In the Middle Ages confession could be an unpleasant experience; penances were severe and could last years. Priests had been taught that if a penance accorded was not in proportion to the gravity of the sin, a portion of the temporal punishment would be transferred to the priest. But around the middle of the twelfth-century priests were encouraged to develop a gentler approach to confession.
French scholar Pierre Payer, an expert on the penitential literature of the period, called it a “pastoral revolution”, where the focus of preaching and the confessional was to educate and counsel rather than admonish and punish. Confession would become, according to Payer, “…one of the most intimate of human relationships that was institutionalized in the Christian Church”.*
Another “pastoral revolution” may be taking place in the Church with the implementation of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in which Pope Francis introduces a new development in pastoral discernment:
“[Seminarians and future priests] need to truly understand this: in life not everything is black and white, white and black. No! In life shades of gray predominate. We must then teach how to discern within this gray.” (link)
Shades of grey are all over San Diego’s Bishop McElroy’s understanding of the pope’s intention in Amoris Laetitia, evidenced by his recent directives to priests regarding its implementation:
…Some Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist. Others will conclude that they should wait, or that their return would hurt others.
In pointing to the pathway of conscience for the divorced and remarried, Pope Francis is not enlisting an element of the Christian moral life which is exceptional. For the realm of conscience is precisely where the Christian disciple is called to discern every important moral decision that he or she makes. (link)
Businesses and wealthy individuals employ tax consultants to examine the tax code for “grey areas” and loopholes that might benefit them. Are priests now supposed to become discernment consultants with respect to the practical application of the Church’s moral code?
Grey areas exist but it is not as though the Church hasn’t addressed how a priest should approach them. John Paul II taught in very clear terms that the determination to amend one’s life as a precondition to absolution is not to be viewed as dependent on the penitent’s own strength. A reliance on the grace of God means certainty cannot be assured:
“…It should also be remembered that the existence of sincere repentance is one thing, the judgement of the intellect concerning the future is another: it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.” (link)
I believe that priests have little difficulty applying this in the confessional or through counseling. Defenders of the pope who appeal to this instruction as his intention are either naïve or sophists.
Imagine the difference when the priests of the 12th-century were finally off the hook for the consequences of an inadequate penance, free to dispense God’s mercy and forgiveness in a fatherly manner. But they were never off the hook for dispensing the sacraments in the proper form and to those who are entitled to receive them to the best of their knowledge.
While many priests will embrace Bishop McElroy’s directives because it’s what they’ve been doing anyway, others will have to face moral dilemmas regarding distribution of the Eucharist. It can also be expected that some conservative and traditional priests will be “set up”, like Father Marcel Guarnizo, who in 2012 refused communion to a practicing lesbian during her mother’s funeral mass, causing a national uproar. He was promptly kicked out of the diocese by then Archbishop Weurl.
The difference between then and now is that then the perception by many was that he did the right thing according to the letter of Church law; now, post Amoris Laetitia, that assumption would be challenged.
*Pierre J. Payer, “Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages,” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, eds. Vern L Bollough and James Brundage, (New York: Garland, 2000).