Interview: Bishop McElroy Talks Renewal And Reform In The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church nationwide, as well as in Bridgeport and on Long Island, has been in the headlines for the past few months. There is continuing fallout from the abuse scandals, with accusations and calls for Pope Francis to resign. Amidst all of this, the Church is trying to maintain its mission.
Bishop Robert McElroy was installed as the sixth Bishop of San Diego in 2015. He was born in San Francisco, received his bachelor’s degree in American History from Harvard and his master’s in American History from Stanford, before entering the seminary in 1976. He was ordained a priest in 1980 and was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco in 2010.
Bishop McElroy serves on several committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and is the author of two books: “The Search for an American Public Theology” and “Morality and American Foreign Policy.” He is visiting Sacred Heart University for a discussion on “The Church is a Field Hospital: Pope Francis’ Vision.”
McElroy recently sat down with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner to discuss his thoughts on Catholicism under Pope Francis and what the future may hold for the Church. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Welcome, Bishop. Before we get started on issues related to the Catholic Church, I have to ask for your thoughts on terrible events of this past weekend, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
It’s simply horrific. It’s a sign of where we are at this moment in our nation, of division and terrible hatred that is being spawned all through our society. It’s a great tragedy for the individuals who were killed and wounded…for their families.
Two of my friends from college, that was their spiritual home, at Squirrel Hill at the Synagogue. And it’s terrifying for the Jewish community and the United States particularly, because it brings to mind that the horrendous evil of anti-Semitism always lurks just beneath the surface. And even though we had seemed to be in a time where it is more restrained, it leaps out like this in what is now the greatest act of anti-Semitic violence in our nation’s history.
So on a whole variety of levels, in terms of the tragedy of those who were impacted directly, of the Jewish community, and all of us who need to rededicate ourselves to fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, it’s a wakeup call, and a very tragic and sad one.
Bishop, what do you mean by the “Church is a Field Hospital”?
Well to me it’s one of the most interesting things Pope Francis has said. What he says is that we need to look on the Church – there’s these beautiful images of the Church, the Church as a sacrament, as a shining sign of God’s grace, the Church as the people of God walking together on pilgrimage – but the field hospital, what he points to, is the reality that every human person in their heart and in their lives suffers from brokenness and that God comes to us precisely in those moments of our brokenness to heal us, to reconcile us. And the Church needs to be first and foremost an instrument of that healing. And this healing is a nonjudgmental healing. The Church isn’t coming first into people’s lives to say here’s what you’re doing wrong. Rather, it’s there to embrace people with the care and the love and the mercy and the compassion of God reflected in the life of the Church. And that’s what the field hospital signifies.
We’ve heard a lot about the Cardinal McCarrick controversy. To an outsider, it seems as if it’s a fight for the future, no pun intended, for the soul of the church between not so much liberals and conservatives but between traditionalists and modernists. Your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s that. I wouldn’t categorize it as that. I think what it is is a sign of the blindness of the clerical culture that’s existed in the life of the Church, and that was at the heart of the abuse crisis as a whole.
The idea that Cardinal McCarrick, because he was retired and wasn’t doing these things anymore, these horrible acts with the seminarians, which was what was known at that time, that that was okay to leave him that way, that’s a sign of clerical blindness. And so we need to address this clericalism at the life of the Church. We need to address the fact that in the current structure of the Church, while there are standards and structures of accountability for the priests now that are in place that are very strong, there isn’t as much for the bishops, and we have to rectify that, I think, in November when we meet.
Archbishop Vigano has called on the Pope to resign. What are Catholics supposed to think about the accusations leveled against the Pope and other prelates?
I think often you need to look at how accusations are couched in order to understand what’s behind them. There are tremendously legitimate questions about how the McCarrick case was handled, stretching through the last three pontificates, that is through Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. And I think that the handling was wanting in all three of those periods. And so that’s a legitimate question embedded in the Vigano letter.
However, the core of the Vigano letter is an ideological attack upon the Pope to try to force him to resign because Archbishop Vigano and those who were working with him to put together this letter are utterly opposed to the direction Pope Francis is leading the Church in, and are particularly opposed to more openness toward LGBT people in our society. Pope Francis has that famous statement: ‘Who are we to judge?’ which has been the linchpin for a significant outreach within the life of the Church to the LGBT community. And Vigano, if you just read his letter, you’ll see clearly he’s opposed to that and to all forms of that openness.
There are apocryphal stories of both church attendance and donations going down. Where does the Church go from here, what can it do to regain the trust of parishioners?
Well, one of the things in the 2,000-year history of the life of the Church is that often areas of sinfulness in the life of the Church lead to renewal and reform. And it’s my hope that that will happen in this case, that a deep spirit of renewal and reform, which is going to have to take on certain elements, certain of them are structural, in terms of accountability, certain of them are culture, in terms of that question of clericalism in the life of the Church, certain of them are expanding the roles of laity in the life of the Church across the board. That was one of the answers in 2002 that was very successful in terms of handling the questions of sexual abuse was to bring laypeople into the core of the evaluative process and the investigative process, and so I think there will be a much greater expansiveness of lay roles in the life of the Church, and that could be a genuine and breathtaking area of reform and renewal, I think.