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  • Amoris Laetitia, Pastoral Discernment, and Thomas Aquinas1
  • S.J. Kevin L. Flannery and Thomas V. Berg

The critical importance and pastoral obligation of carefully discerning the particular situation of persons in problematic moral circumstances—particularly those of Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried—is clearly a paramount concern of Pope Francis. He makes this issue the centerpiece of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) following the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that took place in Rome in October of 2015. And in more recent remarks, he has again revealed just how pressing an issue he believes it to be, particularly for the formation of candidates to the priesthood.

During the Pope's encounter with Jesuits gathered for their General Chapter in Rome in October of 2016, the Holy Father was asked: "In your speech you clearly proposed a morality that is based on discernment. How do you suggest that we proceed in the field of morality with regard to this dynamic of discernment of moral situations?" He responded as follows: [End Page 81]

Discernment is the key element: the capacity for discernment. I note the absence of discernment in the formation of priests. 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, … [and] I am very afraid of this.2 This is what I said in a meeting with the Jesuits in Krakow during the World Youth Day. There the Jesuits asked me what I thought the Society could do and I replied that an important task of the Society is to form seminarians and priests in discernment.3 [End Page 82]

Here the Holy Father is referring to a parting comment he made at an encounter with twenty-eight Polish Jesuits on July 30, 2016.4 On that occasion, the Pope observed:

The Church today needs to grow in the ability of spiritual discernment. Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, and that set aside concrete situations… . And then the seminarians, when they become priests [have a diffi-cult time accompanying the faithful].

And [then] people leave the confessional disappointed. Not because the priest is bad, but because the priest doesn't have the ability to discern situations, to accompany them in authentic discernment. They don't have the needed formation.

Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern. And priests above all really need it for their ministry. This is why we need to teach it to seminarians and priests in formation: they are the ones usually entrusted with the confidences of the conscience of the faithful… . We need to form future priests not [in] general and abstract ideas, which are clear and distinct, but [in] this keen discernment of spirits so that they can help people in their concrete life. We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of gray prevail in life. We must teach [them] to discern in this gray area.

With these convictions seemingly still very much at heart, the Holy Father continued elaborating his response to the question posed to him at the October encounter with Jesuits in Rome. Here Francis contrasts what he refers to as a "decadent Scholasticism" (referring to the Scholastic methodology that he apparently encountered during his philosophical and theological studies as a young Jesuit in the 1960's in Argentina) to the "great Scholasticism" of Aquinas and Bonaventure: [End Page 83]

We studied theology and philosophy with manuals. It was a decadent scholasticism… . When the great Scholasticism began to lose force, there arose that decadent scholasticism with which at least my generation and others have studied. It was this decadent scholasticism that...


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