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WASHINGTON, DC, April 12, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – “If you insist upon the commandments, it’s like throwing stones at people.”  

Famed Catholic author Janet Smith, speaking to a group gathered at The Catholic University of America (CUA), in Washington, DC on April 5, warned of new challenges to the Church’s teaching against contraception that will arise in coming years, centered around the concepts of conscience and discernment.

In particular, theologians who Smith identifies as “discerners” will focus not on the authority of conscience as it is traditionally understood, but on a “very different understanding of what the conscience is. This is what we very much have to catch.”

“In a general sense, the interpreters, the discerners of Amoris Laetitia say that the development in moral theology in Amoris Laetitia is pastoral, not doctrinal,” said Smith.  This is key, because it frees them to say, “we’re not changing doctrine at all; we’re just changing how we apply doctrine.  We’re not even applying doctrine.  We’re just helping consciences discern.” 

Humanae Vitae won’t be rejected head-on because they’ve found a way to do an end run around it based on passages in Amoris Laetitia.  In essence, the discerners are saying, “So we don’t need to refute the arguments that defend Humanae Vitae because we’re not looking for a doctrinal change.  We don’t have to question the authority of doctrine because it’s not a doctrinal matter that we’re pushing here; We’re pushing a pastoral approach to these issues.”

In other words, “substantive matters are now irrelevant,” because “they read Amoris Laetitia in light of a psychological view of conscience,” while putting aside the traditional view of conscience.  Their view rejects “natural known moral norms.” 

Smith cited passages of Amoris Laetitia that provide the basis for this new understanding of conscience.

She began with paragraph 37, which reads:

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.  We have been called to form consciences, not replace them.

This sets the stage for elevating the “primacy of conscience” over objective moral norms.  Smith says that the theologian “discerners” interpret this to mean that “the individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis, in certain situations, which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.”

She then highlighted paragraph 303, which reads:

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 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.

Smith said that from this, the discerners conclude:  

  • We must “accompany consciences;”
  • We must not “impose” external norms;
  • Objective norms are “ideals,” not “what God is asking” in all circumstances;
  • and Veritatis Splendor is passé – in Amoris Laetitia we have a “paradigm shift.”

Further, moral norms are problematic to the discerners, who dismiss them as coming from external sources such as parents, the state, the prevailing culture, and even the Church.  “They impede, if not prevent, authenticity and moral maturation.”

She then commented on paragraph 305, which reads:

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 be thrown 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.

“So if you insist upon the commandments, it’s ‘like throwing stones at people,’” said Smith.

Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could 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)

In other words, “moral norms are not determinative of what you can and cannot do.”  They are reduced to “inspiration that might guide your moral decisions.”

Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.  By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.  (Amoris Laetitia 305)

In essence, the discerners are pushing the idea that there are no absolute moral norms.  For them, natural law, “does not include universal, immutable norms” but instead is dynamic, experiential, historical, and cultural.”  Natural law is “gradually discovered, and could change if the culture changes.”

The discerners believe that it is more important for believers to follow one’s own conscience, one’s own truth, than to be submissive or obedient to God’s laws.  In fact, the discerners warn that to accept the imposition of outside norms over and above “the values to which one has committed one’s self,” is to risk doing violence to one’s self.   

Smith contrasted the discerners’ view of natural law with what the Second Vatican Council taught in Gaudium et Spes

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him in obedience.  Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that.  For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity  of man;  according to it he will be judged.  Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man.  There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. (Gaudium et Spes 16)

Wrapping up, Smith underscored the dangerous implications of the discerners’ view for pastoral practice: It steers pastors and mentors from asking people “to do big sacrificial things.”

“We’re not recognizing the force of the natural law we have inside of us.  I thinks it’s cripples mentoring people,” she said.

Smith offered an example: “Many years ago at Notre Dame, a young man came to me.  Prom night was coming up and he had reserved a hotel room to share with his date, which everyone was doing.  Of course, they were going to have sex.”

Smith:  “Am I right to conclude that you intend to have sex?”

Student:  “Uhh, …. Yes.”

Smith:  “You know that is wrong don’t you?”

Student[pause]:  “Yes, I do.  What do I do now?”

Smith:  “Well, there’s a priest on every corner at Notre Dame.  Go find one and go to confession.  And call up the girl and tell the girl you’re getting a private room for her, and that you’re not having sex.  And then call me and tell me you did that.”  And he did.