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Adventures In Heresy

Bombshell: prominent US bishop accused progressive Cardinal McElroy of San Diego of excommunicable offenses
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That's Cardinal McElroy of San Diego above. More on him in a moment. But first, when I was in Ireland recently, I met a man who told me, with sadness, that the Irish Catholic bishops don't even believe in themselves anymore. What does that look like? I wonder. Well, now I know:


Watch the clip. The Catholic protester taking it calls the priest a "heretic"; the priest says inviting a Muslim muezzin (chanter) into the church to chant is "the way of the Lord." Synodality, I think they call it. The clip ends with a shot from inside the parish, with the priest behind the altar, and a muezzin chanting to Allah on the side. For your information, there are 63,400 Muslims in Ireland, or 1.33 percent of the population.

This happened in 2020, at St. Patrick's parish in the County Mayo town of Ballyhaunis. By the way, there is a mosque in Ballyhaunis. Here's a news story about the controversy.

This is unspeakable. No imam would welcome Christians to pray inside a mosque, and he certainly should not! It would not be a matter of disrespect to Christians, but rather one of total respect for one's own religion -- that is to say, for God. According to a piece in the Irish Catholic newspaper:

Fr Michael O’Sullivan M.Afr., who spent decades in the Middle East and has recently returned to become the new director of World Missions Ireland, said: “While recognising the good intentions of the Ballyhaunis priest to further interreligious dialogue and comprehension, such ‘acts of solidarity’ are certainly misguided and will only be seen by many as a counter witness.”

A video of the event showed the Islamic call to prayer being sung in the church. The Mass took place last Friday.

“The Muslim call to prayer boldly proclaiming ‘I profess that that there is no god but God, I profess that Muhammad is God’s prophet’, can have no place in a Catholic Eucharist,” said Fr O’Sullivan, who is a fluent Arabic speaker.

“There are many ways of furthering dialogue with Muslims which today should only be recommended and encouraged.

“For obvious reasons, inviting the Islamic call to prayer to be made from the lectern in a Catholic church is not one of them.”

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph -- Ireland! You'll recall the Irish bishop last year who sacked a priest for calling abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism sinful in a sermon, and who (the bishop) apologized for the cleric's offense, saying the offender's words are "not the Christian position." Oh?


But there's a far more significant slinging of the "heretic" accusation. Yesterday, the American bishop Thomas J. Paprocki published a bombshell essay in First Things accusing Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego of heresy. McElroy's name doesn't appear in the piece, but he quotes McElroy's recent progressive essay in America magazine as evidence. From the Paprocki piece:

Imagine if a cardinal of the Catholic Church were to publish an article in which he condemned “a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist” and stated that “unworthiness cannot be the prism of accompaniment for disciples of the God of grace and mercy.” Or what if a cardinal of the Catholic Church were to state publicly that homosexual acts are not sinful and same-sex unions should be blessed by the Church? 

Until recently, it would be hard to imagine any successor of the apostles making such heterodox statements. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon today to hear Catholic leaders affirm unorthodox views that, not too long ago, would have been espoused only by heretics. “Heretic” and “heresy” are strong words, which contemporary ecclesiastical politeness has softened to gentler expressions such as “our separated brethren” or “the Christian faithful who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church.” But the reality is that those who are “separated” and “not in full communion” are separated and not in full communion because they reject essential truths of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Thus, it is deeply troubling to consider the possibility that prelates holding the office of diocesan bishop in the Catholic Church may be separated or not in full communion because of heresy. 

Yet both the cases mentioned above would in fact involve heresy, since heresy is defined as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law). What, then, constitutes “some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith”? 

Paprocki goes on to explain why what Cardinal McElroy wrote constitutes formal heresy. (You can read more about what McElroy said in this blog post of mine, titled "Cardinal Screwtape".) I don't know how it can be denied, frankly. (And by the way, if Cardinal McElroy is guilty of heresy, so is Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who has described authoritative, magisterial Catholic teaching on homosexuality as "false.") Hollerich is not a nobody. Not only is he a prince of the Church, he is also the Jesuit (naturally) tapped by Pope Francis to lead the Synod on Synodality.

The must-read independent Catholic news site The Pillar explains why Paprocki's accusation is so important. It's not just the accusation itself, as shocking as it is, but also what brought the accusation: McElroy's endorsing publicly heretical things that a lot of American bishops already believe. From The Pillar:

But consider if the issue he raises go unaddressed, and a conclave happens - in our social media era - in which a number of cardinals accused of heresy were participants. If you think the periodic and isolated challenges to the validity of Benedict's resignation were just a one-time blip on the radar, you're probably wrong. Broader challenges to the credibility of a conclave could become a very live issue for the life of the Church, and for the pastoral ministry of American bishops.

All that might seem dramatic. Perhaps even melodramatic. After all, it was just an essay.

But an American bishop accused his brother bishop of heresy this morning, so the fierce debates of recent years will probably seem like prologue to what’s coming next.

As I’ve said before, in debates over Sacred Revelation, there is a right answer and a wrong one. Truth is being debated, not preference or prudential judgment. But if history is any guide, that means the debate will be neither short, nor, for many people, especially comfortable.

I don’t hyperbolize, readers – By disposition, I'd rather be measured and correct than inflammatory or exaggerated. But I don’t want either to downplay the magnitude of the conflict in which American bishops are now engaged.

As the history of the Church in America is written, Feb. 28, 2023 will likely be a day well-noted.

I urge you to read the Pillar piece, written by canon lawyer J.D. Flynn, as well as the Paprocki essay. Paprocki makes it clear that someone who endorses heresy automatically excommunicates themselves. From the Paprocki piece:

Normally canonical sanctions require that either a judicial or administrative process be followed before a penalty can be imposed. However, it is important to note that canon 1364 says that “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” A latae sententiae excommunication is a sentence that is automatically incurred without any canonical process. While an automatic penalty without due process is unheard of in most judicial systems, canon law provides for such penalties, due to the distinctive character of spiritual offenses such as apostasy, heresy, and schism, since a person who espouses apostasy, heresy, or schism has de facto separated themselves ontologically—that is, in reality—from the communion of the Church. Thus heretics, apostates, and schismatics inflict the penalty of excommunication upon themselves. 

It's clear. So, as Flynn points out, what are the implications for a future conclave in which cardinals believed by others to be heretics vote for a pope? How can the faithful be sure that pontiff was validly elected?

The Pillar subsequently interviewed Paprocki about his J'accuse. Excerpt:

But the bishop acknowledged that conflict among bishops is more likely than a sudden change of tune.

Still, he said there have been “some pretty fierce debates” over doctrine in the history of the Church.

“To some extent, I think that back and forth, as unpleasant as it may be, may be necessary, in terms of bringing some clarification,” Paprocki said.

“The big conversation today seems to be on matters of sexuality and marriage. We live in a culture, and the secular culture even permeates into the Church. And so if we don't say something, well that eventually seeps in and, and becomes … just becomes something that's kind of accepted” in the Church.

Paprocki compared contemporary conversations about heresy to the Church’a Arian crisis of the fourth century.

“If some bishops didn’t push back on that, we’d be Arians today. If they thought, ‘we don’t want a public disagreement, or have any lack of unity be seen here’ … if the bishops who were staying true to the Church just kept quiet, well then, we wouldn’t be where we are today in terms of having clarification about that.”

But Paprocki insisted that his perspective on contentious issues is not the only one that should matter in the Church. He said he hoped other bishops will speak into a conversation about Catholic doctrine — whether or not they agree with him.

I don't know why Paprocki dances around the idea that he wasn't targeting a particular cardinal, when he is obviously going after McElroy. Paprocki is a canon lawyer, so my guess is that he is trying to avoid opening himself up to a particular canonical penalty. But I don't know. In any case, he has done an important thing here. As Paprocki told the Pillar elsewhere in the interview, “I think the reason I did this is because this debate has become so public at this point that it seems to have passed beyond the point of just some private conversations between bishops."

True. The rot in the Catholic Church has to be confronted -- and not just in the Catholic Church. I was talking not too long ago with a Methodist reader of this blog, who said that her congregation is considering whether or not to leave the national church over the LGBT issue, and that while most are theologically conservative, there's such a fear among them of conflict, of being seen as Not Nice, that she suspects they'll vote to stay with the liberal national church. It is crystal-clear to me as an informed outsider that the entire Synodal process in the Catholic Church is a grand exercise to change Church teaching -- to liberalize it on those points where it conflicts with modern Western sensibilities -- under the guise of piety and humility. At some point, bishops (and others) who can plainly see what is underway here are going to have to stand up, in the spirit of St. Athanasius, and say, "No! No! Never!"

Do not assume that this is just a problem for Catholics. What's happening in the Roman Catholic Church is happening now in many other churches, and will happen eventually in all of them -- even yours and mine. The question is, who will have the courage to stand up for truth? Who will have the courage to live not by lies, no matter the cost?

Among the Catholics, Pope Francis shrewdly refused to answer the four "dubia" cardinals who formally asked him to clarify some theological points in his encyclical Amoris laetitia. Francis clearly and successfully banked on the unwillingness of other cardinals to confront the pope. At some point, though, unless cardinals and bishops are prepared to allow the Catholic faith to be traduced by heresy, there's going to have to be a conflict. And, as J.D. Flynn speculates, the refusal of the Church's senior leadership to confront these grave matters and solve them could easily result in a papal conclave whose result is in doubt, and a schism. It is already the case that the Catholic Church in the United States is, and has been for a long time, in an informal schism. When I became a Catholic in 1993 (for new readers of this blog, I left Catholicism in 2006), I knew that there was a lot of theological conflict in the Church, but I was not prepared for how deep and broad it was, with factions in the Church having their own favorite bishops, magazines, theologians, and so forth. Most engaged Catholics, of both the progressive and conservative factions, understood, I think, that everything held together in large part because of the indifference of the masses to theological matters, and by the strong disinclination of Rome and the bishops themselves to have open conflict.

The result of all that is that serious issues went unaddressed and unconfronted -- issues that get right to the heart of the meaning of the faith, and its integrity. One has to hope that Paprocki's "shot" is not fired too late, and that he will not be left alone to take the heat from his extraordinary accusation.


(Readers, this is where I remind you that this blog is soon going to go away, on March 10. If you think that the kind of news, analysis, and commentary I have been bringing to you for the past twelve years is important, please subscribe to Rod Dreher's Diary, my daily Substack newsletter, where I'll be continuing to write -- though you'll also see a return to my more long-form thoughtful religious pieces, of the kind I had concluded weren't really appropriate for a magazine blog. A subscription is only five dollars per month, or fifty dollars per year. I'd love to keep giving you this stuff for free, but I have to make a living somehow; I hope you'll understand. An added bonus: subscribers can comment on everything I write, and so far, the comments section is wonderful, recalling the heyday of this blog's comments section. I hope you'll subscribe, and we can still stay in touch. The culture wars are only going to intensify.)


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Theodore Iacobuzio
Theodore Iacobuzio
“...unworthiness cannot be the prism of accompaniment for disciples of the God of grace and mercy.”

Dreher, you got to cut this out. This sottisier is going to collect itself. On the whole I prefer Bishop Pablo.
schedule 1 year ago
History is instructive here. Arguably, the most threatening heresy in the history of the Christian Church was Arianism, which lasted several hundred years before it was fully rooted out. Even many bishops and priests were Arians. The Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 deemed it a heresy and invoked the Greek term “homoosios” or “of one substance” to refer to the Son of God’s relationship to the Father. The heresy was dealt another and definitive blow at the Council of Constantinople in 381. It almost tore the Christian Church apart. Massive numbers of lay people were Arians.

God has always worked to save His Church. I completely trust that in the end, after what will probably be a hard battle against widespread heresy in Christian churches, God’s truth will prevail. Never count out God’s grace and power.
schedule 1 year ago
    Maclin Horton
    Maclin Horton
    "I completely trust that in the end, after what will probably be a hard battle against widespread heresy in Christian churches, God’s truth will prevail."

    So do I. But as I'm in my 70s I can't expect things to get better in my lifetime, and the signs are that they will get much, much worse. Rod's point about openly and explicitly heretical cardinals voting in the next conclave is grim. I've been dismissive of the possibility of a formal schism but that makes me wonder.
    schedule 1 year ago
Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
Calling it Syn doesn't change it from Sin.

Even on this blog, not to name names, following Paprocki, there are putative Orthodox who believe that while their church ought not to formally marry homosexuals, it should bless their sexual relations.
I only believe in the universal Church, whose membership is not contiguous to that of any humanly administered entity, but is known completely only by God.
Would it be right for an Imam to allow Christ to be preached? It would be an act of true faith. I knew such a person once, on the threshold.
schedule 1 year ago
    I read a Muslim quote a week back, can't find the source now, saying how unlike most of Christianity, Islam never had a Church, and saying how that had saved Islam from a number of problems. Islam seems very much centered around the Quran, based on the regard Muslims have for it, instead.

    I couldn't help but notice that, in spite of different theologies, how similar Islam is to the most vigorous parts of Protestantism in that regard. It's surely not a coincidence that these two systems are outcompeting basically all other theologies.
    schedule 1 year ago
      El Salvador, mentioned with Bukele for instance, has in the course of its political transformation had a less-prominent but probably no less impactful religious one - evangelicalism/Pentecostals are now probably the dominant tradition. Seems to parallel with the links pegged between Brazilian evangelicalism and the support base for Bolsonaro.
      schedule 1 year ago
And the there's the good ol' boy, Patriarch Kiril of the Russian "Orthodox" "Church". Sucking up to evil incarnate for the cheap price of wealth and power. As the old Protestant hymn "Abide with Me" has it, "Death and decay in all around I see." The high liturgy churches, the mainline churches, ( mainlining "wokeism" ) many so-called evangelical churches - they all remind one of the seven churches of Revelation. They are all abandoning the gospel of the cross, the gospel of grace, and with it, the truth.
schedule 1 year ago