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Pope Francis, Bishop McElroy, and Amoris Laetitia

Here is why I believe that Pope Francis—slowly and brick by brick—is attempting to subvert the theological hermeneutic of the previous two papacies.

June 2, 2022

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 is 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 actionsagainst 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 McElroyabout 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?”

• Related at CWR: “The Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room” (Nov 8, 2016) by Carl E. Olson

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About Larry Chapp  20 Articles

Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chapp received his doctorate from Fordham University in 1994 with a specialization in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He can be visited online at “Gaudium et Spes 22”.


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  1. MalJUNE 2, 2022 AT 10:53 PMWhen Pope Francis canonized John Paul II he praised the saint. CNA reported, “It is enough to look at his life” to see that John Paul II had “the smell of the sheep,” Francis said. “He was a pastor who loved people and the people returned it with an immense love.”REPLY
    • Peter D. BeaulieuJUNE 3, 2022 AT 8:12 AMPlus something more than the smell of the sheep. Once canonized and shelved, easier to leave behind. “Veritatis Splendor,” what’s that?REPLY
    • RamjetJUNE 3, 2022 AT 9:06 AMWhy don’t you answer the author’s specific claims in his column instead of distracting on a tangent, ‘Mal’?REPLY
  2. GilbertaJUNE 3, 2022 AT 1:05 AM“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”. (Echeverria)
    Indeed. Why Confession? Why the atoning Sacrifice? Why any of it?REPLY
  3. Deacon Edward PeitlerJUNE 3, 2022 AT 3:00 AMTwo points:
    #1. Many today (and this includes some of our bishops) fashion themselves to be God and hence believe that the One who IS God answers to them. From where I stand, I find no humility evinced in this man Bergoglio nor in any of his appointees like Gregory, McElroy, Tobin, Cupich and Co. I only find hubris. Arrogant, prideful, angry men who spend too much energy hating their perceived enemies. What a pity.#2. As we are finding among in politics among the Left, the same goes for those in the hierarchy of Christ’s Church – it is far easier to destroy the Good, the True and the Beautiful than it is to edify. Francis and his minions know how to deconstruct: the family, liturgies, sexuality, and truth but they don’t have any inkling about how to strengthen that which forms the structure of essential ecclesiastical, civil or family life.
    But as the case with Leftists in general, once they’re finished tearing everything down, they themselves will be torn down. Just watch and see.REPLY
    • Michael DunneJUNE 3, 2022 AT 9:11 AMThank you Deacon. You speak well.REPLY
    • Andrea B DavisJUNE 3, 2022 AT 9:21 AMIf you don’t appreciate Pope Francis, which is obvious, that’s your right as an indidual. But if you represent the voice of the church, and as Deacon you do, you owe him obedience. You have no right to use your pulpit to divide people into 2 factions– “the liberals” being not only wrong but evil. Please start taking your important position seriously.
      If you don’t, your fault will be greater than that of a layperson.REPLY
      • meironJUNE 3, 2022 AT 10:07 AMWhere does Deacon Peltier disobey a command of Francis? How and where specifically does the Deacon cause division? The unity of the Catholic Church depends on Christ; it does not depend on Francis’ appointments, and it certainly does not depend on what the hierarchy and laity think about those. Just as Francis is free to voice a personal opinion, so is the deacon, and so are we.There is no ‘pulpit’ here on this forum. Unless one sees objects which don’t exist.REPLY
      • Deacon Edward PeitlerJUNE 3, 2022 AT 10:37 AMMy obedience is always first and foremost to the Truth. If a fail to speak it even when it pertains to the Pope, then I would be as a clanging cymbal. You should understand that you cannot love amidst untruth. It’s simply impossible. You can only love where Truth is honored.REPLY
  4. Thomas RyderJUNE 3, 2022 AT 4:27 AMGreat insights and it is tragic that Francis is so driven to repudiate his two predecessors, under whose papacy the Church was reinvigorating and strengthening. Never mind that John Paul, especially, was a catalyst that literally changed the world to spectacular benefit. As for your McElroy multiple choice, unequivocally D.REPLY
  5. Donna Jorgenson FarrellJUNE 3, 2022 AT 5:35 AMLike many clerics, Francis surrounds himself with like-minded people who are unlikely to challenge him in any way. I have told a number of these priests that people who always agree with you are not your friends, and people who disagree with you are not necessarily your enemies. I appreciate most a friend who will warn me that I’m approaching a cliff instead of standing by cheering for me to fall over it.REPLY
    • blahJUNE 3, 2022 AT 10:26 AMArchbishop Vigano has declared that what new cardinals have in common is “blackmailability.”REPLY
    • Patrick MaginnisJUNE 3, 2022 AT 10:37 AMWhat a lovely response to the Hatemongers who are well represented on The US Supreme Court also. Catholics make horrible SCOTUS members.
      Dred Scott was written by A Baltimore MARYland Catholic Roger Taney.
      RBG is missed already. Amy “Touchdown Jesus” ND Salem Witch Trial survivor Handmaiden People of Praise Sychophant Zombie Catholic.
      The Catholic Church has been run by White Supremacists, since Jesus died. The writer of this article is a Sour Grapes Drumpf from Dumbphuquistan Trumpenstein Insurrectionist Supporter.
      Catholics could not own land in America until 1780.
      There was the Know nothing Party that raped nuns, burned down Catholic churches. My Grandfather had a sign on his fireplace in NY: “Irish need not apply for jobs here.”
      How quickly Catholics forget and become Intolerant Fascists. Potato famine, Auschwitz in the most Catholic country in world–Poland. Pope Francis is a very well educated Jesuit. Some of the best high schools and colleges in America are Jesuit open minded intellectual bastions. Gonzaga High in DC. OU & USC QB Caleb Williams. Gonzaga U. in Spokane.REPLY
      • Carl E. OlsonJUNE 3, 2022 AT 10:50 AM“What a lovely response to the Hatemongers….”“Amy “Touchdown Jesus” ND Salem Witch Trial survivor Handmaiden People of Praise Sychophant Zombie Catholic. Barrett”Patrick: You lack charity, reason, facts, understanding, and self-awareness. Otherwise, you’re doing great.REPLY
  6. N.D.JUNE 3, 2022 AT 6:08 AM“You know, that Lefebvre dude was right all along.” In essence, being in communion with Christ, and His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, (Filioque), is not a matter of degree. If you are not with Christ, “you are against Christ”.“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles. ”To deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), is to deny The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity. Perhaps if Pope Benedict were free to speak, he would make it clear that the denial of The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, is a sin against The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. The question is, why is Pope Benedict not permitted to speak?I do care that a counterfeit church is attempting to subsist within Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside of which there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, because Christ Has Revealed Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, that No Greater Love Is There Than This- To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved..How then can anyone who denies The Christ, The Word Of Perfect Love Incarnate, be desiring Salvation for themselves or their beloved?REPLY
  7. Fr Peter Morello, PhDJUNE 3, 2022 AT 6:20 AM“Quo vadis, Domine?”, or, Where is Our Lord permitting the Church to journey? If an attorney were required to prosecute a case against this pontificate Dr Larry Chapp would be well chosen.
    If I were compelled to take the stand and tell the truth in response to why I assume God permits what’s occurring, that the Church is being led to a place it normally would not wish to go, I would answer that somewhat like Peter who would be led to crucifixion to glorify Our Lord, the Church is being led to crucifixion to glorify Our Lord. Both will be crucified by unbelievers, the latter specifically by Catholic apostates. The difference?
    If Peter’s crucifixion would join the blood of the Roman martyrs to convert Rome, the Church is being crucified as a chastisement to cleanse Rome of its infestation by reprobates and homosexuals.REPLY
  8. Todd FlowerdayJUNE 3, 2022 AT 6:35 AMThe connection to Mr McCarrick looks pretty weak. There were warnings against him in the mid-90s, and still, Pope John Paul II and his Bishops dicastery promoted him. How can we solve that? We can’t revoke a sainthood. The whole fuss about Bishop McElroy smells like internal church politics. My own preference for a red hat would be Bishop Mark Seitz. But this isn’t about lobbying, primaries, or democracy.And yes, there are aspects of 1978-2013 that need unravelling: secrecy, blind spots to bishop misbehavior, personal attacks on people who disagree. Let’s let it go.REPLY
  9. Nicholas Harding OMIJUNE 3, 2022 AT 6:49 AMYour analysis resonates as accurate, unfortunately. Good connecting of the dots.I wonder who is behind the scenes, similar to leftist Biden, ghost writing and master planning?REPLY
  10. Steve SeitzJUNE 3, 2022 AT 7:43 AMI remember Francis saying near the beginning of his pontificate that he was not a theological expert and that the focus of his papacy would, therefore, be evangelization. Well, judging by the numbers, he’s failed at evangelism. I wonder why he thinks that he can do any better with theologyREPLY
    • meironJUNE 3, 2022 AT 9:47 AMSome people don’t do well at thinking. Aquinas wrote a bit about ‘blindness of mind.’ ( Sins of lust and gluttony particularly interfere with the ability to perceive reality and to think clearly about it. St. Paul, on the same (Corinthians 4:4–5): “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”REPLY
  11. blahJUNE 3, 2022 AT 8:54 AMOne might be inclined to get one’s house in order.REPLY

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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