A Red Hat for San Diego

Published June 2, 2022

The Catholic Thing

Late last week, Pope Francis announced that he will create 21 new Cardinals at a consistory in Rome on August 27. The appointments include 16 men who will be under 80 years old at the time of the consistory, meaning they will be eligible to vote in a conclave. The consistory will bring the total number of voting-age Cardinals to 131.

The appointments continue Pope Francis’ pattern of naming a number of new Cardinals “from the peripheries” of the global Church. For example, the Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is among the new Cardinals. This shift goes hand in hand with a move away from appointments in large metropolitan sees that traditionally have been headed by a member of the College. Here in the United States, that means no red hat for the Archbishops of Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Philadelphia. The same goes for other places around the world, including the new Archbishop of Paris and the Archbishop of Milan.

Archbishop Arthur Roche, who has been prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments since last year, is among the new cardinals. His appointment is no surprise, given his position. But given Roche’s heavy-handed enforcement of Traditiones Custodes, with its limits on the Traditional Latin Mass, the appointment will rankle more than a few TLM Catholics.

Many Catholics had hoped that Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv, who heads the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, might receive a red hat as a sign of solidarity with the Church in that beleaguered country. No such luck.

The appointment which has garnered the most attention here in the United States, by orders of magnitude, is the bishop of San Diego, Robert W. McElroy. The immediate consensus following the announcement is that was intended to “send a message” to the Church in the United States about Pope Francis’s priorities.

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a close advisor to Pope Francis, underscored this point on social media, declaring that McElroy’s appointment sends, “a strong and clear message to the Church in the United States (along the line of Vatican II).”

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter called McElroy “America’s Newman” and the appointment “thrilling.” Winters seems almost as excited about McElroy receiving a red has as he is about Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles being passed over yet again. “By naming one of Gomez’s suffragans as Cardinal, and not Gomez himself,” Winters writes, “the pope has rendered an unmistakable sign of the kind of episcopal leadership he is seeking. An unmistakable sign.”

Most Catholics who are less enamored with the McElroy appointment also see the appointment as sending a pointed message. One Catholic editor even announced on his podcast that the message Pope Francis was sending with the appointment of McElroy was that he, the pope, “hates American Catholics.” This reaction strikes me as a gross breach of charity, to say nothing of piety and common sense. It also seems a good way to confirm, for anyone paying attention in Rome, that this is just the sort of appointment needed to break the fever of anti-papal sentiment besetting the American Catholic Church.

Bishop McElroy does have a well-established reputation as a progressive, going back to his days as a protégé of the late Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco. He spoke forcefully in 2019 against the conference describing abortion as the “preeminent priority,” suggesting that the conference’s emphasis on abortion was inconsistent with the teachings of Pope Francis.

Few bishops have been more vocal, or articulated a stronger case, against denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians. Back in 2005, McElroy wrote:

No nuances in the relationship between legislator and constituent, no recognition of the mediating institutional questions lying between the act of abortion and specific legislative formulations can eradicate the fact that political action designed to retain or expand current abortion rights is morally unacceptable. The continuing decision of American Catholic politicians and voters to contravene the tenets of their faith is a major failure in church life.

That reads like it could have been penned by Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco, who recently barred Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion in her home archdiocese. And indeed, the difference between Cordileone and McElroy is primarily over the question of whether the scandal caused by a politician receiving unworthily is more or less damaging to the Church than the scandal that would result from the perceived politicization of the Sacrament by a bishop. One may disagree with McElroy’s answer to that question (and I do) but it’s hardly an unreasonable position.

Much has been made of the fact that McElroy was informed by the late Richard Sipe about Theodore McCarrick’s depravities at some time in 2016. It’s not clear what McElroy could reasonably have been expected to do with such information beyond pass it on to Rome – McElroy insists he did so – which would have only informed Rome of what they already knew.

The appointment of Bishop McElroy is undoubtedly significant. He will certainly be given membership in one or more Roman dicasteries. It’s possible he could be moved from San Diego to a higher profile see (Boston, for example) in the coming years. Even if he remains in San Diego, he will have much more influence, both domestically and globally – influence that may well lead to more liberal appointments in the American episcopate over time. And of course, he will be eligible to vote in any papal conclave until 2034.

But Bishop McElroy’s elevation to the College of Cardinals is neither the triumph nor the disaster that too many Catholics seem to hope or fear it to be. Insofar as his appointment is a clear and unmistakable message to the bishops of the United States, it is not a message they have not already heard. Repeatedly. If his fellow bishops were previously unlikely to share Bishop McElroy’s judgments about the demands of the current pastoral circumstances – as many are – changing the color of his hat is unlikely to persuade them.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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