[Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the inadvertent omission of the word “manifest” in quoting canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law. Crux regrets the error.]

The heart of the  Amoris Laetitia disputes, which flared up again at the weekend following the Maltese bishops’ guidelines on the admission of the divorced-and-remarried to the sacraments, is not doctrine or law but the role of conscience.

Both critics and partisans of the exhortation have correctly detected a clear shift in magisterial teaching in respect of how the Church responds to so-called ‘irregular’ situations, especially of the divorced and civilly remarried, away from St. John Paul II’s 1981 Familiaris Consortio. 

But the even more substantial departure, arguably, is from another of John Paul’s teaching documents, Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which argued against moral relativism, and the misuse of conscience to justify a subjective morality.

The four cardinals who signed the letter challenging Pope Francis over Amoris specifically cite Veritatis, asking if it still holds that, as they paraphrase it, “conscience can never be authorised to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object.”

Grasping the nature of this shift that so concerns the Amoris critics is key to understanding this dispute.

It is not a doctrinal shift. The prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has confirmed what is obvious from Amoris itself: there is no doctrinal difficulty with the exhortation, which reaffirms the constant teaching of the Church in respect of marriage indissolubility, affirming at the start of Chapter 8 that “any breach of the marriage bond is against the will of God.”

Nor has the law changed. Amoris never questions either Canon 915, which demands that Communion be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin,” nor the following canon, that people conscious of grave sin should not present themselves to receive Communion. The law’s core principle, that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist, still stands.

But while Amoris is very clear about not wanting to create new norms or laws, it is also very clear about fostering a new attitude.

What Amoris seeks is a new attitude on the part of the Church towards those who are in irregular situations, one that moves from a primary focus on defending the law and the institution from contamination, towards a focus on the need for accompaniment and healing of the victims of divorce, especially those seeking integration into the Church.

Just like the woman caught in adultery, the sinner is still a sinner; but Jesus sees her also as a victim in need of help and healing. This is a very different logic from that of the doctors of the law whose primary focus leads, necessarily, to shunning (and stoning) her pour encourager les autres.

Familiaris, written in an era when divorce was legal but not yet general among Catholics in many countries, reflects this logic. Catholic divorced and civilly remarried people are described as having “broken the sign of the Covenant and of Fidelity to Christ” and of causing damage to the institution of the family.

Because the sacraments of Eucharist and Matrimony are signs of Christ’s covenant with the Church, those whose life situation objectively contradicts the Covenant place themselves outside the sacraments until they repent by returning to the first union.

Or, if they cannot do that because a greater harm would follow (say, to children of a new union) the price of their return is to live as brother and sister, as long as the church community would not be confused or scandalized.

Amoris, fruit of a synod which spent a lot of time examining the world as it is now, takes a different approach. Divorce is no longer a wolf prowling ‘out there,’ from which the flock must be defended; it is within the fold, devastating the flock. Furthermore, the Church has failed to keep the wolf out: Catholics have been woefully unprepared for the collapse in the wider culture of the understanding of marriage.

Amoris looks at a wounded flock, and looks for ways of bandaging wounds and restoring the sheep to health. It recognizes that even when people have fallen short, grace remains operative; and that not all real-world situations of divorce and remarriage (such as the example supplied to Crux by Father Paul Keller, that was contested by the canonist Dr. Edward Peters) are straightforwardly cases of adultery.

The theology of Familiaris takes place at the level of the sacramental and objective, while Amoris, reflecting the synod, is essentially pastoral and personal. There is no contradiction per se between the two: marriage is both an ontological reality and a vocation, a call to conversion. But there is a clear development, one that has implications.

Amoris refers many times, like Familiaris, to marriage as a sign of Christ’s covenant with the Church, but says it is an “imperfect analogy” because two sinful human beings cannot perfectly reproduce Christ’s covenant. A married couple are (hopefully) on a journey — with the help of Grace — towards a perfect emulation of the covenant, but sign and reality are not yet one.

The danger of not grasping that the Christ-Church covenant is an “imperfect analogy” is that it leads logically to a rigorist position. Those who have placed themselves outside marriage are outside the covenant of Christ’s love — they are not in Communion, and are therefore barred from the Eucharist.

But if the analogy is imperfect, that simple division between those inside and those outside no longer holds. Those who have broken the covenant of marriage are not outside Christ’s love, which extends to all those who have failed to attain it.

Amoris takes that part of core Catholic doctrine (God’s mercy includes sinners) seriously, incorporating it into the Church’s praxis. So that where the logic of Familiaris is that the divorced and remarried are sinners who must repent of their ways in order to be re-admitted to the fold, the logic of Amoris is that the Church must reach out to them and look for ways of bringing them back into the fold through accompaniment and discernment.

But Amoris makes clear that this is not about simply applying the law to people. It must go beyond the law, into the realm of conscience. It calls on pastors to “form” consciences, not “replace” them.  In other words, consciences must be respected as tribunals where law, doctrine and the real-life individual situation can be brought together and cross-examined.

This is the real shift — and the part that makes many nervous. Where Familiaris recognized that there were clear moral differences between, for example, those that abandoned their spouse and those who had been abandoned, and had called for making space for them in parish life, it was followed by a big ‘however.’

The ‘however’ reflected the logic of the doctors of the law. Because their state “objectively contradicted” Christ’s covenant, and because if they were admitted to the sacraments “the faithful would be led into error and confusion,” only if the divorced and remarried lived together as brother and sister could they receive the Eucharist.

In Familiaris there is little role for conscience, except as a means for attempting to understand and obey the law as it is universally applied. This is the approach that Cardinal Raymond Burke and Peters defend as immutable Catholic teaching.

Peters’s objection both to Keller in Crux and now to the Maltese bishops’ guidelines (which he describes as a “disaster”) is that they have caused individual conscience to trump the law, thereby repudiating canons 915 and 916. Keller and the Maltese bishops, says Peters, have assumed that “an individual Catholic’s assessment of his or her own conscience is the sole criterion that governs a minister’s decision to give Holy Communion to a member of the faithful.”

But that’s not what Amoris teaches about the use of conscience. Amoris rescues a traditional Catholic understanding of conscience that was expressed at the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. Many saw John Paul’s arguments against relativism in Veritatis as shrinking this understanding.

Like Vatican II and the Catholic tradition in general, Amoris portrays the conscience as the inner sanctuary and core of a person, where they are alone with God, facing His judgement. Conscience is not a way of evading responsibility, but assuming it. It is not “whatever I decide is right” but rather, “the buck stops here.”

Which is why, in the discernment process detailed in Amoris, the conscience must be formed and informed, and a final decision reached in conjunction with a pastor who knows the law and doctrine of the Church. It is a process that takes place not outside the law but beyond it.

The Maltese bishops’ guidelines’ co-author, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, is hardly a liberal or antinomian. Famous as Pope Benedict’s reformer of the law on abuse of minors, he is one of the Church’s leading canon lawyers. His thesis was on the canon law of marriage — supervised by none other than Burke.

Yet Scicluna and his fellow pastors have grasped the ancient theology of conscience restored by Amoris. In the key paragraph 10 that has caused such outrage among some, the bishops spell out a whole series of ‘ifs’ that all but guarantee (at least, humanly speaking) that God has spoken directly to a person in the depths of their soul.

If, at the end of the discernment, if it has been undertaken — as Amoris asks — with humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching, if a divorced and civilly person has sincerely searched, with an informed conscience, for God’s will, and has a desire to respond more perfectly to it; and if, at the end of all that, they are “at peace with God,” then they “cannot be precluded” from the sacraments of the Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Peters talks of the minister’s deciding to give (or not) the sacraments; he is policing the border. The Maltese bishops talk of the minister as being unable to withhold sacraments to someone who has reached peace through a decision reached in true conscience as result of an authentic discernment.

God goes beyond (not against) the law, and speaks directly to the human heart — and a minister of God, having accompanied and ‘ensured’ the process, can only respect that.

It is easy to understand why this raises red flags. In a society which exalts the individual conscience as a kind of subjective tribunal, impervious to external ideas such as law and truth, it can sound like a surrender to subjectivism. But it is something else entirely: it is the Catholic way of applying the law in ways that respect God’s freedom to act.

Ironically, this makes it much harder — in fact, if Amoris is read properly, it makes it impossible — for a D&R person simply to decide, on their own, without discerning with the pastors, that they should receive Communion.

Familiaris says: this is the law, accept it or reject it (as many have). Amoris says: this is the law and the teaching of the Church; let us help you apply it, in your individual case, sub specie aeternitatis and with full cognizance of all the Church teaches.

The dispute over Amoris chapter 8, in short, is not between pastors who want to ignore the law versus lawyers who insist on it. It is a theological argument over how the law is to be applied and what place conscience occupies.

The detractors’ best case is that in an individualistic society, it will be impossible to avoid the misuse of conscience: the traditional use of conscience to which Amoris appeals must be resisted because of the demands of the age.

The supporters’ best case, on the other hand, is that the use of conscience to which Amoris calls the Church belongs to perennial church teaching, one that needs upholding, whatever the age.