25 Jan Can the Church Survive its Current Leadership?
Today, we’re going to do something different. Normally, we try to do smart things. But not today. Today, we’re going to do something stupid. Today, we’re going to wade into the middle of a burgeoning LGBT controversy. And moreover, we’re going to do it in such a way that will leave no one, on any side of the question, satisfied with our answers.
Like we said, stupid.
If you happen to be Very Online, Very Catholic, or, better still, Very Online and Catholic, then you may know that yesterday, America magazine, a publication of the Jesuits, ran an extremely important and extremely controversial essay calling for “‘radical inclusion’ for L.G.B.T. people, women and others in the Catholic Church.”
The essay is important because it was written by Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of the San Diego diocese. Cardinal McElroy was appointed to his bishopric by Pope Francis in 2015 and was made a Cardinal (also by Pope Francis) in August of last year. He is considered very close to the Pontiff, and his thoughts, beliefs, and words are said to parallel the Pope’s very closely.
The essay is controversial because…well…you read the bit above.
The essay is also, at least in our opinion, grotesque – although not for the reasons you may assume.
Like Cardinal McElroy, like Pope Francis, like most Catholics, we’d guess, we have struggled for a long time with the Church’s position on homosexuality. The official position is that the Church loves all God’s children and hates all sins against God’s will. In this specific case, that means that the Church (rightly) loves, accepts, and welcomes gay men and gay women, while at the same time, rejecting the sexual acts between them, given that they take place outside of Catholic, sacramental marriage. This is a logical position that seems perfectly reasonable. And yet it also seems unfair and rather cruel. If we accept that God made all men and women as they are, that He didn’t make “mistakes” with any of them, and that, therefore, same-sex attraction was part of God’s plan, then it just seems incredibly unkind – not to mention unrealistic – to expect all gay Catholics to live lives of complete sexual abstinence.
But what can be done about it? This “unkindness” bumps up against three of the Church’s most fundamental moral teachings: that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman who are, at least in theory, open to procreation; that sex outside of marriage is a grave sin; and that it is sacrilegious to receive the Holy Eucharist in the state of grave sin. In short, then, if the Church is to rectify this unkindness and thus to be “radically inclusive” of “LGBT people” it must compromise at least one of these three positions, which is something that is seemingly intolerable.
Except that it’s not intolerable to everyone, including Cardinal McElroy. He writes:
[T]he 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.
Here, Cardinal McElroy is openly and unabashedly advocating for the Church to “get over” its preoccupation with receiving the Eucharist in the state of grace. As Rod Dreher notes, this is a fundamental change in the perception of the Eucharist and its meaning, treating it as a “magic pill” that cures sinfulness, regardless of the recipient’s disposition toward sin. It is no exaggeration to say that schisms have been waged and reformations launched over less.
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.
Here, the Cardinal is arguing that the Church should ALSO get over its obsession with sex.
As we noted above, we are sympathetic, both to Catholics who are excluded from participation in the Eucharist and to the Church officials who are responsible for making these incredibly difficult decisions. At the same time, Cardinal McElroy’s approach strikes us as destined not only to fail but also to cleave the Church in (at least) two in the process. If McElroy’s thinking does, indeed, reflect that of Pope Francis, then you should buckle up tight, for the Church is about to undergo a rupture unlike any in the last several centuries.
But then, we suppose this was inevitable.
We think the parts of McElroy’s essay cited above are, perhaps, foolish and ill-considered. We think other parts of it – which we have not cited but which accuse those who oppose his position of being “demonic” – are unbecoming a person of his position. But we still haven’t gotten to that which we consider “grotesque.”
Throughout the essay, McElroy writes using language that will seem to many of you to be both odd yet quite familiar:
It is important at this stage in the synodal process for the Catholic community in the United States to deepen our dialogue about these structures and cultures of exclusion for two reasons. The first is to continue to contribute to the universal discernment on these issues, recognizing that these same questions have surfaced in many nations of the world. The second reason is the recognition that since the call to synodality is a call to continuing conversion, reforming our own structures of exclusion will require a long pilgrimage of sustained prayer, reflection, dialogue and action—all of which should begin now….
A synodal culture demands listening, a listening that seeks not to convince but to understand the experiences and values of others that have led them to this moment….
One avenue for lifting us up and healing the patterns and structures of marginalization in our church and our world is to systematically bring the peripheries into the center of life in the church.
Rod Dreher calls this the language of Critical Theory and warns that it shows that “The woke are storming the citadel of Western religion.”
To a certain degree, Dreher is right. This is very much the language of the contemporary intellectual Left, which is deeply imbued with the jargon of Critical Theory, intersectionality, identity theory, and all the rest.
Nevertheless, this is, we think, demonstrative of a much larger issue, a much more significant problem in Western Christianity that has been building to this point for far longer than Critical Theory has been around.
One of the great tragedies of the Enlightenment and its aftermath was that the Church, of all institutions, lost faith in its legitimacy and in the legitimacy of its mission. As a result, it surrendered that mission’s otherworldliness and agreed to fight only on temporal grounds. In other words, when the Church responded to its attackers, it did so not on its own terms, but on the terms – and in the terms – of those attackers. Rather than focus on its mission and the eternal truths for which it had become the earthly vessel, the Church became distracted. The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to defend itself, but that it did so on the foreign turf of the rationalist philosophers, economists, sociologists, and politicians. And it continues to do so.
When Immanuel Kant insisted that God’s existence cannot be proved by philosophy, science, or reason, Christianity should have conceded and moved on. Christianity is not about proving those things to nonbelievers. It is about fostering the faith necessary to believe them without proof. In his classic novel Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann described this grievous mistake as follows:
Orthodoxy itself committed the blunder of letting reason into the field of religion, in that she sought to prove the positions of faith by the test of reason. Under the pressure of the Enlightenment, theology had almost nothing to do but defend herself against the intolerable contradictions which were pointed out to her: and only in order to get round them she embraced so much of the anti-revelation spirit that it amounted to an abandonment of faith. . . . Since this went a little too far, there arose an accommodation theology . . . . In its conservative form, holding to revelation and the traditional exegesis, it sought to save what was to be saved of the elements of Bible religion; on the other hand it liberally accepted the historico-critical methods of the profane science of history and abandoned to scientific criticism its own most important contents: the belief in miracles, considerable portions of Christology, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and what not besides. . .
The 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine also saw this problem and foresaw its inevitable result:
From the moment that religion requires the aid of philosophy its downfall is inevitable. Attempting a defense, it chatters itself more and more deeply into destruction. Religion, like all other absolutisms, may not try to justify itself.
Cardinal McElroy is trying to justify the Church. He is trying to rectify the Church’s incongruity with modern society using reason, philosophy, ideology, and the like, when the Church has no business whatsoever attempting to do so. He is chattering the Church more deeply into destruction.
Regular readers know that we are fond of a long quote from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he explains how completely divorced our contemporary discussions of moral issues are from the truth of morality. Here, McElroy proves that point. He knows only “bits and pieces” of the language of morality that existed before the Enlightenment, and he fills in the gaps with ideological arguments that help him to bolster his personal preferences, which he conflates with moral positions. McElroy argues not from a position of religious righteousness but from a position of societal righteousness. And worse still, he doesn’t appear to know that there’s a difference.
As we noted at the top of this piece, this is an extremely delicate and complicated matter that is FAR above our pay grade. Our own beliefs are influenced heavily by our personal preferences, and the language we use above to describe those beliefs clearly corroborates this.
That said, we are not trying to stake out moral principles to guide a two-thousand-year-old Church with more than a billion members. Cardinal McElroy is. Pope Francis is. And we can say with great certainty that the approach taken in the Cardinal’s essay is far worse than “unacceptable” or “unworthy.” It is, in fact, destructive. And if pursued, this approach will destroy far more than the Church itself.