Change in the Church is usually describable as glacial. We have not been around for centuries by glomming on to the latest fad. Sometimes, however, even glaciers experience change suddenly and in a large scale, as when a large chunk of ice falls off. Later today, Bishop Robert McElroy will be installed as the Bishop of San Diego. This is the opposite of a large chunk of ice falling off. This is a large chunk of solid, solid intellectual and pastoral ground, warm not icy, being added to the mix.
Bishop McElroy first came to my attention in the pages of NCR when my colleague Tom Roberts profiled him, a profile that focused on the bishop’s reputation for being pastoral, a bishop with the smell of the sheep before Pope Francis announced that this was a characteristic he sought in bishops. I asked around and both my more liberal bishop friends and my more conservative bishop friends commented on the strength of his interventions at USCCB committee meetings and in plenary sessions. Most of them commented on his keen intelligence. We met finally at a USCCB meeting and over the course of a dinner, +McElroy displayed both qualities, a humble, pastoral instinct and a wide ranging, deep intellect. I was hooked. When +McElroy’s appointment was announced, I wrote this article explaining why I believed the Church of San Diego had hit the jackpot. Since then, the ramifications of this prominent appointment have become even more evident to me.
The first challenge facing any new bishop is to get to know his diocese, identify talented collaborators, assess the organizational strengths and weaknesses, devise methods of oversight and collaboration, get to the know the people and the local culture. San Diego is not a diocese facing any huge problems but it is a large diocese of over one million Catholics, making it the 13th largest in the country. It is a border diocese, with all the challenges and the opportunities such dioceses present, and it is one of the marks of the Church’s counter-cultural witness that while most Americans associate the border with problems, the leaders of our Church balance that assessment with an awareness of how we can be enriched by engaging across the border. A priest friend of mine who came to America as a young man without papers and was apprehended in Tijuana explains that in jail, waiting to be sent back, it was Catholics from San Diego who visited him in the jail, bringing him food and rosaries. He had not yet successfully made it to the U.S. but already he had been introduced, and shown love by, the U.S. Church.
Once +McElroy wraps his head and his arms around the tasks particular to San Diego, we can anticipate that he will play an ever larger role on the national stage. He really is that smart and, what is more, at a time when issues of religious liberty seem especially prominent on the Church’s agenda, +McElroy wrote a book about John Courtney Murray. For him, religious liberty is not a slogan or a political pose. And, seeing as the immediate future appears to be one in which religious liberty is seen in conflict with LGBT rights, the fact that +McElroy grew up in San Francisco, and served as a priest during the decimation of the AIDS epidemic, he has demonstrated a compassion for, rather than a hostility to, those marginalized because of their sexual orientation. Bishop McElroy exemplifies the Holy Father's approach to Church leadership, leading with mercy, as my colleague Monica Clark reported.
In this blog, I have frequently voiced my opposition to a “culture warrior” style of being a bishop, in which non-theological frameworks are imported into the Church’s approach, Catholic identity is understood as drawing stark contrasts between the Church and the culture rather than as building bridges between the Church and the culture, and in which religion gets reduced to ethics, thence to legalisms, and finally to politics. The “culture warrior” style developed as an antidote to the pastoral approach we associate with names likes +Quinn and +Bernardin, which the culture warriors viewed as soft and insufficiently rigorous. (It goes without saying that both Archbishop Quinn and Cardinal Bernardin were more intellectually rigorous than the culture warriors that followed!) It should be noted that +McElroy served as secretary to Archbishop John Quinn.
I would submit that the opposite of a culture warrior is not a soft leftie, it is a churchman. A churchman develops frameworks of understanding that are rooted in the Gospels and in the Church’s teachings, all the teachings, not just a few that happen to overlap with the political agenda of the Republican Party. A churchman looks out at U.S. culture and sees a consumer revolution not only a sexual revolution and understands that gluttony and greed are as much a threat to Christian discipleship as lust. A churchman recognizes that the Church is called to love the culture it is called to evangelize, to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Francis George. A churchman also recognizes that the greatest resources of the Church are prayer, humility, suffering, not PR campaigns, that the Lord is involved in His Church and we can count on Him, not only on our own prognostications. A churchman lives in hope, not fear, he is joyful even in hard times, especially in hard times. A churchman recognizes that it is always dangerous for the Church to become too cozy with any political party, that the Church must speak to more basic political realities – the common good, the good of participation in political life, the dignity of the human person and the human person’s essentially relational nature – instead of the fleeting issues of the day if it is to be a field hospital and not a battering ram. A churchman knows that love is no sign of weakness but a testimony to the fact that we are following in the footsteps of the Master. A churchman knows that he is not the be all and end all of Church life in his diocese, that he follows a previous bishop and will be succeeded by a future bishop, that it is the Spirit who carries the Church forward and it is the people of God, not just the bishop, in whom the Spirit works. A churchman knows in his heart that he is a successor of the apostles only insofar as he is a witness to the empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
+Bob McElory is a churchman. And, today, the Church in the United States takes one more large step away from its recent, unhappy dalliance with culture warrior methodology.