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Cardinal McElroy, Pope Francis and the synod

Cardinal McElroy, Pope Francis and the synod

Cardinal Robert McElroy this week prompted widespread conversation among Catholics, after he published an essay which issued a call for a very broad change to the Church’s Eucharistic life.

The cardinal’s essay surprised some Catholics, because it seemed to deviate from the stated position of Pope Francis, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on a central issue of Catholic doctrine.

But few commentators have noted its other distinguishing feature: McElroy discussed a set of proposed changes to Catholic doctrine in the context of the Church’s synod on synodality – suggesting that the cardinal may hold a very different vision for the synod than does Pope Francis or the synod’s organizers.

The cardinal is likely not alone. While the pope and other synod organizers have insisted the global synod process does not aim to focus on doctrinal changes, McElroy has suggested that it will — just as many Catholics have insisted it might since the process was announced two years ago.

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Cardinal McElroy’s Jan. 24 essay urged that the Church “embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord, rather than a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the Eucharist.”

The cardinal argued that Catholics living in sexual relationships which defy the doctrinal teaching of the Church should not be precluded from receiving Holy Communion.

While McElroy suggested that his point was “preeminently a pastoral question, not a doctrinal one,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church takes a different view.

The Catechism teaches that “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” — and to demonstrate that teaching is a matter of doctrine, not prudential judgment, the Catechism draws from St. Paul’s writings in Sacred Scripture:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

Of course, McElroy argued, in line with Catholic doctrine, that sexual sin is not the only kind of grave sin, nor even necessarily the most profound.

But while the Catechism teaches that anyone who has committed any kind of grave sin - sexual or otherwise should abstain the Eucharist, McElroy’s essay moved in the other direction, arguing that “[Eucharistic] unworthiness cannot be the prism of accompaniment for disciples of the God of grace and mercy.”

While the cardinal referenced frequently Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital, the pope himself has taken a very different approach from McElroy on the question of the Eucharistic communion.

The pope has warned the Church about the prospect of Catholics who “eat and drink judgment against themselves” at the Eucharistic table.

In Amoris laetitia, for example, the pope taught that “When those who receive [the Eucharist] turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily.”

In the same document, the pope taught that only “in some cases” can Catholics who are divorced and remarried approach the Eucharist, in a set of circumstances which, albeit controversial, remain narrowly defined in even the most permissive interpretations of the pope’s teaching.

Building on the same idea, the pope in 2021 lamented the Catholic “who is not in the community and is not able to take Communion because he is outside of the community.”

“This is not a penalty: you are outside. Communion is to unite the community,” the pope taught.

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Presumably, Pope Francis would agree with McElroy that all the baptized should be invited to “the table of the Lord” — as would all Catholics.

But while McElroy advanced a seemingly unqualified approach to Eucharistic communion, Francis’ actual teaching has included the notions that Catholics should seek mercy in the confessional, and communion with the Church, before receiving the Eucharist.

While McElroy’s Eucharistic theology is seemingly in tension with the pope’s, the cardinal’s apparent ecclesiology might present a more acute, or immediate, issue for Francis.

Since he announced the synod on synodality in 2021, Pope Francis has urged that the global series of meetings focus on the experience of Catholics “journeying together” — on the ways that Catholics can better know the will of God for the missionary and pastoral life of the Church, by a process of common prayer, listening, and discernment.

The synod on synodality’s handbook explains that the process aims “to provide an opportunity for the entire People of God to discern together how to move forward on the path towards being a more synodal Church in the long-term.”

In 2015, the pope insisted that a synod “is neither a convention, nor a parlor, nor a parliament or senate, where people make deals and reach compromises. The Synod is rather an Ecclesial expression, i.e., the  Church that journeys together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.”

Part of a synod’s work, the pope said, is for the Church to “interrogate herself with regard to her fidelity to the deposit of faith” — to examine, in short, whether the Church is living up to her doctrine, which comes from God’s own revelation.

Since that time, other synod leaders have said the same.

In August, the synod’s relator general explained that  the synod on synodality “is not meant to change doctrine, but attitudes.”

McElroy’s essay, on the other hand, portrayed the synod as an event by which Catholic Eucharistic teaching and practice might change, and by which other Catholic doctrine might change as well.

The cardinal suggested that the synodal process would be responsible to “discern how to address the exclusion of divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics…on the issue of participation in the Eucharist,” and to address “the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood.”

That task list, of course, seemingly points to a synodal vision which goes beyond discernment of synodality, and looks to the synod on synodality as a kind of discerning or deliberating body about concrete doctrinal issues in the life of the Church.

As it happens, the pope has been clear that the issue of women priests is a settled theological matter in the Church, as have synod organizers. But even if it weren’t, the notion that the synod would take a position of any kind on ordination, or Eucharistic doctrine and discipline, would seem, at least to some observers, to suggest the sort of vision for the synod - as a “parliament or senate” - which Pope Francis warned against.

Casting that vision could well have consequences for the kind of synodal spirit Francis wants to encourage in the Church.

Whatever the cardinal intended to accomplish, one effect of his essay is likely to be the seeming confirmation of the fears of Catholics who’ve claimed that the synod on synodality would be a kind of Trojan horse for downplaying or deviating from Catholic doctrine.

Francis has made efforts to push back on that narrative.

To some Catholics, McElroy seemed this week to confirm it, and with that, to confirm their anxieties about the whole of the synodal process. It remains to be seen whether Francis will respond to that decision.

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