A bishop says: “the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ… does not first demand a change of life”

fishwrapThe National Schismatic Reporter (aka Fishwrap) ballyhoos heterodoxy and immoral actions.

They have a story about a commencement address delivered by the Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, to graduates at Jesuit-run Santa Clara University, a member of the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, who made strange claims about the teaching of Pope Francis.  Although, given the locale of the talk, I’m pretty sure that very few people found anything odd about them.  McElroy said of Pope Francis’ pastoral theology…

“It demands that moral theology proceed from the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ, which does not first demand a change of life, [ummm…] but begins with an embrace of divine love, proceeds to the action of healing and only then requires a conversion of action in responsible conscience.” [According to the variant reading of John 8:11, the Lord said to the woman taken in adultery: “Fuggedaboutit! Go and amend no more!  Take a little time to think about changing your life.”]

Noting that people are confronted with “overwhelming life challenges” that prevent them from following the Gospel, he added, “The pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects a notion of law which can be blind to the uniqueness of concrete human situations, human suffering and human limitation.” [Is that another way of saying that, for some people, it is impossible to follow God’s commandments?  That God denies some people the grace to live according to His will?  I must misunderstand, because that would be a denial of the action of grace.  I wonder if that is an accurate reading of Pope Francis.  That would put Francis’ magisterium in direct contrast to the magisterium of the 19th Ecumenical Council, of Trent?  In the balance, I’d rather think that the bishop got it wrong rather than the Roman Pontiff.]

McElroy encouraged the school’s faculty to focus on the pope’s pastoral theology and to place it “at the very center and life of this institution.” [And they should remember to study the Pope’s theology in the context of what the Church taught before 2013.]

“It will be one of the greatest theological projects of our age to understand how this new theological tradition should be formed — how it can bring unity, energy and insight into the intersection of Catholic faith and the modern world.”  [A “new theological tradition…”]

So, what’s up here?  What’s with… “the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ, which does not first demand a change of life, but begins with an embrace of divine love, proceeds to the action of healing and only then requires a conversion of action in responsible conscience.”

What does “responsible conscience” mean?

An example of the actual pastoral action of Christ is found in John 8.  An adulteress is brought to the Lord.  She is probably going to be stoned to death.  The Lord stops it.  He tells her to do two things: 1) to go and 2) to sin no more.  I cannot speculate about what amazing graces God poured into her heart at that moment.  I’ll wager, however, that Christ meant what He said, when he said: “καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε … kai apo nun meketi hamartane… and from now on sin no more”. I have a hard time getting my mind around the notion that the “actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ”, does not first demand a change of life. I don’t think that the Lord was under the impression that every single person whom He dealt with would be the perfect person He wanted them to be thereafter without lapses (think Peter and his betrayal), but He doesn’t give me the impression that He thought people didn’t have to stop sinning. Am I wrong? “Go, and sometime down the line sin no more.” Nope. It’s not happening for me. Am I wrong? Am I missing something?

Let’s apply this.  Does “does not first demand a change of life” apply to, say, a child molester?  Does this apply to the employer who mistreats employees and cheats them of their proper wage?  Does this apply to the drug dealer who gives free smack to kids to get them hooked?  Does this apply to terrorists who recruit suicide bombers?

Fishwrap would have you think so. Don’t worry about your habitual sins. As a matter of fact, conversion is… down the line somewhere, if at all.

It seems to me that the merciful thing to do is precisely what Jesus did: Tell the sinner to “sin no more”. Then, help the sinner develop a plan of attack on the habitual sin and occasions of sin. Help the sinner get ready to face the suffering that comes from saying “no” to sin. While we recognize that not all penitents succeed every time, we don’t tell sinners that they can continue to sin.

The moderation queue is ON.

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  1. The Mad Sicilian Geek says:

    Wait… What???

  2. majuscule says:

    “Bishop says…”

    Oh, him.


  3. The Mad Sicilian Geek says:

    Two points:
    1) Since I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY… It is spelled “fuhgeddaboudit” [Since I’m from Minnesota, I respond, “That’s interesting.”]

    2) Based on his alleged use of the term, one would quickly get the idea that Jesus is from Brooklyn! :D

  4. Mark says:

    This is the sort of thing that has been making me really angry lately and stealing my peace. On the one hand I feel like I should stop reading this stuff and worry about my own salvation. In the other hand, hasn’t the Church gotten to this point because of good people putting their heads in the sand for far too long? What are we to do?

  5. Sandy says:

    First of all, please pray for our diocese which is led by this bishop! Mark, I agree with you. We should not lose the peace that God wants us to maintain. There are many who no longer will watch news or other television programs, or even read about this chaos in the Church. The Lord is asking us to trust Him and not man as we go through this dark time. It’s up to each of us to find the balance between praying and being exposed to these worldly things that might upset us. God bless you and all of us, and Father too, of course.

  6. Kerry says:

    New theological tradition, really…?
    The voice of one crying in the wilderness, repent!
    And a new theory about the Brontosaurus…really. [Ummm… huh?]

  7. Stephen Matthew says:

    I have no idea what the bishop is talking about regarding a new tradition in pastoral theology.

    It is a rather settled matter of Christian thinking that God makes the first move in the relationship between God and man. His love, mercy, and grace are in fact all prior to our response, conversion, and repentance. If it were not for God loving us, it would be impossible to genuinely love God. Since that is all settled Christian teaching, the bishop must be talking about something else, but I don’t know what.

  8. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    “Repent and believe the gospel”, I heard from someone else.

  9. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    Dear Fr Z.,

    The theory about brontosauruses is that they are thin at one end, thick in the middle, and thin at the other end.

    It turned out to be less funny than its inventors thought it would be.

    I’m not sure how it applies to heterodox bishops.

  10. cwillia1 says:

    Union with Christ presupposes that we are resolved to follow him. To follow him we need to understand the commandments. This includes submitting to the judgment of the church with respect to our marriages. Union with Christ is the ultimate goal of Jesus’s pastoral action in our lives.

  11. aliceinstpaul says:

    Yes, of course He comes to us while we are still sinners and weaklings or just have not yet met Him. He came to Saul of Tarsus. He came to Peter, to Matthew, to the woman at the well. It is true that we are not already conformed to Him before we meet Him.

    And that is because our faith is built not on an ideology or philosophy, but a person, Jesus Christ, and we must encounter Him.

    And in these encounters, people are converted to change everything and follow Him.

    The modern view is that since Christ comes to us here and now in his true presence of the Eucharist, and Christ came to sinners, then we should be giving the Eucharist to sinners, so Jesus can convert them.

    I don’t know anything about moral theology or christology or ecclesiology.
    But I know that in the first 2000 years the Church did not interpret these examples in salvation history of encounters with the Lord as a reason to give the Eucharist to those in mortal sin. So either there is an error here, which can be articulated, about why encounters in salvation history aren’t equivalent, or there is solid doctrinal transformation to show why the Church has been in error. It can only be one or the other. I await the actual logical argument.

  12. thomas tucker says:

    “Responsible conscience” is coded language that means you get to decide for yourself what is sinful or not.

  13. DonL says:

    I recall reading that the first word uttered about the kingdom by both John the Baptist and Jesus was repent…not evolve.

  14. rtjl says:

    New theological tradition? Hardly. Surely this is the same tradition Paul warned timothy about when he warned that people would turn away from sound doctrine but would seek teachers who would suit their own passions (2 Timothy 4: 3). That’s all Bishop Mcelroy is doing – satisfying the itching ears of people attached to their own passion. There’s nothing new about this at all.

    I have lately become aware that there are many people who trust in the mercy of God so completely that they think the presence of habitual serious sin in their lives is “no big deal”. God will just overlook it. In other words they treat mortal sin as if it is venial sin. (And of course venial sin is serious enough in its own right). Yes. God is merciful and yes we need to trust in his mercy even when we fall and commit mortal sin.

    But we also need to be honest with ourselves. The presence of habitual grave sin in our lives is a problem. It is NOT the normal condition of a mature and healthy Christian. If this is the condition of our life we need to seriously examine ourselves and take steps to deal with it.

  15. Serviam says:

    Dearest Father-

    You are not missing anything. You are absolutely spot on.

    THANK YOU for being a faithful warrior for Jesus.

    It has been increasingly difficult to teach the Faith only to watch it be totally undone by the clergy who are eager to scratch those itching ears. As Father Hardon says, it will take heoric faith to survive this time of trial.

    May we all stand strong for the Truth, engage in this battle and fight for God’s Kingdom!!

  16. LarryW2LJ says:


    Please, already? This is getting ridiculous.

  17. Archicantor says:

    It is certainly true that we don’t have to have a “change of life” before Christ’s “pastoral action” can be at work in our lives. That’s the whole point of prevenient grace, is it not? You don’t need to get clean to take a bath. The model that comes to mind is our Lord’s appearance to Paul on the Damascene road, the ultimate “pastoral” intervention. And this was followed (not preceded) by repentance, instruction, and the sacraments.

    Where it all breaks down, it seems to me, is the assumption that sacramental grace can be treated in the same way as prevenient grace, i.e. as contributing to a “healthy atmosphere” in which “personal change” can begin. This is, ironically, a Pelagian position: an undifferentiated view of grace as a “help” to human effort. The sacraments ought, rather, to be seen as implanting and nourishing the very life of Christ in us, a life that cannot take root if we don’t want it there.

    I am in full sympathy with those who, like me, repeatedly reject that Life by choosing sin instead of love. For us, the sacraments are a free gift whereby that Life can be restored and nourished in us when, through God’s unrelenting grace, we have come to our senses. What I cannot understand is why anyone even wants the sacraments who does not also want that Life, who is not willing (even if repeatedly failing) to give up all that is opposed to it.

    (I would add that I am also very much in sympathy with people who, like me, have gone through life receiving the sacraments in ignorance of their own sins, through a lack of clear teaching. In such cases, I hope and trust that the sacraments have indeed played a part in bringing them, and me, to a right understanding and to repentance, and that they have not been “eaten and drunk unto damnation”.)

    The sacraments are indeed “medicine unto immortality.” But they’re not an antidote that keeps us alive until we wean ourselves off some tasty poison. Rather, they are what restores us to life after we realize that the poison has already killed us!

  18. Benedict Joseph says:

    Working out of our own notions and “lights” rather than the Gospel is the mark of fraudulence. Erroneous catechesis is a scandal and an assault upon the faithful.

  19. The philosophical lack of sophistication is very troubling in what the bishop says. One has to distinguish between logical priority and temporal sequence. It is true that embracing the divine love “comes first” in some sense, with healing and change of action “following” – but this is just a logical distinction. Temporally, it’s all pretty simultaneous and embracing divine love should immediately inspire a change of action, or else quite possibly one is embracing something other than divine love. “Faith without works is dead.”

    It must also be said that conversion is always incomplete until after Purgatory, and greater conversion with corresponding changes in action during earthly life occurs over time. But again distinctions must be made. Each step of the way, each deeper embrace of divine love and resultant healing, should have an immediate corresponding change in action – the heart being a principle of action, a change of heart should mean a change of action as conversion progresses.

    So the mix-up in thinking that no change in action is “required” until “after” these other aspects of conversion occur is troubling.

    Soon – God forbid – will we be hearing that the processions of the Divine Persons, which have a logical priority of order from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit, also occur in time?

  20. pseudomodo says:

    If it’s NEW, it’s not TRADITION…
    If it’s TRADITION, it’s not NEW…

  21. Lepidus says:

    “Is that another way of saying that, for some people, it is impossible to follow God’s commandments? That God denies some people the grace to live according to His will?”

    I’ve actually heard a version of the BS given by that bishop. The answer they give to Fr. Z’s comment is that there are some people in mental hospitals that are violent and not following God’s will but nobody would hold them accountable. Were they denied actual grace too? Therefore, we all have some mild form of that, just not with respect to actions that require us to be locked up.

    I guess that’s just an easy way to justify your sin of choice. Another offering from the 60’s – there is no such thing as sin, just mental disorders.

  22. Gail F says:

    I agree that there can be “overwhelming life challenges” that prevent people from following the Gospel — things such a being brought up in an atheist country and only hearing about it third hand, or living in tribal Africa and only hearing about Christ once from a passing missionary, or living in a country that is so for that one’s choice is to be a prostitute or die. No one living in San Francisco actually has “overwhelming life challenges” that prevent them from following the Gospel, although of course people have always thought that their situation is special so they’ll follow the Gospel later. It’s human nature to think so, but no bishop should tell them they’re correct.

  23. Gail F says:

    I agree that there can be “overwhelming life challenges” that prevent people from following the Gospel — things such a being brought up in an atheist country and only hearing about it third hand, or living in tribal Africa and only hearing about Christ once from a passing missionary, or living in a country that is so for that one’s choice is to be a prostitute or die. No one living in San Francisco actually has “overwhelming life challenges” that prevent them from following the Gospel, although of course people have always thought that their situation is special so they’ll follow the Gospel later. It’s human nature to think so, but no-one should tell them they’re correct.

  24. Mike says:

    The words of Christ, indeed all of Scripture and Tradition, are shot through with understanding and empathy for the sinner’s burden. Only in my lifetime have “pastoral” characters like McElroy so boldly deprecated the sinner’s responsibility, not only with impunity but (as I see it) with the tacit approval of the Holy See.

    Michael Brendan Dougherty’s tweet seems appropriately prophetic, and not just with regard to the ACLU:

    Can't wait for the ACLU to issue legal guidelines that the sacrament of confession is criminal reparative therapy. https://t.co/JGlIQEGLFO— Michael B Dougherty? (@michaelbd) May 30, 2017

  25. gracie says:

    “the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ . . . does not first demand a change of life.”

    Yeah, right. The blind man/hemorrhaging woman/leper/woman wiping the feet of Jesus all had a “change of life” i.e. turned to Jesus in faith and it was this faith that Jesus over and over tells them is what saves them. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” In fact, Our Lord marvels at the faith of the centurion and declares that many Gentiles will enter the kingdom of Heaven while many Jews who thought they would be saved simply because they were “sons of Abraham” would not be saved. Yikes! Faith comes before salvation? And what does faith entail but a ‘change of life’ – “If you love Me, keep my commandments”. “It is not he who says, ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father”, etc. It makes one wonder if people like Bishop McElroy have ever cracked open a bible.

  26. mike cliffson says:

    I suppose you could say the order of events is as in MATHEW . Lives compounding and fiddling , climbs up sycamore to see Our Lord, only hears “I’m having dinner at your place tonight “, ie Jesus’ love . Later announces restitution of all he’s robbed and a change of lifestyle .
    But Jesus’ look of love carries Jesus knowledge of the other , spoken in the case of the samaritan woman with sucessive “Husbands”, but Mathew got the nonverbal part of the message, when called like already , seems to me. Im sure it’s right to emphasize love and Christ dying for unrepentant sinners – we dont BUY into heaven with the coin of repentance…… but love doesn’t tell you you re doing right , when you aren’t . Some people may need letting down very gently , ok . I know of cases in Africa where new , polygamous, christians have to live as husbands to ONE wife, the first , and support the others only…… and that is a bit before baptism I believe. So there’s a wait there.

  27. tioedong says:

    Some good Christians have trouble following the commandments? Which one? Can I guess?

    One is reminded of the story about when Bishop Sheen met a priest who left the church because of “theological problems”. He then asked if the “theological problem” was a blond, or was she a brunette. (nowadays, alas, we would say: male or female).

  28. Rich says:

    The good bishop cherry picks: here are some statements of Pope Francis which don’t fit within the supposed “new theological tradition” which Bishop McElroy purports Francis to be establishing:

    “The Church may render more clear her mission to be a witness to mercy; and we have to make this journey. It is a journey which begins with spiritual conversion.” -3/13/15

    “[Jesus] asks us, through genuine conversion, to open our hearts to a more sincere love of God and neighbor.” – 12/16/15

    “It is never too late to convert, but it is urgent, it is now! Let us begin today!” – 2/28/16

    “In order to convert, we must not wait for prodigious events, but open our hearts to love of God and neighbor.” -5/18/16

    “The possibility of confession, with which man expresses his inner conversion; and contrition, the means of repentance and atonement, in order to reach the encounter with the merciful and healing love of God.” – Letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  29. Hugh says:

    I reckon this passage from Amoris Laetitia 302 can be read with not much difficulty as saying that sometimes following God’s commandments is impossible, and so one can disobey them in good conscience … and even with God’s approval.

    “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.”

    In fact it is very hard for me to find an interpretation of this passage that is consistent with the tradition. (It is discussed as Dubia 5 by the Four Cardinals in their Letter to Pope Francis.)

  30. Rich says:

    My first gold star! Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace…

  31. Imrahil says:

    Well, maybe I’ll be brief for a change.

    His Lordship wasn’t wrong in what he said… per se. But he was wrong in saying it.

    It is true that our Lord does not (in general) first [!!] demand a change of life, but brings his salvation, etc. – and does then demand a change of life. The Adulteress does hear “Go and sin no more”; but she first hears “I do not condemn thee either”.

    (Total agreement to what the dear Archicantor said.)

    About the child molesters etc.: well, let’s not look down on the effort of the Adulteress – but apart from of Course the mountain of graces that must have accompanied her being freed by our Lord himself, on top she knew in the natural manner that she would have almost been stoned for adultery and would be stoned for it if she did it again.

    It’s Church doctrine that everyone can fulfil the moral law if he will. It’s commonsense that it’s both easier to do it and easier to will it if you get stoned or hanged or imprisoned if you don’t. (I’m not saying that sinners aren’t responsible. I am saying that those are nevertheless deserving pity who fail to act responsibly because State and Society do not give them enough aid in shunning the sin they are tempted to.)

    And so… His Lordship is quite right that mice are caught with bacon and flies are caught with honey, as St. Francis de Sales said, and not with vinegar. The usual saying that applies here is “it’s a prudential matter”, which also means, if you forgive, “don’t you theorize too much publicly about it”. There certainly is a point in being silent about our Lord’s demands for the time being, if you meet a specific person – unless he asks. There certainly is a sense in lauding the sinner for what is laudable in him, while meticulously withholding any suggestion that he wouldn’t need to stop his sin.

    Where, then, is His Lordship wrong?
    1. in saying publicly what will be interpreted, whether he means it thus or no, as if in this “at first” pase everything would be in order which it isn’t (if people hear the “at first” at all),
    2. in saying that not to speak about demands (first) is a general course of action with everything else being always wrong, rather than a particular prudential choice of means applied to a particular Situation,
    3. concerning those who do hear the “but afterwards”: in giving our tactics away :D,
    4. in using for the “afterwards” where conversion does have to take place an abused word like “action in responsible conscience” without Explanation, which, while it can and ought to mean “following the moral law without exception”, is often used to imply human autonomy.

  32. jarms says:

    A Nouvelle Nouvelle Théologie?

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