Amoris Laetitia: a Ticking Moral Time Bomb

Given its flawed reasoning, ambiguities, and blatant discontinuity with Tradition and Scripture, it would be a travesty to see Amoris Laetitia displace Veritatis Splendor as the blueprint for a new moral theology.

On June 22, the Vatican will host the World Meeting of Families, which will showcase the “Amoris Laetitia Family.” When asked about whether this new model of the family includes LGBTQ families and other “irregular” unions, the spokesperson for this gathering was vague and noncommittal. Although we can’t be certain about the thrust of this meeting, one thing is quite certain: there has been a concerted effort in the last few weeks to promote and propagate Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ exhortation on the family issued in 2016. 

Several weeks ago, a conference on moral theology was held at the Gregorian University to discuss this papal exhortation. A key theme was the need to better accommodate marginalized families by implementing the principles of Amoris Laetitia. In his concluding remarks, Argentine Jesuit Fr. Miguel Yanez said that “Amoris Laetitia has awakened an intellectual effervescence in moral theology…. Since the Second Vatican Council, we have not experienced a pontifical magisterium that invites us to go further, to progress in the understanding of morality in the current cultural context.”

One wonders, of course, if Fr. Yanez has read Veritatis Splendor, the landmark encyclical on moral theology composed by Pope John Paul II in 1993. Apparently, that encyclical, well-grounded in Scripture and Catholic Tradition, did not foster enough “intellectual effervescence.” Most of the moral theologians who attended this conference have been quite anxious to sweep away John Paul II’s theological legacy. They oppose his emphasis on the natural moral law’s absolute precepts. Like Fr. Yanez, they prefer a more pliant moral theology that suits the “current cultural context.”  

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Other participants who were at the conference have been even more explicit in their disdain for Veritatis Splendor. Fr. Julio Martinez, professor of moral theology at Comillas Pontifical University, said that it was necessary “to untie the knots Veritatis Splendor made in Catholic morals.” Veritatis Splendor initiated “a very profound development in moral theology with the introduction of the concept we call intrinsic evil.” 

According to Fr. Martinez, this is a “controversial philosophical concept that brought serious difficulties for moral theology.” Pope Francis has disentangled these “knots” by introducing discernment as a way of guiding the moral decision-making of Catholics. According to Fr. Martinez, “To put the focus on discernment in order to find the good is a really new thing in moral theology.”

In his speech that opened the conference, Pope Francis referred to discernment as a way of opening space for the consciences of the faithful. And he chastised those moral theologians who want to “go back” out of fear and a lack of courage. This retreat, he says, takes the form of “casuistry proposals,” a bit disguised in statements such as “up to here you can, up to here you can’t, from here yes, from here no.” This kind of casuistry is proper to decadent Thomism. But true Thomism, the pope explains, “is that of Amoris Laetitia.”

What becomes quite plain in all of these speeches and presentations is that the overarching aim of Amoris Laetitia is to revise the foundations of Christian moral doctrine by presenting novel interpretations of conscience, grace and nature, and moral normativity. Those interpretations open the door for moral relativism and the primacy of conscience, which can create its own moral truth. 

The pope and theologians who support him want to abolish the category of “intrinsic evil.” But what are the implications of doing so for conscience and moral conduct? Is there any merit to the claim that Amoris Laetitia is the true Thomism? And what about the use of discernment in the moral life?

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes that “it is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being…. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (304). Thus, it is impossible to formulate an absolute prohibition against certain kinds of behavior such as adultery.

In order to fortify this argument, Amoris Laetitia (304) cites question 94 (I-II) of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (ST). Aquinas asserts in article four that general moral principles are subject to certain exceptions. However, Aquinas’ argument is far more nuanced than Pope Francis admits. He casually overlooks the critical distinction Aquinas makes between different types of moral norms, which fall into two broad categories. 

There are negative moral norms that hold semper et ad semper (always and everywhere without exceptions) because they exclude acts that are “evil in themselves and cannot become good” (ST, II-II, q. 33.2). But there are also affirmative moral precepts that hold semper sed non ad semper, that is, they oblige always but not for every occasion. The norms discussed in Question 94 (a. 4) unmistakably belong to the latter category. As an example, Aquinas explains that the affirmative norm “you should return what you have borrowed” is subject to certain exceptions depending on the circumstances. Arms borrowed from someone should not be returned to the owner if he plans to use them to fight against his country.

Intrinsically evil acts, on the other hand, are precluded by those negative moral norms that always forbid killing of the innocent, theft, lying, adultery, and fornication. Aquinas describes such acts throughout his writings: “one ought not to commit adultery for any benefit (utilitate) whatever, just as one should never (nunquam) lie whatever the benefit” [De Malo, q. 15.1].  Thus, Pope Francis’ appeal to Aquinas in his exhortation is inappropriate because, in Question 94 (a. 4) of the Summa, Aquinas is referring only to affirmative moral precepts. If Pope Francis wants to assert that the negative norms forbidding adultery or fornication permit exceptions in some circumstances, he cannot pretend that St. Thomas Aquinas supports that position. Amoris Laetitia, therefore, is definitely not the true Thomism, as the pope claims.  

Fr. Martinez mysteriously declares that the category of “intrinsic evil” was “introduced” by Pope John Paul II. Philosophical and theological references to moral absolutes or intrinsic evils have a long pedigree, beginning with Aristotle who said that with regard to actions such as “adultery, theft, murder…it is not possible ever to be right with regard to them.” There are references to absolute norms in the Didache and in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Suarez. 

What’s new is actually the rejection of those norms by revisionists after Vatican II. John Paul II was merely rehabilitating the idea that some absolute moral precepts that exclude particular kinds of behavior are a requirement of human nature and reason. As he also points out in Veritatis Splendor, theories that reject this doctrine are “incompatible with revealed truth” (29).  

For example, Grisez and Finnis explain that marital love is defined in terms of exclusivity and permanence, and so it is protected by a norm that absolutely excludes divorce (with remarriage).  In addition, Jesus Himself proclaims that marriage, as it was in the beginning and as He renews it, is absolutely indissoluble (Mark 10:2-12). Jesus, who does not indulge in casuistry, clearly speaks in absolute terms—in the pope’s words, “up to here you can, up to here you can’t.”

Finally, what are we to make of the method of discernment and the role of conscience? For Pope Francis, conscience is more than a judgement of reason that should always conform to the objective norms of morality derived from the natural law. He declares in Amoris Laetitia that “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 not yet the objective ideal” (303). Conscience discerns what God is asking of us even if that means remaining in a sinful state.

This notion of conscience is completely incompatible with the Catholic Tradition. The pope’s allies think that Gaudium et Spes (16) revised the notion of conscience because it refers to conscience as that “inner sanctuary” where God speaks to us. But God speaks in conscience through His moral law: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he does not construct for himself, but which he is obliged to obey; and the voice of this law…sounds when necessary in the ears of his heart: do this, avoid that.”

Gaudium et Spes’ powerful image of conscience as the voice of the moral natural law strongly implies that a properly functioning conscience must be in harmony with those laws. Also, God’s communication, no matter what form it takes, is not immediate and direct because it is mediated through our fallible human reason. That reason is shaped by its own history and subject to the prejudices and fears that often distort our ability to hear God’s Word. 

Conscience reaches judgments of right and wrong through the application of objective moral norms that are also reinforced by divine commandments. On the other hand, as Grisez and Finnis point out, discernment, properly understood, is not about choosing between what is morally right and what falls short of the “objective ideal” but, rather, between morally acceptable possibilities.

The pope has borrowed this concept of discernment from St. Ignatius of Loyola. But St. Ignatius explains that discernment is a means of making choices in line with moral precepts: “authentic Christian choices necessarily pertain only to alternatives which are good in themselves…” (Spiritual Exercises, 170). Amoris Laetitia confuses the operation of conscience with discernment when it speaks about conscience discerning in these so-called “complex situations.” Thus, given the flawed reasoning, the ambiguities, and the blatant discontinuity with Tradition and Scripture, it would be a travesty to see Amoris Laetitia displace Veritatis Splendor as the blueprint for a new moral theology. 

If we indulge this rhetoric of discernment, the result will be a confusion of conscience and moral enervation. What’s at stake here is not merely sound moral doctrine but fidelity to Revelation, which was completed in Jesus’ life and words. Some of those words were absolute moral truths that are not conditioned by history; for “whatever He has revealed for the salvation of all nations should last forever in its integrity and be handed on to all generations” (Dei Verbum, 7).  

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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