Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Subjective Conscience and Moral Certainty

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | May 06, 2016

As a parish priest, I hear thousands of confessions. It’s my job. The privilege of my office as confessor brings me great joy and for that I give God thanks. But I think the Holy Father’s recent document on love and marriage, Amoris Laetitia (AL), may well place ordinary priest-confessors in a pastorally untenable position and degrade the penitents’ sense of moral certainty upon receiving absolution.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that mortal sins can be forgiven only (outside of Confession) with perfect contrition: true sorrow for offending the majesty and goodness of God. But how can we be certain that we have attained such perfect sorrow? On the other hand, our sense of imperfect contrition-– sorrow for fear of punishment-- is certain. Imperfect contrition is reasonable and good, but insufficient in itself for remission of mortal sin. We attain the moral certainty of forgiveness, according to St. Thomas, when the grace of the sacrament of Penance raises imperfect contrition to the level of perfect contrition. The sacrament of Penance is truly consoling because the Church provides us with the confidence of forgiveness.

I’m reasonably certain, however, that something like the following hypothetical “case study” will take place in the near future for many priests. I’m writing this now, before it happens, to dispel any thoughts of an indirect violation of the confessional seal.

Penitent: “Bless me Father for I have sinned, my last Confession was a month ago. Here are my sins. Father, I returned to the practice of the Faith last month after the Holy Father’s letter on marriage. After seven years of marriage (we married in the Church), my first marriage fell apart. After hearing about the changes the Holy Father made, I spoke to a priest in Confession, explaining the exceptional circumstances of the divorce and he told me to follow my conscience. I feel the marriage wasn’t valid because we were two different people who didn’t share the same dreams."
Priest: “Did you attempt marriage again?”
Penitent: “Yes, I married my high school girlfriend, justice of the peace…”
Priest: “Did you receive a decree of nullity from the Catholic Church for your first marriage?”
Penitent: “No, I was told it would take over a year to process the request and I wanted to get married immediately and then forgot about it. But that’s why, after hearing about the changes made by Pope Francis, I spoke to the priest in Confession.”
Priest: “Perhaps we should talk about this outside of Confession….”
Penitent: “The reason I’m here is because I failed to mention something in my last Confession.”
Priest: “Did the priest grant you absolution?”
Penitent: “Yes, because he said I should follow my conscience with respect to the validity of the first marriage. But I was so embarrassed about a sin, I concealed it last time; I didn’t mention it. It has been bothering me ever since. You see, one of the factors that contributed to the breakup of my marriage was my wife’s abortion of our second child. I didn’t really approve, but we were having so many fights I thought it would help keep the marriage together if I kept my mouth shut. So I drove her to Planned Parenthood for the procedure. It has bothered me ever since.”

What should the priest do in this hypothetical case?

Here are the considerations:

  1. Is the penitent in an invalid (i.e., adulterous) union?
  2. Is he in good faith because of his reading or understanding of AL?
  3. How does the penitent (or the priest) really know that his conscience was properly formed?
  4. Was the first priest correct in granting him absolution?
  5. If the first priest was correct, the absolution was prime facie invalid because the penitent deliberately concealed a mortal sin: cooperating with the sin of abortion.
  6. If the first absolution was not valid-- in the present situation-- could the priest validly grant absolution now?
  7. Would the priest be in the position of ratifying an incorrect decision of the previous priest by granting the absolution now?
  8. Could it be said the preceding priest who granted the absolution was in fact incorrect, in the eyes of the Church?

Here’s what I would do. Since the penitent is knowingly and freely involved in ongoing adulterous activity with no apparent intention of ending it, because of the lack of a purpose of amendment that is needed to be absolved validly, he cannot be absolved-- unless he resolves to live as “brother and sister.” I would add that, if he wishes, I would be happy to meet with him outside of Confession to explore the possibility of marriage annulment proceedings. (I have a conscience too.)

But all this would probably mean that the penitent would go priest-shopping until he received the answer that worked for him. (The existing tribunal process has its flaws, of course, but there are some safeguards against tribunal-shopping.) And it’s likely that over the years, the penitent’s decision as to the validity of his marriage would be ratified in his conscience, time and again, in Confession, perhaps even unwittingly, by successor priests.

I’ve always viewed the purpose of the canonical process as a way to bring moral certainty to a person with a perplexed conscience. But the question of paramount importance in the light of AL is whether the penitent really wrestled with his perplexed conscience, or deceived himself to think of his first marriage as truly “invalid,” and thereby placed his soul at risk. We’ll never know, of course. But since the validity of the penitent’s “return” to the practice of the Faith depends upon his subjective conscience, he may never have the moral certainty of forgiveness. Thus the efficacy of the sacrament is undermined.

I fear AL itself (especially the moral reasonings of Chapter 8, or at least its ambiguities) may well send many Catholics into a moral wilderness without a shepherd. Pity the sheep. And pity the bishops who ultimately will bear the brunt of the confusion in the administration of their marriage tribunals.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jimr451 - May. 06, 2016 10:10 PM ET USA

    I suspect one other consequence of AL will be a further decrease in the number of confessions overall.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 06, 2016 5:44 PM ET USA

    Was St. John Paul II not prescient in Veritatis splendor? The encyclical was written specifically to combat proportionalism and consequentialism. The "fundamental option" was explained. The role of conscience clarified. Papal encyclicals matter.