There's an old George Carlin joke about how billions of people have come and gone on this planet, yet there are still many phrases that have never been spoken.

Carlin provides an example that involves a “hot poker” and some sexual organs, but the point he proudly makes is, “I’m the first person in the world to put those words together in the particular order!”

I had a similar feeling the other day when I was scrolling through the news sites and thought, “That article the Catholic cardinal wrote about sex was interesting, thoughtful, and deserves to be debated further.”

I’m quite sure no one in human history has ever said that.

Naturally, this has quite a few people enraged, hurling rhetorical hot pokers.

This all began back in January when Irish American Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego wrote an essay for the Jesuit magazine America (to which I also contribute from time to time).

“What paths is the church being called to take in the coming decades?” begins McElroy’s long article. He touches on a wide range of topics, from women in the church to the intense political polarization of our times, and laments that the “church that is calling all women and men to find a home in the Catholic community contains structures and cultures of exclusion that alienate all too many.”

Nothing too crazy here. Sad. But not crazy.

So, bring on the sex!

McElroy, like Pope Francis, places lots of emphasis on “radical inclusion.”

The “church must embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord,” he wrote.

Too often, he adds, there are “barriers to the grace and gift of the Eucharist,” such as “the exclusion of divorced and remarried and LGBT persons from the Eucharist.”

Here comes trouble!

Some have applauded McElroy; others have basically called him a heretic. And not just some nut on a street corner, or Fox News.

I mean Thomas J. Paprocki, a bishop in Springfield, Illinois who is also chairman-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. 

The main thing I want to give McElroy credit for is this: Pope Francis has gotten attention for a more tolerant approach towards gays and lesbians.

Whatever you think of this, it has unintentionally created an impression that the church should focus on LGBTQ issues because, obviously, they’ve long since ironed out all of their wrinkles when it comes to heterosexual relationships.

Which is, uh, not at all true.

McElroy notes that “the tradition that all sexual acts outside of marriage constitute objectively grave sin has been to focus the Christian moral life disproportionately upon sexual activity.”

This has damaged so many lives, from the raging priests of James Joyce to the victims of 21st Century pedophile priests.

You can call McElroy a heretic. You can’t really say he’s wrong.

“The church has a hierarchy of truths … (and) sexual activity, while profound, does not lie at the heart of this hierarchy. Yet in pastoral practice we have placed it at the very center of our structures of exclusion from the Eucharist. This should change,” he wrote.

The fact that this is controversial tells you just how lost many within the Catholic Church are.

But the likes of Cardinal McElroy deserve credit for raising this issue, for raising the possibility of change.

As for his critics, after they’ve outlined the canonical laws and theological theses McElroy has possibly violated, perhaps they can explain precisely what fantasy world it is they are living in.

Because this one needs more compassion, more hope and forgiveness, in the wide range of human relationships, sexual or otherwise.

So, I’m willing to risk my soul, and listen to more from the likes of Cardinal McElroy.

(On Twitter and Instagram: @TomDeignan)

*This column first appeared in the March 8 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.