The appointment of San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy to the College of Cardinals has stirred some interesting, often impassioned responses in the Catholic world. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter described the move as “thrilling.” Christopher Altieri suggested in Catholic World Report that it was “a tough pill to swallow” for the USCCB president and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. Philip Lawler called the appointment “a whole series of slaps” at the USCCB. Former Catholic Rod Dreher said, “For Catholics who actually believe what the Catholic Church teaches, this is terrible news.”
I found one of the more interesting responses was San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s brief, ice-cold statement of “congratulations” to his former auxiliary bishop. Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, tweeted that this selection “is a strong and clear message for the Church in the United States (in line with Vatican II).”
Speaking for myself, I think Pope Francis does send a message with this appointment, although perhaps as less of a repudiation of USCCB leadership and the bulk of the US episcopate, and more of an indication that he recognizes qualities in Bishop McElroy that are necessary to lead the Church going forward. I’ve met Bishop McElroy before. Back in July 2019, he was the keynote speaker at a conference I helped organize on implementing Laudato Si’ in the US Church. I found him quite open and willing to discuss the dynamics of Church leadership in the US. Speaking for myself, I never heard him speak disparagingly of his brother bishops individually or collectively. I should note that he maintained a charitable tone, even in private and group conversations during meals and free time. When, in the course of conversation, someone else brought up another bishop by name, he never engaged in gossip or detraction. Rather, one of the points he made a few times, both in conversation and in his speech, was that among the US bishops, he estimated that 95% of them agree on 95% of the issues, but their main area of disagreement was prioritization.
And I think it’s this area, prioritization, where he and Pope Francis are close together, and where the bulk of the US bishops are far from the Holy Father. Note that Bishop McElroy was the keynote speaker at a conference about Laudato Si’, one of Pope Francis’s three encyclicals. Laudato Si’ is about caring for our environment and working to curb climate change. It has been a very high priority of Francis’s pontificate. But not many bishops seem to care about the issue at all. Last October, I reported on a study of US bishops’ weekly columns from 2014 through 2019. Of more than 12,000 columns, only 0.8% mentioned climate change or global warming, and only 26% of the diocesan bishops mentioned it even once.
Care for Creation is not the only priority of Pope Francis that Bishop McElroy has incorporated into his diocesan leadership. He has made synodality central to his episcopal vision. In October 2016, he convened a diocesan synod on the family, in order to implement and respond to Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and family, Amoris Laetitia. The following month, four cardinals, rather than helping the pope to implement his teaching document, went public with their “dubia”—a set of loaded questions intended to implicate Pope Francis in teaching heresy. This was arguably the most defiant act of insubordination against the authority of a pope by a group of cardinals in centuries. Very few of the US bishops decried this act, let alone tried to implement the exhortation in their dioceses. It took them until June 2021 that the USCCB even approved its own set of implementation guidelines, and if not for a last-minute amendment by Cardinal Blase Cupich to add a footnote (which passed with only 52% of the bishops approving), it would not have mentioned the pivotal eighth chapter of the exhortation at all.
The other day, blogger Rocco Palmo tweeted a link to an address by Bishop McElroy at the February 2017 US regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California. In this 21-minute address, the cardinal-designate encouraged members of social justice movements with a message grounded in the “see, judge, act” method of Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn. Both Cardijin’s framework and support for popular movements are central to Pope Francis’s vision for social justice. He has referred to the see-judge-act method many times throughout his papacy. For example, it is the foundation on which the message of Laudato Si’ is built. It is also found in the titles of the three chapters of his book Let Us Dream: “A Time to See,” “A Time to Choose,” and “A Time to Act.” A third, and more recent example is from January of this year, when he spoke at length about each of the three stages of discernment to a delegation of the French Catholic Action Movement. His support of popular movements reflects that of Pope Francis, who called the leaders of these groups “social poets.” Contrast the harmony between McElroy and Francis to the message of McElroy’s metropolitan, Los Angeles Archbishop and USCCB President Jose Gomez who gave his assessment of today’s popular movements in a speech to the Congress of Catholic Public Life in Madrid on November 4, 2021. He said, “I believe that it is important for the Church to understand and engage these new movements—not on social or political terms, but as dangerous substitutes for true religion.”
Bishop McElroy also convened a synod for young adults in 2019, reflecting the one that took place in the Vatican in 2018. Contrast this to the position of the man the USCCB elected as a delegate to the 2018 synod, former Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. Chaput (whom the USCCB also elected as chair of the USCCB committee on marriage, family, and youth) made multiple public appeals to the pope to cancel the synod or change the topic. He also criticized its working document, publishing a critique by an anonymous theologian, who charged that the document promoted “a false understanding of the conscience and its role in the moral life; a false dichotomy proposed between truth and freedom; false equivalence between dialogue with LGBT youth and ecumenical dialogue; and an insufficient treatment of the abuse scandal.”
Unlike many other US bishops, Bishop McElroy has not taken part in this sort of opposition to Pope Francis’s initiatives. At the press conference following the announcement, the cardinal-designate said that in his seven years as bishop of San Diego, “Pope Francis has a series of initiatives that he’s trying to bring to the life of the church … and I have tried to take those initiatives and plant them here.” This suggests an understanding of ecclesiology and a mind that thinks with the Church in a way that few of his brother US bishops demonstrate.
Apparently some of his brother US bishops have expressed consternation at this appointment. The Pillar said that some (anonymous) bishops took the appointment as a rebuke, writing, “that if the appointment of McElroy was intended as that kind of signal, they would better understand a more direct, systematic, definitive correction from the pontiff, rather than a sort of reproof by implication.” Rather than seeing the appointment as “reproof,” I’d contend that the bishops of the US would be better served by reflecting on how they have personally helped carry out Pope Francis’s vision. Perhaps they can make an effort to reach out to and learn from the five Americans that Francis has appointed as cardinals—Joseph Tobin, Blase Cupich, Kevin Farrell, and Wilton Gregory, as well as McElroy. If there are areas where their priorities are misaligned with those of these five men, they might want to reconsider their priorities.
There are certainly many other areas where Bishop McElroy has stood apart from most of the US episcopate that we can discuss (including the recent “Eucharistic coherence” debate), and in each case the picture should become clearer. If the bishops are still unable to understand why Francis has made certain appointments and not others, they might also consider reflecting on what a cardinal is, and what a cardinal is expected to do. Given that the promises made by new cardinals include remaining “constantly obedient to the Holy Apostolic Roman Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff, become members of the Roman clergy and cooperate more directly in N. and his canonically elected successors,” who else in the US episcopate has adapted his approach to reflect that of Pope Francis more closely?
Finally, please pray that the ministries of Cardinal-Designate McElroy and the 20 other men selected to the college of cardinals bear great fruit.
(Updated June 3, 2022, 6 pm EST, to include discussion of popular movements and to provide more information about McElroy’s approach towards other bishops.)
Image: Diocese of San Diego
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.