Francis’ choice of new Cardinal McElroy is an unmistakable sign for the American Church
The news that Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has been named cardinal is exciting. The first American to be appointed a cardinal who was not already an archbishop or senior Vatican official, McElroy has long been recognized as the leading intellectual among American bishops. He is the American Newman.
St. John Henry Newman was the Anglican clergyman and Oxford don became a Catholic priest, who became the 19th leading theologian in the English-speaking world. He made many enemies along the way, but Pope Leo XIII recognized his wisdom and made him cardinal in 1879. His writings were considered a precursor to the Second Vatican Council, as were the writings of McElroy are considered by some to be among the best applications of the Second Vatican Council. teachings of this same council.
NCR has a long association with McElroy. In 2010, NCR’s Tom Roberts led McElroy’s first national profile when he was appointed auxiliary bishop of his hometown, San Francisco. He has written for us many times, including what remains the best article on synodality by an American bishop to be published to date.
Naturally, I am very excited by this announcement and send the new Cardinal my best wishes.
One wonders if the official US delegation to the August presbytery where McElroy will receive his red might be led by a prominent Catholic also from San Francisco: Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What an exciting thought. I wonder if Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone’s ban on Pelosi receiving communion extends to the Diocese of Rome?
There will certainly be some gnashing of teeth in some conservative circles. Michael Warsaw, CEO of EWTN, published an article in the National Catholic Register two days before the announcement, titled “A new eraWarsaw pointed to Cordileone’s action against Pelosi. Good meme; bad application. It’s McElroy’s appointment that signals a new era.
A protege of the late Archbishop of San Francisco John Quinn, McElroy continues Quinn’s example of civic engagement through intellectual engagement. Very few bishops have the theological depth or breadth that McElroy brings to virtually any topic. Like Quinn, he is a churchman who sees beyond and through the often petty and barren public debates of the time to the core values and fundamental principles at stake. From heaven, I think Quinn smiles broadly at this new.
McElroy was the victim of what I considered the most ill-mannered conduct of a president of the American Bishops’ Conference in my many years of attending their meetings. In 2015, during the debate over the bishops’ paper on voting, Faithful Citizenship, McElroy made a powerful intervention calling on the bishops to scrap the text and start over. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, then vice president of the conference, responded sharply to McElroy, commenting on the latter’s “rhetorical flourishes” as if the rhetoric were the heart of the matter. It was dreadful. I wonder what DiNardo thought of the news that McElroy will be joining him at the College of Cardinals?
I also wonder what Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, the current conference president, thinks of the news. The Holy Father sent an unmistakable sign: Gomez leads the largest archdiocese in the country, he is the conference president, and he is Metropolitan Archbishop of McElroy. Instead of leading the conference in a new direction of unified leadership behind Pope Francis, he joined the Napa Institute crowd. By appointing one of Gomez’s suffragans as cardinal, and not Gomez himself, the pope has given an unmistakable sign of the type of episcopal leadership he seeks. An undeniable sign.
There will be plenty of time to reflect on what this means for the American church in the future. Some wondered if this news meant that McElroy would be transferred to an archdiocese, but I doubt it, at least not right away. Cardinal Joseph Tobin’s elevation to the Archdiocese of Newark shortly after being made a cardinal in 2015 was different: Tobin’s name was already being considered for Newark when the pope named him a cardinal. Also, the American church needs a cardinal on the west coast.
What we can say is this: Cardinal-designate McElroy has long been considered the intellectual leader of the bishops closest to Francis, and the pope has confirmed that assessment. Like Newman, he knows the Catholic tradition in detail and applies it with dexterity and fidelity, and he is not afraid of new challenges. It is an exciting day for the church in the United States. Thrilling.