(OSV News) — Two U.S. prelates have recently traded what one called some “strong words” in the media, debating the reception of holy Communion, sexual sin, pastoral outreach to marginalized Catholics and allegations of heresy among church leadership.
At issue is the tension between offering pastoral welcome and inclusion without compromising church doctrine, especially regarding the Eucharist.
Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, published a Feb. 28 piece in the journal First Things titled “Imagining a Heretical Cardinal,” where he criticized statements made by church leaders which he said “affirm unorthodox views that, not too long ago, would have been espoused only by heretics.”
Providing a detailed overview of heresy — defined in canon law as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” — the bishop then cited text from a Jan. 24 essay by San Diego Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, published in America magazine.
In that piece, the cardinal — writing to support the “radical inclusion” of divorced and remarried and LGBTQ Catholics in the Eucharist — criticized “a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the Eucharist.”
Bishop Paprocki said in his Feb. 28 article that while “contemporary ecclesiastical politeness has softened” the use of the word “heresy,” the term is timely, since “the unseemly prospect arises” of a heretical cardinal “voting in a papal conclave.”
OSV News reached out to both Cardinal McElroy and Bishop Paprocki for comment. A request to the cardinal’s office has not yet been answered.
However, Cardinal McElroy followed up with a second article published March 2 in America, reiterating and expanding upon his earlier points, after receiving what he called “both substantial support and significant opposition” to his previous article.
The cardinal wrote that “divorced and remarried or LGBT Catholics who are ardently seeking the grace of God in their lives should not be categorically barred from the Eucharist.”
Cardinal McElroy stated three principles should be considered: first, citing Pope Francis’ pastoral theology, the church as a field hospital “points to the reality that we are all wounded by sin and all equally in need of God’s grace and healing”; second, consciences should be formed, not replaced, stating that “while Catholic teaching has an essential role in moral decision-making, it is conscience that has the privileged place”; and third, “the Eucharist is given to us as a profound grace in our conversion to discipleship … 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.”
Cardinal McElroy also argued Pope Francis’ pastoral theology is that the “church should mirror the pastoral action of the Lord himself” in every part of the church’s life.
“First, the Lord embraces the person, then he heals them. Then he calls the person to reform,” he said. “Each of these elements of the saving encounter with the Lord is essential. But their order is also essential.”
Cardinal McElroy argued that categorically treating sexual sins as “automatically an objective mortal sin” (he pointed to the use of artificial contraception by husband and wife as an example), without considering circumstances that mitigate the evil of the act, was “jarringly inconsistent with the larger universe of Catholic moral teaching.” He said this approach was not taken with other serious sins — such as spousal abuse, exploiting employees, discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or religion, and abandoning one’s children — saying they are not also “automatically” judged “objectively sufficient to sever one’s relationship with God.”
“Discipleship means striving to deepen our faith and our relationship to God, to enflesh the Beatitudes, to build up the kingdom in God’s grace, to be the good Samaritan,” he said. While a person should seek the sacrament of penance for their “profound sins of omission or commission,” Cardinal McElroy wrote, “such failures should not be the basis for categorical ongoing exclusion from the Eucharist.”
Bishop Paprocki — a canon and civil lawyer who serves as the chairman-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance — told OSV News he disputed Cardinal McElroy’s assertions in the Jan. 24 article, saying they do not follow from church teaching, Pope Francis’ pastoral theology or actual human experience. The bishop said he did not have an opportunity to review in full the cardinal’s most recent essay.
Bishop Paprocki noted the term “eucharistic coherence” — a harmony between belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and conformity in thought and action with church teaching — derives from the Latin American bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document.
In that text, the bishops — among them, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — stated the faithful “cannot receive holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged.”
“Pope Francis has declared the Aparecida document as a pastoral blueprint,” said Bishop Paprocki. “It would seem if you reject the concept of eucharistic coherence, it’s a rejection of Pope Francis’ (pastoral theology).”
Conscience “can be at variance with church teaching,” said the bishop. “But then, the person … should have the integrity to say, ‘I don’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches.’ … (Otherwise), there’s almost an implication that a Catholic can believe what he or she wants, and still be a good Catholic.”
Christ’s offer of radical inclusion — a desire for which the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality stresses — demands “a change of heart” while fully respecting human freedom, said Bishop Paprocki.
“Our Lord does call everyone, but what does he call us to? I find it very significant that the first words of the Lord (in the Gospels) are ‘repent and believe,'” said the bishop. “Many people walked away from Jesus … he didn’t modify his teaching. He didn’t say, ‘It really doesn’t matter if you don’t believe, just come and enjoy the party anyway.'”
While merciful with human frailty, Christ “makes very clear what it means to be his disciple,” said the bishop.
“Our Lord says, ‘Come and follow me,’ but that invitation is not on our terms but his,” said Bishop Paprocki. “He loves us as we are, but he calls us to conversion, repentance and something greater. He doesn’t leave us in our sinful condition. … Our Lord definitely calls and welcomes everyone, but then he calls us to a new and better life.”
Catholic commentators contacted by OSV News noted the vigorous nature of the bishops’ debate, but said such concerns among clerics are far from unprecedented in church history.
“This is hardly the first time one cleric has called another cleric a heretic,” John L. Allen Jr., editor of Crux, told OSV News. Allen said the word “heresy” also has lost much of its “shock value,” with reactions to it becoming “predictable” amid the “war of culture” experienced within the church.
“The doctrine of the Eucharist is … where these tensions present themselves, because the Eucharist is the living heart of the Catholic faith,” he said. “And so our disagreements over the Eucharist are going to be unfortunately more intense.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.