, the prudential judgement of conscience will be unsure of the demands of the moral law and have to do its best in the face of doubt3. One is obliged to form their conscience in truth4 (i.e. grounded in “the ontological tendency of the person as image of the Divine Persons”), and to grow in interior life needed for clarity of judgment and openness to the grace to act accordingly5, but at any point in the life of the person, the sincere effort to follow one’s conscience is always good and is all that can be expected.
St Josemaria Escriva often described the process of “being” and “becoming” good using the metaphor of the inclined plane.6. Where you are on the inclined plane is less important than the direction you are moving which should always be “up”.
It is Christ himself who is the summit of the inclined plane. He extends himself through space and time through the Word and the sacraments of his Church, like ropes meant to pull us to the top, to himself, as his mystical body. Sometimes our growth in virtue enables us to actively grasp the rope and pull ourselves upward with it, though more often than not, we simply cooperate by hanging on and let ourselves be pulled. Our goal should be the summit, but it should also be to extend the ropes to every crack and crevice, to enable all to take hold of it however far from the summit they may be. Always, it is the rope, Christ’s presence in his church, upon which all depends. Release the rope because “we can decide what is the right path for ourselves” and we fall back. The higher we are in our ascent, the more catastrophically we will fall should we relinquish our grip. The fall injures us (puts us in “irregular situations”), and though we can grab the always available rope and return to the path, the complications of the injury will make our path particularly difficult. We will be back on track but our progress will be more circuitous and incremental as we seek to overcome our self inflicted injuries. But regardless of where we are in our ascent and how we got to that point, we are making progress (we are “being and becoming good” for as long as we hang on to the rope and follow its pull, we remain in the state of grace.
Amoris Laetitia cannot be fully appreciated unless it is from the perspective of one’s own struggle to become and be good. It is not an enumeration of the law but rather a joyful affirmation of the gift of human love and a guide for living this gift to the full, no matter how far our past may have taken us from acceptance of this gift. It is focused on answering “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” whether the question is asked by a chaste individual with a deep understanding of human love, or a prodigal son who has finally “come to his senses”. The struggles of each will be different as will their rate of progress. The key is that they take up and embrace the struggle, never settling for less than the summit, but never losing peace over the distance remaining.
One might imagine Christ retelling the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in the context of the Church today. Which of the two would be invited to the Eucharist?
A postscript on Purgatory
Hanging on to the rope and continuing upward is the key, regardless of how we are from the summit. However, the goal is the summit (Christ) and nothing short of that will suffice. To continue the analogy of the rope, our death is the point at which we simply cannot do anything more to affect our climb up the inclined plane. If we are not holding on to the rope (if we have rejected Love) at that time we will never get to the top: we will fall and be lost no matter how close to the top we were when we decided we didn’t want to get there. If we have decided that we want only the summit, however, and are hanging on at death, we will be dragged the rest of the way to the top. Regardless of how far from the summit we are at death, our getting there will be assured. But needless to say, being dragged along is painful, it is a real purgatory. The more we can do this side of death to shorten the distance we need to be dragged on the other side, the better… I’m just sayin’…