In his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia Pope Francis is helping priests to be better pastors, not giving individual consciences the ultimate authority to decide their spiritual state, a moral theologian and a canon lawyer both maintain.

“We still have to form conscience,” said Fr. Thomas Petri, academic dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., in an interview with CNA. “That’s what [Pope Francis] is doing with this exhortation, is helping people to understand … what the beautiful vision of Christian marriage is.”

Pope Francis is not allowing divorced-and-remarried persons to determine whether or not their first marriage is valid, explained Dr. Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Rather, the Pope is teaching priests to be “tactful” and “sensitive” in explaining to divorced-and-remarried couples why they might not be able to receive an annulment, to get them to “come to understand” what that means, he said.

Amoris laetitia, released April 8, is Pope Francis' post-synodal apostolic exhortation on love in the family. It addresses many topics regarding marriage and family life, from the Biblical foundation of the family to reflections of St. Paul on charity in 1 Corinthians, to practical advice for married couples.

Chapter Eight deals with “accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness”, or pastoral care for those in irregular family situations. Contrary to assumptions that it demonstrates a change in Church teaching on reception of Holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried persons, the document upholds existing Church teaching, both Martens and Fr. Petri affirmed.

The exhortation must be interpreted “obviously within the context of the texts that have gone before it,” Fr. Petri stated. It “builds strongly” on Familiaris consortio, St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world following the 1980 Synod on the Family.

In Familiaris consortio, John Paul II had written that the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the reception of the Eucharist is possible for the divorced-and-remarried only when they 'live in complete continence'.

Martens agreed that Amoris laetitia builds upon the foundation of Familiaris consortio. “I don’t see a fundamental change in here,” he said.

Pope Francis makes the “classic distinction” between an “objective state of a situation” and “subjective culpability,” Fr. Petri explained. There are three conditions necessary for a sin to be mortal — serious matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will — and sometimes people enter into adulterous unions without knowing Church teaching, he added.

“What [Pope Francis] is suggesting here is that sometimes people enter into these new unions without having a full knowledge of what the marriage is,” he said. The pastor’s job is to lead them to live in accord with Church teaching.

“And part of the discernment of accompaniment … is this slow conversation in helping people understand where they are before God and where God’s grace wants them to move, or is moving them to be.”

The pastor “leads” the couple “to understand what they can and cannot do,” Martens said.

The apostolic exhortation goes on to state that “because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin — which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such — a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

The footnote for that paragraph (305), footnote 351, states that “in certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” and later states that “the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak',” quoting Pope Francis' own 2013 apostolic exhortation on the new evangelization, Evangelii gaudium.

Asked if this footnote admits of certain cases where the divorced-and-remarried may receive Communion, Fr. Petri first said that the teaching on the matter “comes from Our Lord Himself,” wh o said that one who divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery. The footnote “cannot suggest carte blanche that everyone receive or not receive Communion,” he explained.

Any passage must be interpreted “in light of existing Church teaching,” he said.

He pointed to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ 2000 “Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried”, which is cited in Amoris laetitia.

Regarding reception of Communion by divorced-and-remarried persons, the declaration states:

“Those faithful who are divorced and remarried would not be considered to be within the situation of serious habitual sin who would not be able, for serious motives - such as, for example, the upbringing of the children — ‘to satisfy the obligation of separation, assuming the task of living in full continence, that is, abstaining from the acts proper to spouses’ (Familiaris consortio, n. 84), and who on the basis of that intention have received the sacrament of Penance. Given that the fact that these faithful are not living more uxorio is per se occult, while their condition as persons who are divorced and remarried is per se manifest, they will be able to receive Eucharistic Communion only remoto scandalo.”

It is the priest’s job to help form a person’s conscience so they can correctly determine if they are in this state or not, Fr. Petri explained.

“We have to accompany people where they are in their moral life, and help them move forward. And that’s going to be different for every particular circumstance,” he said, adding that “pastoral care can often be murky” and “circumstantial.”

In the footnote, Pope Francis refers “in the first place” to the Sacrament of Penance, Martens said, and then to Holy Communion. This order points to Church teaching of reception of Holy Communion only after one’s sins have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance and they are in the state of grace, he said.

The Pope has “underscored…the importance of confession” for his entire papacy, he added.