Discernment and the Contraception Decision
There appears to be a relationship between Father Jenkins’ decision to provide artificial contraceptives through the university’s insurance and Pope Francis’ teachings that emphasize discernment of particular circumstances over objective morality.
In his February 7 letter addressing the situation, Fr. Jenkins brings to the forefront Pope Francis’ teachings on discernment. He says, “The situation is one that demands discernment—something to which Pope Francis has called the Church in his various writings and addresses.”
Fr. Jenkins continues, “Discernment, which has a long history in the Catholic spiritual tradition, is, of course, a process of weighing thoughtfully considerations for and against various courses of action. Yet it also demands prayerful attention to God’s guidance through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”
As Fr. Jenkins noted, Pope Francis often pushes for discernment in his writings and addresses. For example, Francis spoke on the topic during his recent visit to Chile, saying, “I think that one of the things that the Church most needs today is discernment. This is put very clearly in the pastoral perspectives and objectives of Amoris Laetitia.”
In Amoris Laetitia, Francis opens the door to granting reception of the Eucharist to Catholics living in sexually active relationships with individuals other than their original spouse. This is considered objectively wrong in the Church because Catholics are barred from receiving the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin.
Pope Francis explains in Amoris Laetitia that discernment can enable individuals to continue living more uxorio (as husband and wife) with someone who is not their spouse in certain situations, even though this is not the “objective ideal”:
“It [Conscience] 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, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic” (Amoris Laetitia 303).
Francis also addressed discernment while speaking to Jesuit priests in Rome in November. Francis said on the topic: “We run the risk of getting used to ‘white or black,’ to that which is legal. One thing is clear: today, in a certain number of seminaries, a rigidity that is far from a discernment of situations has been introduced. And that is dangerous, because it can lead us to a conception of morality that has a casuistic [resolving decisions by religious doctrine or ethical rules] sense.”
In this way, Francis’ view of discernment teaches the idea that circumstances of complex situations can permit individuals to make conscientious decisions contrary to the “objective ideal.”
Therefore, it makes sense that Fr. Jenkins cited Francis’ teaching on discernment as his inspiration for his decision in his letter.
Just as Francis teaches that things “not fully the objective ideal” are permitted in some cases due to extenuating circumstances, Fr. Jenkins provides contraceptives he acknowledges are objectively wrong due to the circumstances of a university with individuals from different religious groups. In other words, he believes the circumstances of Notre Dame permit a departure from a black and white objective morality.
Fr. Jenkins has shown support for this particular mode of thinking on discernment in the past. When asked to respond to Archbishop Charles Chaput’s criticism that Joe Biden and Tim Kaine are Catholic only in name due to their position on abortion, Fr. Jenkins responded in an interview with Commonweal Magazine:
“Though the archbishop may rightly argue that they are objectively wrong in their positions, I don’t understand how he can presume to know the consciences of Vice President Biden and Senator Kaine sufficiently to question the genuineness of their faith and condemn them personally. As Pope Francis says in Amoris Laetitia, pastors must ‘make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not replace them.’ (no. 37).”
This desire to “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations,” is echoed in Fr. Jenkins’ apparent respect for the right of the faithful to discern the use of artificial birth control. This is demonstrated in Fr. Jenkins’ letter when he says, “many conscientiously disagree with this particular teaching.”
As Fr. Jenkins himself attributes his decision on contraceptives to being inspired by Francis’ teachings (“The situation is one that demands discernment—something to which Pope Francis has called the Church in his various writings and addresses”), the decision to provide contraceptives at Notre Dame appears to reflect Pope Francis’ teaching on discernment.
While it may be troubling that there is a link between Pope Francis’ teachings and Fr. Jenkins’ decision to provide artificial contraceptives, this does not necessarily mean Pope Francis’ teaching is erroneous. It simply means that the Pope’s teaching has caused confusion.
An opponent of Pope Francis’ teaching on discernment, Cardinal Raymond Burke, questioned Francis’ interpretation of discernment, saying, “Discernment does not decide what is right or wrong but leads the person to inform himself as fully as possible so that he can make a right judgment in a particular matter, that is, so that he can act in accord with the truth which God has written upon his heart or conscience.”
The situation at Notre Dame calls for Pope Francis to clarify his teaching on discernment so that no additional morally questionable decisions result from confusion surrounding it.
Ellie Gardey is a freshman living in Lewis Hall studying political science, philosophy, and theology. She has a love for sushi and country music. Contact Ellie at firstname.lastname@example.org.