Action Alert!

The Continuing Scandal of the McCarrick Doctrine

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 30, 2020

Students of Catholic moral teaching discover what the most simple of faithful Catholics intuitively know. There is an impressive, coherent, logical unity to God’s law as we know it through Church teaching. Failures of vigilance and strict adherence to principle quickly shatter that unity. The scandal of Theodore McCarrick’s fall extends beyond his sexual crimes. It continues with an immoral policy legacy that continues to influence the hierarchy.

The history of the “McCarrick Doctrine” is a study of ecclesiastical mendacity. In June of 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter to then-Cardinal McCarrick and then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The instruction was in the context of dealing with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic whose positions on abortion contradict church teachings. The Ratzinger letter affirms that denial of Communion is obligatory “regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia.”

Cardinal Ratzinger also wrote that a priest should warn “the person in question” of the consequences, including the denial of Communion. If “the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.” Of course, Ratzinger was merely explicating Canon Law: “Those…obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (Can. 915). Catholic politicians like Kerry back then—and Biden (and many others) today—unambiguously fit the description.

Cardinal McCarrick, misrepresenting the Ratzinger letter, responded, “The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent.” As a result, during the meeting of the USCCB that year, the bishops voted 183-6 to approve a compromise statement allowing each bishop to decide whether to give Communion to “pro-choice” politicians. Bishop Gregory—who also received the letter—clearly agreed with McCarrick at the time, as he does today.

With Joe Biden as the prospective president, the American bishops have an opportunity to nullify the McCarrick Doctrine. Biden’s well-known radical pro-abortion agenda would set back Trump’s pro-life gains. Archbishop Jose Gomez’s congratulatory message to Biden and Harris—offered on behalf of the American bishops—provoked outrage among many Catholics. But by the November meeting of the USCCB, many of the bishops restrained and redirected their enthusiasm.

Archbishop Gomez then suggested that Biden’s presidency will pose a problem for the Church and “undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion.” He added Biden’s support for legal abortion “pose[s] a serious threat to the common good” and “[w]hen politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them . . . it creates confusion among the faithful about what the Church actually teaches on these questions.” But the public statements of the newly elevated Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, dashed hopes for a unified response. In November, Cardinal Gregory effectively renewed the McCarrick Doctrine when he told a journalist that he would not deny Holy Communion to a politician who has pledged to enshrine access to abortion in federal law and permit federal funding of abortions.

While Joe Biden and other pro-abortion Catholics continue to risk their salvation by presenting themselves for Communion, the prospect of a more extensive scandal affecting the unity of Catholic moral teaching remains. The willful denial of a moral principle by ecclesiastical authorities has long-term consequences.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI predicted that the example of the widespread practice of contraception would encourage the abuse of power by central governments. In his immensely unpopular (but courageously faithful) encyclical, Humanae Vitae, he wrote: “Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty?” (#17)

Within a decade, the Communist Chinese implemented its “one-child” policy forcing the use of contraception and—failing the effectiveness of those means—requiring abortion to enforce their social engineering. (During a visit to China in 2011, then-Vice President Biden supported the gruesome Chinese forced abortion policy.)

Cardinal Gregory’s refusal to abide by Canon Law (as well as the refusal of many other bishops and their priests) not only undermines the authority of Canon Law but also encourages the faithful—and government officials—to do the same. The ramifications are ominous. If ranking prelates can exempt themselves from Canon Law and Church doctrine, why not priests and their people?

In the last two years, legislators in the Australian states of Victoria and Queensland passed legislation that requires priests to violate the seal of confession if anything in the confession gave them a reason to suspect occurrences of child abuse. The Church has always responded to any threats with a holy obduracy, invoking the traditional and uncompromising Church law: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” (Can. 983 §1.) In 2019, the Apostolic Penitentiary affirmed the doctrine: “The inviolable secrecy of Confession comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the Sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, least of all, in the civil one.”

But Cardinal Gregory’s manifest intention to violate Canon Law prompts the question: Can we trust priests and bishops who are willing to violate Church law—and doctrine—in this grave matter on the one hand, to defend the inviolable Seal of Confession on the other? Indeed, can we trust the same priests or bishops to uphold all those episcopal “policies, procedures, and protocols” designed to guard against clerical child abuse?

A South Dakota priest recently sentenced to prison for embezzlement said he stole, in part, because he disagrees with the Catholic doctrine on homosexuality. Perhaps he expected his bishop to use McCarrick’s logic: “The question for us is not simply whether prosecution is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent.”

The sin of scandal has implications surpassing emotional outrage (see CCC 2285). The McCarrick Doctrine, as ratified by Cardinal Gregory and others, undermines the coherence of Catholic moral teaching.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Dec. 02, 2020 1:00 PM ET USA

    Our shepherds are off and running around trying to appease the wolf, hoping that such action will save the flock. Because the shepherd's attention is not on them, the flock begins to scatter! When will the shepherds, from the lead shepherd down, start to shepherd the herd toward salvation again? We can only pray that it will be soom!

  • Posted by: susanw - Dec. 01, 2020 7:10 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this article. It is indeed troubling that Gregory is so enabling as Biden and others are willing to risk their salvation. Trusting priests who are so selective in what doctrine they follow is not a good choice. The church needs strong leaders and there seems to be too few. I pray.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Dec. 01, 2020 3:42 PM ET USA

    The McCarrick policy of being "pastorally wise and prudent" allows bishops to say that they are pro-life while looking the other way and doing nothing. Moreover, it allows them to provide lip service to unpopular Catholic doctrines such as the indissolubility of marriage and the evils of artificial contraception.