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Does the Catholic Church Need a New ‘Framework’ for Sexual Sin? This Moral Theologian Says No

NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER - Jonathan Liedl - FEB 23, 2023

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.

Father Thomas Berg (photo: Courtesy of

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.

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