Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego will bring to the College of Cardinals a fierce allegiance to Pope Francis that has frequently put him at odds with the conservative majority in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when he receives his renowned red hat at the Vatican on Saturday.
In a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis will install 21 clergy as cardinals, with McElroy, 68, being the sole American. He beat over many higher-ranking American archbishops, including two from his own state: conservative vocal Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and José Gomez of Los Angeles, who is also the head of the American bishops conference.
Few American bishops, including McElroy, have questioned the conference’s insistence on designating abortion as its “preeminent” concern. He has expressed worries similar to those of the pope and questioned why topics like poverty, immigration, and climate change are not given more attention.
In 2020, McElroy stated that while the short-term death toll from abortion is higher, the long-term death toll from unmanaged climate change is greater and endangers the very survival of civilization.
McElroy was hailed as “one of the finest articulators in the United States not just of Pope Francis’ vision but also of the vision of the Second Vatican Council and, more fundamentally, the vision of the Gospel” by the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit journal America.
Martin stated through email that “he has been the unique champion of persons on the edges, both in society and in the church.” It is understandable that the Holy Father would have chosen him specifically for this honor and that he would want the future Cardinal McElroy present in the conclave where the new pope will be chosen.
McElroy “often talks from the ideological margins,” according to Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America who has repeatedly attacked Francis, and would thus be considered, in Francis’ presidency, as an appropriate candidate to be a cardinal.
But more importantly, Pecknold wrote in an email, “his ascension reminds me that more senior and significant prelates like Archbishop Cordileone and Archbishop Gomez have, once again, been very purposefully passed over.”
McElroy’s significant positions include being one of the few American bishops who oppose the movement to bar Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from receiving Communion.
McElroy predicted last year that it “would bring immensely catastrophic consequences.” “The Eucharist is being turned into a weapon and used in political conflict. This cannot occur.
In contrast, Cordileone declared earlier this year that because Nancy Pelosi supports abortion rights, he would no longer permit her to take Communion.
McElroy was one of a few bishops who signed a statement last year expressing support for LGBTQ students and condemning the bullying frequently aimed at them.
The bishops stated that LGBTQ young people “are the subject of violent actions at frightening rates,” try suicide at substantially higher rates, and frequently end up homeless due to families’ rejection.
The statement stated, “We stand with you and abhor any type of violence, bullying, or harassment directed at you.” McElroy earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard in 1975 and his master’s degree in history from Stanford in 1976. “Most of all, realize that God made you, God loves you, and God is on your side,” he said.
He attended St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California while pursuing his education, and the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley awarded him a theology degree in 1985. The following year, at the Gregorian University in Rome, he earned a doctorate in moral theology, and in 1989, at Stanford, he earned a doctorate in political science.
He received his ordination in 1980 and was posted to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he worked in a parish until becoming Archbishop John Quinn’s personal secretary. San Mateo and Redwood City parish assignments were among the other Californian locations.
In 2010, he was appointed as an assistant bishop in San Francisco. Early in his pontificate, Francis was appointed bishop of San Diego in 2015. He has presided over the California Bishops Conference for the last three years.
McElroy has demonstrated strong leadership qualities, according to vicar general for the Diocese of Orange Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk.
While he is secure in the positions he takes, Doktorczyk stated, “One thing I love about him is that he really is open to hearing the take of others and engaging in a discourse with individuals who have other points of view.”
McElroy’s promotion, according to renowned pastoral theology expert Allan Figueroa Deck of Loyola Marymount University, is a “clear message” from the pope about the course the church should take.
In an email, Deck stated that McElroy “understands and takes seriously what Pope Francis means by ‘epochal reform’ and the need of creating better models, a more effective and inclusive way for the Church to proceed.” He takes a measured and prudent approach to contentious matters like the pastoral care of LGBTQ people and the abortion debate.
McElroy has come under fire frequently from conservative Catholic activist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute for, among other things, his ardent support for the Association of United States Catholic Priests. The association is a moderately liberal organization whose aims include increasing the number of women in church leadership positions and developing “priestless parishes” that may be managed by laypeople in order to address the priest shortage.
According to Hichborn via email, McElroy’s promotion “is a manifestation of Pope Francis’ intention to link the Church with the world.” There is little doubt that McElroy currently serves as the prototype for the type of priest, bishop, and cardinal who Pope Francis hopes will lead the Church in the future.
More than 1.3 million Catholics live in San Diego and Imperial counties, which are served by the Diocese of San Diego, which stretches the whole length of California’s border with Mexico. It has 98 parishes, 49 elementary and secondary schools, and a number of social assistance and family support organizations run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of San Diego.
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