A Paradigm Shift from Veritatis Splendor to Amoris Laetitia?

Livio Melina

Conference given in Ars, France on April 14-15, 2021*


What has happened in Catholic moral theology with the publication of Amoris Laetitia?[1] Some claim that everything has changed. In particular, they argue that one can no longer refer to Veritatis Splendor,[2] an encyclical that has supposedly become obsolete because there has allegedly been a shift from the rigorism of “moral absolutes” and negative norms valid without exception to a pastoral flexibility that privileges case-by-case discernment and the conscience of the acting subject. Others believe that nothing has changed in moral theology, except that a pastoral dimension is now emphasized, which may have been too much neglected in the past.

Our group of theologians and moral theorists, now forming the “Veritas Amoris Project,” has adhered to a hermeneutic of continuity in interpreting Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Since there are no doctrinal affirmations in it that are explicitly in discontinuity with the magisterium of Veritatis Splendor and the preceding magisterium—although there are various emphases and ambiguities in certain formulations—one can and must continue to teach the traditional teaching on marriage and family, as well as the conjugal and sexual morality of the Tradition. But is such an approach still defensible? Is one naive to adopt it, simply refusing to face reality? Or is it a ruse disproved by facts and practice?

It is necessary to come to a good understanding of the theoretical situation. To this end, I will articulate the discourse in three stages.

1) In the first stage, I will address the question, “What is a ‘paradigm shift’ in theology?”

2) Next, since it is not clear exactly what kind of “paradigm shift” is being advocated by Amoris Laetitia, I will move on to an overview of some of the various “paradigm shifts” being proposed. These two stages constitute the pars destruens.

3) I will then move on to the third stage, a pars construens. Here I will try to propose an adequate response to the situation, taking into account the pastoral concern of Pope Francis and integrating it into a “paradigm” that seems to me coherent and valid, responding both to the demands of doctrinal coherence with Tradition and to the needs of the present pastoral situation. Indeed, we have the duty to take seriously the Holy Father’s invitation. My proposal is neither defensive nor restorative.


I. Pars Destruens: A Critical Approach

1. A Paradigm Shift? Engaging the Theses of Walter Kasper and Eberhard Schockenhoff

The German cardinal and theologian Walter Kasper has proposed an influential interpretation of the connection between Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor and Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. He was the first to introduce the notion of “paradigm shift” as a hermeneutical key, affirming that “a paradigm shift does not change previous doctrine.”[3] The teaching of the exhortation does not change doctrine, but the paradigm with which it is to be interpreted. Moving in the same direction is his friend and former assistant, Eberhard Schockenhoff, who wrote an article on the subject a few months later, again in Stimmen der Zeit.[4] His is the more fundamental and radical proposal to consider.

What is a paradigm? The authoritative Dizionario Treccani tells us that the term comes from the late Latin paradigma (from the Greek παράδειγμα, derived from παραδείκνυμι “to show, to present, to confront,” composed of παρα- “for, in order to” and δείκνυμι “to show,” with the basic meaning of “model”). In grammar, it indicates a pattern of declension or conjugation as provided by textbooks (e.g., in Latin, the inflection of rosa or rivus for the declensions of nouns; of amare, monere, legĕre, audire for the four verbal conjugations). A paradigm is also constituted by the basic forms of a verb, i.e., the present, perfect, supine, and infinitive tenses, from which all other tenses of the verb are derived (e.g., the paradigm of the verb pingĕre is formed: pingo -is, pinxi, pictum, pingĕre).

In modern linguistics, the term “paradigm” denotes the set of sentence elements that are related in such a way that they are virtually interchangeable. One phrase can substitute for another in the same context. In philosophical language, the term was used by Plato to denote the ideal realities, understood as eternal models of transitory sensible realities. It was used by Aristotle to denote a type of argument that proceeds from what is known to what is less known or unknown.

More recently, and with a different meaning, the term “paradigm” has been introduced into sociology and the philosophy of science. Here it refers to the set of methodological rules, explanatory models, and problem-solving criteria that characterizes a community of scientists at a particular stage in the historical evolution of their discipline. Paradigm shifts in this sense are responsible for the so-called “scientific revolutions.” The topic of “paradigm shifts” in the sciences has been extensively treated by Thomas S. Kuhn, who defines a “paradigm” as a code of beliefs held in common by a community, regulating its terminology and normatively determining the semantic context of affirmations.[5]

For Kasper, the introduction of a new paradigm in the pastoral theology of the family means basically two things:[6] For one, it means introducing a new language into ethics, replacing the traditional terminology. A new language is to be used. “Sin” becomes “imperfection” or “fragility.” One must no longer use the term “adultery” because it is offensive to people. One speaks of “irregular couples,” an expression that is then placed in quotation marks. Moral norms, even negative ones, become “ideals” to be pursued. A casuistic morality, aimed at helping priests in the confessional, proposed the traditional notion of “extenuating circumstances,” factors that diminish responsibility and that are considered after the act. These have now become “exceptions” to the norm, gaining relevance even before the act.

Second, it means introducing a new paradigm means using a historicist and existentialist epistemology. In 1965 Kasper wrote a book called Dogma unter dem Wort Gottes [“Dogma Under the Word of God”]. In 1967 he published the work Die Methoden der Dogmatik. Einheit und Vielheit (in English: The Methods of Dogmatic Theology). The innovative interpretation he proposed is structured around three elements: the Word of God, doctrine, and pastoral care. Kasper organizes these three factors as follows: The Word of God is completely binding for the Church. However, it cannot be identified with doctrine. Doctrine is relative to the Word of God. The latter takes precedence over dogmatic formulations, which cannot be considered absolutely true or false once and for all.

For Kasper, then, doctrine is the always fallible attempt to conceptualize the Word, which, despite its absolute value, is itself beyond conceptualization. Therefore, doctrine must always be judged by the Word. But doctrine is also judged by pastoral reality. There are historical circumstances in the light of which doctrine is critically reassessed. Thus, doctrine is critically judged both by the Word and by practice. Practice thus becomes a critical element of doctrine.

For Kasper, it is therefore necessary to have an adequate correspondence between doctrine and the surrounding culture: doctrine must be relativized with respect to praxis in order to express the demands of the Word, especially when it comes to moral doctrine. There are a variety of situations that require case-by-case discernment. The criterion of discernment is stretched beyond reasonable limits and becomes a kind of hermeneutical master key. It is true that one does not go directly against doctrine, but everything is predisposed to a change in doctrine. Doctrine must be constantly “updated” by a historicist and existentialist exegesis of the truth of the Word, a truth that is supposedly impossible to conceptualize.

What will change doctrine is praxis. This means the primacy of pastoral practice, the “pastoral conversion” of theology. Thus, practice becomes the source of doctrine. In the Church it is a matter of “initiating processes” so that the praxis can change the mentality of the faithful, and then it will be possible to change the doctrine.

This practice has forgotten certain words and no longer refers to some topics that are fundamental to moral theology, such as natural law, absolute negative moral precepts, and the virtues (especially the virtue of chastity). Rather, in accordance with the prevailing vitalist mentality, sexuality is exalted as a source of life and energy, almost as if it were devoid of moral implications. Kasper maintains that doctrine does not change in a paradigm shift, and indeed Amoris Laetitia does not explicitly contradict doctrine as such. But it is true that it begins a linguistic process that touches on the semantic context in which doctrine makes sense. Everything is set in motion.

A change that shapes the semantic context of doctrinal statements implies an even more radical change than the questioning of a single doctrinal statement.

It is clear that the doctrine of the Church is not a rigid and unchangeable system of formulas, but a living organism that evolves as a body. The Church’s doctrine, however, aims to do full justice to the teaching of Jesus that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24:35). Over the centuries, the Church’s doctrinal and theological reflection has developed criteria for verifying the vital coherence of Tradition with its origins, without adding extraneous elements and without losing what is essential: “eodem sensu, eademque sententia—keeping the same meaning and the same sense/judgment.”

In particular, St. John Henry Newman, from his personal experience, provided an essay on the development of Christian doctrine,[7] showing how Christian doctrine defines a space and marks the rhythm of an age. In other words, it is not a question of adapting to the rhythm of the times, of being changed by the fashions of the day in order to be accepted. Rather, it is about the fact that doctrine itself determines the rhythm of history. Without denying anything of what has been revealed, the development of doctrine shows the perennial fruitfulness of doctrine, highlighting its new and hitherto unseen aspects in the encounter with the world. In this way, doctrine becomes the matrix of a new history, as demonstrated precisely by the singular event of the introduction of the indissolubility of marriage into the public customs and legislation of late antiquity, a culture in which divorce was commonly practiced.[8]

In order to contrast Kasper’s proposal with that of Newman, it must be noted that the Saint indicates as “notes” of doctrinal continuity both the “preservation of the type” (the first note) and the “continuity of principles” (the second note). The type is what Kasper calls the “paradigm,” which is different from the principles. But for Newman, both the type and the principles must be preserved, with the type being even more decisive than the principles themselves, because it contains the basic form of the Christian idea throughout time. A change of paradigm, as proposed by Kasper, would be not merely a heresy on a specific point of doctrine, but even a meta-heresy, upsetting the very substance of Christian faith and life.

Thus it becomes clear that the idea of a legitimate paradigm shift can be accepted only in a very limited sense, provided that the basic form of the Church’s moral teaching is not put into question. Let us take an example. If we are in an Anglophone linguistic context, the term “gift” has a very positive meaning. It refers to something given gratuitously, a present. But if we change the linguistic paradigm and go to Germany, the same letters (“G-I-F-T”) mean “poison.” Can we honestly say that we have only changed the paradigm and not the reality when we apply the English label “gift” to a dangerous drug produced in Germany?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of “adultery” and describes it as a sin. Can we say that we are faithful to this teaching if we define adultery as a mere imperfection on a gradual path toward the ideal, the morality of which should be left to the judgment of each individual’s conscience? And if, in order to justify ourselves, we come to affirm that “in Jesus’ time there were no tape recorders” to guarantee what he actually said, or that today even he probably would have consented to divorce in the light of the principle of mercy,[9] are we not then destroying the very basis of the Catholic faith, to the point that even obedience to the successor of Peter, strongly invoked by the innovators, would remain without any truthful theological foundation?


2. Various Paradigm Shifts Proposed

Let us now consider some of the paradigm shifts that have been proposed in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, which vary greatly in their reasoning and radicality, but all converge in the practical conclusion of legitimizing moral behavior that was previously held to be contrary to Church teaching.


a) The paradigm of the two levels of morality: the objective and the subjective levels, and the case-by-case application of the norm (Jean-Miguel Garrigues and Alain Thomasset; Marc Cardinal Ouellet)

In their volume dedicated to responding to the dubia of the four cardinals, Jean-Miguel Garrigues and Alain Thomasset maintain that Veritatis Splendor and Amoris Laetitia do not contradict each other, because they speak on two different levels of discourse.[10]  Garrigues says that Veritatis Splendor speaks on the level of the universal norm, while Amoris Laetitia speaks on the level of application to life, that is, the concrete and individual level, and not on the universal and theoretical level. The universal level of the norm is opposed to the particular level of concrete and individual application. In applying the norm, one should avoid both rigorism, which holds that the universal norm is in itself sufficient to guide judgment, and laxism, which, by turning to the multiplicity of circumstances, forgets the norm and remains “without a compass.” Flexibility is therefore necessary. For Garrigues, the original contribution of Amoris Laetitia is to propose a flexible morality without negating doctrine.

As can be seen, the authors here revisit the classical categories of rigorism, laxism and flexibility, which belong to the epistemological framework proper to casuistry and “moral systems.” According to them, Amoris Laetitia proposes flexibility. In a hermeneutic of systemic opposition, the objective morality of the norm is set against the subjective morality of conscience. The moral object is given a rationalist interpretation that excludes any reference to intention. The moral object thus appears to be dialectically opposed to subjectivity. Now, Catholic moral theology has always recognized that the responsibility of the subject in committing objectively evil acts can be diminished or even eliminated on the basis of circumstances. The two French moralists, however, equate the diminution of responsibility, which can excuse an evil act, with an exception to the law, which not only excuses that act but legitimates it as the subjectively right choice, even though it is objectively against the norm. Thus, it is no longer an act that is intrinsically evil and remains evil even though one does not bear full responsibility for it. Instead, the act becomes good. Extenuating circumstances become exceptions.

Flexibility makes it possible to exempt from moral absolutes, thereby nullifying the notion of intrinsic evil (intrinsece malum). This is contrary to both the spirit and the letter of Veritatis Splendor, which affirms that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.”[11] As Cardinal Caffarra once said: If one starts from a systemic opposition between what is objective according to the norm and what is subjective according to conscience, then one will inevitably end up in the blind alley of casuistic Pharisaism, forgetting that the law is the expression of a truth about the good and not of an arbitrary will against which conscience must defend itself.[12] In fact, what we have here is a re-proposal of an old paradigm, already used in the debate on contraception after Humanae Vitae, a debate that came to a head in 1971 in the so-called “Washington case,” in which the Redemptorist school of morality (Domenico Capone, Seán O’Riordan) was mainly involved.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in contrast to his previous positions expressed when he was a professor, now holds an opinion analogous to that of Garrigues and Thomasset. In an article published in the Osservatore Romano in 2017, Marc Ouellet says that Amoris Laetitia does not contradict Veritatis Splendor, but completes it. Amoris Laetitia, he claims, takes “the perspective of real life,” while Veritatis Splendor speaks of “ideal life.”[13] Objective moral norms thus remain valid at the ideal level, even if they are not morally binding in real life. The indissolubility of sacramental marriage is then an ideal to be aspired to. Objective moral norms remain valid at the ideal level, even though they may not be binding on the concrete moral subject, here and now.

Here the Canadian Cardinal merely takes up Bernard Häring’s distinction between ideal goal commandments (Zielgebote) and limit commandments (Grenzgebote).[14] This is also what Karl Rahner argued in 1961 in On the Question of a Formal Existential Ethic and in 1966 in “Theoretische und reale Moral in ihrer Differenz” [The Difference between Theoretical and Real Morality]. According to Karl Rahner, there can be a theoretical knowledge of a moral value that does not involve the “vital recognition” of that value, which is perceived only abstractly and thus in a non-binding way. For him, a subject can be aware of a value on the level of “theoretical knowledge” without recognizing it on the vital level, because the value does not touch the subject on the level of “conscience. There can be information without vital recognition of the moral norm. According to Rahner, however, conscience is only bound by norms that touch it and speak to it on this vital level. Norms that remain merely theoretical and do not touch me do not obligate me. There are singular historical situations, unique and existential, that prevent the “vital recognition” of a norm. In this case, a norm does not bind.

In agreement with Häring and Rahner, Ouellet argues that an objectively evil act (i.e., an act that is evil in itself) may fail to be perceived as such by a moral subject because of the singular existential conditions in which he or she lives. The subject may therefore be incapable of recognizing and accepting the weight of the objective norm.

But Veritatis Splendor had already taken this theory into account. John Paul II refers to it when he criticizes the theory of a “double status of moral truth,”[15] according to which there is, on the one hand, a theoretical teaching of the precept at the ideal level and, on the other hand, a norm of individual conscience for real life. There is then a dichotomy between the ideal objective level and real life. According to Ouellet, Veritatis Splendor was not thought for real life. The subject may not be able to recognize the norm and the value.

According to David Schindler in Communio, the critique that Ouellet, Thomasset, and others make of modernity—of modernity’s objectivism and casuistic moral theology—does not overcome the premises of objectivism itself, but merely reverses them while continuing to maintain the paradigm of casuistry.[16] They invert the premises of the casuistic paradigm, but they do not escape the paradigm itself. The paradigm is that of a systemic opposition between the objective and the subjective.

There are two further interpretations of the term “paradigm shift.”


b) The paradigm of the primacy of conscience; the reduction of practical reason to conscience (Giuseppe Angelini and Maurizio Chiodi)

Angelini and Chiodi propose a radical primacy of conscience. They differ from previous authors in that they reject a relationship of mere application between norm and conscience. In fact, they propose to rethink the moral norm itself, but from the standpoint of conscience rather than practical reason.

Here, then, is a new theory of moral conscience. In fact, conscience is identified with the subject itself, with its uniqueness and singularity, including the dimensions of feeling and acting, of dialogical and social relations. Conscience thus absorbs practical reason.

In this way, these two authors maintain that it is impossible to evaluate the goodness of an act without taking into account the existential and cultural history of the subject and his or her personal and cultural profile. The objectivity of the moral act is absorbed by subjectivity. According to them, the objectivity of the act must be understood not as the act’s relation to an abstract rationality, but as the act’s relation to the personal history of the moral subject and the cultural contexts that interpret that history.

What does this mean? It means, for example, that an act cannot be called an act of adultery without regard to the existential history of the person who performs it. This is not about possible exceptions to the rule against adultery. Rather, and much more radically, the claim is that what is objectively a sexual act of a married man with a woman married to someone else might not even be adultery, since one cannot say that the act is adultery without knowing the intentions and existential history of those who perform it.

For this reason, practice becomes the decisive criterion. The emphasis is on discernment, which subsumes the virtue of prudence in itself. The norm is then only a symbol that points us to the good, but in a general way. Ultimately, the good must be determined at the level of conscience. Discernment is conceived as a process in which the norm and conscience enter into a circular relationship of “mutual adaptation,” involving the interpretation and subjective narration of events and unique experiences, as well as the interpretation of the norm as a symbol of the ideal.

It must be critically noted that this approach reduces practical reason to the subjective conscience. Practical reason thus loses its objectivity and universality. Prudence is no longer rooted in universal reason and natural law but is reduced to conscience.


c) The paradigm of the “possible good.” A new Pelagianism? (Philippe Bordeyne)[17]

Philippe Bordeyne, rector of the Catholic Institute of Paris, proposes perspectives for fragile families. The change in language is obvious. The word “sin” is no longer used. It is replaced by the term “fragility” so as not to judge or discriminate against anyone. The goal of pastoral care is “the integration of all families.”

Here it should be noted that St. Augustine, in his discourse on Ezekiel 34, distinguishes between sheep who are “weak” and sheep who are “sick.”[18] These two categories require very different treatment. The weak, who have little strength, need to be strengthened. The sick, who are infected with disordered passions and unable to perform good deeds, need to be healed. The shepherd, who is also a physician, must carefully discern the condition of each sheep and act accordingly: the weak must be strengthened; the sick must be brought to Christ, revealing their sin and placing it before Christ, “uncovering the roof that hides it.” For St. Augustine, therefore, a discourse on sin is necessary in order to distinguish pastorally the conditions in which the sheep may find themselves. Judgment is necessary. Changing the language is not an adequate solution. By ceasing to speak of sin, one does not eliminate sin, but one takes away the possibility of diagnosing and healing it. It is the opposite of the medical action that the pastor should perform: it means hiding the evil, allowing it to fester unseen and untreated.

Second, for Bordeyne too, the factors that mitigate subjective responsibility become exceptions to the “ideal” norm. Bordeyne proposes a “disintegrated” vision of the moral life. He suggests that a person can live in a situation of imperfection with respect to a particular virtue and at the same time be in good standing with respect to the other virtues, being in a state of grace. One can give in on one particular point without taking anything away from the rest. One can be in an objective situation of grave sin without losing one’s state of grace. What is missing is the connection between the person and his or her actions (the action performed determines the moral identity of the person: the point of view of “praxis”), which ultimately entails the connection between the virtues. The virtues are not, in fact, sections of a garden. Each and every act strikes at the heart of the person. Even the breaking of a single commandment, even the sin against a single precept, touches the person’s situation before God at the core. What is instead proposed here is the disintegration of the moral life.

Bordeyne adopts the criterion of the “possible good.” In paragraph 303, Amoris Laetitia assigns to conscience the role of formulating “a judgment of possibility,” starting from the concrete capacity of the subject, realistically assessed. What conscience considers possible may not yet be the ideal, but it represents the best that can be done at the present time. “It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.”[19]

According to Bordeyne, the pretension of “going beyond the possible good” is actually presumption—a lack of humility. For spiritual leaders, such a demand would ultimately amount to doing violence to a fragile and imperfect person—a lack of charity. The truth proposed in this way is then a threat to the person. One must be humble before the good and willing to grow in it. The principle of growth is applied here not only to positive norms, but also to negative ones. Bordeyne does not distinguish between positive and negative moral norms.

This is where the issue of graduality in growth toward the good comes in. The problem here is that a principle that applies to progressive maturation in the good to be done (and thus valid for “positive” norms) is also applied to negative norms that forbid sin (even though “sin” is now called “imperfection”). An act of adultery may well be what God himself requires of me, if my conscience tells me that it is now impossible for me to avoid it completely. Indeed, according to Bordeyne, to try to avoid it altogether would be proud presumption.

In the final analysis, this is a form of neo-Pelagianism, that is, the “neo-Pelagianism of the minimum.” If the original version of Pelagianism thought that a person could fulfill the commandments of God by his own human strength and without the aid of healing grace, this form of neo-Pelagianism adapts the commandment to one’s own strength in order to fulfill it to the extent possible. In both cases, the measure of the good is found in the presumed capabilities of the person. The good is measured by one’s possibilities.

What is lost in this way is the relational understanding of the person, who finds his or her true possibilities in relationships with God and with others (i.e., in community). The Council of Trent declared that God does not command us to do more than we can do, because he will also give us the necessary grace if we ask for it. Here, on the other hand, the measure of the human person is no longer God’s measure, but what I think I can do by myself. I can do it on my own. I am the measure of goodness. This is the essence of Pelagianism, whether in its ancient or contemporary form.


II. Pars Construens: A Positive Approach

3. Which Paradigm is Adequate to Meet the Challenges?

We must accept the pastoral challenge that Pope Francis invites us to take up in Amoris Laetitia. That is, we need to take into account the “realism” of the moral life, being attentive to the weakness of the person, while at the same time distinguishing fragility from sin. We must take seriously the pastoral duty to have a proposal that is suitable for people who find themselves in a state of sin or weakness.

The idea of elaborating a new paradigm is therefore acceptable, but, in the words of St. John Henry Newman, this new paradigm must fully preserve the continuity of doctrine, both in the “preservation of the type” (the first note) and in the “continuity of principles” (the second note), proving itself capable of embracing the richness of Tradition.

For such a task, it is necessary to overcome the dualism that characterizes the proposals we have just examined. Of the paradigms examined so far, some are more radical than others, but they all share the same basic perspective, which is essentially the perspective of “modern morality” denounced as inadequate by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue[20]: it is a perspective that is external to the dynamics of action, taking the point of view of an external observer, such as a judge or a confessor, who judges the action. This approach to morality will inevitably come to nothing, because it runs into the dialectical opposition between the objective and the subjective. This is the perspective taken by casuistry with its minimalist and legalistic approach. The critique of progressive moralists does nothing to reform modern ethics and remove its limitation of opposing objective law to subjective conscience. Rather, their critique reproduces this limitation by dialectically reversing its terms, pitting subjective conscience against objective law.

Authors such as Servais Pinckaers[21] or Carlo Caffarra[22] invite us to overcome this dualism, which sees law as an external burden and freedom as a void, as indifference. Let us listen to their voices.

Servais Pinckaers:

It is all too easy to say that today the era of the manuals is over and to take an opposite stand, pronouncing ourselves systematically in favor of freedom and conscience as opposed to law and authority. In so doing, we would be caught in the very spiral of the specific categories of the moral theology that we wish to critique, notably the opposition between law and freedom. We should only be contributing to the destruction of moral theology and unsettling the foundations assure its firmness and stability.[23]

Carlo Caffarra:

At their core, the normative propositions of morality and law are about the truth of the good, which finds its objective expression in them. Those who do not adopt this perspective fall into the casuistry of the Pharisees, from which there is no escape: they enter a blind alley, at the end of which they are forced to choose between the moral norm and the person. If you save one, you do not save the other. The pastor’s question, then, is: how can I lead married couples to live their conjugal love in truth? The question is not whether the spouses are in a situation that exempts them from observing a norm; the question is rather about the good of the conjugal relationship.[24]

In the previously discussed ways of framing one’s approach to morality, by contrast, the law is seen as an extrinsic burden that obstructs freedom, while freedom is understood as a void without orientation (a “freedom of indifference,” as Pinckaers puts it).

The true paradigm shift occurs when everything is seen from the perspective of the person who acts. It is necessary to adopt the perspective of Veritatis Splendor n. 78, that is, the perspective of the acting person. Only in this way can one overcome both rationalism and voluntarism, that is, both a rationality external to the dynamism of action and a law understood as the product of mere willfulness. Rationalism understands the moral object as extrinsic to the subject’s intentionality, while voluntarism understands the subject as autonomous creativity.

The first-person perspective, on the other hand, is this: every free act carries within it the memory of a love that precedes it and that is rooted in God. This perspective allows us to overcome the dualism between the objective and the subjective. The perspective of the acting subject understands freedom neither as empty nor as indifferent, but as freedom proper to a creature, one that is preceded by love and directed by that love to the good.

In what follows, I will propose three formulas that will enable us to move in this direction:

a) The truth of love

b) The formation of the subject

c) A home for the subject


a) The truth of love

The truth of love is a crucial category for morality. It is inspired by Karol Wojtyła, who illustrates the concept in Love and Responsibility.[25] It aims to overcome the subjectivism of a “love without truth,” that is, a love reduced to the authenticity of feeling, the subjective truth of emotion. At the same time, Wojtyła seeks to overcome the objectivism of a “truth without love,” that is, an intellectualism that imposes rules on freedom from the outside. Wojtyła speaks neither of objectivism nor of relativism, but of the reasonableness of love, which carries within itself the criteria of its truth. There is a rationality of love that goes beyond rationalism and objectivism without falling into voluntarism and relativism.

The perspective of the acting subject is the perspective of love, which is the origin of every action. Whoever acts always acts to the extent that he or she is moved by a certain love, as St. Thomas says.[26] And in every love, the necessary reference is to the authentic good. Love wills the good of the other: this is the definition that St. Thomas proposes: “In hoc praecipue consistit amor, quod amans amato bonum velit—Love consists especially in the fact that the one who loves wills the good of the beloved.”[27] Love as a passion is born of affective union, in which the beloved enters into the inner life of the lover through affection (sicut amatum in amante) and moves the lover to seek true communion. As an action, love implies the search for communion with the other, which can only be achieved if the particular good sought in the action is in fact a true good.

The truth about the good is the condition for the truth of love. Indeed, love involves objective conditions: it wills the good of the other knowing that authentic communion is realized only in fulfilling the good, in transcending desires and immediate impulses, and in submitting the will to the truth: this is authentic freedom, because judicium rationis, radix libertatis—the judgment of reason is the root of freedom. Free submission to a truth about the good, which precedes and guides freedom, is a necessary condition of love.

Here the reference to the notion of nature has its context and the importance of the discourse on natural law becomes clear. Natural law is to be understood as the order of love (ordo amoris) that the Creator has established and continues to establish in human actions so that they reach their end (ordo creationis). It is an order of reason, the order that reason establishes in human actions in order to direct them to their end (ordo rationis).

From a theological point of view, Christ is the foundation of this order and its fulfillment (cf. Col 1:16 “in him… for him…”). It is Christ who, with the new law of love, offers the definitive hermeneutic of natural law, which had its first interpretation in the law of the Decalogue.

In Adversus Haereses, St. Irenaeus says that human beings already had a law written on the tablets of their hearts (the natural law), but they could no longer read it because sin had obscured it.[28] This law they could now read as written by the finger of God on the tablets of stone that Moses brought to the people of Israel when he came down from Mt. Sinai (the old divine law).

Now, with his finger, Jesus writes the law on the tender ground of the heart: a law that does not erase anything but brings the requirements of the commandments to their fulfillment, internalizing and radicalizing them, but also making their observance possible through the gift of grace. Grace allows us to share in the virtues of Christ, beginning with charity, a form of friendship with God, which is “the mother and form of all virtues.” Thus the law is fulfilled in the virtues: the new law of Christ does not have the form of an external imposition of new commandments, but the interior form of love that fulfills the commandments by a free interior impulse. This is the new freedom of the law of Christ: it is not a freedom from the commandments, but the freedom of those who, out of love, are able to observe the commandments as what they are in their innermost essence, namely, as expressions of the truth about the good that make possible the truth of love. We understand, then, that the goal of the law is Christ (Romans 10:4), that the complete fulfillment of the law is love (Romans 13:10), and that the fulfilled form of Christian morality is centered on love and the virtues.[29]

The truth of love is the place of the virtues, which generate the interior union of subject and object in a dynamism born of love. “Virtus depends aliqualiter ab amore—virtue depends in some way on love.”[30] The order of love is reflected in the subject as the order of the virtues, flowing from love and generated by charity, a love that internally unites subject and object.

And here also lies the specific function of the virtue of prudence, which enlightens, guides, and completes the choices of practical reason. Prudence works in the light of love. Love discerns and is useful to love, as St. Augustine says.[31] In the light of love, prudence grasps the concrete good to be done in the particular circumstance, but it can never go against the good. It is not the ability to find exceptions to the norm. The order of love is the order of virtue. Virtue is the subject’s harmony with the true good, not just subjective authenticity or self-coherence.

Reference to God the Creator is necessary to guarantee the truth of love. Moral action is always a synergy between human action and the action of the Creator and Redeemer; it is ultimately rooted at the theological and Christological level.

The Christian’s moral action is a synergy that always begins with an initial impulse from the Creator and is consent to grace that moves from within. For the Christian, moral action has the Marian form of consent, of fiat, in which freedom adheres to the impulse of grace.

The external character of the law is perceived after the Fall in the post-lapsarian state. The law is also a burden because I am also a sinner: redeemed, but still bearing the marks and consequences of concupiscence, in an arduous path of healing. The law is also a “no”; it also has an external aspect that must gradually mature toward the interiorization of virtue. The law also has an aspect of light: the virtues are “arma lucis—weapons of light” that illuminate reason (virtuous connaturality) and show the correspondence of our actions with the true good, which is what desire itself seeks. As the virtues are formed, the weight of the external character of the law decreases and the freedom to do good increases. It is therefore necessary not to neglect the law that exhorts and forbids. In this way the subject matures. In To Look on Christ, Joseph Ratzinger says,

It is only when the connection of truth and love is seen properly that the cross becomes understandable in its true theological depth. Forgiveness has to do with truth, and for that reason it requires the Cross of the Son and requires our conversion. Forgiveness is indeed the restoration of truth, the renewal of being, and overcoming of the lie that lurks in every sin: of its nature sin is always a departure from the truth of one’s own being and thus from the truth of the Creator, God.[32]

To speak of the truth of love is to say that the Cross is the realism of God.


b) The formation of the subject

The pastoral perspective is important: this is the specific invitation that Pope Francis addresses to us in Amoris Laetitia. It is not enough to repeat the moral law and the moral norms. Nor is it a matter of softening the laws with the casuistry of exceptions (Blaise Pascal said: “ecce patres qui tollunt peccata mundi—behold, the fathers who take away the sins of the world”). We are not talking about replacing the person in his or her discernment. Nor is it a question of legitimizing every choice: mercy that excuses sin and does not heal the sinner is not true mercy.

What is needed is a formation of the subject that takes into account the originality of practical reason. It is not just a matter of teaching, but of facilitating the formation of virtues. Freedom and truth go together, in a one-to-one correspondence: without truth one is not free; and without freedom one cannot access truth.

How is the Christian subject born? How is the Christian subject generated, or rather regenerated? To be born again: this is the question of Nicodemus. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (Jn 3:4). It is not only a question of the formation of conscience (in the cognitive dimension), as modern scholastic or neo-scholastic morality had it, which understood formation as the ability to make correct rational judgments. Rather, moral formation is about growing in the virtues, especially in prudence, as the virtue that perfects practical reason, which aims not only at judgment but also and above all at the ability to choose and to act.

Prudence is the virtue that enlightens and promotes the making of choices and the carrying out of actions. It is rooted in virtuous affective dispositions that are well-ordered according to reason. Indeed, without the moral virtues there can be no prudence; without them there will be only cunning. Conversely, without prudence there can be no true moral virtues; without it there will be only mechanical habits. Virtue is a habitus electivus: a disposition to choose the suitable good, predisposing not the object of choice (id quod eligitur) but the excellent way of choosing it (id cuis gratia eligitur). It is a virtue and not a habit: it makes one freer and not less free. It aims at choice and does not remove the need to choose.

The answer to the pastoral question posed by Amoris Laetitia is not the adaptation of the law to the presumed capabilities of the subject, but rather the regeneration of the subject. The (re)generation of the moral subject has to do with the stages of life, with action, with culture. It has a dramatic character. In his book La coscienza morale [On Conscience], Giuseppe Angelini discusses conscience.[33] The work has some very serious limitations: there is no reference to natural law as a memory of the good rooted in creation. But there is something to be learned from what he says, especially about conscience as a “word” and about the ages of human life. I would like to present these elements as I have understood and interpreted them.


i) Conscience as word

One must move from conscience as a voice to conscience as a word. A voice is a background noise, an indistinct buzzing that causes annoyance and discomfort, that disturbs without instructing, that upsets without saying anything specific. Conscience as a word, on the other hand, tells me something, and as a word it has a dramatic character. Angelini criticizes the Augustinian idea of conscience as interiority, in which God witnesses himself to the individual, because, according to Angelini, it has led to a purely intimate and private conception, alienating conscience from action. For our author, this Augustinian notion later culminated in the modern notion of autonomous conscience.

For him, what should be recognized instead is that there is a dramatic aspect of action in which conscience as an indistinct voice is transformed into conscience as a word. It is in the practical risk that conscience is being educated. I realize that whoever does the truth comes into the light. Action teaches.

The problem with Angelini—as with Blondel, whose influence on Angelini is evident here—is that he recognizes nothing that precedes desire, that he does not recognize that “amor praecedit desiderium—love precedes desire.” When I act, there is something that precedes my conscience, something that comes to me as a gift: this is the fundamental instruction that conscience receives and that makes it speak: the light of the principles of natural law.


ii) The “ages” of human life

Angelini takes up Romano Guardini’s original analysis of the “ages” of human life[34] but applies it to the question of conscience. Childhood, adolescence, youth, maturity, old age—each of these stages of life has its own characteristics. The transition from one age to another is always dramatic.

Angelini’s reconstruction emphasizes the dramatic structure of moral identity. One achieves one’s identity through free action, through choices made in history and in the context of relationships. “Dramatic” comes from the Greek drama, which means “action”: that is, action is the form in which the subject seeks and discovers itself. And “undergoing” precedes “acting”: every action springs from a passion.

Angelini thus considers the “ages” of life, relating them to the birth and maturation of conscience, but he also associates these “ages” with the stages of salvation history in Scripture.

In childhood everything is given to us: we only have to open our mouth and someone fills it. Here conscience has the aspect of the presence of the parents—the law is not external: it is a relationship with a person. Before it is a judgment, the conscience of the child is a relationship: “What pleases Mommy and Daddy?” The memory of the benefits received compels obedience. As for the people of Israel in the desert, so it is for all of us: the law is not an arbitrary norm, but an instruction that invites us to imitate God: the law is inscribed in the origin of the journey and is carried by a promise.

Adolescence means being born again, being in charge of oneself, making decisions, and not shrinking from choices. Today we live in a society without fathers. People live in a prolonged and endless adolescence. What is missing today is adulthood, the figure of the adult.

The original identity of the moral subject is filial. In the beginning, consciousness is wordless: it has the form of an affection, a way of feeling. Family relations are the place of formation. Family relations are the context in which one passes from one age of life to another. To be born as a subject is to pass from the regime of affection to the regime of the Word, that is, to the regime of the promise and the law.

 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6).

Here is the transition from the regime of free benefits to the regime of the law, of the path, of the choice.


c) A home for the subject

For the formation of the moral subject, it is important to focus on the connection between the genesis of the subject and the surrounding culture in which he or she is born, grows, and acts. Conscience today is highly dependent on socially shared forms of communal life.

The forms of common life need a common ethos. That is why law is needed. Alasdair MacIntyre, and with him the current of “communitarians” such as Stanley Hauerwas and Vigen Guroian, insist strongly on this point. Here are the adequate grounds for virtuous practices. Practices are socially shared forms of behavior within a community and culture. It is through practices that ethical beliefs and virtues are formed.

The moral subject needs a home. In order to generate the moral subject, one must dwell in a community: this takes place in families, but also in the Church, which is a “family of families.” The Church is a place of relationships and the formation of an “ethos.” An “ethos” is an organic set of shared and lived values that precedes “ethics,” which is the systematic and critical reflection on this ethos. The task of ethics is to examine critically the habits of a community, to expose their inconsistencies, to point out their shortcomings, and to bring them to a universal openness.

The sacraments accompany the ages of life. They are the gestures by which the Spirit touches the human flesh of relationships at decisive moments of life (birth, growth, choice of state of life, illness). The sacraments, in turn, inspire and generate community customs, whether festive or ordinary, which vary from culture to culture.

This path from worship to culture, from the sacraments to daily life, by which faith permeates the customs of a community, is decisive. For the formation of the Christian subject, it is necessary that there be families, that there be communities, and that these be capable of generating culture. Christianity must not adapt itself to society, but rather act as a leaven that transforms society from within, thus creating a new society.

The kerygma—the enthusiasm for the novelty of the first proclamation—is not enough; we must also be concerned with culture and with didaché,[35] which is catechesis and which implies the encounter of the proclamation of the Gospel with culture and ways of life. In Evangelii Nuntiandi (1976), Pope Paul VI showed that in order to fulfill the task of evangelization, it is necessary for the faith to be culturally fruitful.[36] Virtuous practices are carried out in a culture. The truth of love shines in a place where that truth dwells.

I would like to mention two examples and two important works to illustrate the cultural fruitfulness of Christianity. The first is by the great French patrologist, Gustave Bardy, La conversion au christianisme durant les premiers siècles [The Conversion to Christianity in the First Centuries],[37] which shows the social impact of Christian conversion in the pagan world.

The second is more recent, written by the English historian David D’Avray of Oxford University. It is devoted to the study of how the indissolubility of marriage was introduced in the late ancient and medieval world.[38] Christian doctrine develops in contact with society, demonstrating a perennial fruitfulness without renouncing anything of what has been revealed, revealing new and unexpected aspects in the encounter with the world. In this way, Christian doctrine becomes the matrix of a new history, as demonstrated by the singular event of the introduction of the indissolubility of marriage into the public mores and legislation of the society of late antiquity, in which divorce had previously been widely practiced.



What we have proposed here under the formula of “the regeneration of the Christian subject” can itself be called a paradigm shift, namely with respect to the paradigms of case-by-case discernment, the moral autonomy of conscience, and rationalist ethics with its deductive application of the norm.

This new paradigm is recommendable because it does not break with the tradition of moral theology, because it does not abolish the doctrine of the Magisterium taught in Veritatis Splendor, and because it does not reject the pastoral concern of Amoris Laetitia. It interprets the latter in continuity with the encyclical of John Paul II, and in particular with the concern expressed in n. 78, namely, to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person.

What frees us from ideology? The capacity to love, in the sense of being able to establish a relationship with the other person. This involves tracing the law back to the good of the other person. The path proposed is one that grasps the truth in the light of love and thus in the great vision of Christian personalism: the vision of a personalism that is grounded in the ontology of the good, which has its roots in the act of the Creator and its fulfillment in the redemption wrought by Christ.


* The text of this conference has been published in Italian in the Veritas Amoris Review on September 3, 2021 under the title “Cambiamento di paradigma da Veritatis splendor ad Amoris Laetitia?” The Veritas Amoris Review gratefully acknowledges the valuable assistance provided by the Very Rev. Daniel J. Barnett, Rector of Bishop White Seminary, Spokane, WA, in preparing the translation of the text.

[1] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, March 19, 2016.

[2] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, August 6, 1993.

[3] Walter Kasper, “Amoris laetitia: Bruch oder Aufbruch. Eine Nachlese”, in Stimmen der Zeit 11 (2016), 723-732: “Ein Paradigmenwechsel ändert nicht die bisherige Lehre.” Moving along the same lines is the more articulate intervention of E. Schockenhoff, “Traditionsbruch oder notwendige Weiterbildung? Zwei Lesearten des Nachsynodalen Schreibens Amoris laetitia” in Stimmen der Zeit 3 (2017), 147-158.

[4] Eberhard Schockenhoff, “Traditionsbruch oder notwendige Weiterbildung? Zwei Lesearten des Nachsynodalen Schreibens Amoris laetitia” in Stimmen der Zeit 3 (2017), 147-158.

[5] Cf. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1970. See in particular the Postscriptum 1969.

[6] On this, see the criticism advanced by Stefano Fontana, Esortazione o rivoluzione? Tutti i problemi di Amoris laetitia, Fede e cultura, Verona 2019.

[7] Cf. John Henry Newman, An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame 1989.

[8] Cf. David D’Avray, Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, 206-207.

[9] These are statements, respectively, by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, interview with Giuseppe Rusconi, taken up in a revised version by the author in Il giornale di Lugano (February 18, 2017), and by American Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, “What God Has Joined Together,” in National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2017.

[10] Jean-Miguel Garrigues – Alain Thomasset, Une morale souple mais non sans boussole, Cerf, Paris 2017.

[11] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n .81.

[12] Cf. Carlo Caffarra, Interview in Il Foglio of March 15, 2014.

[13] Marc Ouellet, “Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating Weakness,” L’Osservatore Romano, November 21, 2017.

[14] Cf. for instance, Bernhard Häring, “Zentrale Anliegen der Moraltheologie und Moralverkündigung” in: Diakonia 11 (1980) 5-17.

[15] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 56.

[16] David L. Schindler, “Conscience and the Relation Between Truth and Pastoral Practice: Moral Theology and the Problem of Modernity”, in Communio 46 (2019), 333-385.

[17] Philippe Bordeyne, Divorcés remariès: ce qui change avec François, Y. Briend – Salvator, Paris 2017; in Italian: Portare la legge a compimento. Amoris Laetitia sulle situazioni matrimoniali fragile, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano 2018.

[18] St. Augustine, SermonesXLVI, 13.

[19] Francis, Amoris Laetitia, n. 303.

[20] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame 1981. In this regard see also: Giuseppe Abbà, Felicità, vita buona e virtù. Saggio di filosofia morale, LAS, Roma 1989, 97-104.

[21] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC 1995.

[22] Carlo Caffarra, Living in Christ: Fundamental Principles of Catholic Moral Teaching, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1987.

[23] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, 179.

[24] Cf. Carlo Caffarra, Interview in Il Foglio of March 15, 2014.

[25] Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, Pauline Books and Media, Boston 2013, 84-86, 96-100.

[26] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 26, a. 2.

[27] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, III, 90, 5.

[28] St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus haereses, III, 27, 2-3.

[29] See the synthesis provided by Veritatis Splendor, n. 24.

[30] Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 56, a. 3, ad 1.

[31] St. Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, I, XV, 25.

[32] Joseph Ratzinger, To Look on Christ: Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love, Crossroad, New York 1991, 88.

[33] Giuseppe Angelini, La coscienza morale. Dalla voce alla parola, Glossa, Milano 2019.

[34] Cf. Roman Guardini, Lebensalter. Ihre ethische und pädagogische Bedeutung, Werkbundverlag, Würzburg 1953.

[35] Cf. James McDonald, Kerygma and Didaché. The Articulation and Structure of the Earliest Christian Message, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1980.

[36] St. Paul VI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, December 8, 1975.

[37] Gustave Bardy, La conversion au christianisme durant les premiers siècles, Aubier, Paris 1949.

[38] David D’Avray, Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, 206-207.

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Livio Melina

Livio Melina

Livio Melina is a moral theologian and co-founder of the Veritas Amoris Project. From 1996-2019 he has been ordinary professor of moral theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, serving as its President from 2006-2016. At the Institute he has founded and directed the International Research Area in Moral Theology. He is an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology and has been the Scientific Director of the academic journal Anthropotes. He has been visiting professor in Washington DC and Melbourne and has given and continues to give courses and lectures at various international universities.

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The Veritas Amoris Project focuses on the truth of love as a key to understanding the mystery of God, the human person and the world, convinced that this perspective provides an integral and fruitful pastoral approach.

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