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Cardinal McElroy’s attack on Church teachings on sexuality is a pastoral disaster…

Cardinal McElroy’s attack on Church teachings on sexuality is a pastoral disaster…

COMMENTARY: Jettisoning the distinction between ‘orientation and activity’ means the end of chastity as a virtue to be strived for — or implies that ‘the LBGT community’ is not capable of chastity and should therefore be preached a lesser gospel.

That a cardinal wishes to change the Church’s teaching on the morality of same-sex sexual acts is not new. But there is a new one advocating just that, and one of the newest in the college at that.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2019 and appointed relator general of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church, has been advocating for such a change because the “sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.” 

Now Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego and created a cardinal by Pope Francis just last August, has joined Cardinal Hollerich with a wide-ranging essay in America magazine this week. Cardinal McElroy argues that the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is an opportune time to revisit — and revise — some doctrines of the Church. Among those are the question of priestly ordination for women, but his main focus was on “radical inclusion of L.G.B.T. people.”

There has been much reaction and more will certainly follow. Here I would just draw attention to one aspect of Cardinal McElroy’s pastoral approach: the abolition of chastity.

Cardinal McElroy, in his discussion of Holy Communion, objects to traditional Catholic teaching 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” — mortal sin, in usual parlance.

“This objection should be faced head on,” he writes, and so he does:

The distinction between orientation and activity cannot be the principal focus for such a pastoral embrace because it inevitably suggests dividing the L.G.B.T. community into those who refrain from sexual activity and those who do not. Rather, the dignity of every person as a child of God struggling in this world, and the loving outreach of God, must be the heart, soul, face and substance of the church’s stance and pastoral action.

In traditional pastoral practice the two ought to go together, affirming the dignity of every person while also advising that sinful acts be avoided.

Cardinal McElroy’s argument, that “the distinction between orientation and activity” cannot be a “principal focus” undermines a great deal more than he allows. Indeed, as a confessor he would know how crucial the distinction is. A penitent who mentions an involuntary desire for adulterous relations but resists the temptation is not only not guilty of a sin, but is practicing virtue. A penitent who entertains such desires but does not act upon them is guilty of a sin, though likely not a grave one. And the penitent who engages in adultery is guilty of a mortal sin.

That distinction may not be the “principal focus” — the principal focus is always God’s love and mercy — but the distinction is pastorally essential.

There are any number of sexual sins — pornography, masturbation and fornication being the most common — where the distinction between an orientation, a disposition, a desire, a habit and a particular act, is absolutely fundamental.

I don’t know how pre-Cana classes are run in San Diego, but presumably cohabitation and fornication are addressed. The “distinction between orientation and activity” does not apply only to homosexuality.

Heterosexual engaged couples are certainly oriented toward conjugal union, but actual conjugal union is sinful before marriage. I would concur that this ought not be the “principal focus” of marriage preparation, but it can hardly be set aside for fear of “dividing” the pre-Cana classes into those who are striving for chastity and those who are not.

Jettisoning the distinction between “orientation and activity” in sexual matters means the end of chastity as a virtue to be strived for. Or, at the very least, implies a view that “the L.B.G.T. community” is not capable of chastity and should therefore be preached a lesser gospel.

A final note about Cardinal McElroy himself. His creation as a cardinal last August was noteworthy. Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles — head of the largest diocese in the United States, then president of the USCCB, an immigrant from Mexico himself who is a champion of immigrants — was passed over in favor of the bishop of San Diego.

For a pope whose favored phrase is the santo pueblo fiel de Dios — the holy, faithful people of God — passing over a Latino prelate for a McElroy was curious. On the very day that Cardinal McElroy’s essay was published, the Holy Father gave an interview in which he denounced the German “synodal path” as “elitist.” 

It would seem that something similar could be said about Cardinal McElroy’s desire to use the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church to abolish chastity. And there is no American prelate more elite than Cardinal McElroy — degrees from Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and the Gregorian, the Jesuit university in Rome.

When McElroy was created a cardinal in San Diego, some wondered if it might be a repeat of what Pope Francis did when he created Joseph Tobin a cardinal while still archbishop of Indianapolis. Soon after Cardinal Tobin was transferred to Newark. Might the new cardinal in San Diego soon be on his way to Washington or back to Harvard, as archbishop of Boston? 

It may be that Cardinal McElroy has his sights set beyond that. Was the essay on “radical inclusion” an application to be transferred to Germany instead?

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