Newest US Cardinal: A San Diego-based ally of Pope Francis

When the Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, takes delivery of his prestigious red hat 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 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

McElroy, 68, is the only American of the 21 clergy to be installed as a cardinal by Francis in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica. He was elected over many senior American archbishops, including two from his home state: the outspoken conservative Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the American Episcopal Conference.

McElroy was one of the few U.S. bishops to question why the conference insists on making abortion its “parcel” priority. Echoing the Pope’s concerns, he has questioned why more attention is not being paid to issues such as poverty, immigration and climate change.

“The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from uncontrolled climate change is greater and threatens the future of humanity,” McElroy said in 2020.

The Rev. James Martin, editor-in-chief of the Jesuit journal America, described McElroy as “one of the most important 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 fundamentally, the vision of the gospel.”

“He is the special champion of people on the margins, both in society and in the church,” Martin said via email. “It is not surprising that the Holy Father would have chosen him for this honor and that he would like the future Cardinal McElroy to be present in the conclave that will elect the next pope.”

Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America who has often criticized Francis, said McElroy “often speaks from the ideological margin” and would therefore be seen by Francis’ papacy as a suitable candidate to become a cardinal.

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“But above all, his loftiness reminds me that higher and more substantial prelates such as Archbishop Cordileone and Archbishop Gomez have again been very deliberately passed over,” Pecknold said in an email.

Among his notable views, McElroy was among a minority of US bishops who campaigned to ban Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from communion.

“It will have hugely destructive consequences,” McElroy wrote last year. “The Eucharist is armed and deployed as an instrument in political warfare. This should 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 part of a small group of bishops who signed a statement expressing their support for LGBTQ youth and denouncing the bullying often directed against them.

The bishops said LGBTQ youth are much more likely to attempt suicide, are often homeless because of families who reject them and are “the targets of violent acts at an alarming rate.”

“We stand behind you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or intimidation directed at you,” the statement read. “Most of all, know that God created you, that God loves you, and that God is on 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 attended St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, and received a theology degree in 1985 from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. The following year, he received a doctorate in moral theology from Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate in political science from Stanford in 1989.

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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 offices were Redwood City and San Mateo.

In 2010, he became an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco. In 2015, early in Francis’s papacy, he was named Bishop of San Diego. For the past three years, he has been president of the California Episcopal Conference.

Monsignor Stephen Doktorczyk, Vicar General of the Diocese of Orange, said McElroy’s leadership qualities were impressive.

“One thing I respect about him is that while he’s confident in the positions he’s taking, he’s really open to hearing from others and engaging in a dialogue with people with different points of view,” Doktorczyk said.

Allan Figueroa Deck, a leading scholar in pastoral theology at Loyola Marymount University, said McElroy’s elevation represents a “clear message” from the Pope about the direction the church should go.

McElroy “understands and takes seriously what Pope Francis means by ‘epochal change’ 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 hot-button issues such as pastoral care for LGBTQ individuals and the abortion issue with balance and caution.”

Conservative Catholic activist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute is a frequent critic of McElroy, condemning, for example, his strong support for the Association of United States Catholic Priests. The association is a relatively liberal group whose priorities include expanding the role of women in church leadership and creating “priestless parishes” that could potentially be controlled by the laity as a way to combat the shortage of priests.

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McElroy’s elevation “is a sign of Pope Francis’ desire to marry the Church to the world,” Hichborn said via email. “There can be little doubt that McElroy is currently the model for the kind of priest, bishop and cardinal that Pope Francis desires for the future of the Church.”

The Diocese of San Diego runs along California’s border with Mexico and serves more than 1.3 million Catholics in San Diego and the Imperial Provinces. It includes 98 parishes, 49 elementary and secondary schools and, through Catholic charities of the Diocese of San Diego, several social service and family support organizations.


Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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