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On Marriage, the Eucharist, and Sin: the Dubia of Cardinal McElroy
“You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds.”
—St. Thomas More
On March 2, Cardinal McElroy published an essay https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2023/03/02/mcelroy-eucharist-sin-inclusion-response-244827?fbclid=IwAR3m4LDRERx9psZdP6clMcfq-Ysn3qInlLnS4fBoMH6pjJH2LXfhDJh2nGE
In this essay he proposes, at least what appears to be, a fundamental change of doctrine with regard to sexual morality. Indeed, he tells us in the essay that the Church has already changed its doctrine in this regard, several hundred years ago. Here, I would like to offer a brief reply to some of the claims that Cardinal McElroy makes.
"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."
There is not a single "striving Catholic" who is barred from Communion. Anyone who is striving, even if they fall, literally multiple times a day, is not barred from Communion. The Church merely asks that they *do* strive. Let's revisit Canon 915. Language that seems to rarely, if ever, be quoted by those who oppose it. "Those who [are]…obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion." Canon 915 is about those who do not admit that their manifest grave sin *is* a manifest grave sin, or, if they do, they "obstinately persevere" in carrying it out. To lump those who truly *are* striving to lead a good life with those who "obstinately persist" in refraining from manifest grave sin is disheartening to the former, a disservice to the latter, and an injustice to both.
From Subjective Culpability…
"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."
There are a couple fallacies here. Yes, the Church's role is to form consciences, but it is not so that we may decide whether the Church ought to be followed in some circumstance, but how She ought to be. Either what the Church teaches is true, or it's not. If it's true, then when one's conscience is against it, one is bound to try to correct one's conscience. "Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them." (CCC 1786)
Further, the Cardinal makes it sound as if two people come to diametrically opposed views on morality, then well, no harm no foul. On the contrary, someone's conscience that goes against defined Church teaching has a wrongly formed conscience. To what extent they are morally culpable for this wrongly formed conscience we are unable to judge. This we leave to God. However, the Church Herself is duty bound to try and help her sons and daughters when they have gone down the wrong path. Canon 915 isn't about judging's someone's culpability, that is to say, the subjective aspects of sin, but about the objective nature of sin. The state of someone's soul is judged by God alone, but the objective matter of a moral action, of course must be judged. To do otherwise would mean that no law ought ever to be passed; laws are passed because we are able to make judgements that certain actions are objectively wrong. Cardinal McElroy here seems to be advocating a position that may find someone drowning in a raging sea, and instead of throwing them a life vest to help them out, we simply opine that "we must give due respect to the choices that got them into this complex circumstance." The drowning person may even splutter and scream that they don't need help, even as we see them going under the water. This doesn't alleviate our responsibility to tell them, "This is not good for you. I don't care how you got into this situation. No matter whether it was your fault or not, I'm here to tell you, you have to get out of it. Take my hand, and let's go."
To deny someone the Eucharist isn't to punish them retributively, but medicinally. It is to say to the poor sinner, "I'm here to tell you, you have to get out of what you're doing. Take my hand!"
I'm reminded of a scene from London where a man was getting ready to jump off a bridge. The photo shows the man on the other side of the bridge, but he is held about the neck, waist, and knees by those who know he's making the wrong choice. Would the man have been culpable for his suicide? God knows. But the dozens gathered around him that day didn't ask that question, they asked another: "ought this man to live?" To shift the question away from whether a choice is correct, to one of culpability is to entirely abandon our duty towards our neighbor. It is to throw up our hands and say, "How do I know whether he's guilty or not?" The question isn't one of guilt, but of goodness. Is it good for this person to do such and such? If we substitute subjective culpability for objective morality, then we must abandon the spiritual work of mercy to "admonish the sinner." Note well, a work of mercy. And why? Because, "the education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart." (CCC 1784). The Bride of Christ loves each of us too much to leave us with malformed consciences that rob us of our freedom and peace of heart.
…To Objective Gravity
"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?"
Now we come to the heart of the Cardinal’s position. He is correct when he says, “it is the level of objective sinfulness that forms the foundation.” However, I think most, if not all moral theologians would disagree with the statement that there is a tradition that “all sexual sins are objectively mortal.” See, for example the Moral Theology texts of Fr. John McHugh, O.P. and Fr. Charles Callan, O.P., as well as that of Fr. Heribert Jone, and of course Fr. Dominic Prummer, O.P.
To take one case, you may glance a person who is immodestly dressed and let your gaze linger for a few seconds, rather than immediately averting your eyes. This would almost certainly be venially rather than mortally sinful. As McHugh and Callan note, “by reason of the imperfection of the act, impurity is venial when there is no sufficient deliberation or consent.” The scrupulous should take heart at this teaching. Indeed, if what Cardinal McElroy asserted were actually true, and it was taught by the Magisterium that “all sexual sins are objectively mortal” then moral theology textbooks that treat of the 6th and 9th commandment would be very small tomes indeed. Apparently, one sentence would suffice.
As regards the Cardinal’s position that there was a change a doctrine, somewhat frustratingly, he does not quote a single Church Father or Doctor or Saint from the first 17 centuries to support his claim, nor in fact is anyone quoted that upholds this view.
More problematic then all these objections, however, is the fallacy that the Cardinal makes by asserting that the very foundation for canon 915 is the notion that “all sexual sins are objectively mortal.” In other words, he is asserting that canon 915 rests on the following syllogism:
All sexual sins are objectively grave sins
Adultery is a sexual sin
Therefore, adultery is an objectively grave sin
Cardinal McElroy is attacking premise 1 and claiming therefore that the conclusion cannot logically follow. Of course, this would be true if it were the case that adultery rested on premise 1. However, it clearly does not. Saying that adultery is wrong because it’s a sexual sin is to completely turn things on their head. The implication here being that if there is some sexual sin that can be identified as not mortally sinful, then no sexual sin be identified as such, since the entire reason why any sexual sin is mortally wrong flows merely from the fact that it is a sexual sin.
This kind of thinking brings us perilously close to moral voluntarism. On the contrary, the moral tradition of the Church has expounded at great length on precisely why each kind of sin is detrimental to human persons that are created in God’s image and likeness. To aver that adultery and other sexual sins cannot be upheld as gravely wrong if premise #1 is conceded is to dramatically fail to acknowledge the Church’s firm ground upon which she asserts Her moral truths.
Critically, one must acknowledge that all the Church’s moral law, as opposed to ecclesiastical positive law, is ultimately derived from the Natural Law. St. Thomas tells us that the Natural Law “is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light.” In a word, that certain sexual sins are gravely wrong is not a matter of ecclesial fiat, but is a truth readily discoverable through human intellection alone.
Cardinal McElroy notes that
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.
This is indeed an odd objection. The Cardinal is claiming that the reason why these arguments fail is because they proceed from the intellect alone. I grant his point that moral norms proceed from the intellect. The Catechism tells us “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men.” (CCC 1956). Indeed, any law, in the tradition of the Church, is a rule in accord with right reason. We may rightly wonder what rule ought to be used in place of reason to determine whether something is morally good. He tells us shortly after the above quote that, “the call to holiness requires both a conceptual and an intuitive approach leading to an understanding of what discipleship in Jesus Christ means.” Emphasis mine. While I agree with the Cardinal that intuition may be used to bring one to the truth, it cannot be the case that intuition can be at odds with an intellectual proof. That is to say, if one proposes certain premises as true, and the conclusion necessarily follows, it is untenable to claim, “Yes, that’s true as far as the intellect goes, but I do not accept it because intuitively the opposite conclusion seems true to me.” Indeed, if one is convinced the conclusion is false, then it must be the case that one has simply failed to spot a faulty premise. This is why God has given us reason. It is why we do not espouse, in any way whatsoever, a “two-truth” theory.
Ultimately, Cardinal McElroy leaves us wondering what precisely his position is. I have no doubt that he believes that committing adultery is sinful. Indeed, to deny some level of sinfulness would involve denying a commandment. We might assume, based on the fact that he wrote this essay, that he holds that there are levels of adultery. The notion that the divorced and remarried, based on their current understanding of the natural law, may not meet the subjective requirements for grave sin, is a position that I think most people are willing to hold. However, we must note that throughout his essay, Cardinal McElroy consistently reiterates that he is talking about “objective mortal sins.” When he opines that “no other broad type of sin is so absolutely categorized” we must point out the fact that adultery, unlike the generic terms stealing or lying, completely specifies the nature of the act. Indeed, those who would argue that Canon 915 applies are not talking about a moral genus, i.e., “sexual sin” but rather a moral species.
If someone said that people who persist in “lying” should not be admitted to Communion, we would be right to question the prudence of this. After all, many children tend to tell small lies about the number of cookies they ate for example. However, if we were to argue that those who persist in perjury ought not to be admitted to Communion, note that we have specified the type of act it is. One act of perjury cannot be “more” or “less” than another act of perjury. Yes, all of the subjective elements of the act may mitigate the degree of culpability, but the objective nature of the act is fully specified. In the same way, the act of adultery is completely specified in its nature, objectively. If a man were to confess to committing adultery with another woman one time, it would be non-sensical for the priest to say, “but how much adultery in that act was there?” One may ask how much one stole, or whether an oath was involved in a lie, but to ask what the quantity or quality of an act of adultery was, is to speak nonsensically. The answer is: as much as there could be.
We can only hope that Cardinal McElroy clarifies precisely what he means, because many, many souls hang in the balance.
May saints Thomas More and John Fisher, who gave their lives in defense of the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, pray for all of us.