The bishops of Malta are not alone in trusting the conscience of each penitent. An appeal to conscience was also made by the bishops of San Diego, Germany, Belgium and Portugal. Pope Francis himself thanked the bishops of Malta for their guidelines.
The criticisms have focused on paragraphs 9 and 10 in the Malta guidelines. Paragraph 9 states:
"Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329)."Paragraph 10 of the Malta guidelines states:
"If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351)."Paragraph 9: Continence
I previously wrote on the issue of the feasibility of continence with regard to the Buenos Aires guidelines. While the bishops of Buenos Aires asked priests to consider whether continence is "feasible", the bishops of Malta note that there may be cases where continence is "humanly impossible", citing footnote 329 of Amoris Laetitia, which reads:
"In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living 'as brothers and sisters' which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, 'it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers' (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51)."Footnote 329 quotes from a section in Gaudium et Spes on the difficulties encountered by married couples in continuously bringing new children into the modern world. Gaudium et Spes notes that one option is for the married couple to refrain from conjugal relations, but this can pose new difficulties for the couple, as quoted by Footnote 329 of Amoris Laetitia. Amoris Laetitia is thus applying the reasoning of Gaudium et Spes with respect to valid sacramental marriages to couples living in non-sacramental unions. This in itself has been a source of controversy, but it is simply repeating the teaching of Familiaris Consortio and Sacramantum Caritatis that it is good for the children of the new union for their parents to continue to cohabitate, and observing that practicing continence can make it more difficult to maintain stable cohabitation for the good of the children. This is not an approval of sexual acts in the new union, but simply an acknowledgment of the difficulty of complying with the Church's teaching. To acknowledge the difficulty of obedience is not to approve disobedience.
Moreover, the teaching that some acts of virtue are impossible when based solely on man's own effort comes straight from Jesus Christ: "With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26) By saying that continence may be "humanly" impossible, the bishops of Malta emphasize that they are addressing particularly complex situations where the supernatural grace of God is needed in a unique way to help a person struggling to obey God's commandments. This is the established teaching of Canon 23 of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent with regard to venial sin.
Of course, there may be cases where it actually is impossible for one spouse to practice continence (e.g., rape). Or one of the persons in the union may threaten to abandon the family, commit self-harm or exert other pressures to induce sexual relations. These sorts of psychological or economic pressures do not justify sexual acts in the new union, but they can reduce a person's culpability for those acts. (See CCC 1735 and 1860).
Or there may be cases where both spouses are Catholic and try to live in continence, but it isn't working. They may repeatedly, frequently fail in their commitment for extended periods of times. Whereas Familiaris Consortio was silent on what to do in such a situation, Amoris Laetitia asks persons in such situations to undertake a path of discernment with their priest to determine whether access to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist should still be granted.
Paragraph 10 - Conscience
The real controversy over the Malta guidelines centers around paragraph 10 and the bishops' instructions to leave the final decision on access to the sacraments to the penitent's conscience. This paragraph has been resoundingly mocked by the Catholic internet as opening the floodgates to allow anyone to do what they want in the Church.
This criticism is entirely unwarranted. The critics tend to ignore the requirements listed in the first half of paragraph 10: “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (quoting AL 300). This section is clearly describing the elements of true repentance. The Church's teaching is clear that sex is only permitted between a man and woman in a valid sacramental marriage. A person who loves the Church and her teaching would be acknowledging that sex in a mere civil union is a sin and never a morally acceptable choice. The bishops of Malta explicitly say in the following paragraph that their guidelines do not apply "if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches."
Moreover, a "sincere search for God's will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it" is nothing other than the firm purpose of amendment that every Catholic makes when they go to confession. If a person in a non-sacramental union is struggling with habitual sexual acts, but loves the Church's teaching that sex is only permitted between a man and a woman in a valid sacramental marriage and desires to make a more perfect response to this teaching, how is that different from any other person who struggles with habitual sin, knows its wrong, and desires to live in better obedience to God's law?
So the only real issue is the Malta bishops' decision to leave the final decision to the penitent's conscience rather than the judgment of the confessor (as the Diocese of Rome did). Both approaches are completely orthodox. The Diocese of Rome is more cautious and wants to ensure proper ecclesiastical supervision, which is a prudent decision and entirely legitimate. Likewise, the bishops of Malta take an optimistic view and trust the consciences of penitents in their diocese, which is in accord with traditional Catholic teaching on the role of conscience.
Pope Saint John Paul II observed in Ecclessia de Eucharista, "The judgment of one's state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one's conscience." The bishops of Kazakhstan recently issued a statement that agrees with this principle, stating: "The Church does not possess the infallible charism of judging the internal state of grace of a member of the faithful." Only a person's conscience can judge their own state before God.
Pope Saint John Paul II went on to note, "However, in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved." Divorced persons living in new unions are in this situation, and that is precisely the point of Amoris Laetitia and the Malta guidelines: the Church needs to be directly involved and guide the formation of the penitent's conscience.
Pope Francis recently emphasized the primacy of conscience in a video message to Italy's bishops as they consider how to implement Amoris Laetitia. Quoting again from Gaudium et Spes, Pope Francis said, "Conscience, as the II Vatican Council recalls, is this, 'most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.' "
This is the established teaching of the Catholic Church as set forth in the Catechism:
"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment."
Amoris Laetitia teaches that the Church has been called "to form consciences, not replace them." (AL 37). This is the gift of the gospel that God promised to Jeremiah in the Old Testament:
"Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda: Not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: the covenant which they made void, and I had dominion over them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord: I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: Know the Lord: for all shall know me from the least of them even to the greatest, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
This is God's ultimate goal for the Church: not to have a list of rules carved in stone on Vatican Hill, but for every Christian to be obedient to an enlightened conscience. Amoris Laetitia brings the Church closer to this goal. As Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said:
"Rules have an essential role in the life of the believer in conveying the wisdom and grace of the Church and providing a firm check on rationalization. But it is in the act of conscience, well-formed and profoundly considered, that the believer is most Christlike in carrying out his moral mission in the world."