Cardinal-designate Robert W. McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, is not a man known for playing his cards close to his chest when it comes to his perspective on moral theology. He has been referred to “as a firebrand or as combative, even pugilistic” in asserting his opposition to the culture warrior approach of many of his brother bishops in the United States.

Although he has asserted that “the continuing support of Catholic political leaders and voters for abortion rights is a scandal in the life of the American church,” McElroy opposes, for mostly prudential reasons, denying communion to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion. He has decried single-issuism in Catholic political engagement in general, and notably in the debate over revisions to the US Bishops’ voter’s guide, Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship. In general he is so out of step with the bishops’ conference’s general views on the Biden administration and the public posture of the Church in response to it that certain other US bishops’ congratulations towards him have been frosty at best.

In some circles a perception exists that McElroy is in fact so progressive as to deny the existence of intrinsic evils, that is, sinful actions whose sinful nature can never be entirely removed by circumstance. I think that this is a misperception of McElroy’s theology, and it’s a misperception that’s caused by a few different widespread misunderstandings of what an intrinsic evil actually is. These misunderstandings themselves derive from a somewhat mistaken viewpoint on Pope St. John Paul II’s moral theology, one that is also overly deferential.

Veritatis Splendor and other John Paul II documents stressed the fact that intrinsic evils can’t be excused. When they look at this teaching, many lay Catholics and even some prelates apparently misunderstand what “intrinsic” means, in several different ways. The simplest misunderstanding is that, since the act itself can’t be excused, nobody who does it can ever be said to have reduced culpability. In fact, the very case in point that the Catechism—another John Paul II-era document!—uses for reduced culpability, masturbation, is itself an intrinsic evil, and so the term cannot mean this. This passage says explains that in order for pastors to fairly assess a person’s moral responsibility for this sin, they “must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability” (CCC 2352)

Amoris Laetitia, of course, extends this analysis to adultery in the specific case of divorce and remarriage; many confessors also, in practice, extend it to things like the use of contraception. Another common misconception is to proceed as if “intrinsically evil” means “super duper evil,” as if what is being discussed is the gravity of the sin rather than whether or not the act could have been non-sinful under other circumstances. The reasons why this is wrong aren’t as straightforward as in the first misunderstanding, but it still misses the mark. There are plenty of real moral situations where a non-intrinsically evil act can be more grave than an intrinsically evil one. For example, arguing isn’t intrinsically evil. In fact, in many cases it is morally justifiable. Arguing unjustly with someone, however, while not intrinsically evil, can do far more damage to one’s relationships—both with that person and with God—than some things that are intrinsic evils. Lying, for example, is something about which the Catechism is unequivocal: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others” (CCC 2485). In the previous paragraph, the Catechism concedes that lying might be a venial sin in some cases, but even then, “If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.” (CCC 2484) Yet nobody would claim that, for instance, the classic example of “lying to a Nazi about a Jewish person hiding in one’s home” is super duper evil (or even close to it)! Indeed, this was the example of reduced or abrogated culpability used in my own confirmation classes.

Probably the worst misunderstanding of the term I’ve seen in recent years came from none other than Cardinal Raymond Burke. When discussing (and dismissing) Pope Francis’s catechism revision on the death penalty, Burke complained that “inadmissible,” the term the revised article used for capital punishment, “isn’t any kind of language. Either say that it’s intrinsically evil or that it’s good.” (Note that the term inadmissible appears in paragraph 2296 of the Catechism on the Vatican website—in the section on organ transplants— and in many other magisterial documents over the last century.) Cardinal Burke’s shocking statement—which suggests he thinks that only intrinsic evils constitute sinful behaviors, and also, apparently, that morally neutral actions don’t exist at all—is such an obvious absurdity that one is compelled, in charity, to think that he might have misspoken.

Fundamentally, John Paul II did not understand intrinsic evils differently from how Pope Francis does. Certainly he applied this principle differently in some cases. If he was as willing to assume the presence of mitigating factors as Francis is, then what Amoris Laetitia teaches about the law of gradualness would, or at least could, already have been in Familiaris Consortio. Had this been the case, chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia would not have been necessary except as a reaffirmation. However, this is more of a pastoral difference than a theological one. At least, to the extent that it is a theological difference, it’s one between people who more or less agree on what an evil act actually is.

Neither Pope Francis nor Cardinal-designate McElroy is advancing the idea, once common in the theological community (it was one of the ideas that Veritatis Splendor was written to refute), that all that really matters is one’s “fundamental orientation” towards God regardless of what one actually does with one’s life. The reason one’s “fundamental orientation” towards God does matter is that it opens one’s heart to the call of Christ and then, through that call, to the process of moral conversion and amendment of life.

Bishop McElroy absolutely approaches moral theology through a somewhat different lens than, say, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, or even many moderate Francis-aligned American bishops, like Boston’s Cardinal Séan Patrick O’Malley. In the JP2 era it’s entirely possible that McElroy would have fallen under at least vague suspicion from the CDF in the same way as did, say, Cardinal Martini of Milan (although McElroy was named a bishop by Pope Benedict five years after his America article against barring pro-choice politicians from Communion). However, this is not the same thing as denying the existence of intrinsic evils.

John Paul’s troubles with much of the world episcopate were with where exactly to draw the line. Evangelium Vitae reflects the consensus of the world’s bishops that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil, but also grappled with the lack of such a consensus, a quarter-century after Humanae Vitae, on prophylactic contraception. The disputes in the later period of his pontificate were not over whether or not there exist acts that cannot be excused. It should also be remembered that most of the intrinsic evils enumerated in Veritatis Splendor come straight from Gaudium et Spes, a Vatican II document, and that among these is at least one—deportation—that most people would view as at least occasionally mitigated by circumstances. (Very few people object too strenuously to deporting, for example, war criminals and others fleeing justice in their home countries.)

For decades now, most of these debates within the episcopate have been over questions of degree, rather than questions of kind. This will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Analysis and prognostication on ideological or theological splits or shifts within the episcopate and the cardinalate ought to reflect this distinction.

Image: Diocese of San Diego.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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