He’s the only cardinal appointed from the United States for this consistory, and the fifth chosen by Pope Francis in this country overall. His appointment defied all expectations and caused controversy because Bishop Robert McElroy is not serving in a traditional cardinal’s see; he’s not even an archbishop.
“I said several prayers because I was stunned and so shocked,” the 68-year-old prelate admitted after the pope’s announcement. A native of San Francisco, he was ordained a priest for that California archdiocese on April 12, 1980, where he later served as secretary to the archbishop and then as auxiliary bishop from 2010 until his appointment to head the diocese of San Diego in 2015.
In a press conference reported by OSV, he explained his own appointment by the fact that the pope “wanted to have a cardinal on the West Coast” of the country. Another reason has been highlighted by observers: as a diocese bordering Mexico, San Diego is deeply involved with the theme of migrants, an issue dear to the pontiff.
Bishop McElroy has woven his own pastoral ministry around themes such as mutual accompaniment between pastor and People of God, and a Church on the move. “Pope Francis has a series of initiatives that he’s trying to bring to the life of the Church… And I have tried to take those initiatives and plant them here,” he said.
Very committed to the defense of the environment in his diocesan pastoral work, he was one of two American bishops personally appointed by the Argentine pontiff to participate in the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon in 2019. He is also a member of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
More recently, his voice has been heard in the debate over “Eucharistic coherence”: Bishop McElroy has called the banning of Communion for Catholic politicians who support the legalization of abortion a “destructive” measure that “diminishes the Eucharist,” and promotes “increased partisanship in our society.” He therefore represented a counterpoint to San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone—his former superior—on this issue.
In February 2021, Archbishop McElroy signed a statement with other U.S. bishops condemning “violence, intimidation or harassment” against LGBT people, expressing concern about the high suicide rate seen among LGBT youth.
The archbishop also told the National Catholic Reporter that he supports the ordination of women to the diaconate. This question is currently being studied at the Vatican by a commission mandated by Pope Francis.
Since Bishop McElroy has often opposed prioritizing the debate on abortion over other issues such as climate, migrants, and racism, some have described Pope Francis’ choice as a real “slap in the face” to the U.S. bishops’ conference, which is more outspoken on moral issues—especially its president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, of which San Diego is a suffragan diocese. The pope’s gesture is “a strong and clear message for the Church in the U.S. (in line with Vatican II),” wrote Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, who is close to the pontiff and is the editor of La Civiltà cattolica, on Twitter.
A black mark regarding his handling of abuse
On the issue of abuse, Bishop McElroy denounced “a very bad pattern” that led to the cover-up of crimes in the Church. In 2019, he gathered his diocese’s more than 2,500 employees, asking them to report suspected child sexual abuse cases, regardless of the statute of limitations. He also announced the creation of a task force on the subject.
But, reports The Catholic Telegraph, Bishop McErloy has been criticized for not responding to a letter from a now-deceased abuse expert, Richard Sipe, denouncing U.S. bishops and priests—among them cover-ups by Cardinal Roger Mahony and the actions of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick—in 2016. The bishop of San Diego has argued that the allegations in the letter were presented without corroborating evidence.
The cardinal-designate’s health has been tested recently: in November 2021, he underwent coronary artery bypass surgery, for four blocked arteries. The operation was successful, according to the Register.
As for the possibility that he might be pope one day? “I don’t think an American should be pope,” he replied at the press conference, explaining that the U.S. has power “at so many levels,” that if the Church were led by an American pope, it would represent a “counter-witness.”