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Robert W. McElroyMarch 02, 2023
Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego celebrates Mass on the campus of the University of San Diego during Mass at The Immaculata Catholic Church Sept. 8, 2022. (CNS photo/David Maung)

In January, America published an article I wrote on the theme of inclusion in the life of the church. Since that time, the positions I presented have received both substantial support and significant opposition. The majority of those criticizing my article focused on its treatment of the exclusion of those who are divorced and remarried and members of the L.G.B.T. communities from the Eucharist. Criticisms included the assertion that my article challenged an ancient teaching of the church, failed to give due attention to the call to holiness, abandoned any sense of sin in the sexual realm and failed to highlight the essential nature of conversion. Perhaps most consistently, the criticism stated that exclusion from the Eucharist is essentially a doctrinal rather than a pastoral question.

I seek in this article to wrestle with some of these criticisms so that I might contribute to the ongoing dialogue on this sensitive question—which will no doubt continue to be discussed throughout the synodal process. Specifically, I seek here to develop more fully than I did in my initial article some important related questions, namely on the nature of conversion in the moral life of the disciple, the call to holiness, the role of sin, the sacrament of penance, the history of the categorical doctrine of exclusion for sexual sins and the relationship between moral doctrine and pastoral theology.

The report of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the synodal dialogues held in our nation last year pointed to the profound sadness of many, if not most of the people of God about the broad exclusion from the Eucharist of so many striving Catholics who are barred from Communion because they are divorced and remarried or L.G.B.T.

While Catholic teaching has an essential role in moral decision-making, it is conscience that has the privileged place. As Pope Francis has stated, the church’s role is to form consciences, not replace them.

In January, I proposed that three foundational principles of Catholic teaching invited a re-examination of the church’s practice in this area. The first is Pope Francis’ image of the church as a field hospital, which points to the reality that we are all wounded by sin and all equally in need of God’s grace and healing.

The second is the role of conscience in Catholic thought. For every member of the church, it is conscience to which we have the ultimate responsibility and by which we will be judged. For that reason, while Catholic teaching has an essential role in moral decision-making, it is conscience that has the privileged place. As Pope Francis has stated, the church’s role is to form consciences, not replace them. Categorical exclusions of the divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. persons from the Eucharist do not give due respect to the inner conversations of conscience that people have with their God in discerning moral choice in complex circumstances.

Finally, I proposed that the Eucharist is given to us as a profound grace in our conversion to discipleship. As Pope Francis reminds us, the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” To bar disciples from that grace blocks one of the principal pathways Christ has given to them to reform their lives and accept the Gospel ever more fully. For all of these reasons, I proposed that divorced and remarried or L.G.B.T. Catholics who are ardently seeking the grace of God in their lives should not be categorically barred from the Eucharist.

In the weeks since my article was published, some readers have objected that the church cannot accept such a notion of inclusion because the exclusion of remarried women and men or 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 sins are so gravely evil that they constitute objectively an action that can sever a believer’s relationship with God.

To bar disciples from the grace of the Eucharist blocks one of the principal pathways Christ has given to them to reform their lives and accept the Gospel ever more fully.

I have attempted to face this objection head-on by drawing attention to both the history and the unique reasoning of the principle that all sexual sins are objectively mortal sins.

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. 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. This means that all sins that violate the sixth and the ninth commandments are categorically objective mortal sins. There is no such comprehensive classification of mortal sin for any of the other commandments.

In understanding the application of this principle to the reception of Communion, it is vital to recognize that it is the level of objective sinfulness that forms the foundation for the present categorical exclusion of sexually active divorced and remarried or L.G.B.T. Catholics from the Eucharist. 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. Does the tradition that all sexual sins are objectively mortal make sense within the universe of Catholic moral teaching?

The call to holiness requires both a conceptual and an intuitive approach leading to an understanding of what discipleship in Jesus Christ means.

It is automatically an objective mortal sin for a husband and wife to engage in a single act of sexual intercourse utilizing artificial contraception. This means the level of evil present in such an act is objectively sufficient to sever one’s relationship with God.

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to physically or psychologically abuse your spouse.

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to exploit your employees.

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to discriminate against a person because of her gender or ethnicity or religion.

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to abandon your children.

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. The great French philosopher Henri Bergson pointed to the inadequacy of any such approach to the richness of Catholic faith: “We see that the intellect, so skillful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigor, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use…. Intuition, on the contrary, is molded on the very form of life.”

The call to holiness requires both a conceptual and an intuitive approach leading to an understanding of what discipleship in Jesus Christ means. Discipleship means striving to deepen our faith and our relationship to God, to enflesh the Beatitudes, to build up the kingdom in God’s grace, to be the good Samaritan. The call to holiness is all-encompassing in our lives, embracing our efforts to come closer to God, our sexual lives, our familial lives and our societal lives. It also entails recognizing sin where it lurks in our lives and seeking to root it out. And it means recognizing that each of us in our lives commits profound sins of omission or commission. At such moments we should seek the grace of the sacrament of penance. But such failures should not be the basis for categorical ongoing exclusion from the Eucharist.

It is important to note that the criticisms of my article did not seek to demonstrate that the tradition classifying all sexual sins as objective mortal sin is in fact correct, or that it yields a moral teaching that is consonant with the wider universe of Catholic moral teaching. Instead, critics focused upon the repeated assertion that the exclusion of divorced/remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics from the Eucharist is a doctrinal, not a pastoral question.

I would answer that Pope Francis is precisely calling us to appreciate the vital interplay between the pastoral and doctrinal aspects of church teaching on questions just such as these.

Seen through a pastoral prism

In his teachings, Pope Francis has framed a substantive pastoral theology at the heart of the life of the church. This pastoral outlook demands that all of the branches of theology attend to the concrete reality of human life and human suffering in a much more substantial way in forming doctrine. It states that the lived experience of human sinfulness and human conversion are vital to understanding the central attribute of God in relation to us, which is mercy. It demands that moral theology proceed from the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ, which does not first demand a change of life, but begins with an embrace of divine love.

The pastoral theology of Pope Francis requires that the liturgical and sacramental life of the church be formed in compassionate embrace with the often overwhelming life challenges that prevent men and women at some periods in their life from conforming fully with important Gospel challenges. And the pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects a notion of law that can be blind to the uniqueness of concrete human situations, human suffering and human limitation.

The pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects a notion of law that can be blind to the uniqueness of concrete human situations, human suffering and human limitation.

There are three fundamental foundations for this pastoral theology.

The first foundation for the pastoral theology that Pope Francis is pointing to lies in the recognition that the church should mirror the pastoral action of the Lord himself. It is the pattern of Jesus Christ who walked the earth that we are to incorporate into every element of ecclesial life. First, the Lord embraces the person, then he heals them. Then he calls the person to reform. Each of these elements of the saving encounter with the Lord is essential. But their order is also essential. Christ first reveals the overpowering merciful and limitless love of God. Then he moves to heal the particular form of suffering that the person is experiencing. And only then does he call the person specifically to a change in that person’s life.

This pattern must become ever more deeply the model for the church’s proclamation of the faith and healing action in the world. This must be the imitatio Christi for a pastoral church in an age that rejects abstraction, authority and tradition. The clear recognition of sin and the call to change one’s life to conform more fully with the Gospel is essential to Christian conversion and the achievement of true happiness in this world and the next. But that call must be expressed in the tender, compassionate welcome of a church that patiently ministers over time, as Christ did.

The second principle of Pope Francis’ pastoral theology is that the church must be committed to true accompaniment. In “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”), Pope Francis expresses both the depth of commitment and the openness that must suffuse pastoral life and action in the church. “The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” The challenge of this is to come to see others as God sees them, incredibly precious souls, individual in nature and identity, yet equally treasured by the Lord.

The final foundation for the pastoral theology that Pope Francis is delineating for the life of the church is the assertion that the church’s identity, teaching and action must be rooted in the life situations that men and women actually experience in the world today. Every disciple encounters certain enormously complex circumstances that consistently prevent him or her from living out the teaching of the church in its fullness. Those who are divorced and remarried or sexually active members of the L.G.B.T. communities are among them. Pastoral theology and accompaniment seek to recapitulate and replicate the saving encounter of Jesus Christ with the saint and the sinner who resides in every human soul, touching every dimension of human existence in the real world, inviting all striving disciples to the eucharistic banquet in this world and the next.

Those who oppose elements of the pastoral mission of Pope Francis frequently argue that doctrine cannot be superseded by the pastoral. It is equally important to recognize that the pastoral cannot be eclipsed by doctrine. For the pastoral ministry of Jesus Christ stands at the heart of any balanced understanding of the church that we are called to be. And pastoral authenticity is as important as philosophical authenticity or authenticity in law in contouring the life of the church to the charter our Lord himself has given to us. Let us pray that in the coming months the Holy Spirit will lead the church in discerning how such a vision of faith and grace can be accomplished.

Correction (March 3): A previous version of this article translated "Evangelii Gaudium" as "The Gospel of Joy," rather than "The Joy of the Gospel."

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