A Better Way Forward: A Response to Cardinal Robert McElroy
Much ink has been spilled about Cardinal Robert McElroy’s January 24th piece in America on synodality and inclusion. Less attention has been paid to Cardinal McElroy’s follow up interview (Feb 3, 2023), also in America, in which his views on sexual immorality were more explicit and, unfortunately, more concerning.
The Cardinal explains, “We have cast violations for which you need to not go to the Eucharist, or need to go to confession first, largely in terms of sexual things.” It is true that the Church has always taken sexual sin very seriously (more on that from St. Paul shortly). But Cardinal McElroy misdiagnoses the situation in stating the Church is too focused on “sexual things.” The Church is concerned with all grave sin that violates the Ten Commandments (cf. CCC 1858).
For example, it is a matter of grave concern that many Catholics apparently do not think it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday, yet it is in direct disobedience of the Third Commandment for Catholics to skip Mass on Sunday without a just excuse, such as serious illness or infirmity. The Church has even told racists that they cannot go to Holy Communion, as the Archbishop of New Orleans did in 1962 when he excommunicated several Catholics who vociferously opposed the racial desegregation of parochial schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. If our culture had a widespread issue with theft or worship of pagan gods, the Church would prominently proclaim that these serious sins precluded people from the Eucharist.
But our current culture is infatuated with sexual sin, and so the Church vocally warns of its harm, calls ardently for conversion in this area, and proclaims the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality.
The Cardinal goes on to say that sinfulness can and does exist within sexual lives, which is an important clarification as many readers interpreted his original piece as condoning all sexual activity. He explains, “Our sexual lives have many areas of sinfulness and I’m not challenging that. All I’m saying is that in the Christian moral life, they don’t automatically represent mortal sin. Mortal sin in Catholic teaching is a sin so grave that it is objectively capable of cutting off our relationship with God. That’s pretty severe.” I won’t quibble by focusing on the fact that the Church makes a distinction between mortal sin and grave matter (mortal sin requires grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate choice), and so the Church would disagree that sexual sins “automatically represent mortal sin.”
I would prefer to address the idea that the “framework doesn’t fit” by casting sexual sins as grave matter. The Cardinal seems to be calling for the Church to devalue the gravity of sexual sin, but sexual sin is part of the “framework” found in God’s Word: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–10, NAB, emphasis added).
Not inheriting eternal life is indeed “pretty severe,” and the Church rightly treats it so. But why did sexual immorality make St. Paul’s list? Because sexuality affects all aspects of the human person (cf. CCC 2332) and, thus, sexual sins have devastatingly widespread effects.
It is important to recognize and identify what Cardinal McElroy is attempting to do here: he is seeking to revive the discredited theological notion of the “fundamental option” that became popular in the 1960s. In moral theology, the concept of the “fundamental option” says that individual acts do not change our basic relationship with God and that only when our fundamental option changes against God do we fall out of the state of grace. In this view, a person can commit particular sinful actions without losing the state of grace.
Pope St. John Paul II addressed the erroneous notion of fundamental option theory in his 1993 encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor in paragraphs 65-70, most notably in this passage:
To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul. … In point of fact, the morality of human acts is not deduced only from one’s intention, orientation or fundamental option, understood as an intention devoid of a clearly determined binding content or as an intention with no corresponding positive effort to fulfil the different obligations of the moral life. (Veritatis Splendor 67)
In the end, all these disagreements seem to boil down to the Cardinal’s thoughts on sin: “My own view is [that] judgmentalism is the worst sin in the Christian life…. So what the parable of the adulterous woman is about is: Don’t be judgmental.” It is troubling to see the beautiful balance struck by Jesus in this story between an acceptance of the woman but not her behavior flattened to “don’t be judgmental.”
It appears that for Cardinal McElroy it is Catholicism’s judgmentalism that leads to exclusion, and not the committed sins. But it has always been the practice of the Church to exclude those actively engaging in grave sin from Communion until they have repented, confessed their sins to a priest, and received sacramental absolution. This is not a demand for perfection (despite the Cardinal’s insistence otherwise), nor is it a punishment; it is a consequence of those chosen actions.
As Pope Francis said in an interview on September 15, 2021 about withholding Communion, “This is not a penalty: you are outside. Communion is to unite the community.”
Apart from the Communion issue, Cardinal McElroy rightly notes that as a Church we need to do a better job of accompaniment because “the grace of God acts progressively in our lives.” The challenge of loving accompaniment is to avoid judging the heart of the other while still judging his action. This is the only way to reconcile Jesus’ statements, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1) and “If your brother sins, rebuke him” (Lk 17:3).
We are called to accompany the other regardless of his choices while standing in the truth of what is genuinely good for him. This is difficult, especially since as fallen humans we instinctively favor one part of that approach, usually to the detriment of the other.
May we all learn to love more like Jesus so that we can see beyond the sin to the person and lovingly offer him invitation to conversion. In a world so confused about sin, we must do both of those things in pursuing a better way forward.
Bishop Thomas John Paprocki is Bishop of Springfield in Illinois and is Chairman-elect of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.
This item 12711 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org