When San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy receives his prestigious red cap at the Vatican on Saturday, he will bring to the College of Cardinals a fervent loyalty to Pope Francis that has often put him at odds with the conservative majority in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. USA
McElroy, 68, is the only American among the 21 clerics being installed as cardinals by Francis in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica. He was chosen from among numerous high-ranking American archbishops, including two from his home state: conservative conservative Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the US bishops’ conference.
McElroy has been one of the few US bishops to question why the conference insists on identifying abortion as its “pre-eminent” priority. Echoing the pope’s concerns, he has questioned why issues such as poverty, immigration and climate change are not given greater prominence.
“The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from runaway climate change is higher and threatens the future of humanity,” McElroy said in 2020.
The Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, described McElroy as “one of the main articulators in the United States not only of the vision of Pope Francis but also of the vision of the Second Vatican Council and, more basically, the vision of the Gospel.
“He has been the special champion of marginalized people, both in society and in the church,” Martin said by email. “It is not surprising that the Holy Father has chosen him for this honor and that he would like the future Cardinal McElroy to be present at the conclave that will elect the next pope.”
Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America who has frequently criticized Francis, said McElroy “often speaks from the ideological fringes” and would therefore be seen, in Francis’s papacy, as a candidate. fit to be a cardinal.
“But most of all, his elevation reminds me that larger and more important prelates like Archbishop Cordileone and Archbishop Gomez have once again been deliberately overlooked,” Pecknold said in an email.
Among his notable stances, McElroy has been one of a minority of American bishops who denounce the campaign to exclude catholic politicians who support the right to abortion from Communion.
“It will bring tremendously destructive consequences,” McElroy wrote last year. “The Eucharist is being armed and deployed as a tool in political warfare. This must not happen.”
Cordileone, by contrast, said earlier this year that will no longer allow House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to receive Communion for their support of the right to abortion.
Last year, McElroy was among a small group of bishops who signed a statement expressing support for LGBTQ youth and denouncing the harassment often directed at them.
The bishops said LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at much higher rates, are often homeless due to rejecting families, and “are targeted by violent acts at alarming rates.”
“We stand with you and oppose any form of violence, intimidation or harassment directed at you,” the statement said. “Above all, you should know that God created you, God loves you, and God is on your side.”
McElroy received a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard in 1975 and a master’s degree in history from Stanford in 1976.
He studied at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, and in 1985 received a bachelor’s degree in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. He earned a doctorate in moral theology from the Gregorian University in Rome the following year and a doctorate in political science from Stanford in 1989.
He was ordained in 1980 and assigned to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he served in a parish before becoming Archbishop John Quinn’s personal secretary. Other California parish assignments included Redwood City and San Mateo.
He became an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco in 2010. In 2015, early in Francis’ pontificate, he was appointed Bishop of San Diego. For the past three years, he has served as president of the California bishops’ conference.
Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk, vicar general of the Diocese of Orange, said McElroy’s leadership skills have been impressive.
“One thing I respect about him is that while he’s confident in the positions he takes, he’s really open to hearing the opinion of others and engaging in dialogue with those who have different views,” Doktorczyk said.
Allan Figueroa Deck, a distinguished pastoral theology scholar at Loyola Marymount University, said McElroy’s elevation represents a “clear message” from the pope about the direction the church should take.
McElroy “understands and takes seriously what Pope Francis means by ‘change of epoch’ and the challenge of finding better models, a more effective and inclusive style for the Church to move forward,” Deck said by email. “He approaches burning issues like pastoral care for LGBTQ people and the issue of abortion with balance and prudence.”
Conservative Catholic activist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute has been a frequent critic of McElroy, for example, condemning his strong support for the United States Association of Catholic Priests. The association is a relatively liberal group whose priorities include expanding the role of women in church leadership and creating “parishes without a priest” that could potentially be overseen by lay people as a way to counter the shortage of priests.
McElroy’s elevation “is a sign of Pope Francis’ desire to marry the Church to the world,” Hichborn said by email. “There is no doubt that McElroy today is the model of the type of priest, bishop and cardinal that Pope Francis wants for the future of the Church.”
The Diocese of San Diego straddles California’s border with Mexico, serving more than 1.3 million Catholics in San Diego and Imperial counties. It includes 98 parishes, 49 elementary and secondary schools and, through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of San Diego, various social service and family support organizations.
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