The Swiss theologian Stefan BUCHS, a priest of the Chemin Neuf Community, explains how Amoris Laetitia proposes to each and every one of us an education in discernment in order to live a personal relationship with Jesus.

A positive shake-up

Amoris Laetitia (AL)[1]- The Joy of Love – has shaken up the Catholic Church, especially in a positive way. Even today, more than five years after its publication, there is talk of a new language being introduced into the Church, of a rediscovery of mercy, but also of the great initiatives taken to renew the pastoral care of couples and families throughout the world. However, up to now there are still great debates, especially around chapter 8 entitled: “Accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness”.[2] In this chapter, the Pope does not prescribe in a law what to do in certain situations where the family or the couple is in a difficult condition or even not foreseen by Catholic teaching. For these situations, the Pope proposes a path of integration, which is based on the accompaniment and discernment of both the people directly concerned and the pastor.

In doing so, the Pope has disappointed two ecclesial circles. The rather “progressive” Catholics, who demand access to the sacraments for divorced people living together, or who even demand the possibility of an “ecclesial divorce” and a new marriage in the Church. The rather traditional milieu saw in this chapter 8 – where the Pope insists on the need for discernment, especially in footnote 336 – a betrayal of Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and an assimilation to non-Christian societal moral currents.

In other words: for some, the Pope remains locked in an anti-modern, regressive and rigorist Catholicity; for others, he is a progressive who departs from the truth of Jesus transmitted by the Bible, by the faith of the apostles and by the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. But since the two perspectives are mutually exclusive, this points to the need to try to get a better grasp of this notion of ‘discernment’ which is the cornerstone for understanding the apostolic exhortation.

Ignatius and the Magisterium: the two pillars of Amoris Laetitia

In order to do this, it is first necessary to highlight some of the foundations of LA.

A first pillar is of course the spiritual origin of Pope Francis. As a Jesuit, he is formed by the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, which are also a school of discernment.

The other pillar is the previous writings of the Catholic Magisterium concerning married life and the family. These are mainly the encyclical Casti Connubii (CC) of Pope Pius XI (1930), the encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) of Pope Paul VI (1968) and the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (FC) of Pope John Paul II (1981).

It is up to us to look at how these documents speak of discernment and compare them with AL. This will allow us to see how AL further develops the ecclesial teaching on family life. We will discover that, on the one hand, the Pope remains with AL in faithful continuity with Catholic teaching and, on the other hand, that he deeply respects and welcomes the concrete situations of families in our modern societies. The novelty is not in the content of AL’s teaching, but in the fact that the pope dares to trust in the formed conscience of the individual person and his or her ability to discern what is the best way to act before God in the concrete circumstances of his or her life. In AL, Pope Francis thus shows us a path towards greater spiritual maturity.

1 Ignatian foundations: towards a “more”, a “greater”

Jorge Maria Bergoglio, the current Pope Francis, is a Jesuit. As a spiritual son of St. Ignatius, he is influenced by the spirituality of the Spiritual Exercises (SE[3]). The Spiritual Exercises are a school for learning to discern how to let oneself be better loved by God and then be able to follow Jesus better. This ‘better’ already tells us that it is a process. ES takes us on a journey towards ‘more’: more love, more charity, more true freedom, more hope, more trust and faith – the journey that is Jesus himself.[4]

St Ignatius, who lived at the beginning of modern times, found himself in a world where recourse to clear moral precepts had become more difficult than a few centuries before. The Western world, which was built on the basis of a single Caesar, a single empire and a single Church, had collapsed. The emergence of cities and the social status of citizens as early as the 13th century with the appearance of universities, the (re-)discovery of typography by Gutenberg from 1450 onwards, the discovery of the ‘new world’ in 1492 and the Reformation of 1517 (Luther) and 1519 (Zwingli), had completely destroyed the traditional world view. In the discourse of scholars, it is the growth of philosophical and ethical ‘nominalism’ that replaces a theology and morality based on ‘natural law’.[5] The whole era is changing.

In this context, Ignatius had the experience of Manrese which led a few years later to the Spiritual Exercises. Severely wounded, bound to bed for months, he had discovered how reading the story of Jesus and the saints gave him a deep and lasting sense of consolation, whereas reading chivalric novels offered him only a small moment of pleasure and mirth, without opening him to more love and life. In this process, Ignatius discovered the basis of spiritual discernment to better learn and understand how God guides and leads the human soul. The principle and foundation of this discernment is the fact that man is created to live with God (which is also at the centre of the biblical message) and that every human aspiration aims at this goal. In the exercises, the “exerciser” learns to discern the various inclinations of the soul in order to better understand how he or she can best achieve that for which he or she is created. Traditional thinking – where the state of a religious is the most perfect before that of priests and married people – no longer has the same value as in the past, even if Ignatius remains formed by this idea. What matters is to choose the state of life or profession that allows you to serve, praise and respect God more (cf. SE 23).

Today, in the age of post-modernity, which, especially in the West, operates according to the liberal principle of non-damage[6], the human being has an increasing sense of insecurity and loss. This means that they increasingly seek to follow strict rules in order to find a direction in life. This is where the notion of discernment in AL is judged: it would propagate moral relativism. But the Pope does not think according to post-modern categories, as he often shows us in his very clear positions (e.g., in the demand for global migration). Above all, the rules of Ignatian discernment are based on a firm law of “principle and foundation” (cf. SE 23):

“Man is created to praise, revere and serve God our Lord and thereby save his soul, and the other things on the face of the earth are created for man, and to help him in the pursuit of the end for which he is created.”

It is not, therefore, a question of moral voluntarism, but of a search in truth for the greater glory of God. This discernment does not aim at the comfort of the human person, but orders thoughts and desires towards life with God, with full respect for the real and concrete situation of the person concerned. It becomes clear, therefore, that the discussion as to whether the pope is progressive or traditionalist on the basis of discernment is futile, because spiritual discernment puts God at the centre and seeks as its goal how the concrete person can live more fully in Jesus Christ.[7]

2. Magisterial teaching on the family before Amoris Laetitia

For this second point, it is necessary to specify immediately the limits of this research. Of course, it would be very important to search all the writings of the present pope, but also to study how his predecessors speak of discernment. This task is beyond the scope of a short article, but we can make a first observation.

The noun ‘discernment’ is used 33 times and the verb ‘discern’ 9 times in the French translation of AL. Pope John Paul II used them 8 times as a noun and 4 times as a verb in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (FC) on the tasks of the Christian family in today’s world. Pope Paul VI never uses the term in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) and in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (CC) on Christian marriage (1930) the word is used only once.

It is therefore very fair to say that ecclesial language on marriage is changing. This is even more obvious when we look at how the words ‘discern’ or ‘discernment’ are used in different texts.

In CC 102, discernment is nothing other than the recognition of the divine and natural law on marriage: “This conformity of wedlock and moral conduct with the divine laws respective of marriage, without which its effective restoration cannot be brought about, supposes, however, that all can discern readily, with real certainty, and without any accompanying error, what those laws are.” We are still in the classic language of Neo-Scholasticism, even though Pope Pius XI sees not only the importance of begetting children in the conjugal act but also love – which was a novelty in the official discourse of the Catholic Church at the time.

Fifty years later, Pope John Paul II uses the verb “discern” in the sense of becoming more aware of one’s own vocation (cf. FC 2; 8; 37). The expression used is “evangelical discernment”, especially in FC 5. It is a question of discernment in order “that the entire truth and the full dignity of marriage and the family may be preserved and realized” (FC 5). This evangelical discernment is both the task of pastors and of the laity. We find here a strong point that encourages all the faithful to use their capacity for discernment, which is formed through the education of conscience (cf. FC 8). There is surely a correspondence here with the Ignatian understanding of discernment. But already in FC 84, the notion of discernment is used in a different way with the meaning of distinguishing or recognising. Unlike FC 8, this task only obliges pastors to discern the different situations of Catholics who live in a new union after their divorce.

Compared to the awareness (1st point) of the importance of the ability to discern in Ignatian spirituality, the record of the pre-AL writings remains poor. This is surely one of the reasons why AL provokes so much discussion.

3. Amoris Laetitia and the spread of conscience formation

In AL, the Ignatian meaning of the word discernment is immediately evident. Quoting a document of the Spanish bishops from 1979, Pope Francis explains already at the beginning of AL the need to always look for what remains true and valid in the traditional forms and models of the family, but also what is an expression of a specific culture and time. The context clearly shows us that this is a task entrusted to both pastors and laity to the same degree (cf. AL 32). Confirmation of this interpretation follows immediately: “We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. 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 to replace them.” (AL 37).

Like John Paul II, Pope Francis stresses the importance of forming the conscience of the laity. But he clearly adds what his predecessors did not write: the pastors and the teaching of the Church cannot substitute themselves for the conscience of the laity. This remark does not mean that other popes would not have agreed. Respect for the dignity of the formed conscience is essential in the Church’s teaching.[8] The Second Vatican Council applied it in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (GS) on the question of family planning: “[I]n their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel” (GS 50). Even if the Church’s teaching remains important for the formation of conscience, it can never be substituted by any other authority, not even by the authority of the pope or a council.

The notion of “discernment/to discern” is again found in the context of the vocation to sacramental marriage (cf. AL 72), the social commitment of a family (cf. AL 186), the way of preparing for marriage (cf. AL 207), the propagation of life (in the sense of GS 50, considering HV 11) and the formation and use of means of social communication (cf. AL 274). In AL 227, the Pope proposes that pastors form the faithful, especially families, in prayer and in reading the Bible, because the Word of God is “a criterion of judgement and a light in discerning the various challenges that married couples and families encounter”.

The call to discernment in chapter 8

Where the call to discernment is most contested is in chapter 8 of AL on how to accompany, discern and integrate fragility.[9] It is in this chapter that Pope Francis addresses the difficult issues of broken, separated or divorced married lives. It is here that questions arise about the possibility of living with a new spouse and whether or not one can continue to access the sacraments.

This chapter is prepared beforehand in AL in the paragraphs that seek the seed of the Word in imperfect situations. For example, the ability to discern helps us to see what is beautiful and true in conjugal and family forms in other cultures and religions (cf. AL 77). In the paragraphs that seek to shed light on crises, anxieties and difficulties, the Pope notes that the pastoral care of separated, divorced or abandoned persons requires special (cf. AL 242) and careful discernment, if they are in a new union (cf. AL 243). When such persons wish to be baptized, the bishop is obliged to make a “pastoral discernment which is commensurate with their spiritual good” (AL 249).

Thus, in chapter 8, the Pope speaks first of situations unknown to Catholic doctrine, such as that of concubinage. In these cases, pastoral discernment has the aim of entering into dialogue with these persons and helping them to discover the richness of the Gospel and of sacramental marriage, but also to support them in growing humanly and spiritually (cf. AL 293). Here, Pope Francis refers to the “law of gradualness”, especially used by John Paul II in FC 34.[10] Concretely, by using the biblical criterion, this means that the Pope believes that the Church is rather called to integrate people and to appropriate the attitude of divine mercy and not to exclude them eternally (cf. AL 296).

The pastor is therefore called to discern how people who live in situations not foreseen by the Church can participate in parish life. To do this, it is important to discern what the concrete person is experiencing in his or her situation. Was he/she abandoned by the spouse without much reason? Did he/she decide to live in a new relationship after the divorce because this was the only responsible way for the children? Or did she change partners recklessly? This discernment is important in order to ascertain whether the person concerned is not living in a situation of serious fault, which means that he or she could perhaps have access to the sacraments.

This shows us, as the Pope points out, that there are few indisputable and fixed answers to complex and fragile matrimonial situations that can be settled by a new law – this is a moral banality from the Middle Ages that says that the concrete situation requires moral discernment in order to apply the meaning of a law, and to do this it is sometimes necessary to act contrary to the written law.[11] It is first of all the response of a generous heart that counts; of a heart that wants to grow in faith and that is on the way to realising more and more (therefore gradually) the fullness of the Gospel ideal. It is therefore first of all the response of a personal moral conscience, accompanied by the benevolent discernment of a pastor (cf. AL 297 – 305).

By realising that it is always the divine will that is sought by formed consciences, one cannot speak of moral or doctrinal relativism. But it is a path of mercy and a pastoral ministry of mercy that transmits first of all the unconditional love of God (cf. AL 307 – 312). This does not mean the tolerance of sin. On the contrary, it is God’s mercy, lived by Christians, that allows us to have the courage to recognise our sin and confess it as the first step towards true conversion.

Here we find the Ignatian foundations of the pope. During the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, we are invited to let God reveal our sin to us. The prayer always ends in a colloquy, that is, in a dialogue with the merciful Lord: that at the foot of the cross (cf. SE 53) or that of the mercy that gives me life (cf. SE 61). Ignatius proposes to see one’s own depravity in the light of the goodness and mercy of God (cf. SE 71). It is in this process that the one who makes the exercises can accept the truth about himself and open himself to God in order to change his life (cf. SE 61). This path of mercy remains, therefore, a path of discernment that forms the personal moral conscience.

Towards a democratisation of Christian discernment

This brief analysis shows us that very often the term discernment is not used in a new or dramatic sense in AL. Nevertheless, the multiple use of this word indicates that the formation of the moral conscience and the faculty of discernment of the Christian as well as that of the whole ecclesial community are to be developed. But of course, this emphasis on personal moral awareness and the mission to develop one’s own capacity for discernment in order to better act according to God’s love can already be found in other texts of the present Pope (e.g., Evangelii Gaudium 16, where it is not yet a question of a “democratization” of discernment, but of an “aristocratization”, and then to broaden the call for discernment to the whole Church in EG 179).

All called to take ownership of an authentic law

We can therefore see that the Pope is proposing an education in discernment for everyone, not just for “pastors”. The basis for good discernment is a well-formed conscience. This is nothing new in the Catholic Church. It was only buried for a few centuries by the influence of “nominalism”, for which the moral conscience is only an instance that can recognise the law as an external obligation. Since the Second Vatican Council (as with some theologians already long before, e.g., John Henry Newman[12]), the Catholic Church is overcoming this moral stiffening, as we have seen under the second point. Pope Francis continues faithfully in this direction. This can be frightening because we have to recognise that reality is not all black and white, but that there are many shades of grey in between. Moreover, our societies, which are in the midst of a radical change of all ancient traditions and customs, push us to look for security in a reduced space where good or bad action is clearly defined.

But the reality is more complex, and finally, the capacity of each human person to form his or her conscience well in order to recognise inwardly what is good and what is evil, is part of his or her profound dignity. Having discerned personally what good he or she wants to achieve, man is on the way to that greater goal, which is the “beatific vision” of God. Rather than demanding that the believer blindly conform to an external law, the believer is called to appropriate an authentic law that tells him to aim for, pursue and achieve the good as much as possible in his actions.[13] The magisterium retains its important place in the formation of moral conscience, obedience to the Church is not affected at all, but each Christian lives more fully the gift and mission received at baptism: to live a personal relationship with Jesus.

“Man is created to praise, revere and serve God our Lord and thereby save his soul, and the other things on the face of the earth are created for man, and to help him in the pursuit of the end for which he is created.” Ignatius of Loyola

[1] Magisterial documents are quoted from the Vatican webpage: (visited on 25 October 2021).
[2] The number of publications around AL is no longer manageable. Concerning the big discussions that affect above all chapter 8 cf. among others: Batlogg, Andreas: Viel zu weit oder viel zu wenig? Beobachtungen zu ersten Reaktionen auf das nachsynodale Schreiben “Amoris Laetitia” von Papst Franziskus. In: Stimmen der Zeit online. 01.05.2016 (; accessed 25 October 2021); Goertz, Stephan; Witting, Caroline (Ed.): Amoris laetitia – Wendepunkt für die Moraltheologie? Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2016 (Katholizismus im Umbruch; 4); The “dubia” of the four cardinals, published 14 November 2016 (, visited 14 October 2021); Goertz, Stefan: Über Zweifel, Irrtümer und Unterscheidungen. Eine moraltheologische Zwischenbetrachtung zur Debatte um “Amoris laetitia”. In: Stimmen der Zeit online. 01.01.2017 (, accessed 14 October 2021); Keenan, James F.: Regarding Amoris laetitia: Its language, its reception, some challenges, and agnosticism of some of the Hierarchy. In: Perspect. Teol. 53 (2021), pp. 41-60; Kupczak, Jaroslaw: Before Amoris Laetitia. The Sources of the Controversy. Washington: CUA Press, 2021.
[3] Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises, 4th revised and corrected edition; Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2008.
[4] Cf. Lambert, Willi: Aus Liebe zur Wirklichkeit. Grundworte ignatianischer Spiritualität.8 Kevelaer: topos plus, 2008 (topos taschenbücher; 367): pp. 15-18.
[5] In nominalism, therefore, it is no longer a concept of a God who created the world with rules that lead it to a purpose (of a ‘natural law’ where God ordered everything into its proper place so that creation proceeds towards a purpose, theologically that God is all in all), but a concept where only concrete things actually exist. This also means that nominalism cannot start from an inherent finality of creation. A moral theology based on natural law assumes that God is good. Everything that God has made is therefore good. Through reason, man is endowed with the ability to recognise the order that God has given to the universe and to man’s environment. This reason is formed by the experience of good and evil. In his free will, man can choose to live according to this order that he has recognised through his reason, choosing the action that best corresponds to his purpose: beatitude in God. In a nominalist conception according to William of Ockham (ca. 1287 – 1347), man can say nothing about God; he only has access to God’s will, which is manifested in his commands through the Holy Scriptures. Thereafter, it is no longer possible to say that God is good; only the will of God is good. The function of reason is to present the divine law to man. In his will, which is totally free like the divine will, man can choose both to obey God’s law and to reject it. This is always a choice isolated from the rest of life, because, according to the nominalist conception, a finality of creation does not exist or at least is not conceivable by man. In a natural law conception, the human moral conscience is capable of discerning good and evil, in a nominalist conception, the moral conscience can simply recognise the law that God gives for this specific decision. – The explanation is quite simplified here. Cf. Schockenhoff, Eberhard: Wie gewiss ist das Gewissen? Eine ethische Orientierung. Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2003: pp. 102-122; Thomasset, Alain, Interpréter et agir. Jalons pour une éthique chrétienne, Paris: Cerf, 2011 (Initiations): p. 152-158; Pinckaers, Servais Th.: Les sources de la morale chrétienne. Its method, its content, its history. 5Fribourg: Academic Press; Paris: Cerf, 2012: pp. 218-263; Schockenhoff, Eberhard: Grundlegung der Ethik. Ein theologischer Entwurf. 2nd revision,. Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2014.
[6] Everything is permitted that does not disturb the other in the free expression of his way of life.
[7] There is never “enough” love, there is always a “more”, a “greater”. This is the meaning of the word dear to Ignatius: magis, the more, the greater (cf. Lambert, Liebe zur Wirklichkeit, op. cit. p. 106-108).
[8] As Eberhard Schockenhoff shows well in his overview of moral consciousness in Western theology, especially also against the accusations of German theologians as a reaction to the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS) of John Paul II (1993), even though it contains passages, such as the discourse on norma proxima moralitatis is not very happily formulated (cf. Schockenhoff, Gewissen, op. cit. pp. 179-180 with reference to VS 59 and 64.
[9] This can be seen for example in the dubia of the four cardinals (op. cit.).
[10] The law of graduality values the fact that a person is on a journey towards perfection and takes into account the context and concrete difficulties that momentarily allow only a partial response to the call of the Gospel. It is not, according to FC 34, a question of the gradualness of the law; therefore, the value of the law is not relativised. For the discussion of the law of graduality see Bogner, Daniel: Was meint und wobei hilft “Gradualität”? Eine Begriffserklärung zur Familiensynode 2015. In: Stimmen der Zeit 7 (2015); pp. 446-454. Pope Francis clarifies that it is not a question of a gradualness of the law, but of a “a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.” (AL 295; cf. Batlogg, Viel zu weit, op. cit.).
[11] The basis for this is the statement that the first principle of natural law (do good and avoid evil) is always reasonable and obvious. But in a concrete and more complex situation, the answer as to what is good is less obvious (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II q. 94,4).
[12] See Newman, John Henry: Grammar of Assent. Paris: Ad solem, 2010 (Newmanian Writings); pp. 161-215.
[13] This is the basis of a moral virtue.