San Diego hits the episcopal jackpot

by Michael Sean Winters

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In Lent, the Gloria and Alleluia are suppressed in the liturgy, but there is nothing to prevent the good people of San Diego from using these expressions of Christian joy in casual conversation today as news spreads that they have a new bishop. And not just a new bishop: San Diego hit the jackpot in Bishop Robert McElroy, until now auxiliary bishop of San Francisco.

+McElroy is hardly an unfamiliar name here at NCR. Back in 2010, my colleague Tom Roberts profiled +McElroy at the time he was named an auxiliary bishop. Roberts was there covering a different story, but kept hearing about how wonderful the new auxiliary was. As he wrote at the time:

From Catholics deeply involved in the church of San Francisco to academics and fellow priests to old hands in the press, the reactions to his appointment -- almost always unsolicited -- ran along two main tracks: He's a terrific pastor who knows how to listen and negotiate and arrive at consensus (and gives great sermons, as well), and he's a brilliant man with a pile of advanced degrees. He also leaves a trail of writings on topics such as war and peace and opposing use of the Eucharist as a sanction against politicians -- stands that are rarely on the resumés (at least openly) of rising stars in the universe of the episcopacy.

Everything I have learned about +McElroy since then confirms Roberts' early assessment. Bishop McElroy has a brilliant mind and the heart of a pastor.

His writings have been regularly linked here at Distinctly Catholic. One evening, I heard the bishop speak at an event about polarization and politics at Georgetown organized by John Carr and his Initiative on Catholic Social Teaching. The bishop's talk was excellent, and I link to it again.

After +McElroy spoke, someone said his talk was "balanced," but that description suggests picking evenly from both sides of the partisan divide. That is not at all what +McElroy did. Instead, he went to the roots of the political craft, examining what politics is for, or claims it is for, what is the basis upon which it makes its claims and contours its methods of argumentation. This was no mere balance, but an appraisal of the foundations of the kind one does not hear often enough. The fact that this appraisal yielded a balanced outcome evidenced a pastoral astuteness, to be sure, but in a room full of somewhat jaded Washingtonians, that was not what impressed. What was impressive was +McElroy's ability to concisely identify deeper challenges for our politics than what garner the headlines and his challenge to everyone, no matter what their partisan affiliation, to re-examine their positions in light of those challenges.

Bishop McElroy was the first bishop to publish an article that made the vital point that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had adopted the wrong moral framework in its document on voting "Faithful Citizenship" when it selected "intrinsic evil" as the basic starting point for its section on conscience. Whether an evil is intrinsic or not tells us nothing about the gravity of the evil and makes it impossible for the Church to speak intelligently on those issues that require positive moral action, such as poverty, focusing overmuch on the negative proscriptions of the moral law. He also set forth his belief that the bishops' statements on politics should focus equally on poverty and pro-life issues as the touchstones of the Gospel mandate in civil society. (Anyone who thinks +McElroy is out to downplay the pro-life cause has never had a conversation with him.) It is far from clear the rest of the episcopal bench agrees, but there is no way for the bishops to make "Faithful Citizenship" cohere with Pope Francis' magisterial teachings unless they follow the path +McElroy has charted.

Among all the vacant and superannuated sees, San Diego is the plum. Santa Fe, N.M., is the only archdiocese in the mix, but it is not nearly as large as San Diego, which has about 1 million Catholics and is the sixth or seventh largest city in the U.S. Like Spokane, Wash., it has a Catholic university in the diocese. Unlike Greensburg, Pa., San Diego sits along the U.S.-Mexican border, so the new bishop will face all those challenges and opportunities unique to governing a border diocese.

Last week, I called attention to a lecture delivered by Bishop Daniel Flores, who leads the diocese at the other end of the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas. +Flores and +McElroy are the intellectual leaders of the next generation of U.S. bishops, and both are attuned to the need to get past the divisions of the past and forge a more unified Church here in the U.S., one focused on the Gospel, not the culture wars, a Church that encourages and does not castigate its people, one that is suspicious of extraneous ideologies that put ideas between people and the encounter with the Incarnate God. They have different intellectual styles and some different theological ideas, but the Church has always had such differences and should. But they have lived through the bitter divides that in some sense continue to frustrate the conference, and I hope these two young bishops can help their brother bishops chart a way to a less fractured future.  

So San Diego rejoices today, as well it should. But the excitement extends beyond Southern California. As the news percolated up the last couple of days, a wave of enthusiasm and excitement lit up email boxes and cellphones across the country. The selection of Bishop McElroy tells us not only about this gifted prelate, but something about Pope Francis and the process of selecting bishops. An affectation for the traditional Latin Mass may no longer get one into the express lane. An intransigent, culture-war approach to the public square is no longer weighed on the plus side of the ledger, and a pastoral sensibility is no longer seen as a deficit. In a country where income inequality is becoming the defining issue of our political life, having a bishop in a prominent see who understands the problem and does not repeat the theological absurdities issuing from the Acton or Napa Institutes is very welcome indeed. Most of all, the priests and people of San Diego can look forward to a leader who will listen to them and love them. Congratulations, San Diego.

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