Does the Catholic Church Need a New ‘Framework’ for Sexual Sin? This Moral Theologian Says No
In recent weeks, Cardinal Robert McElroy has argued that the Church’s pastoral practice needs to be reformed to be less ‘exclusionary’; Father Thomas Berg, a moral theologian at St. Joseph Seminary, says the Church is already well-equipped to provide pastoral accompaniment to those struggling with sexual sin.
In a series of recent public contributions, Cardinal Robert McElroy has called for reforming the Church’s pastoral practice related to sexual sin, on the grounds that the current approach is harmfully exclusionary.
First, in his Jan. 24 essay published in America magazine, the San Diego bishop argued that the Church’s characterization of all sexual acts outside of marriage as “objectively grave sin” has led to a pastoral practice that is focused “disproportionately upon sexual activity.” As a result, those engaged in sexual sin — particularly the divorced-and-civilly remarried and persons engaging in same-sex sexual activity — are unduly excluded from the life of the Church, including the Eucharist.
Expanding on these comments in a Feb. 3 interview with America’s Jesuitical podcast, Cardinal McElroy said, “My problem is, we have cast the violations for which you need to not go to the Eucharist, or need to go to confession first, largely in terms of sexual things.” The cardinal stated that he was not arguing for a change in teaching, but a new “framework” in the Church’s “pastoral theology.” Cardinal McElroy reiterated many of these claims in his Feb. 22 talk at Sacred Heart University.
In an interview on the general claim that a new “framework” of the Church’s pastoral theology on sexual sin is needed, the moral theologian Father Thomas Berg told the Register that the Church already has “well-established best practices in accompanying the faithful and helping them gradually come to an ever-fuller embrace of the Church’s moral teaching without watering down that teaching or creating special moral carve-outs for each person.”
In particular, the moral theologian and director of seminary admissions at St. Joseph Seminary and College in Dunwoodie, New York, explained that the Church distinguishes between “grave matter” inherent in disordered sexual activity and the act of committing “mortal sin,” which requires not only grave matter, but also “free choice” and “sufficient knowledge.”
Whether or not someone engaging in disordered sexual activity is committing mortal sin is “a question that any confessor today often has to pastorally assess,” Father Berg said, adding that spiritual directors and qualified laypersons can also be invaluable guides for helping individuals discern “their own particular moral situation.”
But the moral theologian, and author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, emphasized this discernment should take place on a case-by-case basis, in a pastoral, personal, one-on-one context — and strongly cautioned against more universal pronouncements that create the impression that disordered sexual activity is often not a case of mortal sin.
“I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be prudent for some Church leader to ‘announce’ something like this,” said Father Berg. “Those determinations need to be made prudently in the case of each penitent. Otherwise, there would be too much room for confusion and misinterpretation.”
More broadly, the moral theologian suggested that calls for the “reform” of the Church’s teaching on sexual sin “are thinly veiled attempts to change the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic and objective disorder of same-sex sexual acts in the name of a ‘more pastoral’ response to those who identify as ‘LGBTQ+,’” a move that he described as “abjectly unpastoral.”
“The Church must offer the world not only the promise of tenderly accompanying people in their often complex and confusing moral lives, but also a sincere presentation of the truth of the human person,” Father Berg told the Register. “Again, it’s not an either-or between pastoral approach and moral doctrine; it’s always both-and.”
The full text of the Register’s interview with Father Berg is included below.
What’s your assessment of the general claim that the Church’s pastoral theology related to sexual sin needs to be reformed?
First, for the purposes of this conversation, let me acknowledge that the Church has a rich patrimony of moral teaching. Thinking with the Church, we look to that tradition, and oftentimes especially to the Church’s “ordinary and universal magisterium” as this bears on moral matters — that is, to received moral teachings “to be held definitively by all the faithful” — in order to give shape to our teaching and understanding of the call to Christian discipleship witnessed in our moral lives — even today.
So, on the one hand, we have a patrimony of moral teaching about the truth of the human person and the requirements of Christian living in light of the call to discipleship and, ultimately, our call to eternal life with God. We also have a rich patrimony of moral teaching as to discerning the factors which can limit freedom and lessen the degree of personal responsibility for moral choices that, considered in themselves, are objectively in tension with the requirements of Christian morality. (Readers might want to look, for instance, at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1734 and 1735). We have well-established best practices in accompanying the faithful and helping them gradually come to an ever-fuller embrace of the Church’s moral teaching without watering down that teaching or creating special moral carve-outs for each person. In a word, we have moral doctrine and pastoral practice, but the two cannot be at odds, nor can we sacrifice one for the sake of other.
So now, to respond to your question, my sense is that calls for the “reform” of the Church’s teaching on sexual sin are thinly veiled appeals to change the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic and objective disorder of same-sex sexual acts in the name of a “more pastoral” response to those who identify as “LGBTQ+.” But such a move would, in fact, be abjectly unpastoral. The Church must offer the world not only the promise of tenderly accompanying people in their often complex and confusing moral lives, but also a sincere presentation of the truth of the human person. Again, it’s not an either-or between pastoral approach and moral doctrine; it’s always both-and.
Specifically, how do you respond to the claim that sexual sin is treated as automatically “mortal” in a distinctive and possibly unbalanced way? Is this practically the case?
Part of that moral patrimony is the understanding that there can be behaviors which, while not all sharing the same degree of malice and disorder, are, nonetheless, objectively always incompatible with human flourishing, and thus incompatible with the love of God.
To use the traditional distinction, such acts are always “intrinsically disordered” and therefore always constitute “grave matter.” The Church has always considered the matter of human sexuality to be morally grave considered in itself, not because “sex is bad,” but, on the contrary, because the gifts of human sexuality and marriage are so good and so precious.
Yet, as we know, for a person to actually bear the guilt of committing a “mortal” sin, it is not enough that the matter be grave. It must also be the case that they have engaged in the disordered behavior with sufficient reflection for there to have been a free choice, and also with sufficient knowledge, which is to say, with a sufficiently clear judgment of conscience that the act was evil, not to be done. Is it the case today that persons engaging in all kinds of sexual behaviors which, according to the tradition, would be considered objectively disordered, might be doing so at times in a state of such ignorance, moral confusion or coercion that either sufficient reflection or full consent are lacking (such that the sin would not in itself be considered mortal)? I think that’s a question that any confessor today often has to pastorally assess. But that is something that should be assessed one-on-one, in the confessional normally, or outside the confessional with a priest or layperson well versed in the Church’s moral teaching.
So, to be clear, yes, the Church teaches that objectively, for example, for Catholics who enter into a second civilly valid marriage in which they engage in sexual union, without benefit of an annulment, or for Catholics who engage in same-sex sexual acts, etc., this always constitutes “grave matter.” What the degree of subjective responsibility of those involved in these choices might be — that would need to be determined.
But a couple of further observations here: First, even in the case where inculpable ignorance, moral confusion, moral immaturity, etc., might diminish or even possibly eliminate subjective culpability, this does not dispense the confessor or moral guide from the responsibility of prudently enlightening the consciences of these individuals and leading them to acknowledge the objective disorder of their lifestyle choices.
Second, I would hasten to add that sexual sins are hardly the only category of things the Church considers to be “grave matter.” Egregious neglect of a parent bound to a nursing home, destroying someone’s good reputation on Facebook, bullying on social media, subjecting a spouse to emotional and physical abuse, hateful behavior toward another simply due to his or her race or gender, and so on — these can all be considered grave matter.
Does the ubiquity of pornography, promiscuity, normalization of same-sex sexual relations and other sexual problems in the wake of the sexual revolution affect, at all, the pastoral landscape we’re facing?
Of course, it does. But the Church’s moral tradition can handle it. We don’t need to “rethink” the Church’s patrimony of moral teaching and sound pastoral practices. Rather, we need to apply these with love, mercy and fidelity to the truth about the human person to the situation of each individual.
What I sense that is often behind calls for the Church to modify its “policy” on X, Y or Z sexual issue is, on the one hand, a kind of practical agnosticism about truth — moral truth. Many advocates of “reform,” I have to think, have simply abandoned the idea that there are moral truths out there. Period. It’s a kind of fatalism and acute moral relativism.
And on the other hand, there is this sense that morality has become so “personal,” so “private,” so unique to me and my circumstances and my decision about what I consider to be morally good, that neither the Church, nor anyone, and frankly, not even God, has any right to stick their nose into my moral life. The Nietzschean invitation to “create your own truth because there ain’t no truth out there” has definitely crept into the Church. But that is not Christianity — never has been, never will be.
As a seminary professor and formator, how do you advise future priests to engage with these matters pastorally?
Well, a newly ordained priest’s hopefully solid pastoral practice in such matters has to be the outcome of a long process of growth in his own spiritual life and in his own work at conscience formation, along with years of study of moral and pastoral theology and field work.
In my own experience as a seminary professor and formator, it is especially in the context of teaching the course on the sacrament of penance — something I have been doing every spring for a decade now — that I address a whole panoply of pastoral and moral issues that can arise in the context of sacramental confession. I also direct the practice sessions in which the men get substantial opportunities to finesse and refine their pastoral approach as confessors before they actually get into the confessional to celebrate the sacrament.
Is there a pastoral danger to a Church leader announcing or promoting the idea that many sexual sins may not be mortal sins? As opposed to discerning the nature of one’s sexual sin in concert with a spiritual director/confessor?
While it might well be the frequent experience of confessors, for example, as I was explaining earlier, that with a certain frequency, they determine that a given penitent is not sinning mortally due to something that has diminished sufficient reflection or full free consent, I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be prudent for some Church leader to “announce” something like this. Those determinations need to be made prudently in the case of each penitent. Otherwise, there would be too much room for confusion and misinterpretation.
What is your practical advice to someone who might be caught up in sexual sin and is trying to assess if they’re committing mortal sin or not? And, for instance, whether they should be receiving Communion at Mass? What should they do?
You are describing, for example, what might be the situation of a person who — having repented of and confessed past deliberate sins that led to the onset of full-blown porn addiction — is now struggling to get free and may at times succumb, without full free consent, to their own addiction.
Be it a case like this or something else, a person in the circumstances you describe should seek the guidance of someone who is well-formed in the Church’s moral tradition and pastoral best practices. Typically, this will be a Catholic priest, but it is not the exclusive domain of priests (whether in the context of sacramental confession or outside of confession); deacons, catechists, Catholic psychologists and counselors, for example, could all avail themselves of the necessary formation to help form consciences and help individuals navigate such questions successfully.
It seems like being able to go to a trusted confessor, spiritual director or even lay counselor is an important aspect of the Church’s pastoral response to these challenges. Why is that, and how can the Church make this practice more common?
To navigate moral questions successfully can oftentimes require a level of moral knowledge and pastoral experience that individual Catholics commonly lack. But as Christians, it is very natural for us to reach out for guidance to those in our community who demonstrate that they have the requisite knowledge, fidelity to the Church’s moral teaching, and pastoral sensitivity to help others discern their particular moral situations. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and now Pope Francis have underscored something the Church has practiced for centuries in the sacrament of penance, namely, the need for this pastoral discernment of the individual’s situation.
But that must always, again, unite mercy and truth, pastoral sensitivity and accompaniment with honesty about how particular moral norms apply to an individual in his or her circumstances. What this requires above all, of the moral guide, is a profound gift of divine charity, as well as plenty of both the natural and infused virtues of prudence and the gift of counsel.
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