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Robert W. McElroyJanuary 24, 2023
Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego speaks with people on the campus of the University of San Diego after Mass at The Immaculata Catholic Church Sept. 8, 2022. (CNS photo/David Maung)

What paths is the church being called to take in the coming decades? While the synodal process already underway has just begun to reveal some of these paths, the dialogues that have taken place identify a series of challenges that the people of God must face if we are to reflect the identity of a church that is rooted in the call of Christ, the apostolic tradition and the Second Vatican Council.

Many of these challenges arise from the reality that a church that is calling all women and men to find a home in the Catholic community contains structures and cultures of exclusion that alienate all too many from the church or make their journey in the Catholic faith tremendously burdensome.

Reforming our own structures of exclusion will require a long pilgrimage of sustained prayer, reflection, dialogue and action—all of which should begin now.

It is important at this stage in the synodal process for the Catholic community in the United States to deepen our dialogue about these structures and cultures of exclusion for two reasons. The first is to continue to contribute to the universal discernment on these issues, recognizing that these same questions have surfaced in many nations of the world. The second reason is the recognition that since the call to synodality is a call to continuing conversion, reforming our own structures of exclusion will require a long pilgrimage of sustained prayer, reflection, dialogue and action—all of which should begin now.

Such a pilgrimage must be infused with an overpowering dedication to listen attentively to the Holy Spirit in a process of discernment, not political action. It must reflect the reality that we are part of a universal and hierarchical church that is bound together on a journey of faith and communion. It must always point to the missionary nature of the church, which looks outward in hope. Our efforts must find direction and consolation in the Eucharist and the Word of God. And they must reflect the understanding that in a church that seeks unity, renewal and reform are frequently gradual processes.

Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” the document issued last year by the Holy See to capture the voices of men and women from around the world who have participated in the synodal process, concluded that “the vision of a church capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus is at the heart of the synodal process.” We must examine the contradictions in a church of inclusion and shared belonging that have been identified by the voices of the people of God in our nation and discern in synodality a pathway for moving beyond them.

We must examine the contradictions in a church of inclusion and shared belonging and discern in synodality a pathway for moving beyond them.

Polarization Within the Life of the Church

An increasingly strong contradiction to the vision of a church of inclusion and shared belonging lies in the growth of polarization within the life of the church in the United States and the structures of exclusion that it breeds. In the words of “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” “the wounds of the church are intimately connected to those of the world.” Our political society has been poisoned by a tribalism that is sapping our energy as a people and endangering our democracy. And that poison has entered destructively into the life of the church.

This polarization is reflected in the schism so often present between the pro-life communities and justice-and-peace communities in our parishes and dioceses. It is found in the false divide between “Pope Francis Catholics” and “St. John Paul II Catholics.” It is found in the friction between Catholics who emphasize inclusion and others who perceive doctrinal infidelity in that inclusion. Even the Eucharist has been marred by this ideological polarization, in both the debates about the pre-conciliar liturgy and the conflicts over masking that roiled many parishes during the pandemic of the past several years.

As “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” observes, we find ourselves “trapped in conflict, such that our horizons shrink and we lose our sense of the whole, and fracture into sub-identities. It is an experience of Babel, not Pentecost.”

Our political society has been poisoned by a tribalism that is endangering our democracy. And that poison has entered destructively into the life of the church.

A culture of synodality is the most promising pathway available today to lead us out of this polarization in our church. Such a culture can help to relativize these divisions and ideological prisms by emphasizing the call of God to seek first and foremost the pathway that we are being called to in unity and grace. A synodal culture demands listening, a listening that seeks not to convince but to understand the experiences and values of others that have led them to this moment. A synodal culture of true encounter demands that we see in our sisters and brothers common pilgrims on the journey of life, not opponents. We must move from Babel to Pentecost.

Bringing the peripheries to the center

“Closely related to the wound of polarization,” the U.S. report on the synod concludes, “is the wound of marginalization. Not only do those who experience this wound suffer, but their marginalization has become a source of scandal for others.” The continuing sin of racism in our society and our church has created prisons of exclusion that have endured for generations, especially among our African American and Native American communities.

Synod participants have testified eloquently to the sustained ways in which patterns of racism are embedded in ecclesial practices and culture. These same patterns infect the treatment of many ethnic and cultural communities within the life of the church, leaving them stranded on the periphery of ecclesial life at critical moments. Piercingly, the church at times marginalizes victims of clergy sexual abuse in a series of destructive and enduring ways.

The poorest among us, the homeless, the undocumented, the incarcerated and refugees often are not invited with the same energy and effectiveness as others into the fullness of church life and leadership. And the voice of the church is at times muted in advocating for their rights.

Faced with such patterns of exclusion in our church and our world, we must take to heart the message of Pope Benedict speaking to the people of Latin America on the wounds that marginalization inflicts: “the church must relive and become what Jesus was; the Good Samaritan who came from afar, entered into human history, lifted us up and sought to heal us.”

Pope Benedict XVI: “The church must relive and become what Jesus was; the Good Samaritan who came from afar, entered into human history, lifted us up and sought to heal us.”

One avenue for lifting us up and healing the patterns and structures of marginalization in our church and our world is to systematically bring the peripheries into the center of life in the church. This means attending to the marginalization of African Americans and Native Americans, victims of clergy sexual abuse, the undocumented and the poor, the homeless and the imprisoned, not as a secondary element of mission in every church community, but as a primary goal.

Bringing the peripheries to the center means constantly endeavoring to support the disempowered as protagonists in the life of the church. It means giving a privileged place in the priorities and budgets and energies of every ecclesial community to those who are most victimized and ignored. It means advocating forcefully against racism and economic exploitation. In short, it means creating genuine solidarity within our ecclesial communities and our world, as St. John Paul repeatedly urged us.

Women in the Life of the Church

The synodal dialogues in every region of our world have given sustained attention to the structures and cultures that exclude or diminish women within the life of the church. Participants have powerfully pointed out that women represent both the majority of the church and an even larger majority of those who contribute their time and talents to the advancement of the church’s mission. The report of the Holy Land on its synodal dialogues captured this reality: “In a church where almost all decision-makers are men, there are few spaces where women can make their voices heard. Yet they are the backbone of church communities.”

The synodal dialogues have reflected widespread support for changing these patterns of exclusion in the global church, as well as for altering structures, laws and customs that effectively limit the presence of the rich diversity of women’s gifts in the life of the Catholic community. There are calls for eliminating rules and arbitrary actions that preclude women from many roles of ministry, administration and pastoral leadership, as well as for admitting women to the permanent diaconate and ordaining women to the priesthood.

One productive pathway for the church’s response to these fruits of the synodal dialogues would be to adopt the stance that we should admit, invite and actively engage women in every element of the life of the church that is not doctrinally precluded.

This means, first of all, eliminating those barriers to women that have been erected at all levels in the church’s life and ministry not because of law or theology, but because of custom, clericalism, bigotry or personal opposition.

Second, the call for inclusion challenges the church to examine with care the juridical barriers to women’s leadership in the life of the church. Pope Francis initiated reform in this area when he loosened the mandatory tie between episcopal identity and leadership roles in the Roman Curia, including directing major Roman departments. This re-examination should also include questions such as the legal limitations on laity in diocesan leadership, including tribunals, as well as the nature of jurisdiction in a parish, which presently prohibits any layperson from being the administrator of a parish community.

“In a church where almost all decision-makers are men, there are few spaces where women can make their voices heard. Yet they are the backbone of church communities.”

The proposal to ordain women to the permanent diaconate had widespread support in the global dialogues. While there is historical debate about precisely how women carried out a quasi-diaconal ministry in the life of the early church, the theological examination of this issue tends to support the conclusion that the ordination of women to the diaconate is not doctrinally precluded. Thus, the church should move toward admitting women to the diaconate, not only for reasons of inclusion but because women permanent deacons could provide critically important ministries, talents and perspectives. At the Synod on the Amazon in 2019, the bishops of the Amazon region in prayer and discernment overwhelmingly supported this pathway, stating that it would be an enormous grace for their local churches that are so desperately short of priests.

The question of the ordination of women to the priesthood will be one of the most difficult questions confronting the international synods in 2023 and 2024. The call for the admission of women to priestly orders as an act of justice and a service to the church was voiced in virtually every region of our world church. At the same time, many women and men who participated in the synod favored reserving the priesthood for men in keeping with the action of Christ and the history of the church.

It is likely the synod will adopt this latter stance because of its rootedness in the theology and history of the church. Whichever position emerges from the synodal discernment on this question, the reality remains that the synodal dialogues have asked the church to move in two contradictory directions on this question. During the synodal process over the next two years, God will have to grace the church profoundly if we are to find reconciliation amid this contradiction.

The question of the ordination of women to the priesthood will be one of the most difficult questions confronting the international synods in 2023 and 2024.

The Christological Paradox

The report of the synodal dialogues from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops points to an additional and distinct element of exclusion in the life of the church: “Those who are marginalized because circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the church.” These include those who are divorced and remarried without a declaration of nullity from the church, members of the L.G.B.T. community and those who are civilly married but have not been married in the church.

These exclusions touch upon important teachings of the church about the Christian moral life, the commitments of marriage and the meaning of sexuality for the disciple. It is very likely that discussions of all of these doctrinal questions will take place at the synodal meetings this fall and next year in Rome.

But the exclusion of men and women because of their marital status or their sexual orientation/activity is pre-eminently a pastoral question, not a doctrinal one. Given our teachings on sexuality and marriage, how should we treat remarried or L.G.B.T. men and women in the life of the church, especially regarding questions of the Eucharist?

“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” cites a contribution from the Catholic Church of England and Wales, which provides a guidepost for responding to this pastoral dilemma: “The dream is of a church that more fully lives a Christological paradox: boldly proclaiming its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance through its pastoral and discerning accompaniment.” In other words, the church is called to proclaim the fullness of its teaching while offering a witness of sustained inclusion in its pastoral practice.

As the synodal process begins to discern how to address the exclusion of divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics, particularly on the issue of participation in the Eucharist, three dimensions of Catholic faith support a movement toward inclusion and shared belonging.

The first is the image that Pope Francis has proposed to us of the church as a field hospital. The primary pastoral imperative is to heal the wounded. And the powerful pastoral corollary is that we are all wounded. It is in this fundamental recognition of our faith that we find the imperative to make our church one of accompaniment and inclusion, of love and mercy. Pastoral practices that have the effect of excluding certain categories of people from full participation in the life of the church are at odds with this pivotal notion that we are all wounded and all equally in need of healing.

The effect of the tradition that all sexual acts outside of marriage constitute objectively grave sin has been to focus the Christian moral life disproportionately upon sexual activity.

The second element of Catholic teaching that points to a pastoral practice of comprehensive inclusion is the reverence for conscience in Catholic faith. Men and women seeking to be disciples of Jesus Christ struggle with enormous challenges in living out their faith, often under excruciating pressures and circumstances. While Catholic teaching must play a critical role in the decision making of believers, it is conscience that has the privileged place. Categorical exclusions undermine that privilege precisely because they cannot encompass the inner conversation between women and men and their God.

The third element of Catholic teaching that supports a pastoral stance of inclusion and shared belonging in the church is the counterpoised realities of human brokenness and divine grace that form the backdrop for any discussion of worthiness to receive the Eucharist. As Pope Francis stated in “Gaudete et Exultate,” “grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once.... Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively” (No. 50).

Here lies the foundation for Pope Francis’ exhortation “to see the Eucharist not as a prize for the perfect, but as a source of healing for us all.” The Eucharist is a central element of God’s grace- filled transformation of all the baptized. For this reason, the church must embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord, rather than a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist. Unworthiness cannot be the prism of accompaniment for disciples of the God of grace and mercy.

It will be objected that the church cannot accept such a notion of radical inclusion because the exclusion of divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. persons from the Eucharist flows from the moral tradition in the church that all sexual sins are grave matter. This means that all sexual actions outside of marriage are so gravely evil that they constitute objectively an action that can sever a believer’s relationship with God. This objection should be faced head on.

It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T. communities.

The effect of the tradition that all sexual acts outside of marriage constitute objectively grave sin has been to focus the Christian moral life disproportionately upon sexual activity. The heart of Christian discipleship is a relationship with God the Father, Son and Spirit rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church has a hierarchy of truths that flow from this fundamental kerygma. Sexual activity, while profound, does not lie at the heart of this hierarchy. Yet in pastoral practice we have placed it at the very center of our structures of exclusion from the Eucharist. This should change.

It is important to note that the synodal dialogues have given substantial attention to the exclusions of L.G.B.T. Catholics beyond the issue of the Eucharist. There were widespread calls for greater inclusion of L.G.B.T. women and men in the life of the church, and shame and outrage that heinous acts of exclusion still exist.

It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T. communities. The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation. The distinction between orientation and activity cannot be the principal focus for such a pastoral embrace because it inevitably suggests dividing the L.G.B.T. community into those who refrain from sexual activity and those who do not. Rather, the dignity of every person as a child of God struggling in this world, and the loving outreach of God, must be the heart, soul, face and substance of the church’s stance and pastoral action.

The Italian synodal report stated “the church-home does not have doors that close, but a perimeter that continually widens.” We in the United States must seek a church whose doors do not close and a perimeter that continually widens if we are to have any hope of attracting the next generation to life in the church, or of being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must enlarge our tent. And we must do so now.

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