The synodal process and the recent remarks of Cardinal McElroy in America Magazine have generated a lot of good discussion within the Church about a critical and vital issue at the heart of pastoral care. His Eminence followed his original piece with a clarification of his previous remarks to which I would like to respond. The issue is whether individuals who are divorced and remarried outside the Church or active members of the LGBTQ community may receive the Eucharist.
From both a pastoral and theological perspective, this issue is complicated, although over the years, I have noticed a tendency to oversimplify both sides of the controversy. Some might say that the Church’s moral teaching on mortal sin and the reception of the Eucharist is straight forward and, therefore, the answer is simply, no. Others say that Jesus clearly extended table fellowship to sinners and so the answer is simply, yes.
I would point to two important distinctions that need clarification for this discussion, without which we are forced into a false dichotomy between accommodating sin or excluding people in difficult moral struggles. The first is between the objective character of an action and the subjective culpability of the one acting. The second is between those who categorically reject Jesus’ teaching and those who believe Jesus’ teaching but struggle to live it in their lives.
Let’s look at the first. I have noticed how some more traditional commentators tend to conflate grave matter and mortal sin without giving sufficient attention to the conditions of culpability for people in these circumstances. This confusion suggests that those committing any kind of act involving grave matter are de facto in a state of mortal sin and thus excluded from receiving the Eucharist. The problem here is that the classification of mortal sin does not depend only on grave matter, but also the subjective culpability of the person — their knowledge and consent. The voluntary nature of an action is mitigated by various factors, including ignorance, duress, poor formation, addiction, psychological wounds, and the strong movement of passion (CCC no. 1735). Given the highly formative culture today, while many people are in deeply wounded moral conditions, it is not so clear how much culpability they bear for this.
For those on the progressive side, I see a tendency to gloss or ignore the category of mortal sin when it comes to consensual acts. While they might believe that a flagrant racist should not be allowed to receive communion, the same would not be the case for a person that habitually fornicates. They often have a tendency to psychologically relativize and historicize Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sexuality, relegating it to a relic of an ancient cultural convention.
Another issue that falls closer in line with Cardinal McElroy’s recommendation is that the Church ought to change its teaching on the gravity of some sexual acts outside of marriage, suggesting that not all of these acts are grave matter. This would represent a kind of declassification of certain sexual acts to a lesser gravity of disorder. It also places the level of culpability more on the side of the objective character of the act rather than the voluntariness with which a person commits the act. Such a change would represent a change to Church doctrine on the nature of sexual acts outside of marriage.
Now to look at the second critical distinction. While Jesus’ gift of mercy to sinners never required initial repentance, he did command people to go and sin no more. Jesus brought his forgiveness to two types of people. Those who in faith sought his healing, such as the paralytic who was lowered through the roof; and those to whom Jesus went and called them out of their sin, such as the woman at the well and the women caught in adultery. He thus avoided two extremes: 1) a relativistic accomodationalism where he welcomed the sinner by glossing over their sin; and 2) a pharisaical moralism that led with legislation and drew a line before welcoming the person into his embrace. Thus, to have faith in Jesus and yet continue to struggle with grave sin is entirely different than rejecting his teaching and openly embracing a gravely sinful life. Pastorally, we are obligated to treat both these two populations with charity but in different ways.
Where Cardinal McElroy seems to have left his more traditional audience in ambivalence is in how we should apply these two sets of distinctions regarding reception of the Eucharist. The point of discernment ultimately revolves around whether the person faithfully accepts Jesus’ teaching on these moral issues and is only struggling to live these teachings in their daily life. I think this is the population Cardinal McElroy believes should be able to receive the Eucharist, but I am still not certain.
Echoing Pope Francis, Cardinal McElroy’s point seems to be that we cannot fail to consider the subjective culpability of the person when discerning whether a person is able to receive the Eucharist. If I grasp his intention accurately, to not discern subjective culpability would be like saying that a person with a chronic alcohol addiction could never receive the Eucharist until completely healed from alcoholism, when in fact, they need the Eucharist to receive that healing.
The discernment of culpability is a pastorally serious consideration we cannot ignore. Furthermore, this is not a new teaching, although it is often neglected. Such neglect has left many people believing they are not welcome, or excluded from communion, when in fact they are welcome and may very well be able to receive. Yet, and this is just as important, these people are subject to the same injunction we all have of going to confession prior to receiving communion if they are personally responsible for a grave sin.
Cardinal McElroy’s recommendation that we address the issue of inclusivity, in part, by removing certain sexual acts from the classification of grave matter creates confusion about the nature of doctrine, however. It seems more aligned with Pope Francis and magisterial teaching to focus on subjective culpability as the object of pastoral discernment for the reception of the Eucharist than to change the objective character of acts well established within the Catholic moral tradition.
Moreover, I am curious to know whether Cardinal McElroy would affirm that anyone who categorically rejects Jesus’ teaching on matters of grave sin should not receive the Eucharist in good faith, because the very sign of communion itself speaks to one’s personal faith in Jesus’ teaching. This does not mean that one must be perfect in living out the moral life, but that a person assents in faith to the teaching, even if he or she struggles to live it. And this seems to be the rub. Some advocate for people to receive the Eucharist, while also insisting that they be allowed to openly embrace these lifestyles. It is not clear to me where Cardinal McElroy stands on this question.
Now that the two distinctions have been set forth, the two groups of particular interest here have different circumstances I will consider separately. Let’s begin with those in irregular unions. As Pope Francis explains in Amoris Laetitia, the issue is immensely complicated because it depends upon the circumstances and culpability of the couple when they entered the union as well as their intentions within their present circumstances (296-306).
If it can be discerned that a person in an irregular union is not subjectively culpable for grave sin, then that individual should be able to receive communion. According to current Church practice, however, this has not been the case. Prior to Amoris, all people in irregular situations were automatically excluded from communion due to the assumption that such individuals are de facto in a perpetual state of mortal sin. Granted, some individuals may choose to receive anyhow, but the point Pope Francis is raising is that the Church is negligent if there is no recourse for discerning the actual state of individuals in particular circumstances.
The moral psychology of such circumstances is messy and complex but very real, and it is a pastoral error of judgment to impute mortal sin automatically to one who is ignorant of Church teaching or desires to adhere to Church teaching but is also not truly free to fully do so because of mitigating circumstances. The pastoral challenge of discernment relates specifically to how we apply the following principle: “One commits venial sin … when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent” (CCC 1862). Complete consent in the Church’s moral tradition excludes duress or other psychological factors and mitigating circumstances, as stated above (see also AL 307-308). In other words, a person could be in an objectively grave union but not be subjectively culpable for mortal sin, as they work toward a greater alignment of their objective circumstances with Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.
While the discernment of such cases is itself difficult, the matter is further complicated by the obligation to abstain from sexual relations until a time when (if possible) prior unions are invalidated through the annulment process and the second union is blessed by the Church — if this is possible. Those individuals who abstain from sexual relations and seek to align their situation with Church teaching may receive the Eucharist, although they often do not know this. For those who are personally culpable of grave sin and are not seeking to align their lives with Church teaching, the community must provide pastoral accompaniment, if it is desired, and allow the law of gradualness to unfold, even if they are unable to receive communion.
In sum, people in objectively grave unions but not subjectively culpable for mortal sin seem to be the kind of people for whom Pope Francis maintains that the Eucharist is a legitimate source of strength. As he states, “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin — which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such — a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end (AL 305, fn. 351). To reiterate one of my concerns, some on the more traditional side of the question basically deny this as a possibility, which I believe is due to an erroneous understanding that any act involving grave matter is a mortal sin.
Let us turn now to the members of the LGBTQ community. The same distinctions apply as above. First, if a person openly rejects Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sexuality, they should not receive the Eucharist, but they should find a welcoming place within the community, surrounded by our support and love. If they do accept Jesus’ teaching and they are simply struggling to live it, they should receive the Eucharist with the support of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, like all of us.
However, an additional matter presents itself here — whether homosexual orientation and gender dysphoria should be considered unnatural or disordered — or are we to accept the premise that God makes people this way and thus these human conditions should be affirmed to be in accord with nature. I’m thinking here of the direction the German bishops synodal path seems to be going. What does the Church mean when ascribing the word unnatural or intrinsically disordered to these sexual realities? The Church does not mean that these do not occur within our human experience or that such people are rejected by God. Certainly, God allows anomalies to occur within nature and his love abides for all people.
However, the Church is indicating that these orientations are not ordered toward the ends for which God made us sexual beings, and thus as we all do, such individuals have a moral obligation to reserve sexual acts for marriage. A somewhat analogous case is children born with down syndrome, who due to a physical disorder, are unable to marry because they cannot attain the ends of marriage due to a developmental disability. The moral injunction to abstinence is not a condemnation of the person but a personal moral responsibility to live in abstinence for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
By using the technical language of unnatural and intrinsically disordered — while not pastorally helpful — the Church is not assessing the dignity or the lovableness of the person, or the moral character of sexual orientation or identity, but rather the permissibility of sexual acts outside of marriage (CCC 2331-2336; 2357-58). Clearly, a person is never unnatural or disordered in their identity as beloved creatures and children of a loving Father. In truth, all people experience the unnatural and intrinsic disorders of original sin in different ways.
Yet here’s the pastoral challenge — to ever treat anyone with contempt is itself a grave sin. Jesus’ teaching on “measuring” is crystal clear (Mt 7:2). Perhaps our failure to adhere to Jesus’ standard of mercy partially explains why these Catholics feel socially marginalized. Jesus never permits us to condemn the sinner, much less a person who struggles with their sexual orientation or identity. And yet we have at times witnessed, within the history of the Church, a culture of shame and scapegoating towards such people. This requires that we take a much harder look at the pastoral strategies and culture of our parishes when it comes to those who struggle with sexual disorders. This is one of the challenges Pope Francis is placing before the Church.
In sum, a false dichotomy prevails in the discussion on the application of the above pastoral principles to these moral situations. Pope Francis is not changing moral doctrine on sex outside of marriage, nor the nature of mortal sin or grave matter, but rather, reminding us of the obligation in charity to properly discern subjective culpability and provide appropriate sacramental and pastoral care for all people in irregular circumstances, as opposed to simply assuming that they cannot receive the Eucharist and leaving them to feel excluded and marginalized from the community (AL 299-306). Regarding Cardinal McElroy’s remarks, this is where he seems to differ somewhat from Pope Francis, by suggesting that part of the solution to the problem of inclusivity is to declassify certain sexual acts outside of marriage as grave matter.
In conclusion, Jesus acknowledged the sin of the woman caught in adultery, but he did not condemn her. Same with the woman at the well. In fact, the Samaritan woman was so deeply moved by her encounter with Jesus that she became the first evangelist to the Samaritan people by professing that she had met someone who “knew everything she had ever done.” Both women heard Jesus say, “I love you; go and sin no more.” The combination of these words meant true liberation for them.
The intersection of culpability and inclusion is thus the merciful heart of Jesus wherein he welcomes the sinner and rejects the sin. As the Church, we must become that same place. While we must profess the truth, we also must accept that charity goes far beyond mere sentiment to a radical commitment to creating environments where a struggling person finds pastoral care and support and where appropriate, access to the sacramental life of the Church. When it comes to people in compromised sexual circumstances, we have often failed at this as a Church. We continue to force ourselves into a false dichotomy between accommodating sin or a rigid legalism. Jesus models neither one.
Image: Adobe Stock. By matthia.
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Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the President and CEO of Preambula Group. Prior to founding Preambula Group, he served as the President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and the Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2014, he was a professor moral theology and Academic Dean at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. He taught for seven years at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, also serving as Academic Dean from 2008-2012. He holds a B.A. in Theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and a Doctorate in Fundamental Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (2007). Michel is the author of The Catholic Faith Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).