Exposing the Sham of “Discernment”

by Christopher A. Ferrara
March 20, 2017

In his address to the participants in a course on the “internal forum” at the Vatican, Pope Bergoglio promoted the novelty in moral theology which he has attempted to introduce into the life of the Church via the already infamous Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (AL): “discernment.”

What exactly is this “discernment”?  Quite simply, it is a code word for the application of situation ethics in the confessional in the case of public adulterers living in “second marriages” so that they can receive Holy Communion without having to cease their adulterous relations. 

In other words, discernment is a sham. If that claim seems excessive, consider Pope Bergoglio’s own explanation of his novelty during the linked address:

“Discernment enables one to distinguish always, to not confuse, and to never ‘paint everyone with the same brush.’ Discernment educates the sight and the heart, making possible that delicacy of spirit which is so necessary before one who opens the sanctuary of his conscience to receive light, peace and mercy.

“Discernment is also necessary because, one who approaches the Confessional, can come from the most disparate situations; he can also have spiritual disturbances, whose nature must be subjected to careful discernment, taking into account all the existential, ecclesial, natural and supernatural circumstances.”

That this advice to confessors is unworkable and even immoral nonsense should be apparent on a moment’s reflection.  Suppose, for example, penitents in Diocese X, who feel the guilt of adultery because they have put away their true spouses and purported to marry another, come to confess their sins to a local parish priest.  Are we seriously expected to believe that in each and every such case the priest is required to conduct an examination of all the existential, ecclesial, natural and supernatural circumstances” surrounding each penitent’s decision to enter into and remain in an adulterous union? 

Even if such a brutally intrusive examination of every anonymous penitent confessing adultery were feasible in actual parish life — and it clearly isn’t — what would be the point of the exercise?  Are we also expected to believe that the priest conducting these inquisitions of each penitent will render an on-the-spot verdict of “not guilty” of mortal sin based on various “disparate situations” — i.e., that the priest will practice some sort of situation ethics?  No priest has any such authority. The subjective culpability of each soul is known only to God, and that judgment belongs to Him alone, not to a priest venturing his personal guess as to culpability.

And whatever happened to “who am I to judge”?  Indeed, who is the priest, confronted with the confession of the objective sin of adultery, to judge the subjective state of the penitent’s soul based on certain external data? (Padre Pio reputedly had the gift of reading souls, but even he would not have absolved an objective adulterer. His gift, rather, was directed to detecting sin, not excusing it.) 

In his important commentary on “Five Serious Problems with Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia,” the moral theologian E. Christian Brugger focuses on the perniciousness of this aspect of “discernment.”  He writes:

But if we shouldn’t — and indeed can’t — render a judgment of condemnation on another person’s state of soul, then we shouldn’t and can’t render a judgment of acquittal either. But chapter 8 implies that pastors can have adequate certitude that a person lacks subjective culpability and so can free them to participate in the sacraments. No. 299 even refers to the divorced and civilly remarried as ‘living members’ of the Church. The common understanding of a ‘living’ member is a baptized person in grace.

But how can a priest judge that such people are in grace without judging? Pope Francis insists, and rightly so, that we mustn’t judge.  But judgment is not only about condemning; it also means acquitting. The presumption here, and throughout the chapter, is that pastors can in fact render a judgment of acquittal on consciences so the people in irregular unions can move forward.

But if we cannot and should not judge the souls of others, then we can neither condemn them by saying they are certainly guilty of mortal sin, nor can we acquit them saying they are not subjectively culpable for choosing grave matter. We cannot judge.”

What, then, should a priest do?  He should do what priests have always done in the confessional — at least before Pope Bergoglio arrived to insist on his novelty of “discernment”: treat the objective sin and leave the judgment of subjective guilt to God. Brugger, who teaches moral theology to future priests, explains thus:

“If pastors can’t judge souls, what are they to do? They should accept a person’s assessment of his own soul. If pastors pick up indications of mitigated culpability, they should gently help the person to see these factors, then charitably inform him about Jesus’s fuller teaching on marriage (i.e., they should engage in conscience formation)…

“[T]he pastor should then find out if the person is resolved to live according to Jesus’ teaching as understood by the Catholic Church; if the person says ‘no’, or ‘I can’t’, the pastor says, ‘Well, I cannot tell you whether you are in serious sin by refusing to accept the Church’s teaching, for I cannot judge your soul. But even if you are truly in good faith, I cannot judge that you may rightly receive the Holy Eucharist, because I cannot know that, and my telling you that might well encourage you to rationalize ongoing mortal sin and result in your eternal damnation.’”

Then again, as noted above, in any event the exhaustive cross-examination of penitents that “discernment” would seem to require will not happen because it is unfeasible and indeed inappropriately invasive of the privacy of someone who relies upon anonymity and circumspection in coming before the priest to confess his guilt. And if the penitent did not think he was guilty of adultery in the first place, he would not be in the confessional to unburden his adulterous “second marriage.”

The implications, therefore, are staggering: “discernment” is a mere verbal disguise for what is really a disastrous permission to confessors to assist people objectively guilty of adultery in rationalizing their mortal sin so that they can be “absolved” and allowed to receive Holy Communion while continuing to commit adultery.

Never, absolutely never, has a Pope lent his name to such a radical deviation from the Church’s constant teaching and intrinsically related practice. The sham of “discernment” clearly pertains to the situation of which Sister Lucia warned Cardinal Caffarra: “[T]he final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”

Our Lady of Fatima, come to the aid of Your embattled Church!