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“Synodality is not seeking a particular set of outcomes. It is, rather, a culture that we’re trying to build up in the life of the church so that we truly listen with respect to one another. That’s so difficult in our society now, across lines where there’s deep disagreement.”

Cardinal Robert McElroy, Jesuitical Podcast, February 3, 2023

I have had many disparate thoughts about the controversy surrounding two recent articles by San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy. Like so many areas of conflict within the US Catholic Church, respectful and nuanced critiques of his arguments and of his prudence and timing (such as the article by Michael Sean Winters on March 3 in the National Catholic Reporter) have been drowned out by voices that misunderstand the points that Cardinal McElroy was trying to make and rashly accused him of being a heretic.

Paul Fahey, in his recent article about the controversy in Where Peter Is, comes down strongly against McElroy’s proposal, expressing his wish that Church leaders would “set aside their own political and theological agendas and started integrating more of Pope Francis’s actual teaching, including his commitment to the received moral law, into their pastoral practice.”

I certainly understand Paul’s frustration, since he is a professional catechist and the last thing we need in today’s Church is more doctrinal confusion. On the other hand, I do not think anger and condemnation are appropriate responses to Cardinal McElroy’s proposal and his response to his critics.

Rather than offer a lengthy essay (entire books have been written on these topics), I would just like to add a few points to the conversation:

1) Cardinal McElroy’s articles do not constitute doctrinal dissent, formally speaking. It is quite easy to discern from his text that he was engaging in theological speculation. He was not advocating disobedience or the rejection of doctrine. This is evident throughout his articles, such as his argument about women’s roles in the church that “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.”

I believe that this statement is quite reasonable. Implicit in this statement is acceptance that women’s ordination to the priesthood is doctrinally precluded, and he acknowledges the ongoing debate about women deacons (something that has not been doctrinally defined or settled). Historically, however, women have been barred from roles in Church leadership and ministry for social and historical — not doctrinal — reasons. Cardinal McElroy’s position here is very much in alignment with that of Pope Francis, who has opened up the official ministries of Lector, Acolyte, and Catechist to lay women, has appointed women to high-ranking positions in the Curia, has given at least one woman a vote in the upcoming synodal assembly, and has opened up two commissions to study women in the diaconate.

2) That said, we must also acknowledge that Cardinal McElroy’s articles do propose potential changes or developments in Catholic doctrine on sexual sin. To make proposals like this, especially when expressing a clear understanding of the Magisterial teachings in question, is not the same as dissenting from doctrine, much less being a heretic. We must remember that Cardinal McElroy is a moral theologian, and as such he has a call to look beyond what Pope Francis calls the “solid doctrine,”  because this is how the faith grows and develops. Catechists must teach according to the Magisterium, but the vocation of the theologian is different. Francis stated this firmly in an address to the International Theological Commission in November:

“Theologians must go further, seek to go beyond. But I want to distinguish this from the catechist. The catechist must give the correct doctrine, the solid doctrine, not possible novelties, some of which  are good, but rather what is solid. The catechist transmits the solid doctrine. Theologians dare to go further, and it will be the Magisterium that will stop them. But the vocation of the theologian is always to dare to go further, because he or she is searching and  trying to make theology more explicit.”

3) Just because Cardinal McElroy’s proposals did not constitute an expression of doctrinal dissent, much less heresy, I do question his timing and the forum he chose for putting forward his proposal. We might compare Cardinal McElroy’s proposals to the proposal of Cardinal Walter Kasper in 2014 on the reception of the sacraments by divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics. Cardinal Kasper was invited by Pope Francis to deliver his proposal in the form of an address to his fellow cardinals in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, scheduled for later that year. Pope Francis praised Kasper’s efforts as theology “on his knees” — done in a prayerful and obedient spirit. Nevertheless, despite his proposal being made at the pope’s request and Francis’s subsequent praise, Cardinal Kasper was likewise demonized and attacked as a heretic by many in right-wing Catholic media. Pope Francis promulgated his decision on the question in the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and ultimately he did not embrace Kasper’s proposal. Instead, he endorsed a Thomistic solution that he said was proposed by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn. But Kasper’s proposal clearly helped shape the discussion.

Cardinal McElroy, however, took a much different approach than Kasper. He published his proposal in a popular magazine, and apparently at his own initiative. He also seems to justify making these proposals by stating, “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.” I am sure these issues will be discussed, but I think it’s a stretch to suggest that we should expect concrete doctrinal developments or changes to emerge directly from the synod on any of the questions McElroy explores in the two articles. Unlike Cardinal Kasper, the areas of concern listed by McElroy seem to be outside the scope of the current synodal process, even if they are of great importance to the Church.

McElroy appears to know this, at least based on what he told America’s Zac Davis and Ashley McKinless (quoted above). Yet in his initial article, Cardinal McElroy frames controversial topics in ways that suggest concrete doctrinal developments may result from the synod (“Whichever position emerges from the synodal discernment on this question,” “It is likely the synod will adopt this latter stance,” and “The question of the ordination of women to the priesthood will be one of the most difficult questions confronting the international synods“).

This type of framing, intentionally or not, feeds into the fears and skepticism of many Catholics. Given the volatility of the situation in the Church, more care should have been taken. I think it is likely that the cardinal was not thinking about the potential backlash that these words might cause, but he should have been.

4) I am surprised that some fairly knowledgeable and well-educated Catholics were confused by Cardinal McElroy’s terminology or seemed unable to grasp many of the points he was making, especially in his second article. I found his arguments extremely clear and cohesive, yet some thought he was confused about the concepts he was discussing. I have serious doubts that many of his proposed doctrinal developments will be adopted by the Magisterium, but I thought his meaning was clear. Briefly I would like to clarify two concepts that seemed to confuse people the most.

Objective Mortal Sin. Some people were confused when Cardinal McElroy used this term, but it simply means “grave matter” or “objectively grave sin.” A simple rule of thumb is that in Church documents and theological texts, when describing types of sin, the words mortalgrave, and serious are used interchangeably and they almost always mean the same thing. Colloquially, many associate grave sin with “a sin containing grave matter,” and mortal sin with “a grave sin for which someone is culpable.” St. John Paul II rejected such a framing in his 1984 exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, writing, “in the church’s doctrine and pastoral action, grave sin is in practice identified with mortal sin” (no. 17).

Cardinal McElroy’s use of “mortal sin,” therefore, was traditional and acceptable, and he added the modifier “objective” to remove any doubt that he was speaking about grave matter. And although “objective mortal sin” is not the fashionable expression, if you Google the term, you can find it used plenty of times in theological articles and documents.

No Parvity of Matter. Cardinal McElroy refers to the concept of parvity of matter (parvitas materiae in Latin), with regard to sins against the 6th and 9th commandment (sexual sins). He points to the Catholic doctrine that says all sexual sins (from self-stimulation to use-your-imagination) are grave matter. This is unique among the various classes of sin. For example, a “white lie” and perjury are both sins against the 8th commandment, but the gravity of the former is venial and the latter is grave matter. Eating a grape that you didn’t buy at the grocery store and robbing a bank are both sins against the 7th commandment, but the former is venial and the latter is grave.

Cardinal McElroy is asking why sins of a sexual nature are all grave matter (they have “no parvity of matter”), while other types of sins (stealing, lying, etc.) are not. He uses a litany of extreme examples, which confused many people (“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.”). His point, however, was clear.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: everyone from Dante to Pope Francis acknowledges that sexual sins are among the least serious of the sins that can condemn us, yet all sexual sins are grave enough to condemn us. Cardinal McElroy is questioning that classification, especially when much more serious evils come from classes of sins that have parvity of matter.

5) Finally, the best analysis I’ve read on this issue is by Bill McCormick, SJ, in America. Excerpt:

Many Catholics enjoy calling themselves the both/and people. The expression gets at something that is beautiful but also hard to realize in practice. In a world riven by false alternatives, Catholics seem called to a special vocation to strive for synthesis, to hold seemingly contradictory truths in tension in the hope that one day their resolution will be made plain in the light of the Truth itself.

And yet when Catholics argue with each other, when the church is polarized and divided, the both/and begins to feel like a tug of war: No one person is advocating for a truly both/and approach but instead is arguing for a side in the argument in a way that cannot transcend and encompass the other positions. We end up being just as divided as the rest of the world.

I recommend that you read it all.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Reflections on the McElroy Proposal
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