Gerard O’ConnellOctober 07, 2021
Pope Francis talks with Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego during his general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican Sept. 29, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

During his recent visit to Rome, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego gave a wide-ranging, exclusive interview to America’s Vatican correspondent.

In Part I of the interview, he speaks about political polarization in the United States and the divisions within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop over the push to deny Communion to pro-choice politicians. Bishop McElroy comments on Pope Francis’ remarks on the flight from Bratislava on the Communion question and the need for bishops to be pastors, not politicians. He expresses his hope that at their November meeting, the bishops can prioritize “eucharistic revival.”

In Part II, to be published tomorrow, Bishop McElroy talks immigration, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the questions of climate change and racism, the importance of synodality and the attacks against Pope Francis on some EWTN platforms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gerard O’Connell: Six years ago, on Sept. 24, 2015, Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress and warned against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” He said: “The contemporary world, with its open wounds, which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

My question: Has the pope’s message been heard?

Bishop McElroy: The pope’s talk to Congress was electrifying, particularly for congressional leaders and public officials, because it pointed to the better angels of our nature as a country: the great figures of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and to the different dimensions that can elevate discourse, dialogue, public debate, decision-making and the true building of culture, with spirituality as its core. That was really a high-water mark for the vision that we as a country should be pursuing.

The pope’s talk to Congress was electrifying, particularly for congressional leaders and public officials, because it pointed to the better angels of our nature as a country.

However, that vision has not transformed or even been able to hold the line on the course of the American political culture during this time, I am afraid. Things have gotten worse, not better, because the tribalism, the division, the politicization of every issue into partisan divides and the degree to which partisan labels have overtaken vast areas of human life. Now combat occurs across the entire culture in our country, even within families, within churches, within the society as a whole, within people’s work and friendships. It really is a corrosion that is taking place, accelerating rather than diminishing, I fear.

The church should be able to contribute to deflating this polarization, at least to some degree, and fostering harmony in society; but sadly it too is caught up in the polarization. We saw it most recently at the U.S.C.C.B.’s June meeting around the push to deny the Eucharist to politicians over the abortion question, even though the debate goes back to 2004. You referred to it as “the weaponizing of the Eucharist.” The pope commented on this issue in answer to my question on the flight back from Bratislava, Sept. 15.

Do you think his words offer a way ahead for the church in the United States to move out of this situation?

I think he is asking us to take a wholly different view and stance in how we approach these questions. What the pope on the plane is asking for, if I understand him correctly, is the way we break through that partisanship as bishops, as leaders in the church, as lay leaders in the church, is to take a fundamentally pastoral perspective and refuse to become embroiled in the dichotomies of the political landscape that are encroaching so rapidly into the whole of our culture.

The common is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the unity we find in the Gospel that allows us to begin to discuss these questions.

That means the pastor looks for what is common. Of course, for us, the common is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the unity we find in the Gospel that allows us to begin to discuss these questions.

The pope says the way ahead is not condemnation, not excommunication, not judgmental. He calls for bishops to be pastors, not politicians, and to be “pastors with God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.” What do you think this means?

I think it means starting with the concrete situations that people find themselves in in their lives, believers and nonbelievers alike, and understanding the dilemmas that they face. [It is] the effort to make Christ’s witness present there; that is something that binds people together, not drives them apart.

We have to build those kinds of bridges in all that we do because we are in a society that is tearing bridges down and erecting walls. We have to reject that. And it’s not that easy to do because, as we see in the life of the church, we have strong opinions about how best the Gospel can be realized within our own society.

We have to build those kinds of bridges in all that we do because we are in a society that is tearing bridges down and erecting walls. We have to reject that.

But what’s at stake is the very soul of our nation and, within the life of the church, the church’s soul is at stake in terms of the wider society and particularly the political culture of our country. That soul demands that we be a force for bringing people together, for stressing unity. That is a more important identity and role for the church than any particular political issue, and I think we have all got to see that.

Some people want to present the giving of Communion as a yes-or-no question, but Pope Francis is saying we share a common moral position on this question of abortion, so it is a matter of how you address the individual concrete cases. Is that how you see it?

It is certain that leaders in the life of the church—bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders—must vindicate in the public sphere the truths of our faith, the truths that justice, peace and life demand. That is our role within the culture. The church does not have a specifically political mission, but it has a moral mission in the political world. We have to witness to certain moral truths that come from our faith, that touch directly upon the major policy issues that we face.

The church does not have a specifically political mission, but it has a moral mission in the political world.

However, underlying all of them is the question: Can we be cohesive as a society and as a culture in our political life? If we don’t have that cohesion, and if we don’t have a sense of how we act toward each other in our political discourse, then we will never be able to truly address the common good because that sense of a culture, which supports dialogue, respect and understanding, is at the core. If that’s not there, then the common good will be ultimately usurped by the contending forces that are not rooted in the deepest spiritual values of our faith.

What would you hope for from the November meeting of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference in light of what the pope said?

I would hope for a couple of outcomes from the November meeting. One, there has been a lot of discussion pointing to the reality that the bishops are seeking to have a eucharistic revival. This would be a major initiative of the church to spiritually energize our understanding of, participation in and love for the Eucharist. That is the primary goal regarding the Eucharist for the conference at this moment, and the discussions in November about the particular form of statement that will emerge at this point from the conference are secondary to that revival. The proposed statement for November will inevitably get caught up in partisan debates that detract from the beauty, the dignity and the prayerfulness of the Eucharist. It’s the project of a eucharistic revival that’s important.

The proposed statement for November will inevitably get caught up in partisan debates that detract from the beauty, the dignity and the prayerfulness of the Eucharist.

So, I hope that whatever is said about the Eucharist during the November meeting, its focus will be against the background of this broader revival, which is really saying we have this beautiful sacrament which unites us, which brings us together at the table of the Lord. How do we in the coming two years, within our communities, generate a renewed understanding of the depth of this sacrament and its importance for the core and the life of the community? That’s one outcome [of the November meeting] that would be very important.

The other issue is this: I think the pope is saying to us is that our primary role is to be pastors to all our people. We are witnesses to truth in the wider society, but prior to that, we are called to be pastors to our people. That involves witnessing to the truth in its fullness. But it also involves seeing the real-life situations that people have, seeing the political choices that they have in their lives and how they are very often constrained, and how the effort to read the Gospel into the political life of our country is complicated. In voting for candidates, we do not have pure choices, where it’s clear that all of the common good or most of the common good falls on one side or the other.

We have to understand, precisely as the pope said, we are not replacing the consciences of our people. We are trying to help them as men and women [to] exercise those consciences in the political sphere. We have to show respect for that and love them as pastors and shepherds and [be] in communion with them, dialogue with them.

Were you struck by the fact that the pope said he had never refused Communion to anyone?

It was striking, but I [don’t] think that response is unusual. I think if you ask most priests, “Have you ever refused Communion?”—with the exception of someone who comes to Communion that is obviously not emotionally well—most priests I know have never been in the situation where they refused Communion to someone. I never have.

We are not replacing the consciences of our people. We are trying to help them as men and women [to] exercise those consciences in the political sphere.

So, it was striking because of what it says about the context, the pastoral context for this question we are debating in the conference of bishops. We are debating it as an abstraction, but the pope’s question is in the concrete: What do you do as a pastor?

Our overwhelming message at this point needs to be inviting people to the Eucharist, with the understanding that all of us have significant failures as we approach the altar, but those are not disqualifying. If we multiply the disqualifications [to Communion], then I think we are being less true to our identity as pastors, and we’re becoming just more abstract with reasoning that leads away from asking what Christ would do in this situation.

Do you think if the bishops can get over this internal struggle regarding the Eucharist, which seems to have a paralyzing effect on the conference, you will be able to contribute more to addressing the polarization in the country?

I was struck by the contrast between our own U.S.C.C.B. statement on faithful citizenship and the Canadian bishops’ statement on the eve of the recent elections. The Canadian bishops’ statement was simply a presentation of about 10 very important priorities of Catholic teaching that citizens who are Catholics should take into account when they prepare to vote. Our document attempts to have that vantage point but inevitably ends up in the very tempestuous role of clarifying prioritization.

I say this with some frequency: The bishops of our conference are fundamentally in agreement on the substance of the major political issues that face us in our country. It is on the prioritization that the friction comes, and that is where I think our dilemmas are. Very few of us disagree on the fundamental thrust of where we should go on immigration, abortion, euthanasia, religious liberty or poverty. There’s just no substantive disagreement on this.

But on the question of how citizens or believers should prioritize those issues, that is where frictions come in among us because it lets the partisan divide in. The prioritization that we engage in by using terms like “pre-eminent” actually invites partisanship into the heart of the church, even as it encroaches upon the legitimate realm of conscience for believers seeking to choose candidates who will advance the common good.

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