A study in contrasts is playing out in California, where the newly installed bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, issued a call to resist the culture wars yesterday at the same time that prominent Catholics in San Francisco, just 500 miles up the coast, were calling for the firing of his former boss, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.
McElroy, an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco for many years, was tapped by Pope Francis last month to lead one of the nation’s largest dioceses, with more than 1 million Catholics, in the latest sign that Francis intends to leave his pastoral imprint on the American Church.
A frequent writer on social inequality and an admirer of Pope Francis, McElroy called on Catholics to step back from the culture wars rocking the country during a service right before his installation Mass yesterday.
Describing culture as “a spiritual enterprise to be cherished,” he said the Church must be a bridge builder.
“We Catholics are not called to separate from culture,” he said, “nor to be co-opted by our culture, nor to war against our culture, but to embrace our culture with a powerful and transformative love rooted in the Gospel.”
He said that “all forms of marginalization which deny the dignity of the human person are antithetical to the Gospel and repugnant to God.”
He highlighted Pope Francis’ call for mercy in the Church, saying that mercy “does not mean evacuating the moral law of its substance,” but instead emulating Jesus’ encounters with the marginalized in the Gospels.
“First embracing them with love and mercy, then healing their wounds, and only then proclaiming the moral law of reform,” he said.
He said as bishop he will seek to foster “an ecclesial culture that honors unity and diversity equally in forging the body of Christ,” and called for immigration reform.
McElroy has repeatedly emphasized Pope Francis’s call for mercy, saying in February, “To be judgmental is a sin for religion. It is easy for the Church to get lost in the rules, but pastoral theology trumps rules.”
He is also on the record saying he favors relaxing rules that bar divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving the Eucharist, a position that aligns him with other Church moderates, such as Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich, another Francis appointment who was in San Diego for the celebration yesterday.
Also in attendance was McElroy’s former boss, Cordileone, who is dealing with continued fallout in his San Francisco archdiocese over new morality clauses in teacher contracts and employee handbooks that critics say are overly harsh and unforgiving.
A full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle Thursday, signed by more than 100 Catholics, called on Pope Francis to remove Cordileone as archbishop because of what they say is “an atmosphere of division and intolerance” in the archdiocese.
Those signing the ad include software guru Charles Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe Systems and the former chairman of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco, as well as the father of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The ad accuses Cordileone, who heads the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee fighting same-sex marriage, of promoting a “single-issue agenda” and contends that the archdiocese “cannot survive” under his leadership.
“Holy Father,” the ad reads, “please provide us with a leader true to our values and your namesake.”
The ad criticizes the teacher contract as “mean-spirited,” condemns a San Francisco pastor who recently banned girls from serving at the altar, and claims the archbishop isn’t listening to the concerns of local priests, but “relies instead on a tiny group of advisors recruited from outside the diocese.”
The archdiocese shot back Wednesday, calling on local Catholics to write to the Chronicle in protest of the ad, and dismissing the signatories as not speaking for the church.
— Archdiocese of SF (@ArchdioceseSF) April 16, 2015
“The advertisement is a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, a misrepresentation of the nature of the teacher contract, and a misrepresentation of the spirit of the Archbishop,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “The greatest misrepresentation of all is that the signers presume to speak for ‘the Catholic Community of San Francisco.’ They do not.”
Cordileone has been under assault from some Catholics since news broke in February that teachers in archdiocesan-run schools would be required to sign a contract that states they “accept the Church’s teaching that all extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil and that these include adultery, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations.”
But Cordileone’s supporters have stood by his decisions, noting that the clause is common in other dioceses and fully in line with Catholic teaching.
Close to 40,000 people signed an online petition hosted by the website Catholic Vote thanking Cordileone for his actions. “Thank you for showing us what true leadership looks like and for defending Catholic families, students, and an important principle of religious liberty in America. We know you will stand firm despite the recent attacks against you,” the petition reads.
Church observers say that McElroy’s pastoral style more closely reflects Pope Francis, while Cordileone’s approach to cultural issues aligns with the pontiff who appointed him, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Francis’ two biggest American appointments – Cupich in Chicago and McElroy in San Diego – suggest that the pope favors bishops who share his emphasis on social justice and mercy rather than lots of experience leading large dioceses.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco, where McElroy was an assistant, has about half the population of the Diocese of San Diego. Cupich’s previous diocese in Spokane, Wash., was a fraction of the size of Chicago.
As Whispers in the Loggia noted Wednesday, Pope Francis will have further opportunity to shape the American Church when the bishops of Long Island and Washington, DC reach retirement age later this year.