Pope Francis Saturday elevates to cardinal a San Diego bishop whose adherence to the pope’s more liberal positions on the LGBTQ communitythe role of women in the church and other burning political and cultural issues put him at odds with some of the more conservative American bishops.
Cardinal-designate Robert McElroy, who was appointed bishop of San Diego by Francis in 2015, will also receive his red hat, a symbol of the office of cardinals, without ever having been an archbishop, which is the traditional stepping stone to becoming a cardinal.
In an interview with NBC’s Anne Thompson ahead of the Vatican ceremony, McElroy tried to downplay the differences between himself and more conservative U.S. bishops on issues like “abortion, climate change, poverty, immigration , the race”.
“There are not many differences between the bishops on the substantive issue,” McElroy said. “The difference is in the area of prioritization. That’s where the conflicts come from.”
Yet McElroy has repeatedly publicly criticized his fellow U.S. bishops for not fully embracing Francis’ pastoral priorities, and he outraged many conservative Roman Catholics in 2017 by calling then-President Donald Trump “the disruption candidate.”
Additionally, McElroy gets a promotion while the head of the much larger Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez, was once again dropped from the rank of cardinal.
Last year, Gomez offended black Catholics and others by labeling social justice movements as Black Lives Matter “pseudo-religions”.
At 68, McElroy will likely be one of the cardinals who choose Francis’s successor and continue the reforms the Argentinian-born pope has tried to push through despite opposition from the government. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic clergy.
We asked him if he wanted deny communion to pro-choice Democrat politiciansas the Archbishop of San Francisco recently told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McElroy said no.
“I think it’s an attack on the Eucharist,” McElroy said. “It is about taking the symbol of unity in the Church, which makes us all sacramentally one in Jesus Christ, and making it a sign of division.”
McElroy acknowledged that there are “great tensions” between Catholics who agree with Francis that the Church needs to evolve and more traditional Catholics who are concerned “to abandon traditional Catholic teaching too much.”
Ordaining women priests is an example of this tension where cultural clashes between traditional Catholics and more progressive Catholics play a role, said McElroy, who is in favor of women deacons.
“I think the main obstacle to women’s ordination isn’t exactly doctrinal,” he said. “I think it’s the reality that it would be very heartbreaking in the life of the church.”
Still, McElroy said, he agrees with the pope that one of the greatest challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church, which is still reeling from the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by priests , is “the fact that young people are leaving the Church in such large numbers. Numbers.”
“We have to find a way to deal with this and make the message of Christ more appealing to young people,” McElroy said.
McElroy also said he doesn’t think the world is ready for an American pope.
“America already has so much power in the world – economic, military, cultural, political,” he said. “I think having an American as pope too would not be a good thing, which is to say, symbolically for the world, it would just be another accumulation of power for the United States.”
McElroy, a San Francisco native who grew up in San Mateo County, told Thompson that from the age of 7 he wanted to be a priest.
“I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be a priest,” he said.
But after graduating from high school, McElroy attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1975 and got a taste of the “wider world.”
“I grew up in a Catholic culture, a very Catholic, faith-filled family,” McElroy said. “I went to Catholic schools and high school. So it was a different experience.”
Among his classmates was the future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. “I knew him, for example, because we were both in American history,” McElroy said.
After Harvard, McElroy earned a master’s degree in history at Stanford University before enrolling in a seminary. He was ordained in April 1980 and began serving as a pastor in suburban San Francisco.
“My life is more interesting now, but it was happier back then,” McElroy said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to be a bishop. I didn’t want to be a cardinal. I wanted to be a parish priest. And I had to do that for many years.”
McElroy said his 97-year-old mother was “pretty happy” with his elevation to the rank of cardinal.