Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

An Accompaniment of Lies

Cardinal McElroy of San Diego has made his fair share of news lately by penning a pair of pieces for America Magazine. 

In the first, he writes about what he calls a synodality of inclusion. He espouses several controversial views, including suggesting that the Church use the Synod on Synodality as an opportunity to reexamine the question of ordaining women as priests, though he admits that this reexamination will likely still result in deciding not to move forward.

However, he wraps up with a section on what he calls the Christological Paradox in which amidst a great deal of word salad he calls for "a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord". Although the cardinal apparently later clarified on a podcast interview that despite the plain meaning of his words, he was not in fact endorsing intercommunion with baptized Christians who are not members of the Catholic Church, what he was very much doing was arguing that people not be encouraged to hold back from receiving the Eucharist when they know themselves to be in a state of unrepented mortal sin.

Since America Magazine can be rather finicky in terms of allowing people to read their articles without paying for the privilege (and I managed to use multiple browser profiles to get both articles up without paying for this pair of articles which are clearly not worth money to read) I'll quote that section at length.  Feel free to skim.

The report of the synodal dialogues from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops points to an additional and distinct element of exclusion in the life of the church: “Those who are marginalized because circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the church.” These include those who are divorced and remarried without a declaration of nullity from the church, members of the L.G.B.T. community and those who are civilly married but have not been married in the church.

These exclusions touch upon important teachings of the church about the Christian moral life, the commitments of marriage and the meaning of sexuality for the disciple. 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.

But the exclusion of men and women because of their marital status or their sexual orientation/activity is pre-eminently a pastoral question, not a doctrinal one. Given our teachings on sexuality and marriage, how should we treat remarried or L.G.B.T. men and women in the life of the church, especially regarding questions of the Eucharist?

“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” cites a contribution from the Catholic Church of England and Wales, which provides a guidepost for responding to this pastoral dilemma: “The dream is of a church that more fully lives a Christological paradox: boldly proclaiming its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance through its pastoral and discerning accompaniment.” In other words, the church is called to proclaim the fullness of its teaching while offering a witness of sustained inclusion in its pastoral practice.

As the synodal process begins to discern how to address the exclusion of divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics, particularly on the issue of participation in the Eucharist, three dimensions of Catholic faith support a movement toward inclusion and shared belonging.

The first is the image that Pope Francis has proposed to us of the church as a field hospital. The primary pastoral imperative is to heal the wounded. And the powerful pastoral corollary is that we are all wounded. It is in this fundamental recognition of our faith that we find the imperative to make our church one of accompaniment and inclusion, of love and mercy. Pastoral practices that have the effect of excluding certain categories of people from full participation in the life of the church are at odds with this pivotal notion that we are all wounded and all equally in need of healing.

The second element of Catholic teaching that points to a pastoral practice of comprehensive inclusion is the reverence for conscience in Catholic faith. Men and women seeking to be disciples of Jesus Christ struggle with enormous challenges in living out their faith, often under excruciating pressures and circumstances. While Catholic teaching must play a critical role in the decision making of believers, it is conscience that has the privileged place. Categorical exclusions undermine that privilege precisely because they cannot encompass the inner conversation between women and men and their God.

The third element of Catholic teaching that supports a pastoral stance of inclusion and shared belonging in the church is the counterpoised realities of human brokenness and divine grace that form the backdrop for any discussion of worthiness to receive the Eucharist. As Pope Francis stated in “Gaudete et Exultate,” “grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once.... Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively” (No. 50).

Here lies the foundation for Pope Francis’ exhortation “to see the Eucharist not as a prize for the perfect, but as a source of healing for us all.” The Eucharist is a central element of God’s grace- filled transformation of all the baptized. For this reason, the church must embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord, rather than a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist. Unworthiness cannot be the prism of accompaniment for disciples of the God of grace and mercy.

It will be objected that the church cannot accept such a notion of radical inclusion because the exclusion of divorced and remarried and 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 actions outside of marriage are so gravely evil that they constitute objectively an action that can sever a believer’s relationship with God. This objection should be faced head on.

The effect of the tradition that all sexual acts outside of marriage constitute objectively grave sin has been to focus the Christian moral life disproportionately upon sexual activity. The heart of Christian discipleship is a relationship with God the Father, Son and Spirit rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church has a hierarchy of truths that flow from this fundamental kerygma. Sexual activity, while profound, does not lie at the heart of this hierarchy. Yet in pastoral practice we have placed it at the very center of our structures of exclusion from the Eucharist. This should change.

In his follow-up post (just published on March 2nd), Cardinal McElroy seeks to respond to his critics and expand on his thinking.  While there is some incredibly wrong-headed material in there in which McElroy attempts to argue that the Church has for the last three hundred years treated sexual sins as being uniquely sinful among all sins, including this gem of a section:

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.

This is one of those frustrating examples where Catholic critics of the Church's teaching end up sounding a lot like anti-Catholics, asserting that the Church teaches things which the Church does not and never has taught.  Not only is "objective mortal sin" not a category (he seems to be conflating "objectively sinful" as in some act which is always by its nature wrong, such as lying, and "gravely sinful", as in some sin serious enough that if done with full intent and knowledge it constitutes a mortal sin, and imagining that there is some set of sins, apparently including only sexual sins, which are automatically damning regardless of knowledge or intent) but all the other things he mentions would very clearly be considered very grave matter.

But eventually McElroy gets around to laying out his argument for why the Church should get rid of any idea of mortal sin (or at least, sexual sin) being a barrier to receiving the Eucharist:

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.
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.

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 Gospel of Joy” (“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.

All right, having given the cardinal his say, let's try to look at what's wrong with all this.

McElroy proposes that the Church change both how he alleges the Church defines the gravity of sexual sin (though since his representation of Church teaching here is so wrong, it's hard to tell how seriously to take this) and whether people who are living in situations of grave sin should receive communion, because he says that if all the baptized are welcomed "to the table of the Lord" the medicine of the Church's sacraments will work on those people and they will grow in their love of Christ.

He says that this is how Christ worked in the Gospels: He says that first Christ embraced the person, then He healed him, and finally He called him to repent.

As a factual matter, this is not Christ's order of operations in all Gospel encounters.

For instance, the first incident that occurs to me from the Gospels when people are arguing about the requirements of the moral life would be the story of the rich young man (Mk 10:17-31 or Lk 18:18-30).  In that example, a young man approaches Jesus and asks Him how he may get to heaven. Jesus first lists off the commandments. When the young man says that he does indeed obey all these commandments, Jesus tells him that the one additional thing he must do is sell all that he has, give it to the poor, and then come follow Him. When the young man is discouraged by this difficult demand and "went away sad", Jesus does not embrace him or accompany him, he turns to others nearby and observes, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  When His own disciples are discouraged by this, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.”

Or to consider another oft cited passage, about the woman caught in adultery. There, Christ first rescues the woman from stoning. Next He tells her that He does not condemn her -- perhaps we might take it from that that He forgives her, or perhaps McElroy would describe this as Christ embracing her. And last of all He tells her to go and sin no more.

There is probably some example in the Gospels in which Jesus acts in the manner and order that McElroy describes, though off the top of my head I can't think of one.

But whatever we take this three step order of encounter (embrace, heal, call to repentance) to mean, McElroy insists that it must be the first foundation of how the Church ministers to people in modern times.

He then says the second foundation is accompaniment.  And the third foundation is recognizing that in this world everything is so hideously complicated that: "Every disciple encounters certain enormously complex circumstances that consistently prevent him or her from living out the teaching of the church in its fullness."

McElroy is oddly hesitant to state clearly what his program is, but if we may take these three foundations to sum it up, it would seem it is roughly speaking: 

1) embrace first, heal second, call to repentance last

2) accompany people

3) recognize that the world is just so complex that some people just can't live morally in it

McElroy seems to be saying that if we embrace people (by which he means not simply knowing and caring for them as people, but encouraging them to receive the Eucharist) and if we accompany them (while realizing that their lives may simply be too complex for them to live according to Christ's moral laws) that eventually there will come a time when they will want to repent of their sins because they have come to love Jesus.

Now first off, I think this is a huge distortion of what Jesus's interactions with people were actually like. While it's true that one thing that stands out in the Gospels is that Jesus is willing to devote personal time to people who are considered outcasts by the rest of society, the other thing that really stands out is that He is constantly making huge and sudden demands of people. He demands that the apostles abandon their occupations and follow Him -- not after some lengthy period of accompaniment where He spends time with their families and joins them in fishing, but the moment He meets them. This is indeed one of the really shocking things about Jesus in the Gospels.  He'll approach someone He's never interacted with before and immediately ask that they follow Him. And He's willing to leave people behind who won't follow that call.  In Matthew 8:21-22, right after Jesus heals the leper and the Centurian's servant, Jesus calls someone who says that he wants to follow Him but just needs to take time to bury his dead father first. Does Jesus accompany him through the mourning process and get him ready to leave the community he's been living in all this time?  No, Jesus just says, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”

I'm not suggesting that the correct course for Christians today is to abruptly demand that people they barely know drop everything and come follow them. One of the things to recall when modeling oneself on the scriptures is that Jesus is God, and we are not God. There are modes of behavior which God can perform credibly and virtuously that we cannot. (Which is why people who want to cite Jesus flogging the money changers out of the temple are almost always trying to get away with something they shouldn't.) But it's worth noting that the actual Jesus of the Gospels constantly asks people He barely knows to do really difficult things. 

So McElroy's first foundation for this approach to pastoral morality is based on a pattern of behavior which Jesus does not in fact follow. The second and third foundations, I think, consist of a huge and dangerous misreading of the times we live in.

McElroy notes that people who are in a sexual relationship which is not a marriage recognized by the Church (whether they are cohabiting, civilly but not sacramentally married, divorced and remarried, or in some sort of same sex relationship) feel estranged from the Church due to Church teaching on sexuality and the application of that teaching to reception of the Eucharist. His proposed solution is that we "accompany" people by changing teaching on reception of the Eucharist and also that we recognize that the huge complexity of modern life may mean that some people simply aren't able to live in conformity to Church teaching -- at least not yet. 

It's important to ask, would this proposal (setting aside whether it is in keeping with Catholic doctrine) even solve the problem which he is setting out to fix? I don't think it does.

The issue that we face in modern society is not that there are lots of people who say, "I know that the sexual relationship I'm living in is wrong.  I want to resolve that at some point, but I find myself unable to resolve it now, because of the kids it has produced or because I can't afford my own place or because my partner is too controlling, and so what I really wish is that the Church would nourish me with the graces of the Eucharist until I can gain the resources and strength to make a change."

No. The issue we face is that there are lot sof people who say, "I am in a sexual relationship which is good and beautiful and God and the Church need to recognize that it is good and beautiful."

Ah, but McElroy might rejoin, of course there are elements of the relationship which are good and beautiful. Even in a relationship which is sinful because it's a sexual relationship outside of marriage, people often find ways to express love for one another, and the Church should recognize and celebrate that.

Okay, fine. It's true that even in a relationship which is sinful in its sexual dimension, people will also be loving in other areas. Our lives are indeed complex, and just as often in a good marriage people still at times sin against one another, so too in a bad relationship people find ways to express love towards one another.

But still, the demand which we see from modern society is not that the Church recognize that while sexual relationships outside of marriage are wrong, that within their context people sometimes perform some virtuous actions. Rather, the demand is that the Church recognize those relationships as right.

This whole set of proposals around accompaniment presumes that people would be fine with the Church saying that their relationships are sinful, so long as the Church did so in a more consequence-free fashion.

Picture a world in which the Church effectively says, "Welcome! Welcome! We are so glad that you are here! God loves you. We celebrate you. We welcome you to receive communion. BTW, your key life relationship is sinful, we can't bless it in church, and perhaps through the grace you receive from the Eucharist which you are welcome to, you will abandon that relationship and move closer to Christ by following His commandments more perfectly. But don't worry, in the meantime you are welcome and we celebrate you!"

Would people respond by saying, "Wow, that makes me as a person who is [cohabiting/divorced and remarried/in a same sex relationship] feel so valued and welcome. Now I no longer feel estranged from the Church."

I don't think we even have to stretch our imaginations on this one. We can look to the German Synodal Way, where the demand for the Church to actually change church sexual teachings and bless same sex relationships is open and clear. 

So there are two possibilities: The first is that Cardinal McElroy is proposing that we change Church teaching which dates back to the Bible itself, where St. Paul writes about the worthy reception of the Eucharist, in order to offer a compromise accompaniment-based approach which would not in fact satisfy anyone. The second is that this talk of accompaniment is really just a step along the way, and that McElroy and those like him already fully intend that if they could change teaching on reception of the Eucharist the next step would be demanding blessings on unmarried relationships and the next step would be saying it was unfair to have blessings for some people and marriage for others, with the end state always being that the actual teachings on divorce and remarriage, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, etc. be changed.

This latter possibility frankly strikes me as far more likely. I can't imagine that someone as well educated and familiar with the world as Cardinal McElroy really imagines that telling people, "We believe your relationship is sinful, and it should eventually end or become non-sexual, but in the meantime we welcome you to communion" would be satisfactory to those who feel estranged from the Church because of moral teachings. 

And I've also seen this play out before. Growing up, most of my friends were Episcopalians, and so I got the chance to watch as people first argued that they weren't really saying that moral teaching should be changed, they weren't really saying that the Episcopal Church should have same sex weddings, they were just saying that everyone was equally a sinner and everyone equally needed God's mercy, and then without missing a beat turned around and said supported changing their teachings and celebrating same sex weddings.

Progressives within Catholicism have often taken plays directly out of the mainstream Protestant book, and the similarities between what the Cardinal McElroys and Fr James Martins of the present moment are saying and what was said by progressive Episcopalians back in the 1990s and early 2000s (who knew very well they were steering their communion towards fully changing its teachings on sexual morality) seem like they could not be accidental.

If Cardinal McElroy wants to see Church teaching on sexual morality reversed, he should at least have the decency to say so openly. Lying is, after all, another thing which is objectively sinful. And if he does not want that, he needs to wrestle with the question of whether changing Church teaching on the nature of worthy reception of the Eucharist (something which would in itself be a rejection of the Church's very nature dating back to the apostles) would even achieve the objectives he claims to have.


Brandon said...

This is very good, and a much more measured response than I could probably manage if I even tried.

Agnes said...

I'm so glad you wrote a post on this! I've been considering writing to encourage you to do it. I find it horrifying that a cardinal can write a piece so full of things the catholic Church does NOT teach (and criticize the things the Church does actually teach).
I must say that this piece of Cardinal McElroy (the 2nd one) brought horrifyingly the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve to mind. To accuse a cardinal of speaking in the voice of Satan is horrible, but...
"Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?" - "Does the tradition that all sexual sins are objectively mortal make sense within the universe of Catholic moral teaching?"
"Certainly you shall not die! God knows that when you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing that which is good and that which is evil."
The parallel to this is not so mechanical but it lies in the idea that "conscience" has a role over the "Catholic teaching". And in the core point of the story of the Fall - humans chose to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil. Exactly what is happening these days.
"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."

Agnes said...

I also want to convey my mother's comment on how Jesus in the Gospels approached sinners. She cited the story of the adulterous woman in Jn 8:2-11 in which Jesus says "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."
Clearly, "not condemning" does not mean that what she did is not declared a sin, and clearly, she is ordered/expected not to do it any more. There is no debate, no waiting until the woman feels able to quit sinning. She is saved from condemnation and death with the clear addition that this situation is not to continue.