A better way forward: A response to Cardinal Robert McElroy

It is important to recognize and identify that Cardinal McElroy is seeking to revive the discredited theological notion of the “fundamental option” that became popular in the 1960s.

(Image: Josh Applegate/Unsplash.com)

Much ink has been spilled about Cardinal Robert McElroy’s January 24th piece in America on synodality and inclusion. Less attention has been paid to Cardinal McElroy’s follow up interview (Feb 3, 2023), also in America, in which his views on sexual immorality were more explicit and, unfortunately, more concerning.

The Cardinal explains, “We have cast violations for which you need to not go to the Eucharist, or need to go to confession first, largely in terms of sexual things.” It is true that the Church has always taken sexual sin very seriously (more on that from St. Paul shortly). But Cardinal McElroy misdiagnoses the situation in stating the Church is too focused on “sexual things.” The Church is concerned with all grave sin that violates the Ten Commandments (cf. CCC 1858).

For example, it is a matter of grave concern that many Catholics apparently do not think it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday, yet it is in direct disobedience of the Third Commandment for Catholics to skip Mass on Sunday without a just excuse, such as serious illness or infirmity. The Church has even told racists that they cannot go to Holy Communion, as the Archbishop of New Orleans did in 1962 when he excommunicated several Catholics who vociferously opposed the racial desegregation of parochial schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. If our culture had a widespread issue with theft or worship of pagan gods, the Church would prominently proclaim that these serious sins precluded people from the Eucharist.

But our current culture is infatuated with sexual sin, and so the Church vocally warns of its harm, calls ardently for conversion in this area, and proclaims the beauty of God’s plan for human sexuality.

The Cardinal goes on to say that sinfulness can and does exist within sexual lives, which is an important clarification as many readers interpreted his original piece as condoning all sexual activity. He explains, “Our sexual lives have many areas of sinfulness and I’m not challenging that. All I’m saying is that in the Christian moral life, they don’t automatically represent mortal sin. Mortal sin in Catholic teaching is a sin so grave that it is objectively capable of cutting off our relationship with God. That’s pretty severe.” I won’t quibble by focusing on the fact that the Church makes a distinction between mortal sin and grave matter (mortal sin requires grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate choice), and so the Church would disagree that sexual sins “automatically represent mortal sin.”

I would prefer to address the idea that the “framework doesn’t fit” by casting sexual sins as grave matter. The Cardinal seems to be calling for the Church to devalue the gravity of sexual sin, but sexual sin is part of the “framework” found in God’s Word: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–10, NAB, emphasis added).

Not inheriting eternal life is indeed “pretty severe,” and the Church rightly treats it so. But why did sexual immorality make St. Paul’s list? Because sexuality affects all aspects of the human person (cf. CCC 2332) and, thus, sexual sins have devastatingly widespread effects.

It is important to recognize and identify what Cardinal McElroy is attempting to do here: he is seeking to revive the discredited theological notion of the “fundamental option” that became popular in the 1960s. In moral theology, the concept of the “fundamental option” says that individual acts do not change our basic relationship with God and that only when our fundamental option changes against God do we fall out of the state of grace. In this view, a person can commit particular sinful actions without losing the state of grace.

Pope St. John Paul II addressed the erroneous notion of fundamental option theory in his 1993 encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor in paragraphs 65-70, most notably in this passage:

To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul. … In point of fact, the morality of human acts is not deduced only from one’s intention, orientation or fundamental option, understood as an intention devoid of a clearly determined binding content or as an intention with no corresponding positive effort to fulfil the different obligations of the moral life. (Veritatis Splendor 67)

In the end, all these disagreements seem to boil down to the Cardinal’s thoughts on sin: “My own view is [that] judgmentalism is the worst sin in the Christian life…. So what the parable of the adulterous woman is about is: Don’t be judgmental.” It is troubling to see the beautiful balance struck by Jesus in this story between an acceptance of the woman but not her behavior flattened to “don’t be judgmental.”

It appears that for Cardinal McElroy it is Catholicism’s judgmentalism that leads to exclusion, and not the committed sins. But it has always been the practice of the Church to exclude those actively engaging in grave sin from Communion until they have repented, confessed their sins to a priest, and received sacramental absolution. This is not a demand for perfection (despite the Cardinal’s insistence otherwise), nor is it a punishment; it is a consequence of those chosen actions.

As Pope Francis said in an interview on September 15, 2021 about withholding Communion, “This is not a penalty: you are outside. Communion is to unite the community.”

Apart from the Communion issue, Cardinal McElroy rightly notes that as a Church we need to do a better job of accompaniment because “the grace of God acts progressively in our lives.” The challenge of loving accompaniment is to avoid judging the heart of the other while still judging his action. This is the only way to reconcile Jesus’ statements, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1) and “If your brother sins, rebuke him” (Lk 17:3).

We are called to accompany the other regardless of his choices while standing in the truth of what is genuinely good for him. This is difficult, especially since as fallen humans we instinctively favor one part of that approach, usually to the detriment of the other.

May we all learn to love more like Jesus so that we can see beyond the sin to the person and lovingly offer him invitation to conversion. In a world so confused about sin, we must do both of those things in pursuing a better way forward.

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About Bishop Thomas John Paprocki 5 Articles
Bishop Thomas John Paprocki is Bishop of Springfield in Illinois and is Chairman-elect of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.


  1. This is all well and good, but it ignores the fact the McElroy simply does the bidding of the one who made him a Cardinal last summer. Until these responses are directed to the source of the chaos and heresy , they won’t have much effect.

    • Correct Tony. The majority of CWR readers will agree with this article, the problem is that those who read the cardinals article in America Magazine will probably not come across anyone with authority who informs them correctly. Heresy and error go unchallenged under this pontificate.

  2. Thank you SO much, dear Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, for a crystal-clear account of sound, traditional Catholic teaching.

    Souls will be saved and can we not hear the Holy Angels rejoicing.

    These days, with all the half-truths and heresies spouted by some leading clerics, it’s hard to imagine King Jesus rejoicing over His Church. You, however, have delighted the heart of our wonderful Lord.

    Ever in the love of The Lamb; respectful blessings from marty

  3. Cardinal McElroy aligns himself with the secular culture in America — both the country and the magazine. There was a great interview with Bishop Earl Boyea in Catholic World Report last September that instructed us in our responsibility to “change the culture” rather than being “changed by the culture.” More Catholic leaders need to subscribe to way of the good Bishop of Lansing, Michiigan rather than that of the cardinal in San Diego. Thanks to Bishop Paprocki for this clarification.

  4. In full agreement with Bishop Paprocki on the better way forward, yours truly also proposes a few fine points for the conversation—which in sum still demonstrate that Cardinal McElroy seems a sloppy thinker and shepherd (But who am I to judge?):

    FIRST, the unstated core to the McElroy ideology seems rooted in CCC n. 2352 which reads, in part: “To form an equitable judgment about the subject’s moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of society, or other psychological or social factors that can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”
    SECOND, McElroy abuses his audience and office when he then would apply this insight not to individual persons, but to a politicized category, or any category of the population.
    In 2018 this attempt to enshrine the LGBTQ assemblage into the Synod on Youth drew a perceptive correction from Archbishop Chaput (and after a unanimous “demand,” Cardinal Baldiserri withdrew from his effort to make the insertion): Yet, today, Cardinal Grech recently advocated that the Church “stretch the grey area. https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/10/04/archbishop-chaput-tells-synod-to-announce-christ-not-ideologies-and-social-sciences/
    THIRD, now stretching the grey area in several ways, Cardinal McElroy (in the embedded article) breezily misrepresents the history of female “deacons” and their non-sacramental role (see instead, e.g., Gerhard Muller, “Priesthood and Diaconate,” Ignatius, 2002). McElroy also misreads St. Augustine, whose conversion was more complete that he (McElroy) implies. After Augustine left his concubine of thirteen years he then lapsed and fell in with another for two years, but then he turned fully around and converted (e.g., Confessions, Book 8, Ch. 11:26). Nothing here supports the thesis of inverting the order of Confession and Eucharist, especially not airbrushing an entire category of however sorely tried individuals.
    FOURTH, McElroy & the Tribe then appeal to what they presume to call the “pastoral” approach. An approach which apparently includes fostering, indirectly, the viral expansion of the numbers of afflicted persons (a curiosity, since biological reproduction is off the table). This wedge of accompaniment and accommodation (!) is directly addressed by the Magisterium:

    “A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid and general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision [no longer a ‘moral judgment’!] about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept [thou shalt not!]” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 56).

    Which brings us back to Bishop Paprocki’s better way forward…

  5. Cardinal McElroy presents the fundamental option in a highly intellectualized appeal that softens the penalty for sin due to extenuating circumstances discussed by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia.
    My interest here is not to offer analysis of Bishop Paprocki’s unassailable criticism. Rather, the enigma of the excellent theology of Pope Francis “This is not a penalty: you are outside. Communion is to unite the community” quoted by Paprocki in support of his critique of McElroy. Bishop Paprocki is entirely justified in presenting that quote. My interest, best said my concern are Francis’ contradictions to that, as well as other very excellent, one would assume final moral judgments.
    Confessionally speaking, it’s increasingly evident that the overshadowing conundrum we’re facing in the Church are not so much the McElroy’s, Hollerichs, Cupich’s, Paglia’s among the hierarchy. It’s the overall effect on these same men and the entire Church. The reason is the subversion of settled doctrine, the very Deposit of the faith by the pontiff by his duplicitous presentation of excellent orthodox theology as quoted in this essay, and the consistent rationale for their mollification.
    It cannot be ignored if we expect to educate the faithful, especially at a juncture when knowledge of the faith among the faithful is dismal. Most, as experienced, will take away what is said by Pope Francis in his dual form of orthodoxy followed by heterodox response.
    My object is not to speculate motive, or what might be construed regarding the person of Francis. Rather, if it were to be hypothesized, is there a more precocious way to subvert Catholic doctrine? Admitting that, it should be evident that it must be addressed directly and with urgency.

  6. We are called to meet sinners where they are, all are clear on this. Jesus broke bread with them. However, we forget the essential second part. Once at table, Jesus taught, He showed sinners the Way to the Father. So we must also meet them where yhet are and work to get them out of the muck and mire that we find them in. No judgements just instruction and loving help.

  7. Thank you Bishop Paprocki. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the US bishops went on record critiquing the erroneous ideas expressed by Cardinals McElroy, Cupich, etc. Instead, they have been tasked by the Vatican to drive underground the TLM and the good Catholics who are devoted to it.

  8. Saying what needs to be said. Doing what is required to honour the Lord!

    Matthew 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

    Jude 1:4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

    1 Peter 1:13-19 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, …

    1 Thessalonians 2:2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.

7 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A better way forward: A response to Cardinal Robert McElroy | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. Bishop Paprocki: a better way forward - California Catholic Daily
  3. A better way forward: a response to Cardinal Robert McElroy - JP2 Catholic Radio
  5. Two more bishops condemn Cdl. McElroy's heterodox push for ‘radical inclusion’ - LifeSite
  6. Two more bishops condemn Cdl. McElroy’s heterodox push for ‘radical inclusion’ – Christian Truth Radio Network News
  7. Two more bishops condemn Cdl. McElroy’s attack on Catholic moral teaching – Christian Truth Radio Network News

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