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ROME – The only American in Pope Francis’s new crop of cardinals has pushed back against characterizations that he is somehow in rivalry with other local prelates who didn’t receive the red hat, saying such depictions are the result of a problematic polarization in U.S. Catholicism.
Speaking to Crux during a sit-down interview in Rome, Cardinal-Designate Robert McElroy of San Diego, who will get his red hat from Pope Francis on Saturday, said one of the most problematic trends in American Catholicism is “polarization along ideological lines, mostly within the Anglo community.”
“One pole is those who seek massive inclusion. That would be the LGBT, women’s issues and so forth. The other polarity is those that want to see doctrinal rigor. A lot of people are in the middle, but those are the two poles and there’s an alienation, there’s a sense of disunity,” he said.
Asked about media depictions that pit him against more conservative prelates who have not been awarded the red biretta, such as San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone or Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who is also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, McElroy said he believes “that is one aspect of this polarization.”
“Everything now becomes interpreted within the lens of these divisions, no matter what it actually is,” he said, saying he and Gomez had a conversation about this very topic during the USCCB’s retreatlike assembly in San Diego in June, “and we both felt it was just not indicative of reality.”
Rather, they found it “indicative of what certain parts of the debate within the Catholic Church in the United States have become,” he said.
McElroy was the lone American among the 21 prelates named by Pope Francis in May.
They will officially be made cardinals during a consistory on Saturday, which will be followed by a two-day meeting of the world’s cardinals from Aug. 29-30 to discuss the implementation of the pope’s recent reform of the Roman Curia.
In addition to the polarization plaguing Catholicism in the United States, McElroy also discussed the problem of young people leaving the church, as well as his impressions of the pope’s reform efforts and his views on the war in Ukraine.
Below are excerpts of Crux’s interview with Cardinal-designate Robert McElroy:
Crux: What does your appointment as a cardinal mean to you? Why do you think the pope chose you?
I don’t know. He hasn’t told me, and I suspect it has to do with this: This pope has generated elements of renewal in the life of the church, and synodality is an important part of that; the emphasis on pastoral theology I think is also a very important part of it; the image of the church as a field hospital is a very important part of that, contributions such as Laudato Si are an important part of that.
In San Diego, we’ve now held three synods, one of them was on Amoris (Laetitia), one was on young adults, and now we did our synodality document – we are in the middle of that process. In other ways we’ve tried to plant some of the seeds of that renewal the pope has launched us on, and I think that has something to do with it.
You mentioned your synod process. The church is in the middle of the Synod on Synodality right now, and I’m sure that’s a major priority for you, but what are some of your other priorities and how do you think your nomination will help you carry them forward?
I would divide those in two. That is, the nomination has more to do with the role a cardinal has in two ways. One I think is, especially for an American cardinal, to point to the universality of the church. I’m very American in tastes, habits, and attitudes, but in the United States we often look on the church through the prism of the United States, or of our own diocese. So, I think one of the roles of cardinals is to continually point to the universality of the church; we’re part of the global community of faith and global society. I think that’s an uphill struggle in the United States, so I think that’s one dimension of it. The other is, of course, being in union with the pope in terms of his responsibility for the unity of the faith and continuing the mission of the church. Those are the two things I look on for a cardinal’s role.
When you stay within the church in the United States, or within my own diocese, it’s a little different in that we had our synodal session; we’re doing a three-year process. It’s very clear, and it’s clear across the country, I’ve read other dioceses’ reports, there are a lot of joys in terms of the sacramental life of the church, in terms of the sense of community people get in the church, in the sense of the church being a pathway to God for people.
But there are huge issues that emerged as sources of sorrow. One is anger of the sexual abuse crisis. The major pastoral concern, and there’s no surprise, is young people leaving or drifting away from the church. That one I think is the top pastoral concern for the church of San Diego. We actually had a synod on young adults in 2019. So, young adults are an immense priority.
And also, what emerged as a big priority was polarization along ideological lines, mostly within the Anglo community. It’s not pronounced in the Hispanic parishes, or the Vietnamese parishes, or the Filipino parishes. Those have other issues, but they don’t have this one, but the Anglo community is very split.
There were two polarities. We had the University of San Diego do a formal data analysis for us, and two of the professors would come to all of our sessions and they were very helpful in coming up with the data. They isolated this polarization as on the one hand, one pole is those who seek massive inclusion. That would be the LGBT, women’s issues and so forth. The other polarity is those that want to see doctrinal rigor. A lot of people are in the middle, but those are the two poles and there’s an alienation; there’s a sense of disunity.
Do you have a strategy for bridging that gap?
Well, we know we have to do it. What we’ve talked about is leveraging off the fact that probably the majority are in the middle, that they’re not on one side or the other. They did a study a few years ago between right brain and left brain. They looked at this question in a very concentrated way: How can we bridge pro-life and social justice aspects? How can we bridge that gap, so that people see the continuum of Catholic social teaching?
They met with all sorts of people at different levels, and the conclusion they came to that made sense, they said it can’t be anything intellectual or academic, it has to be affective. Basically, it’s about compassion. Compassion could be the unifying factor they found in talking with people, crossing those barriers that occurred.
I have another question related to the issue of polarization. It’s not limited to the church, but it’s also political, and these two forms of polarization are often intertwined. What is your advice for balancing faith and politics, especially in the American context, where faith so often becomes political, and politics often becomes a form of faith?
I think that the flow is in reverse in this sense: I would be happier if it were flowing from faith into politics, but I feel that the political divisions have flown into the life of the church, with the polarization. So, patterns of thought, ways of interacting with each other, the lack of substantial discussion, the animosities, that has all crept in from our political culture.
My own view is that people look on political parties as a shorthand for world view, that it encapsulates a lot more than party. I do think this idea that it’s a shorthand for world view is not just who do you vote for, but is rather, how do you see the world? That’s why it’s such an alienating (thing).
On the subject of polarization, let me ask you a question that’s uncomfortable but needs to be addressed. Since the announcement of your nomination, there have been attempts to set it up as opposition between you and other California prelates, such as Salvatore Cordileone on the communion issue or Jose Gomez because he’s the president of the conference. How do you handle that?
I think that is one aspect of this polarization. Everything now becomes interpreted within the lens of these divisions, no matter what it actually is. I find that across this pontificate, people divide into their normal camps. Other than the pope paying his own hotel bill, or going to the prison with the young people, with almost everything he does there’s pro and con. So, I look on this in that sense. I think it’s part of the price of the situation we’re in now, and hopefully we can move out of that.
Do you think of yourself as an opponent of Cordileone or a rival of Archbishop Gomez?
No, no. Archbishop Gomez and I had a long talk about this very thing. The bishops met in San Diego this year, and we both felt it was just not indicative of reality, but more than that, (it was) indicative of the reality of what certain parts of the debate within the Catholic Church in the United States have become.
Speaking of this pontificate, one thing you cardinals will do next week is discuss the reform of the Curia and the broader reforms the pope’s trying to implement. What are your impressions of this reform so far?
I would divide the reform into two things. One is more fundamental, and that’s what’s the orientation of the Curia, why does it exist, what is its service called to be, and what is the manner of that service? I think on that fundamental level, Predicate (Evangelium) talks about personal questions by giving the emphasis to evangelization. It says, the Curia is not about maintenance, it’s about growth and penetration of the Gospel. That’s a difference in orientation.
I’ve worked in a lot of bureaucracies in different places, and there’s a stasis that occurs where you fall into maintenance, and I think that the message is very dramatic here, we can’t let that be the orientation. So, it is a kerygma-oriented transformation that is called to be the ethos of the Curia. I think on that level, it’s going to be very helpful.
The second dimension is the specific categorization of different offices. That I have less of a sense of. I know what they’re doing, but the Curia is still a very complex reality, because the church is a very complex reality, and many of these dicasteries are combinations of different institutions that have existed, and that’s not the easiest thing to do.
It’s obvious you’ve got two PhDs, because you managed to use the words ‘kerygma,’ ‘ethos’ and ‘stasis’ in the same sentence…
When I was finishing up my doctorate at Stanford…
Speaking of that, did you study under Condoleezza Rice?
She was the chair of my committee. I had her for a number of classes, but she chaired the committee.
My next question actually has to do with your PhD from Stanford. Your doctoral dissertation was on morality and American foreign policy. I wanted to ask you about a very current and practical application of that, which is the war in Ukraine that has disrupted the entire global community. The ongoing debates about it include dispute over the impact of sanctions on the global community and whether it is right to continue arming Ukraine. What kind of moral norms should be guiding decisions on these issues?
I have felt for some years and have said, I think the “just war theory” is not tenable any longer, partly because it’s not applied in the way it was supposed to be. It’s used now – those who advocated for the Iraq war, for example, used it as a pathway to war. It was meant to be a constraint on war, and it ceased to be that.
I’ve been involved in a number of the conferences here internationally on nonviolence and how do we advance nonviolence. There was book that the US Peace Institute put out; it was a study of mainly civil conflicts. It was a statistical study that showed ones that were dealt with by nonviolence versus the ones where they went to war, and the outcomes were actually better with nonviolence, surprisingly. So, it was a very important work showing that nonviolence as a strategy can work.
Now, I’ve always felt that there were certain situations where nonviolence is not sufficient. Ukraine is one of those, in that the invasion to me is the face of evil unleashed in the world, so the defense of the Ukrainian people to me I think is very, very important. But it’s a conundrum for those of us who want to see a much more prominent role for nonviolence in Catholic theology.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen