An essay by Cardinal Robert McElroy last week in America magazine kicked up more than a little ecclesial dust, with critics saying the cardinal presents a vision for the Church that involves a radical theological revision to long-standing notions of moral theology, eucharistic discipline and the sacrament of orders.
But the essay didn’t arise in a vacuum. While McElroy has turned up the volume on some theological disagreement, the conflict is nothing new — especially on two critical issues: a far more expansive approach to Eucharistic reception, and the question of the Church’s indefectibility on magisterial teaching.
To understand McElroy - and the direction his work might soon take - it seems useful to understand the intellectual history and movements behind the essay.
McElroy’s essay calls for a concept of Eucharistic discipline rooted in a radically inclusive approach for all the baptized, regardless of their spiritual status or state along the pursuit of holiness.
The cardinal cites three theological underpinnings for this view:
First, he explicitly cites Pope Francis and his call for the Church to be a field hospital for sinners. The pope has also stated that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but medicine for the sick.
Second, McElroy cites the central role played by moral conscience — and while he does not mention him specifically, it has become commonplace among those who share this view to reference the teaching of John Henry Cardinal Newman on the primacy of conscience. And McElroy seems to be in that camp as well.
Third, and once again explicitly citing Pope Francis, there is the fact of human brokenness and that grace builds on nature, in often long-term and progressing ways that require ecclesial patience.
But while McElroy’s remarks may be viewed as a call for the Church to open communion to all regardless of their sinful status, the cardinal does not state that explicitly.
He instead speaks of “comprehensive inclusion” in Eucharistic reception — language easily open to the concept of full and open eucharistic reception for all.
In that regard Cardinal McElroy is scoping out new theological territory, since few mainstream Catholic theologians have made a such a call explicitly, even if it has now become more commonplace among Protestant thinkers.
Of course, McElroy isn’t the only recent person of note in the Church to allude to such a theology as a general principle. But he might be among the most direct.
While Father James Martin, for example, has also called for a far more welcoming and inclusive Church for Catholics in the LGBT community, he has stopped short of an explicit call for the Church to change her teaching on the reception of communion for those whose lives are habitually discordant with Catholic doctrine.
Still, McElroy’s views on the matter can be seen as an outgrowth of some voices in the Church calling for a more inclusive approach to those in the LGBT community, among them Martin, Bishop Georg Batzing in Germany and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich in Luxembourg. In question, however, is how that approach will be shaped by the Church's doctrine on the reception of sacraments.
McElroy’s candor about the aim of explicit change to Church teaching on the Eucharist is more direct than most, but is hardly a novelty in the current ecclesial landscape.
Alongside his comments on the Eucharist, McElroy’s essay pushed back against the teaching that sexual acts outside of traditional marriage are “grave matter,” and pushed to eliminate the Church’s typical distinction between sexual orientation and sexual activity.
The cardinal argued that the distinction is onerous and unfair, inflicting an intolerable pain on people and asking of them a form of chastity that is destructive rather than sanctifying.
McElroy’s essay also entertained the prospect that the ordination of women to the priesthood might be debated at upcoming sessions of the synod on synodality, calling into question the teaching of Pope John Paul II on the Church’s inability, rooted in divine revelation, to ordain women.
Some theologians have recognized that latent in the cardinal’s approach, or at least implied, is a theological adjudication that magisterial teachings on some serious issues are in error. That has led some to ask about McElroy’s view of magisterial authority, and of the Church’s claim to indefectibility.
There have been theologians, such as Hans Küng, who have famously championed the view that the Church can never propose irreformable infallible teachings, and that the Church’s indefectibility is more of a “long-haul” reality where the Church will eventually correct some its clear errors over time.
McElroy has not spoken directly on the question of indefectibility in the context of the synod. But some theologians have raised questions, because McElroy suggests that the current synodal process will involve a reinterrogation of Church doctrine on hot button issues, despite Pope Francis’ warnings to the contrary.
If McElroy continues to suggest that the synod could take impactful positions contrary to settled doctrinal matters, at least some Catholics will make presumptions about the cardinal's view on indefectibility — and as the issue becomes a bone of contention among theologians, he might well decide to address the issue.
Finally, Cardinal McElroy’s essay invoked the synodal process as a movement of the Holy Spirit which is giving the Church an indication of the sensus fidei.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has defined the sensus fidei as, "the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”
In light of that definition, the view that the current synodal listening sessions are an expression of the sensus fidei is, to say the least, controversial.
For its part, Lumen gentium makes clear that the sensus fidei is not determined via a mere tabulation of random opinions from various lay people, but rather is a complicated process of interaction between all the faithful – clergy included – and the apostolic magisterium which must guide the process. And it is only expressive of the sensus fidei when the faith so expressed shows “universal agreement in faith and morals.”
Cardinal McElroy’s argument seemed to lean theologically on those whose work would expand the notion of discerning the sensus fidei away from the Catechism’s more “official” and magisterially-focused approach, and toward more “laicist” emphases.
Those theological voices come from sources as disparate as liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and Juan Segundo, and more mainstream thinkers like Yves Congar, who emphasized the need for a greater awareness of the deep reciprocal relationship between the teaching Church and the Church that listens — In other words, the sensus fidei is not a one way street where the Church teaches and the people listen.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI offered some frameworks for the notion of the sensus fidei, when he told the International Theological Commission that it is “certainly not a kind of public ecclesial opinion, and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable, since the sensus fidei cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith.”
But the cardinal’s reference to the sensus fidei is not surprising to Catholics in the theological guild, who have been following the debate – and observed the notion of the sensus fidei applied to the synod on synodality already.
The influential journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, to cite one example, has called the current synodal process the greatest exercise in “listening” to the faithful in the entire history of the Church, and suggested that the opinions expressed really are the movement of the Holy Spirit and therefore an authentic expression of the sensus fidei.
Cardinal McElroy's essay did not offer explicit detail about his own more developed views on the sensus fidei, so it remains to be seen in what ways he thinks the current synodal process represents the discernment of the Church, and in what ways it doesn't.
But the topic is controversial, and differing approaches to the notion of the sensus fidei will no doubt come into play in the months to come — as McElroy himself indicated.
McElroy’s essay seemingly did exactly what the cardinal intended: it amplified a bold set of theological claims with a history in ecclesiastical and intellectual discourse. For the most part, the Church has already responded to those claims. But if the cardinal’s essay is any indication, they seem likely to get a new public hearing in the months to come.
Editor's note: This analysis was edited subsequent to publication for clarity.