The US cardinal made the remarks in a letter to the priests of the Washington Archdiocese.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl said Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) reaffirms Catholic teaching on marriage and the family while recognising the importance of accompanying people, especially in their difficulties.
The document also stresses that the Catholic Church must help them to form — and live by — their conscience guided by the truth of the Church’s teachings, Washington’s archbishop said.
Cardinal Wuerl made the remarks in a January 6 letter to the priests of the Washington Archdiocese.
The cardinal — who participated in two Synods of Bishops on marriage and the family that preceded the release of the papal document — said Amoris Laetitia is part of a continuum of the papal magisterium, as were documents issued by St John Paul II and Benedict XVI following earlier synods.
He noted that individuals, guided by their conscience, are ultimately responsible for their own actions, including their reception of the sacraments. Some critics have questioned the document for seeming to allow an opening for some civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
“Amoris Laetitia presents unchanged the teaching of the Church on marriage and the family, the recognition that many have not appropriated the teaching and thus our task to help them do so, and finally, the distinct role of individual conscience when it comes to a judgment of culpability before God for individual human acts,” the cardinal said in the letter.
In addition to the letter to the priests, Cardinal Wuerl met with the stateside seminarians of the archdiocese on January 21 at the St John Paul II Seminary, to offer pastoral reflections on the papal document.
In his letter to the priests on Amoris Laetitia, the cardinal made reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage (No. 1601-1666) and moral conscience (No. 1776-1794) and what the Code of Canon Law says about marriage (Canons 1055-1165).
Cardinal Wuerl said Amoris Laetitia emphasises the importance of priests presenting Catholic teaching on marriage and accompanying the faithful in this secular age when so many don’t understand or follow that teaching, so they can form good consciences and make right judgments.
“It is not enough to present the doctrine concerning marriage,” he wrote. “Our priestly obligations call us to accompany the faithful as they try to appropriate and live the teaching. We are teachers and pastors. Our walking with them is all the more important when they find themselves in difficult situations or when they do not yet see the value of our teaching, or its meaning in their life.”
The cardinal underscored the role of priests in helping people form their conscience so they can be guided by Catholic teaching and then make right judgements in their moral decision-making.
“Our task as pastors of souls is to provide the guidance that we hope will lead the person to more fully grasp the teaching and make a right judgment,” the cardinal wrote. Noting the catechism’s teaching on forming and following one’s conscience, he added that priests “are called to walk with the faithful so that they might grasp, understand and make their own the teaching of the church. … But the person, not the priest, makes the final personal conscientious judgment.”
Noting the complexities of today’s world and the importance of accompanying people on their journey of faith, Cardinal Wuerl said ministering to them is more than just a matter of truth and consequences.
“We have to recognise that moral teaching and pastoral accompaniment involve more than simply declaring the truth and imposing the consequences,” the cardinal wrote.
“Christian discipleship, as we experienced and as Amoris Laetitia affirms, is not so black and white –- cut and dry,” he continued. “Pope Francis tells us, what we already know, that some people, perhaps more than we appreciate, struggle to see meaning in our teaching, let alone embrace it as a fruitful guide to life. We have to find a place for all of these brothers and sisters in God’s family.”
That teaching on conscience is not new, Cardinal Wuerl wrote. “From the beginning, it has always been understood that while we present the Church’s teaching, and this we should do with clarity and precision, it is the individual’s conscientious judgement that places the person before God in determining his moral responsibility.”
That same moral dynamic takes place regarding the reception of the sacraments, the cardinal added. “At Mass, we priests invite people to the banquet of the Lord. Individual parishioners are responsible for the judgment of the state of their soul before God.”
Cardinal Wuerl pointed out that Amoris Laetitia “presents a rich reflection of God’s mercy,” a point that Pope Francis made at the closing Mass of the Year of Mercy, when he noted that the power of Christ “is not power as defined by the world but the love of God, a love capable of encountering and healing all things.”
In facing any questions about what Amoris Laetitia means and how it should be applied, the cardinal encouraged the priests to remember “that its teaching is the clear and perennial voice of the church’s witness to the truth.”
Teaching the faith and accompanying the faithful is a matter of leading people to Jesus and helping them form good consciences and follow them as best they can in their own situations, the cardinal wrote.
“But we must also reaffirm that the living of that truth in the real concrete order involves individuals, their appropriation of it and our effort to accompany them as they form their conscience — to the best of their ability — and try to grow closer to the Lord,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote.
“It is one thing to affirm clearly the teaching of the church. It is another to claim to be able to apply the teaching in every individual setting with the assurance that you can make the individual’s conscientious judgement for him.”
Cardinal Wuerl noted that over the Catholic Church’s more than 2,000-year history, critics have questioned popes and papal teaching, but Pope Francis, like St Peter the first pope and all successive popes, remains the rock upon which Jesus promised to build the Church, and the touchstone for the faith.
“Keeping in mind also that even if a few object to Amoris Laetitia, the vast, overwhelming majority of bishops around the world in union with the pope see in this teaching — the teaching of Amoris Laetitia and its call to pastoral care — the faithful, living tradition of the church,” the cardinal wrote.