Cardinal McElroy: Sex and sin need a new framework in the church
What would it take to build a radically inclusive church? That is the question Cardinal Robert McElroy took up in a recent article published by America. In it, he called on the church to dismantle the “structures and cultures of exclusion” that alienate some Catholics, including women, the poor, divorced-and-remarried couples and L.G.B.T. Catholics. Most controversially, he argued that people who do not conform to the church’s teaching on sex and marriage should not be excluded from receiving Communion.
The article sparked a wide range of reactions online, and this week on “Jesuitical,” Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless bring on Cardinal McElroy on to the podcast to continue the conversation. They ask the cardinal whether he is in favor of open Communion, if the inclusion he’s advocating for requires a change in church teaching and if he’s worried that disagreements over the place of women and L.G.B.T. Catholics in the church could lead to schism.
Cardinal McElroy shares his view that “judgmentalism is the worst sin in the Christian life,” and says his “pastoral vision here in San Diego is to make—and it’s hard to accomplish this—to make L.G.B.T. people feel equally welcome in the life of the church as everyone else.”
An excerpt from their conversation is available below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Zac Davis: There have been a number of published responses to your article. In your mind, what’s the thrust of the essay?
Bishop Robert McElroy: The essay I wrote recently for America is part of a trilogy. Last year I wrote a piece in America on [the questions] “What is the culture of synodality? What is the direction of this? Where is the Holy Father pointing us to go as a church and to be as a church?” This is the second, which is on inclusion. And then next month I have one that—sorry to tell you—is going to be in Commonweal. It is looking at the synodal dialogues that occurred in the United States and asking what that says about the major elements of synodality, where they’re lived out and where we need to work harder. Those three things need to be taken in context in terms of understanding.
What I’m trying to say is that synodality is a process that is crucial. It’s a culture, and it is a spiritual endeavor. That’s the first piece. The second piece is on inclusion. That’s a very difficult polarized area within our own society now. And it’s true within the life of the church. After our small-group synodal meetings [in San Diego], we did a survey of about 27,000 people here in San Diego of Catholics on a range of issues. Three of the questions were on inclusion. Those were the most highly polarized results that we got. So it was a very volatile area because it touches deeply in human hearts and people’s worldviews.
Ashley McKinless: Who are we talking about including or excluding? Who are the groups you’re addressing in this piece?
RM: In the synodal dialogues that occurred, it’s all the same from place to place throughout the country. It’s amazing the level of commonality in the major themes. The positive themes are: joy in the Eucharist, in the sacramental life of the church, joy in the community, joy in the hope that they express for the future. The challenges, one of them, of course, is young adults, which is such an enormous challenge. The drifting of young adults out to the church: that probably more than any other was the challenge that came from these dialogues, where people were saying, “We’ve gotta do something about this.” But one of the other sets of challenges was on this whole area of inclusion, specifically, the treatment of women, divorced and remarried [Catholics], L.G.B.T. persons, racism, discrimination against ethnic groups, against the undocumented, all these sorts of marginalizations.
The drifting of young adults out to the church: that probably more than any other was the challenge that came from these dialogues.
So my article was an effort to say, “Alright, the people of God have spoken, and while often they’re highly polarized on these issues, the clear majority of people are in favor of changes on each of these.” My article is an effort to explore that: how the church might move to lessen exclusion within the life of the church. I was focusing on the internal life of the church.
ZD: Now, some people heard that and were I would say rankled by the idea that inclusion is a code word for changing church teaching. Or specifically, you talk about looking at inclusion in relation to our practice of celebrating the Eucharist, and some people were like, “Oh, is Cardinal McElroy in favor of open Communion?” Are you saying that?
RM: On open Communion, [the article] got misinterpreted a little bit, in that I used at one point once the words “all the baptized.” I didn’t mean non-Catholics. I was talking about it in the context of the church. But what I was proposing is, and what I believe is the right way for us to move in terms of pastoral theology, springs from Pope Francis’ notion that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect; it’s healing and medicine for those in need of God’s help. Well, that’s all of us. It’s not a reward. It doesn’t go only to the best-behavers. And so our role in the church should be to expand the openness of the Eucharist for all those Catholics who are striving to live by the Gospel and teachings of the church. I believe they should all be welcomed into the Eucharist.
AM: Does that require a change to the catechism? Which does say that if you approach the Eucharist in a state of grave sin without going to confession first that you’re pouring judgment on yourself and damning yourself. Is this just a different way of interpreting that, which gives more weight to conscience?
RM: There are two things here. One is that citation from St. Paul on drinking and eating unworthily [1 Cor 11:27] and “you damn yourself.” It’s interesting: St. Paul never speaks about the subject matter. There’s no substance of what he’s saying—“If you do this…” My problem is, 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. We don’t say it’s automatically a mortal sin to discriminate against somebody. We don’t say it’s automatically a mortal sin to rip off your employees or exploit them. We don’t say it’s automatically a mortal sin to mistreat your children or your spouse. Those are very serious elements of the moral life. But we don’t automatically say those are mortal sins. It springs from this notion that comes to us from the 16th century that all sexual sins are mortal. That’s what I’m challenging in the essay. I don’t think that’s a good part of the Catholic moral tradition.
Our role in the church should be to expand the openness of the Eucharist for all those Catholics who are striving to live by the Gospel and teachings of the church.
ZD: I think that’s going to come as a breath of fresh air to a lot of people hearing a cardinal say that. But for others it’s also going to come as a real challenge, a shock, because I think for a lot of people, if I try to get in their head a little bit, they go, “Well, wait, I have lived my life as if that were true, and at great sacrifice and cost. And now all of a sudden I feel like the rug is being pulled out from under me.” How do you talk to someone who thinks that this idea of inclusion and welcoming is somehow undermining what we believe or what we have believed as Catholics?
RM: Let’s just look at that whole area of sexuality, for example, where the rubber hits the road for many people and where I’m advocating a change in our pastoral theology. What I am saying is not that we don’t have to wrestle with sinfulness in all its various forms in our sexual lives. 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. What I’m saying is that framework doesn’t fit.
But that doesn’t at all diminish the call to chastity that each of us has in our own lives, in our own states, and particularly to live by what I think is the central assertion of Catholic faith, which is that sexuality is something profound rather than something casual. That’s where our church really comes up against society. Our society doesn’t believe that. And I think across our teachings in the sexual realm, that’s the basic impulse: [Sex] is something profound, not something casual. And it’s something that reaches very deeply into the personal, spiritual, moral, emotional lives of people. I’m not challenging any of that. I’m simply saying for us to chart out this one area of human life and say that’s automatically mortal sin, I don’t think that is consistent with the Catholic moral universe of our theology at its best.
My problem is, 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.
AM: What you’re describing is a very pastoral approach. And one of the common retorts to that approach of meeting people where they are and welcoming them is that the most loving thing you can do is present people with the truth. How do you respond to that line of reasoning?
RM: I’m going to cite St. John Paul II here in a very important teaching in “Familiaris Consortio.” He said: The principle of gradualism lies at the heart of everyone’s moral life. It’s taken from Jesus. When Jesus came to people, he didn’t say, “You want to follow me? You gotta be perfect.” If he had, the disciples wouldn’t have made it past the first week. [Jesus] takes us where we are and calls us to move forward. He doesn’t say, “Live life as you want, and it doesn’t matter whether it accords with the Gospel of Jesus.”
But Christ doesn’t say, “You have got a leap from where you are at this moment to perfection.” It doesn’t work that way. Francis has this line that because grace builds on nature, the grace of God acts progressively in our lives. And St. Augustine had that beautiful insight. His young adult years were in every way contrary to the Gospel, and then he had a conversion. He became very close to the church. Augustine’s Confessions are such an important work because for the first time in Western literature, what they say is not “after my conversion. I was good. I was perfect.” He says, all through his Confessions, “I’m in the process of coming closer to God, and it’s going to be never finished.” And even at the end of his life, he says, “I’m not done yet. God hasn’t done all his work in me yet.”
“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.
I think that’s how we have to look at the Christian moral life. So that’s what I would say to people who say, “Is this forsaking the call of Christ?” And I’ve seen people say that. They say, “Well, Jesus said to the adulterous woman sin no more.” That’s true. But they kind of miss, in my view, the point of that parable if that’s what they take away from it. What he says first about the whole event is don’t be judgmental toward this woman.
My own view is [that] judgmentalism is the worst sin in the Christian life. That’s why Jesus talks about so often. If you look at the Gospels, time and time again, he is talking about judgmentalism. It’s because we all do it. We find it so easy to fall into that. And it’s so harmful to people. So what the parable of the adulterous woman is about is: Don’t be judgmental. It’s not that he was harsh toward the woman that was caught in adultery; he was generous with her. That’s the whole thing. Now he says, “Yes, live the Christian life,” but that’s the gradualism. I think that really lies at the heart of what Christ’s method was.
ZD: In my view, a lot of this is just classic prodigal son. We’re all living out the parable of the prodigal son all the time. And I think a lot of us in the church are just ready to be the older brother to say, “Father, why didn’t you tell him about all the things he should have done or that he should start doing or that even the way he’s coming back is wrong.” I think there’s a lot of people in the life of the church right now that are just eager, under the guise of proclaiming the truth, to tell people all the things that they’re doing wrong.
I had a professor of Scripture, and he used to say, “Whenever you read a parable, look at the person you don’t like and see yourself, see that’s who you are.” I find myself in that position of the older son many, many times—“Why don’t you do something about that person God?” And yet that’s not our role. And it is certainly not what Christ calls us to be or do.
AM: I think one other common fear, and one that I sometimes share, is that if we look at, maybe not changing church teaching, but de-emphasizing some parts or emphasizing others or playing down some of the rules, we get closer to a place where Catholics are going to split. On some of these really fundamental questions about sexuality, women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, those don’t seem like places where we can just agree to disagree in the long run. What would you say to someone who fears that by even touching these sensitive issues around sexuality that we’re risking the scary S-word—of schism?
RM: I think there are a couple issues. One is there’s another scary word, and that is drift. By not addressing some of these issues of inclusion, we’re losing the younger generation. In my own view, it’s clear that a big part of the drift of young people away from the Catholic Church is [from having] very uncomfortable feelings about issues on women and L.G.B.T. [issues] in terms of the life of the church. That’s one.
Ross Douthat had an article in The New York Times this past week that was on my article, in which he says, “We’re heading toward schism because both sides believe it’s all or nothing. It’s victory or loss.” I don’t think that’s what synodality is all about. I think it’s the opposite of synodality. The beautiful thing about our local dialogues was people who disagreed came together and in faith shared and were energized and supported in their faith, even though they were disagreeing. That’s what we have to strive for. This is not a manifesto that we need to [get] from here to here. It’s gradual. It is gradualism too in the life of the church. How do we move toward some of these things?
This is not a manifesto that we need to [get] from here to here. It’s gradual. It is gradualism too in the life of the church. How do we move toward some of these things?
And also it’s being attentive to more traditional Catholics, too. In our dialogues the question of the preconciliar Mass—which people often call the Tridentine Mass or Latin Mass—came up, and many people go to that and feel wounded about the changes recently. We have to attend to that pastorally. So it’s not that there’s a win-lose, it’s not that what I’ve written or anybody writes on inclusion is the framework for where we have got to get to by 2024 or we’ve failed. That isn’t it. We’re a universal church. Sometimes that’s an easy reality and a wonderful reality. Sometimes it’s a hard reality to experience. But we as a universal church are going to pray through, work through and come to some conclusions on these questions.
One of the things that I think is not helpful is that some people who are opposed to the synod or in various ways are urging tremendous caution on the synod, many of them don’t want any changes. Well that’s an all-or-nothing victory, too. The framework we’re seeking is asking where God’s leading this. We’ve got to tend to the questions. We won’t necessarily come out with any one person’s conclusions at the end. But unless we tend to them after all these people in these dialogues have presented these questions for us, unless we reflect on them in the light of the church and the gospel, [if we don’t do that] I think we will have failed whatever conclusions come about.
ZD: What are some of the easy things that you think don’t require any change in church teaching?
For example, roles that women and laypeople as a whole have in terms of running parishes. There’s certain provisions in canon law, which don’t allow women, and laypeople as a whole, to do certain things that they’re eminently qualified to do. That’s an easy fix that has nothing to do with doctrine. The pope took steps in this direction recently when he reformed the curia, that is the central administration of the church, to allow non-bishops to be heads of major departments. And that’s certainly going to include women and lay men. So at all levels of the church, that kind of change can and should take place. I don’t think there’s tremendous opposition to that except for inertia. But it means a change of consciousness at some levels.
One of the things that I think is not helpful is that some people who are opposed to the synod or in various ways are urging tremendous caution on the synod.
[Ordaining women to the] diaconate is the harder one because that’s a long tradition. There’s a big question: To what degree in the early church did women undertake the role or were they entrusted with the role of being deacons? There’s a lot of evidence which indicates they were. So it’s not the same problem you have with having women priests in the church because it looks clear that there were women who were doing the work of deacons and were ordained in various ceremonies. So it’s easier to do that.
AM: You mentioned the role of women in the church as being one of the lower hanging fruits, where there’s more agreement, less official change to church teaching is needed. I think in terms of inclusion, the other group that often comes up in these conversations is L.G.B.T. Catholics. And I think, one, there’s not as much agreement in the U.S. and in the global church about how we should approach L.G.B.T. Catholics. And two, we have this language about homosexuality being intrinsically disordered, and the distinction you mentioned in your piece about orientation and sexual activity. Is that a place where you would advocate for change in that language and in church discipline?
RM: I’ve said for some years I felt, and others have too, that the intrinsically disordered language is a disservice. The problem is, it’s used in the catechism as a philosophical term, but to us in our country and really most of the world, disorder is thought of as psychological. It’s a terrible word and it should be taken out of the catechism. On the question of the distinction between activity and orientation, the point I was trying to make in the article was God’s embrace of L.G.B.T. people, like the church’s embrace, should [not] be [based on] whether they’re [sexually] active or not; that should not determine whether we seek to include people, reach out to them, look on them as fellow strivers with strengths and weaknesses and areas where they’re doing well.
My pastoral vision here in San Diego is to make—and it’s hard to accomplish this—to make L.G.B.T. people feel equally welcome in the life of the church as everyone else.
It is not that the difference between activity and orientation doesn’t matter. It does. But that shouldn’t be the foundation for how we approach L.G.B.T. people. We should across the board be saying, “We look on you like us: people who are trying in often difficult circumstances to live our lives here in this world, to live by the Gospel, knowing that we fail, knowing that sometimes we fail time and again in the same area. That’s one of the things about human nature. When I was a young priest, I was hearing confessions a lot, people would come and say, “Oh, I’m so upset that I’m confessing the same sins over and over again.” That’s how we are because our personalities have a rather rigid structure to them. So that’s the framework I think for us to look on this whole L.G.B.T. question. My pastoral vision here in San Diego is to make—and it’s hard to accomplish this—to make L.G.B.T. people feel equally welcome in the life of the church as everyone else. And so how we get from here to there—it’s hard and we take steps. But that’s my goal. And I really feel that Christ would totally agree with that. That he would want every person, every L.G.B.T. person and their families, to feel equally welcomed in the church.
ZD: One big fear I have about the synod now that we’ve undergone this massive listening exercise, [is that] it’s one thing to ignore people and not ask for their opinion. It’s an entirely other thing to ask for their opinion and disregard it. So if we get to the end of all of this and there is not a lot of agreement or reconciliation on some of these things that feel like they’re irreconcilable, I worry that we’re going to lose an entire generation, my generation and beyond. Am I right to be afraid?
RM: Let me say yes and no. I have some of that same fear. Synodality is very diffuse. The one interesting thing is all these reports from all over the world, with a few exceptions, are pointing to common themes. There are some differences, but they’re really common themes overall. That’s a stunningly important reality. But the question—how does this all come together to be dealt with effectively, where what people have said has made a substantive difference in the life of the church in accordance with what they’ve said, and yet the unity of the church is served, the doctrine and tradition of the church has served—I would say the reason I’m not as worried as I would be ordinarily, is, I went to the Amazon synod [in 2019]. And they had this listening process there. And frankly, when I heard about it, I thought, “Oh, give me a break. How are you going to have the nine million people in the Amazon region, most of whom are Catholic, consulted and come out with some commonality to it and report that would make sense?”
They did! When I got there for the synod, they’d already done the consultation. They had a report; it was really good. And it formed the framework for the synod. Now, there were many things in that synod that came up—one of them was women deacons, the other was more married priests, all these different questions. Many things got accomplished. A tremendous amount of good got accomplished. Not everything that was on the agenda got accomplished. But I have the sense that the people who participated in the process in the Amazon felt there was an integrity to what was done with their input.