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When the Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, receives his prestigious red hat at the Vatican on Saturday, he will bring to the College of Cardinals a fervent loyalty to Pope Francis who has often put him at odds with the conservative majority in the Bishops’ Conference. Catholics in the United States.
McElroy, 68, is the only American among 21 clerics installed as cardinals by Francis in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica. He was chosen from among many high-ranking US archbishops, including two from his home state – the outspoken conservative Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the US bishops’ conference.
McElroy was among the few American bishops to question why the conference insists on identifying abortion as its “pre-eminent” priority. Echoing the pope’s concerns, he wondered why greater prominence was not being given to issues such as poverty, immigration and climate change.
“The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from runaway climate change is greater and threatens the very future of humanity,” McElroy said in 2020.
The Reverend James Martin, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, described McElroy as “one of the main articulators in the United States of not only the vision of Pope Francis, but also of the vision of the Second Vatican Council and, more fundamentally, of the vision of the Gospel.”
“He was the special champion for those on the margins, both in society and in the church,” Martin said via email. “It is not surprising that the Holy Father chose him for this honor and that he wants the future Cardinal McElroy to be present at the conclave which will elect the next pope.”
Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America who has criticized many Vatican decisions under Francis’ pontificate, said McElroy “often talks about ideological margins” and would therefore be considered, in this papacy, as a suitable candidate to be a cardinal.
“Most importantly, his elevation reminds me that older and more important prelates like Archbishop Cordileone and Archbishop Gomez have, once again, been very deliberately ignored,” Pecknold said in an email.
Among his notable positions, McElroy is among a minority of U.S. bishops who speak out against the campaign to exclude Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from the Communion.
“This will lead to extremely destructive consequences,” McElroy wrote last year. “The Eucharist is militarized and deployed as a tool of political warfare. This must not happen.
Cordileone, on the other hand, said earlier this year that he would no longer allow House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to receive communion because of her support for abortion rights.
Last year, McElroy was among a small group of bishops signing a statement expressing support for young LGBTQ people and speaking out against the bullying often directed at them.
The bishops said LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at much higher rates, are often homeless from families who reject them, and “are the target of acts of violence at an alarming rate”.
“We stand with you and oppose any form of violence, intimidation or harassment against you,” the statement read. “Above all, know that God created you, that God loves you, and that God is by your side.
McElroy earned 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’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, and in 1985 earned a degree in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. He received 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 personal secretary to Archbishop John Quinn. Other California parish assignments included Redwood City and San Mateo.
He became auxiliary bishop in San Francisco in 2010. In 2015, at the start of Francis’ pontificate, he was appointed bishop of San Diego. For the past three years he has served as president of the California Conference of Bishops.
Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk, Vicar General of the Diocese of Orange, said McElroy’s leadership skills were impressive.
“One thing I respect about him is that while he’s confident in the positions he takes, he’s really open to hearing other people’s perspectives and engaging in dialogue with those who have different points of view, says Doktorczyk.
Allan Figueroa Deck, a prominent researcher in pastoral theology at Loyola Marymount University, said McElroy’s elevation represents a “clear message” of the pope on the direction in which the church should move.
McElroy “understands and takes seriously what Pope Francis means by ‘changing times’ and the challenge of finding better models, a more effective and inclusive style for the Church to move forward”, Deck said via email. “He approaches burning issues like LGBTQ pastoral care and the issue of abortion with balance and caution.”
Conservative Catholic activist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute has frequently criticized McElroy, for example condemning his strong support for the Association of Catholic Priests in the United States. The association is a relatively liberal group whose priorities include expanding the role of women in church leadership and creating “parishes without priests” which could potentially be overseen by lay people to counter the shortage of priests.
McElroy’s Rise “is a sign of Pope Francis’ desire to marry the Church with the world”, Hichborn said via email. “There is no doubt that McElroy is currently 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 stretches along California’s border with Mexico and serves more than 1.3 million Catholics in San Diego and Imperial Counties. It includes 98 parishes, 49 elementary and secondary schools, and through the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of San Diego, various social service and family support organizations.