McElroy Makes a Good Point, But Misses Another One (How to define Grave Matter)

Not long ago, Card. Robert McElroy published a reply to the replies to his original piece on Communion in certain circumstances. In it, he gets into talking about categories of sin and what makes a mortal sin. I think he makes a valuable contribution, but then goes on to completely miss the point further on.

What McElroy Contributes: Grave Matter in the 6th & 9th Commandments

He states:

In principle, all sexual sins are objective mortal sins within the Catholic moral tradition. This means that all sins that violate the sixth and the ninth commandments are categorically objective mortal sins. There is no such comprehensive classification of mortal sin for any of the other commandments…

So, it is precisely this change in Catholic doctrine—made in the 17th century—that is the foundation for categorically barring L.G.B.T. and divorced/remarried Catholics from the Eucharist. Does the tradition that all sexual sins are objectively mortal make sense within the universe of Catholic moral teaching?

Bishop Robert W. McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, September 24, 2020 (U.S. Institute of Peace CC by 2.0)

This is a valuable contribution. It is quite possible to commit sins against the sixth and ninth commandments without them being mortal. I think extreme or misunderstood versions of this theology have caused far too many scruples. If a boyfriend and girlfriend are kissing and one goes a little too far for five seconds, but the other puts a stop to it immediately, there is a sin against the sixth commandment by the one going too far, but it is not grave matter or an objective mortal sin. Likewise, two teenage boys looking at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition likely commit sins against the ninth commandment, but just looking at scantily-clad women is likely venial.

I think what this ruling means is that all sins against the sixth and ninth are mortal refers to all sins that involve an intentional orgasm outside of moral ways in marriage. Other things like seeking out and viewing pornography are also grave matter or objectively mortal sins in this category.

The Limit for Grave Matter in Different Sins

How I would view it is that in each category of sin, there is a kind of threshold beyond which it is not reasonable to argue it is not grave matter or objectively mortal sin. It is likely grave before that, but when dealing with a judgment from externals, I would stay with those which are undeniably mortal. Sexual sins are quite clear on this with a line of an intentional orgasm outside moral sexual relations within marriage.

Other sins can be given a line like this, although it may not always be as clear. For example, for any kind of violence, from teens fighting in the schoolyard to domestic abuse, it is undeniably grave matter (i.e., objective mortal sin) if the person was injured so much they needed to go to the hospital, or they have long-term scars.

It is not grave matter to steal a candy bar from a 7-eleven or if a boss one time underpays an employee $0.50 because the boss put in a few minutes different on the time sheet, but repeatedly and systematically doing the same thing every day would be mortal. The division is not super clear, but we could look at it as the equivalent of 1 hour at that person’s wage or the average wage in the society, whichever is smaller. In a situation like this, stealing $5 from a homeless guy is obviously much more serious than stealing it from a Fortune 500 corporation. Repetition of sins or doing them systematically add together to make smaller repeated things also grave matter.

McElroy Errs in Grave Matter Against Other Commandments

This leads to what I think is his error. McElroy notes that according to current teaching, contraceptive sexual activity between spouses is always grave matter, then he notes certain other things like abuse, mistreating employees, discrimination, and child abandonment are not automatically grave matter. I can see very minor cases of the first three which could be venial but I cannot see any situation where child abandonment is not grave matter.

Instead of noting limits in these sins where they would be the limit for grave matter as I did above, McElroy instead tries to argue for the abandonment of categories like grave matter. His argument is a that his vision of pastoral theology trumps moral theology. This is simply false: pastoral theology should explain moral theology and help people live Catholic morals. Simply stating, “Here’s the Church’s moral teaching” is not good pastoral theology, but neither is re-classifying what is clearly grave matter as not objectively mortal such as sexual activity between people who are not legitimately married to each other.

Specifics of McElroy’s error here

His second last paragraph is:

The final foundation for the pastoral theology that Pope Francis is delineating for the life of the church is the assertion that the church’s identity, teaching and action must be rooted in the life situations that men and women actually experience in the world today. Every disciple encounters certain enormously complex circumstances that consistently prevent him or her from living out the teaching of the church in its fullness. Those who are divorced and remarried or sexually active members of the L.G.B.T. communities are among them. Pastoral theology and accompaniment seek to recapitulate and replicate the saving encounter of Jesus Christ with the saint and the sinner who resides in every human soul, touching every dimension of human existence in the real world, inviting all striving disciples to the eucharistic banquet in this world and the next.

We do need to look at people’s lives and adapt how we speak to help them live the Christian life. However, the idea that many people want to live a way contrary to Church teaching and many people in a society support that is not a reason to declare that not a sin. When many of the leaders or warriors in the Germanic tribes converted, they would intentionally get baptized keeping their right arm out of the water as they thought then they could still smite their enemies with the sword in that hand.

Was the Christian response to such warriors converting to allow smiting your enemies with swords in your right hand, or declare it only a venial sin? No! Instead, the pastoral approach was two-fold. First, they modified some of their warrior stories to allegorically show Jesus as a great warrior against evil forces. We can see this in Beowulf. Second, they explained the Christian virtues of peacefulness. I think a similar response can be brought about today: we can inculturate the Gospel, and we can show the beauty of Christian marriage so draw people to it by attraction.


McElroy makes a good point that some versions of calling every sin against the sixth and ninth commandments mortal is problematic. However, he goes the wrong direction after this as instead of pointing out limits for grave matter in both it and other sins; he implies almost no sins are grave matter in any objective sense. He justifies this with a view of pastoral theology that has the Church accommodating to current cultures in problematic ways.

Vatican II aptly expresses how we should respond to modern culture: “The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.” (Gaudium et Spes 4)

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  1. I hope you didn’t intend to say – though it is clearly the impressive you give – that if you don’t have an orgasm you have not committed a mortal sin regarding the 6th & 9th commandments. I don’t like the tenor of your article, or McElroy. You seem to be trying to check off boxes and fill in spreadsheets for sinful behaviour. You, especially as a priest, should be admonishing your flock to be spotless sheep, without blemish, perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect. Stating, or giving the impression, that venal sins are somehow okay is not kosher, because they are the yellow brick road to hell.

    1. I specifically state that pornography (even without orgasm) is usually grave. My point is that the argument that lines like “all sins against the 6th & 9th commandments” (where McElroy begins) would generally refer to something like “all sins against the 6th & 9th commandments with intentional orgasm.” The point is not that it definitely is not grave before that, but at that point, no argument can be made that it is not grave. It’s clear where the line is generally (somewhere before orgasm), but I hesitate to give a mathematical point for gravity between a boyfriend and girlfriend kissing (not even sinful) and sexual activity between them resulting in intentional orgasm (obviously grave): I note a few seconds does not make it grave, but I don’t think getting exact casuistry in seconds or actions in there will help young people like that live chastity better.

  2. I know men in recovery from lust and sex addiction that when relapsing may masturbate with the intention of not orgasming to prolong the pleasure derived from the act. But because they think it’s not as big of a deal if they don’t orgasm they minimize what seems venial to them. It is a form of legalism.

    In truth these are often times men who are compulsive masturbators where it manifests similarly to other body focused repetitive behaviors like skin picking and hair pulling. Periods of real freedom are hard won and short lived.

    Apart from divine grace and human supports, chances of growth are dismal. But when they do orgasm, every time they do, they believe they are in moral sin and separated from God eternally unless they receive Confession immediately. This can be weekly or even more frequent.

    Without denying that masturbation is objectively grave is it enough for the penitent to have the intention for a pattern of frequent confession when there is this level of compulsion? Or, does he need to go after it happens each time?

    Why I ask is what can happen with a man is that once he feels that he is objectively separate from God then he is more likely to binge because of the unhealthy shame that can accompany that.

    We can treat the soul like a pair of sneakers that are already dirty and you decide tomow the lawn with.

    I am in agreement with another comment, too, that our actual goal is so much higher than this: progressive freedom over every lust thereby living in purity of heart.

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