Bishop Robert McElroy told reporters Tuesday he was very surprised that Pope Francis had named him a cardinal, but cited shared interests with the pope as a possible factor in the decision. At times the cardinal-designate touched on controversial issues, including the refusal of Holy Communion to pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians and the possible ordination of women to the diaconate.

“I’m deeply honored by this appointment, and deeply pleased I’m remaining here in San Diego, allowing me to continue in ministry here in a beautiful city,” he told reporters at a May 31 press conference. He thanked the community of San Diego “for all the warmth they have extended to me during these years.”

McElroy is one of 21 churchmen Pope Francis has chosen to become cardinals at an August consistory. 

The San Diego bishop reflected on why the Pope might have chosen him.

“I believe the pope wanted to have a cardinal from the West Coast,” said McElroy, who has headed the San Diego diocese since 2015. “As you know, this pope is very concerned about migrants and refugees, and we’re a diocese on the border. We’ve faced all of those issues, and we have a very large migrant population.”

McElroy suggested his involvement in several of Pope Francis’ initiatives might have been a factor. He  specifically named the pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, about care for creation and the environment. The cardinal-designate also voiced his involvement in what he described as Pope Francis’ “pastoral re-orientation of the Church both internally and to the larger society.” 

Questions from reporters alluded to the action of San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileoneo, who last week barred U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Holy Communion until she repents of her obstinate support for abortion. Cordileone said he had made many attempts to speak with her. He also cited canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that “Those … obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

McElroy said he has opposed denying Holy Communion to certain politicians as far back as 2004, when pro-abortion rights Catholic John Kerry was running for president on the Democratic ticket. 

“I opposed it then and I still oppose it,” he said. “It is destructive in my view to prohibit political leaders from receiving the Eucharist, based on their actions, partly because it diminishes the Eucharist in my view and contributes toward weaponization, and even more so it contributes to the increased partisanship within our society.” 

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“Sadly, we live in a society which is deeply divided along partisan lines, and we see some of that seeping into the life of the church and that’s a great tragedy,” he said. “It’s important that we not go in that direction, for those reasons.”

In response to questions about the expansion of the ordained clergy and the inclusion of women, McElroy noted his role as a delegate to the Amazon Synod in 2019, which discussed the ordination of married men as priests and the ordination of women to the diaconate.

“Surprisingly in a sense, there was an overwhelming majority, two-thirds, in favor of ordaining women as deacons and in favor of allowing some ordination of married men as priests,” McElroy told reporters. “Can there be change on those issues? Yes there can be change on those issues.”

It is unclear whether McElroy’s description of the Amazon synod is accurate. The final document of the Amazon synod did propose the ordination of some of married men as priests. However, the final document only reported that a permanent diaconate for women was requested “in a large number” of the synod’s consultation sessions. 

CNA sought clarification from the San Diego diocese. A spokesman said the cardinal-designate’s comment “wasn’t in the context of his support or opposition to the idea, but was intended to express his observation of the delegate attitudes at the Amazon synod.”

Pope Francis has asked two commissions to study the question of a female diaconate in the Catholic Church, the second of which was instituted in 2020.

On the matter of Catholics who are leaving the Church, McElroy said that the Catholic Church in San Diego and Imperial counties shows more “vibrancy” than other parts of the state.

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“I take no credit for that,” he said, crediting this feature in part to the many immigrants and children of immigrants who reside there. 

McElroy said one challenge Catholics must face is how to hand on the faith to the next generation. New methods of evangelization, particularly to young people, is “our highest priority pastorally,” he said. A diocesan synod on young people developed a series of strategies, but these have not been implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cardinal-designate said that the problem of individual priests abusing minors became a major problem when the priests were simply reassigned after an accusation. McElroy said this was a “terrible, sinful pattern in the life of the Church.”

“We’ve changed so that should not occur now,” he said, adding “we can’t put it behind us.”

In his other remarks, McElroy said he had “very poor” Italian. He also discussed his health, including his quadruple bypass surgery last year.

The cardinal-to-be also rejected the possibility that he or any other American could be elected to the papacy, citing the extreme economic and political power that the United States currently holds.

“I don’t think an American should be pope,” he said. “I’d oppose any American being elected pope.”

McElroy said his work as Bishop of San Diego would continue.

“I will have to be traveling a bit more but other than that my life won’t change very much,” he said. The day he had learned that Pope Francis had named him cardinal, he continued with his appointments to administer the sacrament of Confirmation at two different churches in his diocese.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the announcement that McElroy would be a cardinal. 

“His strong faith and the pastoral concern for the faithful he has shown in his diocese will serve the global Church well,” Gomez said.