We continue with an examination of the balance between “rules and discernment.” Let’s read carefully here, noting that this paragraph begins with the perspective not of a moral theologian, but a local shepherd who cares for real live sheep:
305. For this reason, 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”.(Address for the Conclusion of the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (24 October 2015))
I think two questions can rightly be asked of a person well-versed in moral law: When does the citation of such a law draw people closer to God? When does it hinder? It is a well-known principle that good communication requires a good communicator with a good message as well as a recipient open to both the message and the messenger. Make no mistake: effective and fruitful communication can be a demanding task. I don’t disagree with the Holy Father when he suggests that moral law can be used to shield a messenger from the tough work of accompaniment, persuasion, and gradual conversion.
Furthermore, Pope Francis is looking for inspiration. If not an epicletic moment in the ministry relationship:
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”.(International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law (2009), 59.)
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
Pope Francis’s footnote, the famous #351, reads:
In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Evangelii Gaudium 44). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47).
This is an important strain to consider. There is a pelagian danger in attributing sacramental participation to those who, by their own initiative, come to the Lord for an encounter. Salvation comes to a believer by grace, not merit. Sacraments deepen the experience of salvation, and give that encounter with the Lord Jesus. We know from the Gospels that many sinners approached the Lord in his public ministry. He did not withhold his words, his healing, or other benefits in all circumstances. Sometimes, those who considered themselves “established: in religion offered disapproval. The Gospel witness seems clear that those who were not healed or who didn’t attend to his teaching had a different kind of sinfulness, an unwillingness to engage with him. People in objective sin sometimes, but not always, are closed off to the encounter with Christ.
What is a pastor to do? That Ignatian words again: discernment.
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. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”.(Evangelii Gaudium 44) The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.
For your reference Amoris Laetitia is online here. But meanwhile, I leave the comments to you readers. Are you seeing difficulty with this? If so, let’s hear it.