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Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego recently published a long and provocative article in America magazine. It has already garnered both grateful praise and pointed criticism. Count me among the critics.

The article is about the current synodal process underway in the Catholic Church. McElroy calls, among other things, for the “radical inclusion” of LGBT people in the Church and the dismantling of “structures and cultures of exclusion” that alienate them. And, though he insists that “a synodal culture demands listening . . . that seeks not to convince but to understand the experiences and values of others,” clearly, in his article, the cardinal aims primarily to convince.

Among the “structures and cultures” that serve effectively to exclude, Cardinal McElroy singles out the Church’s traditional moral teaching regarding human sexuality. And, though he insists that the issue of exclusion is “pre-eminently a pastoral question, not a doctrinal one,” the thrust of his essay evidently seeks to change Church teaching regarding human sexual activity. That the cardinal is forthcoming on this matter is both illuminating and troubling. For, in the article, he clearly aligns himself with those in Germany and even in Rome who espouse a view that another cardinal, the late George Pell, deemed “noxious.”

Two of McElroy’s proposals are indeed radical. He laments the traditional teaching that “all sexual sins outside of marriage constitute objectively grave sin.” And regarding LGBT individuals in particular, he holds that “the distinction between orientation and activity” is divisive, distinguishing “those who refrain from sexual activity and those who do not.” Thus, presumably, this teaching is to be voided or, at least, avoided since it can appear “pastorally” insensitive and even demeaning.

Cardinal McElroy’s severe indictment is that the result of the traditional teaching has been “to focus the Christian moral life disproportionately upon sexual activity.” It has thereby obscured “the heart of Christian discipleship,” which is “relationship with God, the Father, Son, and Spirit rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now, I certainly concur with the cardinal in affirming that relationship with the Triune God, realized and enabled through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, is indeed the heart of discipleship. Where we differ, I suspect, is in our discernment as to what full, conscious, and active participation in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord entails. 

To indicate, at least briefly, its scope and cost, I turn to the Church’s first and foundational mystagogue, the Apostle Paul. Unlike “gnostic” mysticism that flees the material and corporeal, Pauline mysticism is decidedly somatic in nature (sōma is the Greek word for body).

In the Letter to the Colossians, Paul gives expression to the Church’s defining kerygma. He seeks to strengthen the hearts of his fellow Christians by assuring them that in Christ are “all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge” (Col. 2:3). And the foundation of this conviction is the apostolic faith that, in Christ, “all the fullness of divinity dwells bodily [sōmatikōs]” (Col. 2:9). This proclamation of the novum of Christian faith, the absolute uniqueness and significance of Jesus Christ, permeates the Letter to the Colossians—as it does, in myriad forms and expressions, the entire New Testament. But this confession is not merely a subject of joyful contemplation. It is also an urgent call for transformation.

The entire third chapter of Paul’s letter is devoted to setting forth the “grammar” of such transformation: Putting off the old self with its deadly and death-dealing practices and putting on the new self that is constantly being renewed (Col. 3:9–10). Such transformative practice is the fruit of true participation in the radicality of Christ’s paschal mystery. “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). And, since you have been “raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).

This “logic” of transformation permeates the Catholic spiritual tradition—from the New Testament, through Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Dante, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, to Thomas Merton, Ruth Burrows, and Erik Varden in our own day. These figures do not minimize the cruciform “yoke” of discipleship or the costliness of grace; but they take to heart the promise of the Savior that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). And they are united in their conviction that this spiritual transformation is—integrally and inescapably—bodily.

How can it be otherwise, since the risen, ascended Lord is bodily transformed in the Spirit: sōma pneumatikon (1 Cor. 15:44)? Hence, Paul exhorts the early Christians (and us): “I implore you, brothers and sisters, through God’s mercy, to present your bodies [sōmatika], as a living and holy sacrifice, well pleasing to God. This is worship according to Logos. Neither be conformed to this world; but be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewal of your discernment” (Rom. 12:1-2). Here, then, is the Apostle Paul’s “pastoral program,” and it should serve as the prologue for Vatican II’s much heralded and little heeded “universal call to holiness.”

And so I suggest that prior to any talk about “enlarging the tent,” Catholics and particularly their bishops should strive to realize anew whose “tent” it is, and the doxological end it serves. If it is the tent where God’s glory dwells, then Paul’s imperative must apply: “You are not your own; you were purchased for a price. So, glorify God in your body!” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). As ever for Paul, the “body” is both the body of individual Christians and the ecclesial body of Christ into whom they are incorporated, initially by baptism and ever more fully in the Eucharist. But each must seriously examine him or herself, that each may discern the condition of the body: for those “who eat or drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment upon themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29). As is evident in Paul, this discernment concerns both sexual and social conduct. For both reveal the self we are becoming or failing to become.

This is not rigidity; it is simply the cost of discipleship. Nor is it elitism, for even Paul confesses that he is not yet “perfected,” but, as he exclaims, “forgetting what lies behind, I strain forward to what lies ahead, towards the goal”—which is life in Christ, being fully appropriated by Christ (Phil. 3:12–16). So, though the forecourt may be the catechumenal “field hospital,” the tent itself is the new Temple, the living body of Christ, where those who have been initiated into Christ’s death and resurrection enter to worship the living God.

Indeed, as Cardinal McElroy rightly insists, the call to relationship with God, in and through the paschal mystery of his beloved Son, is the heart of Christian discipleship. What this elderly presbuteros (pardon the redundancy) asks of him and his fellow bishops (those ordained to oversight, to episcopē) is that they embrace and foster what Paul himself proclaimed and strove to realize: “the glory of this mystery, who is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Therefore, we proclaim Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfected [teleion] in Christ” (Col. 1:27–28).

A Church that neglects to exhort and instruct about the sins of the body, be they sexual or social, risks losing its Christological center and the fullness of the transformation to which Christ calls us.

Father Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination

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Image by Ben White licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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