Who’s ‘Anti-Francis’? Bishop Paprocki and Others Point Out Cardinal McElroy’s Contradictions of the Holy Father

“I think it’s very convenient to try to hide behind Pope Francis and say, ‘Well, if you disagree with me, you’re really disagreeing with Pope Francis,’” the Illinois bishop told the Register. “But I think the reality is contrary to that.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., during the closing Mass at the diocesan synod in 2017.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., during the closing Mass at the diocesan synod in 2017. (photo: Courtesy photo / Diocese of Springfield)

Shortly after Bishop Thomas Paprocki published a Feb. 28 essay rhetorically considering the proper canonical response to heretical prelates, the Springfield, Illinois, bishop received criticism for being “anti-Francis.”

Why? Because in his piece, Bishop Paprocki had implied that Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, a cleric who Pope Francis seemingly went out of his way to elevate to the College of Cardinals in 2022, was publicly promoting heretical ideas, specifically regarding reception of the Eucharist while in a state of unrepentant mortal sin.

Bishop Paprocki’s article “is part of the proxy war against this pontificate being waged by some in the Anglophone Catholic world,” claimed Christopher Lamb, a journalist for The Tablet, a British Catholic publication whose editors recently wrote that the Church’s teaching on sexuality has a “shaky foundation.”

A similar idea was advanced by Dan Rober, professor of Catholic studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, who characterized Bishop Paprocki’s piece as “another U.S. [b]ishop attacking Pope Francis by way of attacking one of the other bishops.”

Lamb and Rober’s assessment of Bishop Paprocki’s implicit critique of Cardinal McElroy as “anti-Francis” likely stems from a common belief that Cardinal McElroy is a “proxy,” or stand-in, for the Holy Father in the U.S. ecclesial scene, given that the San Diego bishop was made a cardinal over the likes of former USCCB president Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, despite not heading a see from which U.S. cardinals have typically been selected, nor even an archdiocese.

Just days after Bishop Paprocki’s piece, Cardinal McElroy himself attempted to identify his views even more strongly with the Holy Father, publishing an article in America magazine that made the case that his calls for “radical inclusion” — which includes ordaining women to the deaconate and potentially the priesthood, as well as no longer considering sexual sin as necessarily grave matter — were derived from Pope Francis’ principles of pastoral theology.

But in an interview with the Register conducted just hours after Cardinal McElroy’s latest piece was published, Bishop Paprocki pushed back against both the idea that his concerns about heresy somehow indicated opposition to the Pope and efforts to avoid legitimate criticism through unfounded appeals to papal-proxy status.

“I think it’s very convenient to try to hide behind Pope Francis and say, ‘Well, if you disagree with me, you’re really disagreeing with Pope Francis,’” said Bishop Paprocki. “But I think the reality is contrary to that.”

Who Is Contradicting the Pope?

In fact, Bishop Paprocki, who heads the U.S. bishops’ committee on canon law, suggested that Cardinal McElroy himself holds views on at least one significant matter that are contrary to the Holy Father’s.

In particular, Bishop Paprocki focused on the concept of Eucharistic coherence, which emphasizes that a Catholic’s participation in the Eucharist should reflect their actual status of communion with the Church, and therefore those who have separated themselves from Christ through mortal sin should refrain from receiving the Eucharist until confessing their sins and receiving sacramental absolution.

Cardinal McElroy attacked a “theology of eucharistic coherence” in his Jan. 24 essay in America that initiated the ongoing dispute, describing it as an approach that “multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist.”

But as Bishop Paprocki points out, the U.S. bishops’ understanding and use of Eucharistic coherence, reiterated in their 2021 document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” is derived from a prominent Latin American ecclesial text that Pope Francis played a primary role in drafting as the then cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires and lauded after its release: the so-called “Aparecida document,” promulgated by the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.

Although written primarily to address the scandal of pro-abortion politicians and health professionals, the text’s discussion of Eucharistic coherence also seems to apply to any instance in which someone’s moral life is inconsistent with communion with the Catholic Church. It reads, “We must adhere to ‘eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments …”

The Aparecida document has been described as “the source” of Francis’ pontificate by Jesuit Father Diego Fares, one of the most widely regarded interpreters of Pope Francis’ thought, and has been cited numerous times in some of the most pivotal documents of his papacy. Bishop Paprocki suggested that the document, including its understanding of Eucharistic coherence, has served as a blueprint for Pope Francis’ pastoral theology.

“I’d say Eucharistic coherence is very much [in accord with] the mind of Pope Francis,” Bishop Paprocki told the Register. “So to be suggesting that we should no longer pay attention to Eucharistic coherence, to say that [quoting Cardinal McElroy] ‘the theology of eucharistic coherence multiplies barriers to graces and gift of the eucharist’ and we should abandon that, well, then, he’s basically contradicting the Aparecida document — which would seem to be contradicting Pope Francis.”

A request for comment from Cardinal McElroy’s office, which has not responded to multiple interview requests from the Register over the past few weeks, was not returned by the time this story was published.

Other Areas of Contradiction

If Bishop Paprocki is correct, it wouldn’t be the only significant instance of the so-called papal proxy appearing to contradict the Holy Father on a significant matter of doctrine and practice. Cardinal McElroy’s public promotion of attempting to sacramentally ordain women also seems at odds with Pope Francis’ expressed views on the matter.

In his Jan. 24 article, Cardinal McElroy argued that the Church “should move toward admitting women to the diaconate” and that “theological examination of this issue tends to support the conclusion that the ordination of women to the diaconate is not doctrinally precluded.” The San Diego cardinal also spoke of the ordination of women to the priesthood as if it were an open possibility.

But Pope Francis has emphatically and repeatedly affirmed that ordaining women to the priesthood is not a possibility. In fact, in a November 2022 interview with America, the Holy Father associated all of ordained ministry with “the Petrine principle” of the Church, which is not consistent with female clergy.

“That the woman does not enter into the ministerial life is not a deprivation,” the Holy Father explained. “No. Your place is that which is much more and important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle.”

Furthermore, multiple theologians appointed by Pope Francis to a commission examining the theological merits concerning the question of women deacons have underscored that there is no theological basis in the Church’s tradition for the sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate, in clear contrast to Cardinal McElroy’s assertions.

“Having studied this particular area of theology quite extensively, I was taken aback by the cardinal’s statement,” wrote Deacon Dominic Cerrato, a deacon in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, who was one of 10 theologians assigned to the papal commission. “While it certainly contained elements of truth, it was a broad generalization that, in its conclusion, cannot be sustained by the historic and theological evidence.”

More broadly, in an article for the website “Where Peter Is,” Pope Francis Generation podcast founder and co-host Paul Fahey pointed out incongruities between Cardinal McElroy’s pastoral approach and that of Pope Francis, noting that while the Pope has emphasized factoring personal culpability into the question of mortal sin, Cardinal McElroy argues “for dispensing with grave matter as a category of principal relevance when considering issues of sexual morality in the first place.”

Fahey, a professional catechist, added that while Francis’ approach shows that there is no conflict between the pastoral and the doctrinal, Cardinal McElroy “is proposing a change in doctrine to accommodate pastoral practice.”

“The Church would be much better off if our pastors — especially those assuming the mantle of Francis’ pastors in the U.S. Church — set aside their own political and theological agendas and started integrating more of Pope Francis’ actual teaching, including his commitment to the received moral law, into their pastoral practice,” wrote Fahey.

Integrity of Conscience

In his interview with the Register, Bishop Paprocki also expanded on the claim made in his Feb. 28 article that it “is not uncommon today to hear Catholic leaders affirm unorthodox views that, not too long ago, would have been espoused only by heretics.”

Bishop Paprocki attributed the rise in bishops promoting heresy to a mistaken understanding of the development of doctrine. He characterized this view, which he said is also present in Europe, especially in the context of the German Synodal Way, as the idea that “everything’s on the table, it’s all up for grabs, and we’re going to redefine things.”

He said this view runs contrary to the understanding of the development of doctrine expressed by St. John Henry Newman, who was clear that development can’t contradict long-standing Church doctrine.

The Springfield bishop also critiqued what he characterized as an inadequate view of the significance of the conscience in the moral life, seemingly responding to Cardinal McElroy’s repeated assertion that “while Catholic teaching has an essential role in moral decision-making, it is conscience that has the privileged place.”

While underscoring the primacy of conscience, Bishop Paprocki pointed to its etymology (“knowing with”) to indicate that the goal is always to form one’s conscience in accord with the Church. He suggested that there needs to be a renewed emphasis on the “integrity” of one’s conscience, noting that a Catholic who rejects the Church’s teaching cannot claim that following their conscience somehow means they are following God’s will and the Catholic faith.

“We believe in freedom of conscience. But then have the integrity to say, ‘Well, then I can’t call myself Catholic because I reject what the Catholic Church teaches.’”

Bishop Paprocki also explained that he publicly criticized Cardinal McElroy’s views because the cardinal had, in fact, disseminated his ideas publicly, without retracting them. While private conservations have taken place, and indeed the bishop confirmed in another news outlet that he and Cardinal McElroy have exchanged emails since Bishop Paprocki’s essay was published, “that doesn’t mean that they should only happen privately.”

“You have a situation where you’ve got a public statement out there and all the faithful see is this problematic statement,” he said, explaining his rationale for his public intervention. “They don’t know about private conversations, and they think, ‘Well, nobody’s challenging this. I guess this is now the accepted teaching of the Church.’”

The Illinois bishop pointed to the example of Church leaders who challenged the Arian heresy in the fourth century, noting that without their intervention, “we’d all be Arians today.”

“Bishops need to say something when they see or hear statements that are contrary to the teachings of the Church,” Bishop Paprocki reiterated.

While Bishop Paprocki acknowledged that publicly confronting a brother bishop appears to be divisive, he said the reality is that hanging on to a false sense of unity “could also be destructive.”

“I don’t think we can pretend that divisions aren’t there,” he said. “And if you have some problematic things being said, the only way that gets straightened out is by having some open and frank conversations about that.”