Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation published by Pope Francis in March 2016 after the two synods of bishops on the family, not only radically altered the church’s concrete pastoral approach to marriage and the family, it also opened new ways of doing moral theology in the 21st century, Julio Martinez, S.J., a Spanish priest and moral theologian, told America magazine in an exclusive interview. The more fully that post-synodal text is received by pastors, Father Martinez said, the ever-greater impact it will have on the worldwide Catholic Church.

“The reception of a document of the magisterium is generally not so easy, but in the case of Amoris Laetitia, we can say it is even more difficult than for other kinds of documents because of the delicate matters with which it deals,” said Father Martinez in his keynote address at “Moral Theology and Amoris Laetitia,” a four-day international conference held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from May 11 to 14. “That is one of the reasons for the conference.”

Father Martinez is a professor of moral theology at Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid—where he was the rector from 2012 to 2021—and a visiting professor on the same subject at the Gregorian University. He is a graduate of Weston School of Theology, an institution that merged with the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College in 2004 to form what is today the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

In his address, Father Martinez called on those engaged in moral theology to “start from the mystery of the incarnation; of the God who became human flesh in Jesus Christ,” he said. And to “put our best energies into a courageous theological thinking that is human and kenotic [self-emptying], that is in contact with reality and open to the risk of encounter with other rationalities, cultures, and disciplines.”

While he recognized “it is more comfortable and apparently safer to repeat the paths inherited from the past, ignoring the questions, contradictions, and searches of the present,” he said. “What good is all this if we are not able to transmit light and hope to the problems and sufferings that shake the men and women of our day?”

The radical shift in moral theology after “Amoris Laetitia”

Amoris Laetitia demands a changed epistemology and way of elaborating moral knowledge, and here the question of discernment arises,” Father Martinez said. “Discernment is a very important word in the Ignatian tradition.”

Father Martinez remarked that Pope Francis in publishing Amoris Laetitia has brought this central tenet in the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola to the practice of moral theology.

Although Pope Francis’ understanding of moral theology, as espoused in Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and later in Veritatis Gaudium (2017), is informed by his Jesuit spirituality, it is also firmly rooted in the developments of the discipline ushered by the Second Vatican Council, especially in Gaudium et Spes (1965), a seminal constitution of the council reflecting on the church in the modern world. We need to recover this approach, Father Martinez said, “without getting lost in the meanders of Veritatis Splendor,” the 1993 encyclical in which Pope John Paul II addresses the church’s moral teaching in light of the fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine.

I asked Father Martinez if this way of thinking was new. “It is practically new in terms of moral theology (at least in terms of the way it is starting to be implemented); it is not new to the spiritual life,” he said. “We can say that it is almost new in moral theology because the Second Vatican Council introduced the concept and the method in Gaudium et Spes.” But, “this was not much developed in subsequent papal teachings,” he said.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, “has introduced discernment in the concrete circumstances of marriage and family life to find what is the will of God in the here and now, for me, as a person who tries to follow Christ,” Father Martinez said. “To put the focus on discernment in order to find the good is a really new thing in moral theology.”

After the Second Vatican Council, “the magisterium [papal teachings] appeared not to have much of a problem with discernment being applied to social issues,” Father Martinez said. “It was practically the opposite reaction or response when it came to applying discernment in matters of personal morality.” But, for Father Martinez, “the moral life is incomplete without personal and pastoral discernment.”

In Humanae Vitae (1968), for example, Pope Paul VI made the practice of discernment very difficult in terms of personal morality,” Father Martinez said, adding that Pope John Paul II had done the same in Veritatis Splendor.” But in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has given theologians and pastors the task of “trying to see how to apply discernment in all fields of moral life,” he said. “He is asking everyone to do this, but in a special way pastors and theologians—and this is what this conference is all about.”

Moral theology after Vatican II before Pope Francis

But why has there been such resistance to the use of discernment in personal moral matters and not in social matters? “This is a little more complex,” Father Martinez replied. “At first, there was not the same kind of resistance to social questions. But, eventually, resistance also emerged in social moral matters,” he said, citing two instances. First “when the American church in the 1980s implemented a method of participation through dialogues and encounters to deal with the questions relating to peace (1983) and economic justice (1986),” he said, “the Vatican considered this matter to be problematic at the time.” Second, he recalled, “John Paul II decided to issue Veritatis Splendor, to set order in the field of Catholic moral theology.

Still, he added, “in personal matters relating to the body, sexuality and bioethics; this is the field of morality that is more problematic, while in social matters it appears to be easier.”

“It is fundamental to untie the knots Veritatis Splendor made in Catholic morals,” Father Martinez said, careful not to apportion blame for this solely on the Polish pope. He said the knots had, in fact, already begun to be tied 25-years prior with the release of Humanae Vitae. Though in Gaudium et Spes, the council asked pastors and theologians “to discern and consider the circumstances when dealing with marriage and family life,” he said,“Humanae Vitae did not do so in an accurate way.”

Veritatis Splendor introduced “a very profound development in moral theology with the introduction of the concept we call intrinsic evil,” he said. “This is a controversial philosophical concept that brought serious difficulties for moral theology in the development of the path of dialogue and discernment; which is the way to put into action a mature and well-formed conscience.” Furthermore, Veritatis Splendor had a profound impact on the church, by insisting the role of the magisterium included “teaching morals in a very precise and very clear way,” he said. And although it gives importance to conscience, which is “the proximate norm of personal morality,” he said, quoting from the encyclical, “it ends by understanding conscience somewhat as an instance of the person who has to know what the magisterium says and to implement this in his or her life.”

“Conscience is a fundamental part of morality. Indeed, you cannot eliminate conscience,” Father Martinez said. But Veritatis Splendor, he added, “very much fears what is called ‘creative conscience,’” and insists that “conscience cannot be creative. It has to somehow be obedient to the rules and the norms of the magisterium, and especially the magisterium of the pope, whose role it is to recognize and formulate the norms so the faithful can know and follow them.”

Father Martinez characterized this move as “a hypertrophy [an excessive development] of the magisterium in the field of moral theology, that took place during the long pontificate of John Paul II,” he said. “As a result, the magisterium speaks on every single issue of personal or social morals—but especially on personal morals, sexual morality and violence.” With this hypertrophy of the magisterium, he said, “conscience has, in equal proportion, been diminished; even though Veritatis Splendor affirms conscience is the main instance of morals….”

The above comes from a May 27 posting in America magazine.