Cardinal Robert McElroy: Newest (and youngest) American ‘red hat’ a kindred spirit of Pope Francis

mcelroy Bishop Robert McElroy. CNA file photo.

Each of the 20 churchmen being installed as cardinals this week is a kindred spirit of Pope Francis in varying respects, as would be expected since it was Francis who chose them to receive their scarlet birettas.

But the man slated to become the newest and youngest American cardinal on Aug. 27 — Bishop Robert McElroy, 68, of San Diego — stands out for how closely aligned he is to the pope’s pastoral style and vision for the Church.

Like Francis, McElroy has a passion for the plight of migrants, the homeless, and the environment. He is also a staunch promoter of the pope’s synodal process and its emphasis on listening to those on the margins of the Church.

McElroy, too, shares Francis’ penchant for stirring controversy with some of his comments. In McElroy’s case, these have centered on the idea of opening the diaconate to women, the status of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and what he has criticized as an attempt by his fellow U.S. bishops to “weaponize” the Eucharist in dealings with Catholic politicians who publicly reject the Church’s teaching on abortion and other important issues.

At the same time, McElroy has received pointed criticism in some quarters for not responding decisively enough to alleged cases of clerical sexual abuse. Specifically, McElroy has been faulted for not acting on reported allegations of predatory behavior by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick shared with him in 2016, two years before the McCarrick scandal became public.

In May, responding to the announcement that he would become a cardinal, McElroy suggested his involvement in several of Pope Francis’ initiatives might have been a factor in his becoming a cardinal. His elevation brings the number of American cardinals currently eligible to vote in a conclave for the next pope to 10. 

He specifically named his work aligned with 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.” 

McElroy has said one challenge Catholics must face is how to hand on the faith to the next generation. His diocese has made its highest pastoral priority new ways to evangelize, particularly to young people.

“(H)opefully we can have greater success in attracting young people and young adults into the life of the Church, that's a real crisis for us,” he told NBC News San Diego this week.

Warnings about McCarrick

McElroy has acknowledged the damage that sexual abuse scandals have caused to the Catholic Church.

He faced questions himself about his response to a 2016 letter from clergy abuse researcher and former Benedictine priest Richard Sipe that listed allegations of sexual misconduct against several bishops, including McCarrick. Sipe was a source for the Boston Globe team of reporters who broke the story of the 2002 Church sex abuse scandal.

Sipe met twice with McElroy and told him he had interviewed 12 priests and seminarians who described sexual advances and activity on the part of McCarrick. 

McCarrick was disgraced after credible sexual abuse allegations that he had abused minors became public two years later, in 2018.

Sipe referenced a settlement against McCarrick, which he said described the cardinal's sexual behavior toward adults. 

Following Sipe's death, McElroy said in August 2018 that he had raised concerns that some of Sipe’s information may have been inaccurate, and that Sipe would not provide any corroborating evidence for his claims. Sipe had sought to deliver a certified letter through a hired process server, who then posed as a donor wanting to hand-deliver a check.

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McElroy said he did not respond to that letter’s claims because the manner in which it was delivered made Sipe untrustworthy.

A scholarly author

McElroy was born in San Francisco in 1954 and grew up in San Mateo County. 

McElroy studied at St. Joseph High School in Mountain View, a high school seminary for the San Francisco Archdiocese.

McElroy has an impressive academic resume. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history. He received a master’s degree in American history from Stanford University in 1976. He holds a doctoral degree in political science from Stanford.

He received a licentiate in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and holds a doctorate in moral theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. McElroy has taught at the university level and has authored multiple articles and two books. 

McElroy re-entered seminary and studied at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California., where he received a master’s degree in divinity. Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco ordained him to the priesthood on April 12, 1980.

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One result of McElroy’s academic studies is his 1989 book “The Search for an American Public Theology,” from Paulist Press, which focused on the thought of the influential American Jesuit priest and thinker John Courtney Murray. 

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego speaks with participants through the fence during the 23rd Posada Sin Fronteras where worshipers gather on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border fence for a Christmas celebration, at Friendship Park and Playas de Tijuana in San Ysidro, California, on Dec. 10, 2016. Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images
Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego speaks with participants through the fence during the 23rd Posada Sin Fronteras where worshipers gather on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border fence for a Christmas celebration, at Friendship Park and Playas de Tijuana in San Ysidro, California, on Dec. 10, 2016. Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

In his priestly life, McElroy served in several parochial vicar assignments in the San Francisco Archdiocese before he became Archbishop Quinn’s secretary and then his vicar general. 

In 1996, Pope St. John Paul II named McElroy a prelate of honor, giving him the title “monsignor.” He served as pastor of St. Gregory Parish in San Mateo for 14 years.

Pope Benedict XVI named McElroy an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco and Archbishop George H. Niederauer consecrated him as a bishop on Sept. 7, 2010. His co-consecrators were Archbishop Quinn and then-Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, who is now Archbishop of Santa Fe.

McElroy delivered the homily at Quinn’s funeral vigil in 2017, praising the late archbishop as "a man who combined continuity and transformation, and in that identity lay his greatness as a leader in the Church in the United States."

McElroy remembered Quinn for his work in nuclear deterrence and outreach to AIDS victims, as well as his collaboration with laity and women religious, and his call for "a rearticulation of Catholic teaching on responsible parenthood."

McElroy has had some health problems, including a quadruple bypass heart surgery last year.

Clash over Communion issue

In the life of the Catholic Church in the U.S., McElroy has taken a critical stance toward those who would rebuke pro-abortion rights politicians like President Joe Biden.

McElroy contended that some unnamed bishops are trying to make abortion “not merely a 'preeminent' issue in Catholic Social Teaching” but a matter that “constitutes the de facto litmus test for determining whether a Catholic public official is a faithful Catholic” and for determining the moral legitimacy of non-Catholic public figures.

“If adopted, such a position will reduce the common good to a single issue,” he said in February 2021 at an online event of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

In a May 2021 essay for America magazine, McElroy argued against what he portrayed as “a theology of unworthiness” to receive the Eucharist. The logic of denying the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians constitutes an “extremely expansive” litmus test, he said.

Other Catholic commentators, including Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, note canonical duties barring Holy Communion to those “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin.” 

In November 2019, McElroy sparked controversy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Fall General Assembly when he objected to language in a letter that was to be published as a supplement to the 2015 document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” McElroy said he was opposed to a line that said "the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.”

Without being specific, McElroy said this line was “at least discordant” with what Pope Francis has taught.

At a June 2018 meeting of the USCCB, McElroy charged that the current edition of "Faithful Citizenship" (last revised in 2015), does not engage with "Catholic teaching as it is now."

He said that a wide variety of topics have "not a secondary, but a primary claim on conscience," and that "Faithful Citizenship" "undermines that by its tendentious use of 'intrinsic evil.'"

In 2015, he said that Pope Francis has “radically transformed the prioritization of Catholic social teaching and its elements,” calling Faithful Citizenship “gravely hobbled.”

“I believe that the Pope is telling us that alongside the issues of abortion and euthanasia, which are central aspects of our commitment to transform the world, poverty and the degradation of the earth are also central," he continued. However, the voting guide “does not put those there.”

Open to discussion about doctrine?

Discussing the Synod on Synodality at America magazine in May, McElroy wrote that it “should not automatically reject certain topics or positions for dialogue and deliberation merely because they are questions of long-held discipline in the life of the church or reformable Catholic doctrine.”

“The last three synodal processes testify to this reality,” he said. “The synod on marriage and family life examined Catholic teachings and practice regarding divorce and remarriage. The synodal process for young adults pointed repeatedly to the alienation that the Church’s stances on L.G.B.T. issues and the role of women generate among young people. And the Amazon synod saw in the church of the Amazon’s devotion to the sacramental life of the Church a call to allow greater ordination of married men and the ordination of women as deacons.”

The final document of the Amazon synod did not call for the ordination of women as deacons, though it reported that “a large number” of the synod’s consultation sessions requested it. McElroy told NBC News San Diego on Aug. 21 that the synod did not pass this measure because “they didn't want to take a doctrinal position for the Universal Church at a regional synod,” but, he added, “clearly, they asserted they felt this was something whose time has come.”

Following the release of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, McElroy suggested that the divorced-and-remarried may make a "discernment of conscience" that "God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist."

After Pope Francis in June 2016 addressed a question about apologizing to gays who feel marginalized by the Church, McElroy commented that Catholics who identify as LGBT need to know they are “part of our families.” 

McElroy told America magazine in July 2016 that the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s description of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” uses “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”

“The word ‘disordered’ to most people is a psychological term,” he said. “In Catholic moral theology it is a philosophical term that is automatically misunderstood in our society as a psychological judgment.”

He suggested collaboration “with those in society who are working to banish discrimination and violence leveled against people because of their sexual orientation.” 

McElroy is a member of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The dicastery’s wide-ranging mission includes social development, charitable and pastoral work, assistance for migrants, refugees, and human trafficking victims, and environmental work that cares for God’s creation.

McElroy’s episcopal motto is “Dignitatis Humanae” (“The dignity of the human”), the name of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom.

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