Monday, March 02, 2015

For San Diego, Francis Looks Left – SF Aux. McElroy Plucked for Border Post

Ed. Note: The appointment reported below was formally announced by the Vatican at Roman Noon on Tuesday, 3 March.
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It's being called the "Cupich appointment of the West," and not without reason – resolving the highest-profile vacancy on the current US docket, at Roman Noon tomorrow the Pope is slated to name Bishop Robert McElroy, the 61 year-old auxiliary of San Francisco known as one of the Stateside bench's most outspoken progressives, as the sixth bishop of San Diego and its 1 million Catholics in the nation's seventh-largest city.

As reports of the appointment quietly circulated for much of last week, three Whispers ops appraised of the move confirmed the news over the weekend. Coming just shy of six months since the premature death of Bishop Cirilo Flores after a brief struggle with cancer, as reports here at the time indicated, the succession was indeed fast-tracked given both the relative freshness of the consultations leading up to Flores' own selection in early 2012 and the diocese's still-unsettled state from its 2007 bankruptcy amid a torrent of sex-abuse lawsuits, which was settled for $197 million.

While the projections of timeline panned out, the choice of a relatively junior auxiliary – even one hailed as among the "leading intellectual and pastoral lights" of the bench's rising generation – is a significant surprise. That's anything but to say, however, that McElroy isn't ready for prime time – a Harvard undergrad with doctorates from both Stanford (in political science) and the Gregorian (moral theology), the San Diego pick served as vicar-general to his mentor, the retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, before 14 years as a pastor during the tenure of then-Archbishop William Levada.

Beyond his assisting role until now in "The City," the bishop is notably a member of the influential Administrative Committee of the USCCB – the 30-prelate group that is the body's ultimate authority outside of the plenary session – as the regional delegate for the sprawling turf comprising California, Nevada, Utah and Hawaii (i.e. the area covered by the Golden State's twin provinces).

Already a familiar figure in the pages of the Jesuit-run America magazine while still a parish priest – including a 2005 piece where he memorably shredded the then-nascent movement to bar Catholic office-holders from receiving the Eucharist over their support for legal abortion – in 2010, McElroy was named an auxiliary to then-Archbishop George Niederauer, a move that clearly enjoyed the blessing of Levada, who by then was CDF prefect and oversaw the appointment from his perch on the Congregation for Bishops (where he remains into the present). Given the spotlight of the current context on questions of religious freedom, it bears reminding that McElroy's Stanford degree has its focus on religious liberty as conceptualized by John Courney Murray and integrated into Catholic tradition with Dignitatis humanae, Vatican II's declaration on the topic, whose title the bishop took for his episcopal motto.

The auxiliary's move south intriguingly coincides with a tense period in San Francisco, as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's planned addition of doctrinal and morality clauses to the teachers' contract and policy handbook at the archdiocese's high schools has garnered loud protests in the famously liberal enclave (at left, the archbishop – himself a San Diego native – and his auxiliary are shown praying the Rosary at a 2013 pro-life rally). Yet even as McElroy's new assignment lacks the pallium that comes with the helm of California's first metropolitan church, San Diego's fold is more than twice his hometown's size.

The third appointment Francis has made to date to a US diocese of a million or more – after Bernie Hebda to Newark in 2013 and, of course, Blase Cupich to Chicago last September – McElroy's progressive leanings in the border post could augur a clash with a local political sensibility where Republicans run strong, above all thanks to the presence of several military installations and retirees of the services who remain in the area. (In a 2011 America piece, the incoming bishop lamented what he termed the US' policy of "war without end.") On a more pointed angle, as the nominee has arguably been the strongest voice among the Stateside bishops in echoing Pope Francis' calls for a "poor church" and warnings against income inequality, sending him to the diocese that's home to Mitt Romney's recently-completed "dream house" featuring a car elevator is a storyline all in itself.

Word from San Diego indicates that a 10am presser tomorrow has already been called. According to two ops, McElroy's installation has been scheduled for Wednesday, April 15th.

As ever, more to come.