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Cardinal McElroy: Catholic teaching on grave nature of ‘all sexual sins’ is 17th-century innovation

March 03, 2023

Responding to critics of his January article on “radical inclusion“ for “LGBT people, women, and others in the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego characterized “the moral tradition in the church that all sexual sins are grave matter” as a 17th-century innovation that is “jarringly inconsistent with the larger universe of Catholic moral teaching.”

“For most of the history of the church, various gradations of objective wrong in the evaluation of sexual sins were present in the life of the church,” Cardinal McElroy wrote in an article published on March 2 in the Jesuit periodical America. “But in the 17th century, with the inclusion in Catholic teaching of the declaration that for all sexual sins there is no parvity of matter (i.e., no circumstances can mitigate the grave evil of a sexual sin), we relegated the sins of sexuality to an ambit in which no other broad type of sin is so absolutely categorized.”

“In principle, all sexual sins are objective mortal sins within the Catholic moral tradition,” he continued. “This means that all sins that violate the sixth and the ninth commandments are categorically objective mortal sins ... So, it is precisely this change in Catholic doctrine—made in the 17th century—that is the foundation for categorically barring L.G.B.T. and divorced/remarried Catholics from the Eucharist.”

He added:

The moral tradition that all sexual sins are grave matter springs from an abstract, deductivist and truncated notion of the Christian moral life that yields a definition of sin jarringly inconsistent with the larger universe of Catholic moral teaching. This is because it proceeds from the intellect alone.

In making his argument, Cardinal McElroy did not cite any widespread protests from 17th-century bishops and theologians that doubtless would have emerged if Catholic teaching had been altered—rather than developed, refined, or made more explicit.

Cardinal McElroy also did not address the New Testament roots of Catholic teaching on the grave nature of sexual sin—rendering such sins mortal when committed with deliberate consent and full knowledge.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ taught, “I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:28-30). Likewise, St. Paul taught, “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Nor did Cardinal McElroy address the penitential discipline of the early Church, which makes manifest that the teaching he is assailing dates from far earlier than the 17th century. For example, St. Basil the Great, citing “the canons laid down by our Fathers,” wrote in the fourth century that penitents who had committed adultery or homosexual acts were not to be admitted to Holy Communion for 15 years, and that penitents who had committed fornication were not to be admitted to Holy Communion for seven years. Later in the fourth century, St. Jerome attested to the non-admission to Holy Communion of those who had remarried outside the Church (Letters 55, 77).

 


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  • Posted by: JimKcda - Mar. 09, 2023 7:12 PM ET USA

    The Gospel for 3/27, Matthew, 23:1-12 quotes Jesus; “The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.Therfore, do and observe all things whatever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice… etc…” We’ve had “bad” priests, Bishops and even Popes before. The Church will survive, but we need to stay in the Boat and trust Jesus to save us!

  • Posted by: pamdelara5702 - Mar. 06, 2023 12:02 PM ET USA

    Before the Holy Spirit mercifully begins to replace our pride with humility, many of us behave as if we know the mind of God better than God does! Promulgating behaviors as acceptable that God has clearly rejected is remarkable. We crave public acceptance--or at the least we fear being rejected. My deep thanks for the info about Sts. Basil and Jerome refuting Cardinal McElroy's claims about the 17th century. I am so comforted, and will share it with our McElroy-admiring-Pastor, if possible.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Mar. 04, 2023 3:10 PM ET USA

    St. Peter Damian's "The Book of Gomorrah" dealt with homosexual acts among priests. It was written ca. 1,000 A.D. -- well before the 17th century. Cardinal McElroy's statements are straight out of the Biden playbook: If you repeat something often enough on television (or in America magazine, in this case), people will believe it's true, whether it is or not. Confuse and deflect is the plan. He's never going to say, I'm in favor of calling evil good.

  • Posted by: Gramps - Mar. 04, 2023 1:32 AM ET USA

    Excellent response to the Cardinal's inadequate explanation.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 03, 2023 8:12 AM ET USA

    "Even fools, keeping silent, are considered wise; if they keep their lips closed, intelligent." (Proverbs 17:28)