Respecting People – and the Truth

The Archdiocese of Washington has published A Pastoral Plan to Implement Amoris Laetitia. It contains many excellent things, such as the emphatic sidebar on page 18 entitled “The Church’s teaching has not changed!”

Which then explains:

No, the Church’s teaching has not changed; objective truth remains unaffected. Yes, the ability of the individual to understand and appropriate the teaching and its meaning is still a determining factor in assessing personal culpability. No, prudential judgments of individuals about their own situation do not set aside the objective moral order. Yes, one’s culpability before God follows one’s conscience, and a decision of conscience to act in one way or another requires guidance and spiritual formation. In Catholic pastoral ministry there is an interaction of objective moral directives and the effort to live them according to one’s ability to grasp them and thus make appropriate prudential judgments.

It is striking, though, that it was thought necessary in a diocesan pastoral plan implementing a papal teaching document to affirm that the Church’s teaching has not changed. This rebuts those who say that Amoris Laetitia has changed Church teaching. It cannot do this because “objective truth remains unaffected.” The Church’s moral doctrine cannot be undone in general or even on a case-by-case basis, in which each person can pick and choose what is right or wrong for him.

“Guidance and spiritual formation” of conscience are necessary, which means that people facing hard moral choices must make the effort to inform themselves of the Church’s teaching through study, prayerful reflection, and the advice and counsel of qualified teachers who both know and believe in that teaching.

Our grasp of Church teaching should extend beyond simply knowing this or that doctrine. We must also accept in faith that the doctrine is both true and good, that God expects us to live in accord with that doctrine, that this is possible, and that any perceived difficulties are surmountable with the help of God’s grace.

A pastor’s duty is to guide the faithful who come to him to embrace virtuous living and to renounce all temptations to justify falling into sin by claiming that a commandment (such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery”) is impossible or does not apply due to extenuating circumstances.

A pastor should never say: “Here is what the Church teaches. Do whatever you like with it,” as if he were a neutral referee. No, the good shepherd does all he can to lead the faithful to obey God’s law without exceptions, which is the only “appropriate prudential judgment.”


A decision made in conscience knowingly to sin is always objectively wrong, even when one’s culpability may be partially or even completely mitigated because it is always wrong to violate God’s law.

So I share Edward Peters’ reservations about this sentence in the Washington document: “Priests are called to respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith since no one can enter the soul of another and make that judgment for them.”

Peters rightly observes that “if the sentence means that priests must ‘respect the decision’ of divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, living as though married to each other, to approach for holy Communion, and administer the Sacrament to them, then the admonition fails for violating Canon 915 and the Eucharistic discipline which that canon has always represented.” (Canon 915 prohibits the admission to Holy Communion of those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.”)

The priest is not obliged to administer Holy Communion to Catholics who have obtained a civil divorce and then attempted marriage civilly. He should advise anyone in this situation of this canon law provision. It does not matter if they have decided, in conscience, that they are entitled to Holy Communion, for some reason. Canon law governs external behavior, and civil “re-marriage” and cohabitation are externally verifiable behaviors.

Priests are bound in conscience to uphold canon law. The law’s rebuke of those who persist in manifest grave sin is a call to abandon a sinful way of life and to embrace fidelity to God’s Sixth Commandment and one’s marriage vows.

What, then, does “respect the decisions made in conscience” mean? That I must agree with those decisions? Refrain from trying to convince someone that he has made a terrible error of judgment if he decides that he may sin in good conscience? That if I contradict his decision and reasoning that I am lacking in respect? That I must alter my thoughts and behavior to accommodate a wrong decision? That criticizing or not cooperating with a decision made in conscience is a failure to properly “accompany” him?

Obviously, no, on all counts. Respect for someone means that we show him love. So we share the truth and support him in good decisions; that we risk offending by contradicting or rebuking him when he chooses what’s wrong. Respect is not a formula for depriving a sinner of the saving word of truth that would lead him to abandon sin and embrace God’s will, as known in God’s law.

It’s wrong to ask someone to violate his conscience when he has embraced the truth and lives according to that truth. The martyrs who gave their lives rather than renounce Christ teach us what we must do. It’s not wrong to insist that a Catholic who claims that his conscience allows him to live in an actively adulterous union must renounce this erroneous judgment for the good of his soul, the good of the other person’s soul and to cease scandalizing the Christian community – perhaps encouraging others to follow his example.

“No, prudential judgments of individuals about their own situation do not set aside the objective moral order.” It’s by respecting the objective moral order, by living it, that we worship God and fulfill his saving will for us. To respect someone is to help him embrace this truth, no matter how much sin may have lulled him into wrongly thinking that observing God’s law is impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable.


*Image: Marriage by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1638 [Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. From Poussin’s The Seven Sacraments. Because Penance was destroyed in an 1816 fire, just six of the paintings in the series remain.]

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.