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Pope Francis, Bishop McElroy, and Amoris Laetitia


A journalist holds a copy of a book by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, « Amoris Laetitia, » during its presentation at the Vatican Feb. 14, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

By now it part of an old news cycle that Bishop McElroy is to be made a Cardinal. And the reactions to the news, as might be expected, reflect antecedent theological commitments. In short, theological liberals are cheering and the conservatives are jeering. 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 popes tend to appoint folks who think as they do, even though Papa Francis has elevated that tendency into an art form. And the liberal wing of the Church in the U.S. has had much to cheer about from all of the Pope’s American red hats, with the McElroy red hat being the cherry on the red velvet cake of Cardinals Cupich, Tobin, and Gregory.

Conversely, there are those on my side of the theological aisle (Communio/Ressourcement) who view this as the Pope turning a cold shoulder to the American Church and who consider this the “last straw” in a long series of last straws. After all, McElroy is on record stating that the language of the Catechism on homosexual acts being “gravely disordered” should be changed to something more “inclusive” and he is clearly sympathetic to the project of Fr. James Martin. 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 was a longtime associate and friend of McCarrick’s, benefited from McCarrick’s promotion of his ecclesiastical career, and who surely must have known something about Uncle Ted’s darker proclivities and yet said nothing. After all, the veteran expert on priestly sex abuse, the late Richard Sipe, had warned McElroy about McCarrick long ago with the latter, once again, doing nothing and giving Sipe the cold shoulder. 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, 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, McElroy was one of the bishops 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, or some combination, of the above.

All that said, I think there is a need to identify the root issue at stake in all of these concerns and criticisms. Beyond particular and proximate issues such as LBTQIAA+++ promotion, 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? After all, the man has some serious baggage.

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 clear repudiation of Summorum Pontificum, so too is Amoris Laetitia a repudiation of large parts of Veritatis Splendor.

My view of this papacy is that Pope Francis—slowly and brick by brick—is attempting to subvert the theological hermeneutic of the previous two papacies: Pope John Paul II’s in particular, and primarily in the realm of the late Pontiff’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 numerous 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.

Therefore, in my view, the various red hats that Francis has given out to the Church in the U.S. are primarily, although not exclusively, about moral theology and the revolution in the post-conciliar theological guild on the topic of human sexuality. 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. They deny this, but it is what it is.

Along these lines, Pope Francis, in a much ignored but enormously significant comment in October 2016 (made to Jesuits gathered for the 36th general Congregation), praised the dissenting, proportionalist, moral theologian Bernard Häring (1921-1998) as a great “model” for the renewal of moral theology. This is the same Bernard Häring who dissented from Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. And Pope Francis said that Häring’s kind of moral theology is expressive of Vatican II and of how moral theology should be done. A clearer endorsement from a Pope for a proportionalist approach cannot be found. Imagine the consternation if Pope Benedict had said, when issuing Summorum, “You know, that Lefebvre dude was right all along.” But Pope Francis praises a leading proportionalist theologian as a wonderful role model for renewing moral theology—and nobody even blinks twice.

I bring up the issue of Häring, since it does help us to frame our hermeneutic for what Pope Francis is really trying to accomplish in Amoris Laetitia. 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 in regards to divorced and remarried Catholics needs a serious examination. But is this footnote a “serious examination” 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 via the front door?

But beyond all of that there is the problem of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, where the Pope seems to endorse a contradiction. Namely, that he, like Pope John Paul in Veritatis Splendor, rejects a “gradualism of the law” all the while, and unlike John Paul, using language that clearly seems to endorse a gradualism of the law. In an important essay here at CWR, the theologian Eduardo Echeverria makes this very 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. Echeverria states:

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.

Echevierra’s essay and his interpretation of Amoris has been 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, and his promotion of prelates including 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 orthodox and 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.

Again, at the end of the day, I really don’t care whose head is adorned with a red hat or whose petard sits in an office chair on the via della conziliazione. The immediate needs of my day and the tidal undertow and sinful entropy of my degraded life seem much more pressing to me. I seek Christ and Him crucified. To that end, I think the whole Church needs to take a deep breath, take stock of itself in light of the “one thing necessary”, gaze Eastward toward the rising Son, and ask: “Quo vadis, Domine?”


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