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Pope to new bishops: ‘Discernment’ means avoiding ‘rigid’ answers to moral questions

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ROME, September 14, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) -- Pope Francis told a group of newly ordained bishops that “authentic discernment” cannot be reduced to repeating “rigid” moral formulas to persons whose situations “can’t be reduced to black and white.”

Discernment, the pope said, “can’t be reduced to repeating formulas such as ‘high clouds send little rain’ to a concrete person, who’s often immersed in a reality that can’t be reduced to black and white.”

He cautioned bishops against being “imprisoned by nostalgia for being able to give just one answer to apply in all cases,” adding that discernment is an “antidote against rigidity, because the same solutions aren’t valid everywhere.” 

Pastors must have “the courage to ask themselves if yesterday’s proposals are still evangelically valid,” he said. 

Pope Francis’ made his comments Thursday morning to newly appointed bishops from around the world. They met at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace as part of an annual training program offered by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. 

During the meeting, Pope Francis advised the bishops to consult three specific groups — his brother bishops, his own priests, and the lay faithful — when discerning.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on “discernment” is seen by many as key to his papacy. 

The Pope spoke about the morality of “discernment” in his controversial 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia more than thirty times. 

Critics say the term in the exhortation was used as the key to open the door to Holy Communion for civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics living in adultery. Immediately following the “smoking footnote” 351, in which critics say the pope indirectly allowed the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion, the pope writes that “discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.”

The Pope also advised pastors in his exhortation to exercise “discernment” in recognizing that “the consequences or effect of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300). 

Last November, Pope Francis praised the 1960s German moral theologian Bernard Häring, one of the most prominent dissenters from Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, for his new morality of discernment which the pope said helped “moral theology to flourish.” 

“Discernment is the key element [in the moral life],” he said. “We run the risk of getting used to 'white or black,' to that which is legal. We are rather closed, in general, to discernment. One thing is clear: today, in a certain number of seminaries, a rigidity that is far from a discernment of situations has been introduced. And that is dangerous, because it can lead us to a conception of morality that has a casuistic sense,” he added.

The Pope at that time called a morality that says “‘you can,’ ‘you cannot,’ ‘up to here yes but not there’” foreign to true discernment.

The Pope’s comments to the bishops come days after Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the dubia signers, gave an interview in which he criticized a method of discernment that results in one deciding for himself what is morally right or wrong.

“Discernment means seeking to know the will of God in my life. As such, it means studying carefully what God teaches us in the Church and applying it faithfully to my life,” he said in an interview with Katolikus Válasz published September 8. 

“Discernment does not decide what is right or wrong but leads the person to inform himself as fully as possible, so that he can make a right judgment in a particular matter, that is, so that he can act in accord with the truth which God has written upon his heart or conscience,” he added. 

Last month Kazakhstan Bishop Athanasius Schneider said the Pope’s teaching on “discernment” is being used by sinners to remain in their sin. 

Pope Francis’ teaching “seems to” go in the direction of a pastoral discernment that “allows the adulterers to continue in adultery,” he said during a Tradition, Faith and Property conference in Poland.

Schneider noted how a false method of discernment was first used in the Garden of Eden that resulted in Adam and Eve turning away from God. 

The first such “process of discernment,” was “the dialogue of the serpent with Eve, to seek a discernment to obey God, or not to obey God,” he said. 

Schneider outlined that when Eve told the devil that God had commanded her not to eat the fruit of the tree, the devil encouraged her to “start a discernment” about what God really said. 

“And Eve said, ‘Ah, He said when we will eat we will die.’ ‘Oh no! This is not true…Let us discern. You will know what is good,’” continued Schneider. 

 The result of this discernment was “a catastrophe of all humanity,” he pointed out. “So we are now bearing in our souls, in our bodies, the consequences of that original sin, of this bad discernment.”

Schneider said that discernment “can only be for the good” when one discerns to “fulfill the will of God.”

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