Conclusion of the Synod on the Family

Every educated person who is familiar with Catholic life must realise that Catholic sexual ethics are adrift. Confusion reigns supreme. Why has there been so much child abuse among the clergy? Why do 80% of Catholics in developped countries use artificial means of birth control in spite of the official ban? Why are church authorities so opposed to gay relationships? Why is communion refused to Catholics who are divorced and remarried? And what about Catholics living in partnerships without marriage? And so on.

Small wonder that Pope Francis called a worldwide consultation with Bishops in a Synod about Family Life. Ordinary people were asked for their views on the situation. The sessions of the Synod gathered in Rome in 2014 and 2015. On 19 March 2016 Pope Francis published his Exhortation “On the Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia) which is, in fact, the outcome of the Synod. It is the end result. It seals the discussions and consultations that have been held. This papal document therefore contains the final word now (March 2016) on where the Church stands with regard to sexual ethics.

And what does the document say? Most of its 264 pages offer advice on many aspects of sex. In some ways the document resembles a handbook on marriage, well worth reading. We offer the full text online here. But the document also publishes new guidelines on the Catholic morality of sex. It is these guidelines that I will present here as well as I can in readable format.

Overall papal advice: distinguish pastoral PRACTICE from doctrinal THEORY

pope_francisPope Francis declares that, at this stage, the Catholic Church is not ready to change any of its official rules or ‘doctrines’ on sexuality. This affects especially:

  • * The use of articifical means of contraception. Read more here.
  • * The living together of homosexuals. Read more here.
  • * Persons in ‘irregular’ situations receiving holy communion, like divorced and remarried.

Note that the Pope does not exclude doctrinal changes in the future. In fact, he calls for “a continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions . . . . (by) pastors and theologians” (Amoris Laetitia, § 2). He states that regarding “(some) doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues . . . each country or region can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (Amoris Laetitia, § 3).

But the overwhelming instruction of the Pope is to teach us how to apply sexual rules in pastoral practice.

“Theory is one thing”, he is telling us, “but experience shows practice is another”. To fully grasp the significance of this, look at these two examples from daily life.

Traffic rules. The Highway Code that spells out the rules of traffic are important. They help all of us interact safely and efficiently on the road. But do these rules always rigidly apply? Suppose my car has to stay on the left side of the road (as it is in the UK), at times I have to swerve over into the right side to avoid an obstacle. Or suppose my car is carrying a dying patient to the Accident & Emergency clinic of the nearest hospital. Because speed is of the essence to save a life, I will overstep speed limits, cross through red lights, etc. if I can safely do so. At that moment the fate of the patient overrides the rules. And it is I personally, as the driver, who have to take such a decision.

Honesty. The rule of honesty dictates that I always tell the truth. It is crucial for healthy relationships in which people can trust me. Lies undermine such trust. So much for theory. In practice we may have to tell ‘white lies’. For instance if someone has entrusted us with a personal secret. To protect that person, we may need to tell an untruth. Or suppose we find out some damaging information about a friend’s parent: he or she may have been a criminal. The friend does not know about this. Should we tell him or her, if he or she questions us about this? In some cases we may and should. In other circumstances we know that that information would hurt the person for life. To avoid such damage, we may have to tell an untruth. Again it is we ourselves, personally, who have to take this decision.

Back to the Pope.

Three papal principles of how to apply sexual rules in pastoral practice

Principle 1. Theoretical rules do not cover the full complexity of life

complexIn “The Joy of Love” Pope Francis stresses complexity seventeen times. Here are examples:

  • “Faithful to Christ’s teaching we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows… ” (Amoris Laetitia, § 32).
  • “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families . . . We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden.  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations” (Amoris Laetitia, § 37)` .
  • “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations . . .The degree of [a person’s] responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability [of that person] to make a decision.  Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (Amoris Laetitia, § 79).
  • Further reminders of this complexity principle in paragraphs 202, 206, 247, 249, 259, 287, 296 and 303
    of Amoris Laetitia.


Principle 2. In concrete moral situations, it is up to each person to take the final decision according to his or her own conscience.

consciencePope Francis says that people should discern what is right or wrong following their own conscience. Yes, they should take official rules and ‘doctrines’ into account, but in the final analysis judge what is best in their own specific situation. Pastors should not impose rules from above. They should help people take decisions according to their own conscience.

Here are some excerpts from “The Joy of Love”:

  • “[We should] make room for the consciences of the faithful, who . . . are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.  We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (Amoris Laetitia, § 37).
  • “The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: ‘imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors’.  In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length ‘affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability’. For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved . . . Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must fully acknowledge these situations” (Amoris Laetitia, § 302).
  • “Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, 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.  Conscience can 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.  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” (Amoris Laetitia, § 303).

Pope Francis draws this principle from the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. He quotes its Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et Spes” 18 times. It was in this text that the highest teaching authority of the Catholic Church, an Ecumenical Council, laid down the primacy of conscience in each person’s life.

Gaudium et Spes § 16 What this principle means
“In the depths of each person’s conscience, the person detects a law which he/she does not impose upon oneself, but which holds the person to obedience. Always summoning him or her to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the person’s heart: ‘do this, avoid that’. For human beings carry in their heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of being human; according to it every person will be judged.” (§ 16 a) The Council teaches that fidelity to one’s conscience is the ultimate norm by which people will be judged good or bad. Conscience has the authority of the voice of God in each person’s life.
“Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a human being. There he/she is alone with God, whose voice echoes in one’s personal depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour.” (§ 16 b) Conscience within each person is impenetrable. Others cannot enter it. It is unique to each person. Each individual, and only that individual, can hear the voice of God echoing in the depths of his/her personal conscience.
“In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of humankind in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships . . . Conscience frequently errs because of invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.” (§ 16 c) Conscience can go wrong. People may lack proper knowledge or suffer from other human limitations. Still conscience does not lose its dignity. Conscience remains the subjective ulimate norm of morality for that person.

It is clear from the principle of the primacy of conscience that, for instance, many Catholics who have been divorced and have remarried should not be afraid to go to communion. Provided their conscience tells them that, in their new situation, this is the right thing to do.

“The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.  One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.  The Church acknowledges situations where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.  There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid” (Amoris Laetitia, § 298).

But what about others?

Principle 3. Conscience as ultimate norm applies also to cases considered transgressions against ‘natural law’, such as artificial birth control and homosexual intimacy.

Traditional sexual morality considers some transgressions as offending against ‘natural law’, such as: the use of contraceptive means in family planning and homosexuals engaged in sexual acts. Many modern theologians reject this view. If even if the traditional view – still officially supported by the Church – were right, then the principle of one’s personal conscience being the ultimate ethical norm – ‘being God’s voice in that person’ – still holds good. The principle also applies here.

Pope Francis states:

  • “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.  This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families. Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that ‘natural law may not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions’.”   (Amoris Laetitia, § 305).

This is what the International Theological Commission said: “Moral science cannot furnish an acting subject with a norm to be applied adequately and almost automatically to concrete situations; only the conscience of the subject, the judgment of his practical reason, can formulate the immediate norm of action. But at the same time, this approach does not abandon conscience to mere subjectivity: it aims at having the subject acquire the intellectual and affective dispositions which allow him to be open to moral truth, so that his judgment may be adequate. Natural law could not, therefore, be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision”. (International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law (2009), § 59.

Pope Francis could appeal again to the Second Vatican Council which reiterated the principle of conscience as final norm in all circumstances. “It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do . . . No one may be forced to act against conscience”, Religious Liberty § 3.

Moreover, Pope Francis here echoes the instruction given by many Catholic Bishops’ Conferences after the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968. We may summarise the Bishops’ in junction as follows: “Listen carefully to what Pope Paul VI says about artificial birth control going against nature . . . but in the final analysis discern in your own conscience what is the best way forward in your personal situation.” Affirmed by the Bishops’ Conferences of Austria, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany and others. See here.


wijngaards It is a pity that Pope Francis could not go further and adjust the outdated rules and ‘doctrines’ on sexual morality.

On the other hand, “The Joy of Love” is a great step forward. With the backing of the Synod Pope Francis has now officially acknowledged what many bishops, priests and theologians had already put into pastoral practice.

The point is simply this: whatever theoretical rules say, in the complex realities of each individual’s life,  one’s own personal conscience comes first. Its decisions ultimately count. What conscience says is, ultimately, the subjective voice of God for that person.

But much still remains to be done.

John Wijngaards

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