Follow Your Conscience?

I do not wish to engage in arguments about the Holy Father’s latest document, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Lætitia. Plenty of others have already done so and surely will continue to do so. My main concern, as a pastor, is that those who actually read it attempt to do so in the right way – i.e., in the light of the Church’s constant Magisterial teaching: which is to say, in continuity and not in contradiction with what the Church teaches; and also, not as if it were the first time the subjects contained therein were ever addressed. And for those who are not going to read it – and their number is legion – that they at least do not get their information about it from untrustworthy sources.

To those ends, here is the brief write-up that I am running in my parish bulletin this weekend.

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The part in quotes was the headline in the Opinion section of the Birmingham News last Sunday, and the article with it was taken from a national wire service. While the article itself is not without its problems, it is far better than its headline, which is downright misleading. Once again I find myself needing to warn anyone who will listen: we should not get our news about the Church from secular media outlets. At the very least, we should carefully check everything they report, for it is frequently wrong.

Did the Pope really say, in his most recent document, Amoris Lætitia (“The Joy of Love”), that Catholics should follow their conscience? Yes and no. It is a fundamental obligation of the moral law for us to follow a certain conscience. However, there is a prior obligation: that of forming our conscience according to the truth. Many people who read this headline will not read that additional bit into it. Much to the contrary: usually, nowadays, when we read about “following one’s conscience”, it is a code-phrase for “doing whatever you like”.

So, does Pope Francis want us to “do whatever we like”? Most certainly not! His latest document, at a stunning 260 pages long (which, as now the longest papal document ever, will probably be read by few…), reaffirms all of the traditional Catholic teachings on marriage, family, and sexuality. That is not the impression you might get if you only hear secular news reports about it. But it is the truth: the Pope is Catholic! And this should not surprise us – after all, it is the Pope’s job to hand on the truth that has been revealed by God through the natural law and divine revelation, not to invent new truths or change old ones.

It is no secret that many Catholics today are following the wide and easy way that leads to destruction (cf. Matthew 7:13) by picking and choosing what they wish to believe from the Church’s teachings. These unfortunate souls tend to desire a Pope who will validate them in their waywardness. They want a Pope who is a revolutionary, who will shake things up, who will change everything. Pope Francis’ unconventional methods and penchant for surprise have reinvigorated the false hopes of this particular group of Catholics – as well as of many who are outside the Church and want to see her ultimately fail. This includes many who write or report in the secular news media.

And so, when Pope Francis says or writes something, there is a tendency on their part to interpret it through their paradigm of change and rupture with respect to Church teaching. Their false hopes are also marked by a certain arrogance that has been the hallmark of the last 50 years or so: namely, the thought that, notwithstanding the truths, social customs, and moral norms that virtually all societies have recognized and handed down for millennia, somehow, in our time, we have to start anew and reject what came before us.

Pope Francis has reaffirmed traditional Church teaching – teaching which no Pontiff, no human power, has the authority to change. He could not do otherwise. In reaffirming that teaching, he has certainly placed his own characteristic mark on it by focusing on certain key values: mercy, compassion, pastoral sensitivity, and so forth. But this in no way changes the truths that any Catholic can look up in the Catechism or in the teachings of any of the previous popes.

The Catholic Church has faithfully handed on God’s sacred truth for almost 2,000 years now, even as various merely-human societies and powers have risen… and fallen. Our own society is currently in an acute stage of decline. The solution to our woes is not to bend the Church to the world, but to bend the world to the Church. Pope Francis wants us to do our part by living out our faith and accompanying those who are struggling, with compassion and understanding. That does not mean leaving them where they are at, but helping them to get to the goal. Of course the Holy Father wants us to follow our conscience – but a conscience that has been illuminated by the light of faith and the teaching of Christ’s Church! +

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