True Love Calls for a Change of Heart

COMMENTARY: The notion that doctrinal fidelity is somehow in tension or even at odds with pastoral concerns is both wrong and dangerous.

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska. (photo: Courtesy photo / Diocese of Lincoln)

Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on the diocesan website. Edited for style, it is republished here with permission.

In the wake of our Holy Father’s call for a more synodal Church, much has been written about Cardinal Robert McElroy’s recent piece in America magazine criticizing the Church for her “structures and cultures of exclusion.” 

I highly recommend the responses by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, and I think Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver summarized the Church’s response well with the challenging statement that “radical inclusion requires radical love.”

Cardinal McElroy has since clarified some of his thoughts and this is where I would like to join the conversation. The cardinal explained that he was misinterpreted when he wrote about Communion for “all the baptized” and that he was only referring to Catholics. I am most heartened to hear his support for this practice which has existed in the Church from the very beginning — attested to in the second century by St. Justin Martyr and the Didache, an early Church instruction manual.

Nonetheless, the cardinal continues to affirm that the Church promotes “cultures of exclusion.” In his America article, he explains:

"Pastoral practices that have the effect of excluding certain categories of people from full participation in the life of the Church are at odds with this pivotal notion that we are all wounded and all equally in need of healing.” 

I agree 100% that we are all deeply wounded, and we are equally in need of healing. We are all recovering sinners, and this is the reason why we are in desperate need of a savior. But if I am reading the cardinal correctly, he is saying that full participation in the life of the Church, including the Eucharist, seems to mean full participation without consideration of one’s relationship with the Church.

To my mind, this has never been the practice of the Catholic Church. When early Christians sinned grievously, they often gave public confession and did months, if not years, of public penance before being readmitted into full communion. Thankfully, the demands of penance have been mercifully softened, but the truth that penance must be made remains because it is a sign of a sinner who desires conversion, someone who is attempting to have a “firm purpose of amendment” regarding their sins.

Jesus himself called sinners to repent. He ate and drank with tax collectors, yes, and this is what inclusion should look like, but he always called the sinner to conversion. Accompaniment for Jesus was always paired with a call to conversion. This should not have to be argued. It is there for all to see.

The cardinal says the Church should focus on “a listening that seeks not to convince but to understand the experiences and values of others.” I couldn’t agree more. I am always trying to be a better listener, and I am constantly praying for a more empathetic heart, so that I might understand the real struggles people are facing these days in trying to be good Catholics. But simply listening is not enough. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a huge part of the process of healing and conversion, perhaps the most important part of the process. We listen to accompany, and in the case of a sinner, to accompany that person to, and through, conversion. If we believe the Scriptures, then we know just how much is at stake.

There is, nonetheless, often the notion that doctrinal fidelity is somehow in tension or even at odds with pastoral concerns. The truths of the faith, so the thinking goes, are not as important as the unqualified welcoming of all. It is as if the purpose of the Church is to create a safe space. This is both wrong and dangerous. The Church should never be satisfied to leave a person in his or her sin. This is a false idea of love and a disservice to the sinner. We are called to love the sinner so that he or she may live within the light of truth, a reality that is both liberating and one that saves. This is much more difficult for the person accompanying the sinner than simply letting him or her stay in their sin, but it is essential. True love calls for a change in heart — ask any husband or wife. A good spouse demands more from the other than he or she would give on his or her own.

Pope Benedict XVI said it well:

“Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way” (Caritas in Veritate 3). 

And we can also say, on the other hand, that truth without charity is cruel, simply a set of cold rules and regulations that one must follow.

This is sometimes a difficult balance to hold, but Jesus shows us how. He both loved the sinner and called him or her to conversion. In fact, it is because he loved the sinner that he called him or her to conversion.

In the end, it is the truth that sets us free; freedom to love and freedom to live in the truth of our relationship with the Holy Trinity and the Church. In this sense, love requires truth. To fail to accompany our neighbor out of sin into a life that conforms with the truth is not to love. It is a superficial accompaniment that has eternal consequences.

I agree heartily with Cardinal McElroy that the Church must accompany all. But we must accompany in love, so the sinner repents and amends his or her life in a way that conforms with the great dignity of our identity as beloved sons and daughters of the Father who are called to live in the truth of his love for us. Anything less than this is not the accompaniment of genuine love.


Bishop James Conley is the shepherd for the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.