Cardinal McElroy and the Moral Theological Project of Pope Francis

May 31, 2022
Crisis in the Church
It is all about the moral theology folks

I do not normally comment in this blog on matters pertaining to ecclesial politics.  But as I was putting the finishing touches on my next blog essay (on evangelization and “flipping the script”) numerous folks emailed me asking me to comment on the elevation of Bishop McElroy to Cardinal.  I am reluctant to comment on this since I am no expert on such matters, do not know Bishop McElroy very well at all beyond a few public statements that mark him off as a clear theological liberal, and have no new insights to offer.  Over at The National Catholic Reporter Michael Sean Winters is gushing like a fifteen year old adolescent over this appointment, which makes me suspicious, but I have long since gotten beyond judging folks based on who likes or dislikes them.  Because… you know… blind squirrels and acorns and all that…  The bottom line here is that the Pope is appointing folks who think as he thinks.  But all popes do that so this is nothing new, even though Papa Francis seems to have elevated this proclivity into an art form.  And even if one thinks this is a clunker of a decision and is just further evidence of what a perfidious heretic Pope Francis is, it must be remembered that Saint Pope John Paul II also had his share of episcopal appointment clunkers - - clunkers which included a certain Jorge Bergoglio who John Paul elevated to the Cardinalate in 2001 (that is, it is a clunker if you dislike Bergoglio).

There are those on my side of the theological aisle (Communio/Ressourcement) who view this as the Pope giving the middle finger to the American Church and who consider this the “last straw” in a long series of last straw’s.  Bishop McElroy is on record stating that the language of the Catechism on homosexual acts being “gravely disordered” should be changed to something more “inclusive” (whatever that means) and is clearly sympathetic to the project of Fr. James Martin.  He opposes the kind of Eucharistic discipline for pro-abortion Catholics like that of Cordileone and seems sympathetic to a kind of “open table fellowship” view of Eucharistic reception.  He is also an unabashed supporter of the more controversial aspects of the moral theology of Amoris Laetitia (more on that below).  Still others view McElroy’s promotion as a direct repudiation of the current leadership of the USCCB and of Archbishop Cordileone’s recent actions against Speaker Pelosi.  I think this is unlikely, although there must have been Francis allies in the Vatican who cheered the serendipitous coming together of the Cordileone action and the McElroy promotion.  Finally, there are also those who cannot believe that the Pope is so tone deaf to the fallout of the Uncle Ted McCarrick scandal in the American Church that he would promote a prelate like McElroy who surely must have known something about the budding scandal surrounding McCarrick and yet said nothing.  The veteran expert on priestly sex abuse, the late Richard Sipe, had warned McElroy about McCarrick with the latter giving Sipes the cold shoulder.  McElroy now claims that he sent Sipe's letter to Rome which is fine (I would have too), but it is damning in my view that he did not, like so many other bishops, push for greater transparency on the issue in the light of the allegations he now knew about. However, Sipe was not without his own baggage in the form of a clear agenda so the cold shoulder may have been McElroy’s way of saying that “advice” from such tendentious sources was not welcome.  Or not.

Who really knows? And that is precisely the point.  In an era where the Church’s credibility in the public arena has been fatally compromised by the rolling nightmare of the sex abuse scandals, Pope Francis should have (perhaps) taken this into deeper consideration before promoting McElroy, a man who was the face of obstruction, along with Cardinals Cupich and Tobin, to the efforts of the USCCB to pressure the Vatican for more transparency on the status of the McCarrick investigation.  Indeed, and let this sink in deeply, McElroy was one of the bishops (a majority, sadly) who voted AGAINST a USCCB petition pressing the Vatican for more transparency and speed in the McCarrick investigation.  I repeat: he voted against transparency. Which marks him off as either someone who is: A) personally compromised himself in the McCarrick situation and who is seeking to cover things up; B) uncaring toward the victims of abuse; C) a Pope Francis sycophant who was simply trying to shield the Pope from criticism; or D) all of the above.  

All that said, I think in all of these concerns/criticisms there is a need to identify the root issue that is at stake here.  Beyond particular and proximate issues such as homosexuality, eucharistic discipline, sex abuse scandals, and obstructionism, it is important to ask a simple question: why does Pope Francis like Bishop McElroy enough to make him a Cardinal?  And the answer to that question can only be ascertained once we understand how important to this pontificate Amoris Laetitia is.  Just as Traditionis Custodes was in many ways a repudiation of Summorum Pontificum, so too is Amoris Laetitia a repudiation of large parts of Veritatis Splendor.  My own view of this papacy is that Pope Francis, slowly, slowly, and brick by brick, is attempting to subvert the theological hermeneutic of the previous two papacies, Pope John Paul’s in particular, and primarily in the realm of the late Pope’s moral theology.  Bishop McElroy has been an unabashed supporter of Amoris and his promotion to the red hat is the Pope’s way of signaling that McElroy’s approach to the moral theological principles of Amoris is correct.  This also explains, as I have blogged on before, why Pope Francis has systematically dismantled the John Paul II Institute in Rome and replaced all of its professors and leadership - - all of whom were devotees, of course, of John Paul’s thought, of Communio theology, and of Familiaris Consortio/Veritatis Splendor - - with theologians who are largely proportionalists in moral theology and strong supporters of a more “progressive” agenda.  And they have all been given the specific mandate to transform the Institute into a think tank for … Amoris Laetitia.  This is also why nobody from the previous regime at the Institute was invited to the Synod on the Family.  

My claim is that Pope Francis is actually not all that liberal in matters of doctrine and ecclesial discipline, but is rather revolutionary in his approach to moral theology.  If you look at all of the pet issues of the Catholic Left over the past fifty years it is clear that Pope Francis has thrown very few favors in their direction.  He has not granted the Catholic Left its desire for women priests and deacons, married priests, contraception, abortion in certain limited circumstances, the moral goodness of homosexual relations, unfettered divorce and remarriage, open table fellowship with Protestants, and so on.  Furthermore, he seems rather traditional in his Marian piety, his devotion to the saints, Eucharistic adoration, emphasis upon Satan/spiritual warfare, and the power of the Sacraments in general, especially confession.  But what he has given to the Left is its long-desired revolution in the foundations of moral theology and the seeds of this revolution are in Amoris, the key to this entire papacy in my opinion.

Folks, this is all about moral theology and the revolution in the post-conciliar theological guild on the topic of human sexuality and reproduction.  People tend to focus on the great controversies surrounding liturgy in the post-conciliar era.  And those issues are important.  But take it from someone who lived through it, the deepest, most important, most contentious, most divisive, and most destructive debates surrounded moral theology, especially after Humanae vitae and the massive dissent from it that followed.  Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, Bernard Häring, Joseph Fuchs, and many others, developed a form of moral theology called “proportionalism” or “consequentialism” that taught that there can be no absolute moral norms since moral actions are largely determined, not by the moral object of the act itself or the teleology of the faculty in question (classic natural law principles), but by the concrete circumstances in the life of the person committing the act. They spoke of “premoral goods” that had to be weighed against each other and that these kinds of judgments are almost always prudential and fraught with the ambiguity of “difficult and mitigating” circumstances.   It is a bit of a caricature, but for the sake of a useful shorthand familiar to most readers, proportionalism is a subspecies (in Catholic drag) of situation ethics.

And it is telling that this new approach was always brought to bear on the Church’s sexual teaching, but rarely anywhere else or with any other issue.  It was never used, as you can imagine, to say to a Catholic member of the KKK that there might be “circumstances” in which secret racist lynchings might be justified.  Or to tell a Catholic neo-Nazi that there might be circumstances in which it is okay to persecute Jews, or even to gas them.  In such cases proportionalists like Curran resorted to saying that there are some moral acts which are “virtually” absolute even if not absolutely so in a strict sense.  This is, of course, theologically incoherent on its face, until one remembers that proportionalism was never ever really about all moral actions, just sexual ones. And in order to avoid needing to admit that they were really just garden variety modern, liberal, sexual libertines, the proportionalists had to engage in this made up language of actions which are “virtually” absolute in their evil, but not “intrinsically” so. In other words, what they were really saying is this:  “We need to say, ‘virtually absolute’, since everybody knows that shit like racism is always evil, but  we need the ‘wiggle room relativism’ it implies so that we can endorse the contraception and non-marital cohabitation.”

There are those who would say I am misrepresenting proportionalism here and that what they really mean by “virtually absolute” is that some actions are so heinous that there are simply no imaginable circumstances that could justify them, no matter the situation or setting.  But this is just another way of saying that there are some “moral objects” that are so inherently evil that nothing can justify them.  Nor does traditional moral law ignore the role of motive and circumstances in adjudicating moral acts.  So why not just play in that sandbox instead of inventing this ersatz language, utterly foreign to the Tradition, of “virtually absolute” norms?  Precisely because they need to maintain that there is no such thing as an act which is always and everywhere inherently evil regardless of circumstances in order to be able to legitimate and baptize the sexual revolution.

Along these lines, Pope Francis, in a much ignored but enormously significant comment in 2017, praised the dissenting, proportionalist, moral theologian Bernard Häring as a great “model” for the renewal of moral theology.  This is the same Bernard Häring who dissented from Humanae Vitae AND Veritatis Splendor.  In a now five year old essay, Jeffrey Mirus, summarizes the problem of the Pope’s endorsement of Häring in a section worthy of a long quote:

“Häring himself was among the most vocal dissenters from infallible Catholic teaching, such as the deep truths authoritatively set forth during his own professional life in Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI and in Veritatis Splendor by Pope John Paul II. His utter ruin as a Catholic thinker is so obvious that, however one interprets his motives (and I grant that only God can know them perfectly), we are forced to conclude that anyone who would praise him as one of the first to give Catholic moral theology new life in the twentieth century must be ignorant, confused, or subversive.
This was brought home to me late last week when I received an email from Dr. Pravin Thevathasan, a well-known consulting psychiatrist who has written widely on medical ethics, including for Humanum, which is the quarterly review of the John Paul II Institute’s Office of Cultural and Pastoral Formation in Washington, DC. He also maintains a page highlighting his work on the Christendom Awake website managed by Mark Alder in the United Kingdom.
In his email, Dr. Thevathasan called attention to Pope Francis’ praise of Bernard Häring and noted that he had just posted a brief essay on the Christendom Awake site addressing the problem represented by such praise. He gave permission for adding it to’s library; see Bernard Häring and his Medical Ethics. It is amazingly concise, and well worth reading. Among other things, you will learn:
In his 1973 book Medical Ethics, Häring defended sterilization, contraception and artificial insemination. He also suggested that the human embryo does not become a person until the twenty-fifth day…. Häring also wanted a change in the teachings of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, regarding it as inflicting “cruel hardships on the young.” …According to Häring, under difficult circumstances, we may engage in a process of discernment which leads us to the commission of intrinsically evil acts. [emphasis added]”

I quote this essay at length in order to underscore my claim that what is at stake in the current situation over episcopal appointments by Francis is the Church’s traditional moral theology.  What was it that caused the most consternation in Amoris Laetitia?  That famous little “throw away” footnote where Francis greenlights divorce and remarriage “after a process of discernment” (footnote 351).  Now, I would be the very first person to tell you the Church’s pastoral practice with regard to divorced and remarried Catholics (full disclosure: I am divorced, annulled, and remarried) needs a serious looking over.  But is this footnote a “serious looking over” or is it rather simply a very clever way of bringing in through the backdoor, through a sub rosa and vague “process” of “accompaniment” and “discernment”, what you cannot get in the front door? Then there are of course all of the vague and conflicting papal statements and actions with regard to homosexuality.

But wait, did I not say above that the Pope has not given the Left what it wants on the issues of homosexuality and divorce? He hasn’t in a direct way, and I stand by that claim, but he has given the Left an opening with regard to the foundational principles of moral theology which can open the door to maintaining both the truth of Church teaching AND, simultaneously, the practical undermining of that teaching on a pastoral level.  How so?  What Pope Francis is doing is treating the Church’s moral teachings as “true” (thus avoiding the charge of heresy) but treating those truths as abstract and theoretical “ideals” that can only be approached asymptotically by anyone.  And to an extent that is true if rightly understood as “we are all sinners” and none of us can ever reach perfection in this life.  But Pope Francis pits truth against mercy and treats those who hold to objective moral norms as binding on the conscience in definitive ways as “rigid pharisees” of the law.  Furthermore, Francis has written in a way that implies approval for the form of moral gradualism explicitly condemned by John Paul in Veritatis.  Francis goes beyond a legitimate pastoral gradualism and states that, given a person’s circumstances, if this is the best one can do right now morally speaking, then it is God’s will for you right now as well.  Here is what Pope John Paul said in Familiaris Consortio (34):

“They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. "And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations.”

The distinction between the two types of gradualism is a subtle, but important one.  A legitimate gradualism is the simple pastoral recognition that you have to be patient with people and endlessly forgiving of failure.  It is a recognition of our weakness and the need to lead people gently and kindly toward the truth, ever ready to forgive and forgive and forgive.  But also, to insist on starting again.  I was once taught koine Greek in seminary by a priest from County Cork, Ireland, Father Cornelius Holly.  Most of the seminarians in class were intellectual dullards who resisted education.  But Father Holly diligently soldiered on, patiently hopeful that the light bulb would go on for at least a few of us.  And when we would fail yet again, he would stop, smile, toss his chalk in the air while whistling, and with his dry Irish wit and his heavy brogue would do a little jig and sing to us, “Alright then, take it from the top. We will start all over again.” That is the law of gradualism.  Conversely, what if Father Holly had instead said to us after all of our failures, “Well then. I can see that learning koine Greek is an ideal that is just beyond most of you. Therefore, even though passing at least one semester of Greek is a requirement for your graduation (and with good reason) I am hereby dispensing you from that burden. If this is the best you can do, then so be it.  The ‘rules’ be damned.  They are pharisaical anyway.  Such bureaucracy!  Off with you.  Enjoy your afternoon.” That is the gradualism of the law and in the moral theological sphere it translates into more than just a tolerance for lukewarm moral living, but, and far worse, it goes on to say that since this is the best you can do then the full weight of the moral law does not apply to you and that it is God’s will for you to be where you are.  After all, He made you this way.

In an important small essay, the theologian Eduardo Echeverria makes a similar point and in an in-depth analysis of Amoris Laetitia shows quite clearly that Pope Francis attempts to have his cake and eat it too.  Francis pays lip service to John Paul’s rejection of the gradualism of the law, but then goes on to embrace the notion in classic ways.  And, once again, Francis does so because he identifies the Church’s teaching as an “ideal” and that anyone who insists that the ideal is an actual commandment that we must at least attempt to live up to is a rigid pharisee.

And once again, and contrary to my usual style, I will quote Dr. Echeverria at length since it underscores that I am not the only one pointing this out:

“And yet in AL 303 and 305, he suggests that a person not only may be doing the best that he can, but also that such acts therefore are not sinful and hence are right for that person, because the person, in his mitigating circumstances, fulfills the ideal as applied by that individual in those limiting circumstances. This way of thinking was unavoidable because throughout AL Francis apparently emphasizes the “ideal” nature of the normative order of marriage and family life.
But how can God be asking one to do X when X is contrary to his will? The pope must think that X is not contrary to the will of God in that specific circumstance, but only contrary to God’s ideal will which the person is inculpable for not attaining.
So, with all due respect to Francis, I think that he does imply support for the “gradualness of the law” and hence by implication opens the door to a “situation ethics.” He says, “Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.  It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303). Now, is the pope actually saying that such acts are right for such an individual? Indeed, that is precisely what he says, namely, that the person in those mitigating circumstances may be doing the will of God. That’s not an inference on my part; that’s what the pope actually says above. If you missed it, here it is again: a person can “come to see with a certain moral security that it [his choice] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.” It is hard to see why a person needs the grace of the sacrament of confession, and hence the Lord’s mercy, if, as Francis suggests here, that person is doing the will of God. …
…he does encourage the “dimming of the light” because he downgrades the moral force of this normative order when he speaks of “rules” here. He wants to create a moral space to regard a person as inculpable, resorting even to calling those who want to apply these norms unconditionally (in his mind, at this point “mere rules”) as sporting a “cold bureaucratic morality.” (AL 312). We’ve moved from earlier portions of AL where Francis speaks of the meaning and truth of marriage as a gift (AL 61), as life-enhancing, as fulfilling of the life of marriage, under which marriages flourish, to “rules” and a ‘cold bureaucratic morality.’"

Echeverria's essay and his interpretation of Amoris has been heavily criticized by people I admire very much, e.g. Robert Fastiggi, but when you put together the Pope’s praise for the proportionalist Bernard Häring as a model for moral theology, his destruction of the John Paul II Institute in Rome and its “reform” along proportionalist moral theological lines, his apparent promotion of the gradualism of the law in Amoris chapter 8, and his promotion of prelates like Cupich, Tobin, and McElroy and his very clear snubbing of more traditional prelates, a clear picture begins to emerge of a Pope who is a profound enigma.  At once thoroughly orthodox, even conservative in many areas, and yet at the same time a true revolutionary in the area of moral theology, for good or for ill.

And sometimes it is best, in order to understand someone like Pope Francis, to look at what his friends say he is saying, rather than his critics.  Fr. Julio Martinez, S.J. a moral theologian who teaches in Madrid, gave a talk at an international conference at the Gregorian University this past month on the topic of Amoris Laetitia.  He recently granted an interview to America magazine on the topic of Amoris which is highly instructive and, I think, an accurate portrayal of the moral theological underpinnings of Amoris.  His claim is that Amoris represents a radical shift in Catholic moral theology insofar as it places personal conscience in an ongoing dynamic process of discernment at the very heart of moral theology.  In so doing it undoes the “knots” that had been interjected into moral theology by Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, the latter having really goofed things up by creating the novel idea of “intrinsically evil” acts!  Martinez, rightly in my view, criticizes previous popes for applying the concept of moral discernment of the good in particular circumstances to issues of social justice, while ignoring the concept of discernment in matters of sexuality.  For example, and this is my own musing, as I have written elsewhere, there is something wrong with a moral theology that thinks all sexual sins are gravely disordered, but America’s nuclear arsenal and strategic policy of mutually assured destruction is “complicated” and open to prudential discernment.  But Martinez draws the opposite conclusion from what I would draw.  Instead of applying a rigorous moral logic, equal in tone and tenor to the sexual domain, to the social domain, Martinez argues that Amoris is asking us to treat the sexual domain with an equally prudential proportionalist logic. Here are some sample quotes from the interview in order to highlight my point:

“Veritatis Splendor” introduced “a very profound development in moral theology with the introduction of the concept we call intrinsic evil,” he said. “This is a controversial philosophical concept that brought serious difficulties for moral theology in the development of the path of dialogue and discernment; which is the way to put into action a mature and well-formed conscience.” Furthermore, “Veritatis Splendor” had a profound impact on the church, by insisting the role of the magisterium included “teaching morals in a very precise and very clear way,” he said. And although it gives importance to conscience, which is “the proximate norm of personal morality,” he said, quoting from the encyclical, “it ends by understanding conscience somewhat as an instance of the person who has to know what the magisterium says and to implement this in his or her life.
Conscience is a fundamental part of morality. Indeed, you cannot eliminate conscience,” Father Martinez said. But “Veritatis Splendor,” he added, “very much fears what is called ‘creative conscience,’” and insists that “conscience cannot be creative. It has to somehow be obedient to the rules and the norms of the magisterium, and especially the magisterium of the pope, whose role it is to recognize and formulate the norms so the faithful can know and follow them.”
Father Martinez characterized this move as “a hypertrophy [an excessive development] of the magisterium in the field of moral theology, that took place during the long pontificate of John Paul II,” he said. “As a result, the magisterium speaks on every single issue of personal or social morals—but especially on personal morals, sexual morality and violence.” With this hypertrophy of the magisterium, he said, “conscience has, in equal proportion, been diminished; even though ‘Veritatis Splendor’ affirms conscience is the main instance of morals. …
While marriage and family life may have been “the starting point of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ and the conference,” Father Martinez said, “if you get to change the way in which you acquire moral knowledge and change the method you are applying in order to find the good in your life, as ‘Amoris Laetitia’ has, then this affects every single field of morality, not only marriage and family life.
The precedent set by “Amoris Laetitia” means “moral theology today has a great opportunity to develop…a new paradigm of papal teaching that is less normative and more attentive to the discernment proper to the faithful and the various episcopal conferences,” he said. “The magisterium must not always offer a definitive and complete word; neither to solve all doctrinal, moral or pastoral problems, nor to provide homogenous solutions for all territories.”

Granted, none of this means that Pope Francis necessarily agrees with all of the assertions made by Fr. Martinez. However, I offer his analysis at some length since I want to highlight that it is not only critics of Pope Francis who claim his true revolution resides in the moral theological realm, but also those who are deeply sympathetic to his project.  I highly doubt that Pope Francis is as critical of Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor as Martinez is, but the point nevertheless stands that there is something dynamically different in Amoris than in any of the documents of his modern predecessors.  

It is at this point that many readers might assume that I therefore view the moral project of Amoris with nothing but negativity.  And insofar as Pope Francis seems to favor some version of proportionalism that assumption would be accurate.  However, I have long been of the view that a great renewal and reorientation of moral theology along more scriptural and patristic lines is very much needed as a counter ballast to the total hegemony of scholastic natural law moral thinking in the Church’s magisterial teaching.  And there is a great need for a more prophetic and evangelical moment in all of our moral proposals.  This was the vision of Vatican II as well.  Followers of this blog know that I am long-time critic of the “don’t rock the boat” mentality of our current ecclesial “status quoism” where we continue to believe that a mere tweaking of structures or the mere addition of some new “programs” or the adoption of a few new pastoral “strategies” will suffice.  What is the old adage?  Putting lipstick on a pig?  A mere repetition of natural law principles and a doubling down on “perverted faculty” moral reasoning will not meet the moral challenges we face. Something deeper and far more aboriginal to the regime of grace is needed. Not in contradiction to natural law reasoning, but as that which breathes fire into its equations.  

And so I am in a bind.  I do not care much for the moral reasoning of Amoris, nor am I a fanboy of Pope Francis or of his caporegime enforcers who are all rewarded for their sycophancy with red hats.  And I would include McElroy in that crowd.  But I also think that it is precisely the profoundly inconsistent and unprophetic nature of so much of what passes itself off as “orthodox Catholicism” that has provoked this crisis in equal measure.  Those to the Right of me will hate me for saying this but I must say what is truly in my heart and soul: What has come to be identified as “Catholic orthodoxy” in America has no credibility because it lacks the authenticity of the Gospel.  The forms and structures and rituals and words of the Church are to most people in our culture stale and shopworn things, grown rusty in their scabbard of time and nullified by scandal and corruption.  The.Bishops.Have.No.Credibility.  … Period.  As a Catholic Worker I know I am biased, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but the only thing that can save us is a revolution of the heart. A deep and profound metanoia in all aspects of Church life.  Everything else is an unserious playacting. A dance of shadows in Plato's cave.

I think this is what Pope Francis knows as well.  I just think the moral theological revolution he espouses is misguided. But I do think this explains his episcopal appointments, including his promotion of McElroy.

And quite frankly, I really don’t care that much about whose petard sits in which Roman office.  The immediate needs of my day and the tidal undertow and sinful entropy of my own degraded life seem much more pressing to me. I seek Christ and him crucified. And right now, who does or does not have a red hat is of little importance to that quest. This too shall pass.

Dorothy Day, pray for us

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