Cardinal McElroy on how Pope Francis has changed the church—and why some U.S. bishops are opposed to it
“In Pope Francis’ pontificate, the global south is present in a radically new and prominent way in the life of the church,” Cardinal Robert W. McElroy told Gerard O’Connell, America’s Vatican correspondent, in an exclusive hourlong interview via Zoom on March 4. “There has been a fundamental shift in perspective, of cultures, and sometimes of priorities, within the life of the church.”
Cardinal McElroy reflects on the first 10 years of Francis’ leadership of the Catholic Church, shares his impressions of the Argentine pope as a person and the changes he has ushered for the papacy, the Roman Curia and the universal church over the past decade. The cardinal also offers three reasons why, he believes, Pope Francis has encountered strong opposition, especially from some of the U.S. bishops.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Gerard O’Connell: Francis has been pope for 10 years. You have met with him several times. What is it that strikes you most about him as a person?
Cardinal McElroy: As a person what strikes me whenever I am with him is his level of direct engagement; that is, his sense of immediacy, of really honing in on the person he is talking to. I feel a link to him; he wants to listen, he wants to hear, he wants to say things to me, too.
He is clearly rooted in the Spirit—that is behind everything he is doing and the comments he makes—and also a sense that the Spirit is calling him to a particular mission at this time. Mother Teresa had that same sense of holiness, of the Spirit of God with her. She had a mission she thought that God had given her, and she knew that and was trying to do that. I feel that same thing with Pope Francis.
Pope Francis is clearly rooted in the Spirit—that is behind everything he is doing and the comments he makes.
Pope Francis is a hope-filled man. Sometimes people criticize him for this, saying he is too hopeful about human nature, the world, or about where the church can be. It is important to distinguish in the Christian sense between hope and optimism. Optimism is merely the belief that everything comes out right. Christian hope is the belief that even in hard times God is at our side and will find a way to help us get through.
What strikes you most about him as the successor of Peter?
One is that he represents the coming of the world church that Karl Rahner had talked about as a reality at the time of the Second Vatican Council. In Pope Francis’ pontificate, the global south is present in a radically new and prominent way in the life of the church. There has been a fundamental shift in perspective; of cultures, and sometimes of priorities, within the life of the church. He is the first pope not from Europe in modern times.
The second thing is he has great knowledge, and a specific knowledge of various issues of the church in the United States. Those tend to be very human, pastoral issues that are going on in the life of American society and in the life of the church in the United States. Surely, he has to have knowledge of the universal church, but he also has a good deal of knowledge, specifically, of what the realities are in the church and in the society in the United States.
In his programmatic document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” (“Evangelii Gaudium”), Francis spoke about the need for a conversion of the papacy [see No. 32]. Do you think he has succeeded in bringing about such a conversion?
Partially, yes, in a couple of fundamental ways. Pope Francis has made the pope and the papacy more immediate to people. It is not formal in the same way it had been before. Now, certainly Pope John Paul II had a wonderful way with people and engagement, but this is a different thing. This is speaking with groups, people, journalists, individuals, immediately, about the problems that exist in their lives and in the world and in the life of the church. That sense of immediacy is a different kind of papacy. It is one of more direct encounter, person to person encounter, than it has been before.
A second change is Pope Francis, through gestures, touches people, and frankly that defines the papacy in important ways. A few such moments would be after he was elected and he went to pay the bill at the hotel. That has a very significant impact on people. Again, that moment when he reached out to the man who had terrible lesions on his face. That was a particularly powerful moment of the compassion of Christ being radiated through the papacy. When he was in Africa—going there with all the sufferings he has getting around, and yet going there and engaging with the people so vigorously and arduously—that makes a big impact. And the final one that sticks in my mind, was that time during Covid when on March 27, , he spoke and prayed alone in St. Peter’s square in the rain.
There has been a fundamental shift in perspective; of cultures, and sometimes of priorities, within the life of the church.
The final thing about the conversion of the papacy is about decentralization. He was elected pope to address certain areas of centralization in the life of the church and of the Roman Curia. In the formal restructuring that he has done, he has begun to accomplish that just in the whole attitude of the curia being in service to the local churches and not being the ultimate determinants of all things in the name of the pope.
From the beginning of the pontificate, Francis spoke about the need for a pastoral and missionary conversion of the church. To what extent do you think he succeeded in bringing that about?
The notion of accompaniment has really been brought to the fore as a way the church should be present to and walk with people. That is a fundamental paradigm for the life of the church. It flies in the face of what our society is saying at this time, which is that question of polarization, of keeping people at a distance if they are not in agreement with us, not like us in certain social, cultural ways. Accompanying is different; it says you go to each person and treat them in their individuality, you walk with them in grace, you embrace them.
Secondly, Pope Francis says our moral and pastoral theology must be substantially informed by the realities of people’s lives and what they encounter. That is a piece of data that should have particular relevance in how we think through what moral theology calls us to do and how to live out the Gospel in the present day.
Pope Francis, through gestures, touches people, and frankly that defines the papacy in important ways.
These dialogues we had in all the parishes across the country had significant, beneficial outcomes; not only in terms of what they produced and what people said but also what occurred in the hearts of people doing those synods.
What is the vision of church that Francis has promoted in these years? How is it being received? And how central is “synodality” to that vision?
Francis is presenting synodality as a mark of the church and certainly as a mark of the culture of the church. It is most important to emphasize that synodality is a culture rather than an outcome or a set of outcomes. There will be outcomes, hopefully, from the synodal process over the next year-and-a-half—and I am hopeful about certain specific ones. However, the key is that the culture of the church will change; to make it more listening to God, to letting God be in charge, to dialogue with one another, to encounter, to include, to let people participate.
Related to synodality is the sensus fidei. To what degree does listening to people in these ways communicate an important sense of God’s presence and action and faith enfleshed in the life of people that should inform our teaching, that should be a foundation for our teaching? There is a dispute over this: Is the reflection of God’s people as a whole a legitimate source of substantial input for the formation of our doctrines, and particularly in applying them to what people are called to do in the light of the Gospel and of the teachings of the church? I think the answer is “Yes,” but there are many who are arguing “No,” that it is theologians and bishops who determine and convey the elements of doctrinal formation and that the people of God as a whole are merely a barometer of whether something is out of sync, rather than being a source of theological understanding, input and richness.
As I understand it, this is what Francis is saying, but sometimes I think we are at the divide between the “we teach and you follow” kind of church and a different kind of church, “a synodal church.”
And out of that come some of the challenges to the consultation that have been occurring across the world. Critics point out [that] maybe 1 percent or 2 percent of Catholics worldwide were consulted. That is true, but I look at it this way: We had about 500,000 people in the United States that did in-person dialogues. That is the largest single consultation of any kind in the United States. And that’s the foundation or part of the reflections that should be going forward at the synod. It is not a small group of people. It is unprecedented in the history of our country, in any institution, even the government.
Could you identify some ways in which Francis has changed the Catholic Church since becoming pope?
I would say one would be Aparecida, the Fifth Latin American Episcopal Conference held in 2007 in Brazil. That is, as a pope from Latin America he brought the beauty of that long process of theological reflection and ecclesial formation to the wider world.
My own view is that, in general, Latin America has had over the past 40 years the richest source of genuine theological, ecclesial reflection. That is just beautiful, profound, rich, and transferable to the wider world.
I read the Aparecida document about twice a year just to remind myself how much richness is there, but also what it reflects about a whole continent—and including Mexico—coming together to theologize and to say, in light of the human experience at this time in our continent, what is God calling us to do and to be?
‘Is the reflection of God’s people as a whole a legitimate source of substantial input for the formation of our doctrines?’
A second thing is that one statement the pope made in reaction to a question on the plane returning from Rio: “Who am I to judge?” That has resounded widely and had tremendous, positive effects. Now it gets mischaracterized sometimes as saying the church cannot have any judgments of right or wrong—of course that is not what it is. “Who am I to judge” is a rejection of judgmentalism, which is a whole different reality. Jesus speaks about the sin of judgmentalism more than any other single sin in the Gospel, repeatedly, because it is so easy for us to fall into it.
“Laudato Si’” has had epochal influence, not only within the church but in the wider society and as a way of training focus on environmental questions—but doing so within two contexts. The first is that of creation; that it is the created order, this gift from God, which we are ignoring and despoiling. The second is the human impacts that are so enormous on all levels and are interrelated. The dignity of the human person is under assault because of these environmental questions now in so many parts of the world. Frankly, in virtually every part of the world things are deteriorating at the environmental level.
The final thing I would say is in “Fratelli Tutti,” the type of love that Pope Francis talks about and particularly his application of it to questions of war and peace. That is an important move forward in the life of the church, to place active non-violence at the center of the church’s teaching on war and peace. I think it is time for us to move from thinking of that as an ideal to thinking of that as a reality that we must practice and integrate. Now, I do think, there are some instances like Ukraine, in which military action is justified. It is enormously fraught.
From what you have seen and heard as a bishop, how do you think Francis has impacted the lives of Catholics in the United States and Americans in general?
By pointing to the tenderness of God’s mercy. That has been an unswerving theme of Pope Francis during his pontificate. People have been very receptive to that in the United States. That is a gift. To have that constant focus on the mercy of God, which is the primary attribute of God in relation to us in our humanity.
The role of the pope as a moral leader is very important, above all on the world stage and within the United States, because we do not have moral leaders now. I cannot think of anybody that I could point to that I would regard as a wide-ranging moral leader. We have some good, moral people. We are doing some good things in various spheres of life, but we have a real dearth of moral leaders. Pope Francis is such a moral leader and that is an important role at this particular moment.
Pope Francis’ comment—‘Who am I to judge?’—has resounded widely and had tremendous, positive effects. It is a rejection of judgmentalism.
Pope Francis gave us a key to approaching the question of polarization when he gave that speech to Congress when he came in September 2015. That was a very significant moment because you had the House of Representatives and the Senate there—at their most polarized. And yet Pope Francis was able to speak to that tradition which makes us one in the United States and in the eyes of the rest of the world, through figures that were important to our history and our identity: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and to point to them as building commonalities. Our society does not have that now; the differences are accentuated. That is one of the pluses of synodality. It accentuates the commonalities rather than the differences. We desperately need that in our society and within the church at this time.
Francis has encountered opposition from some of his brother bishops in these years, especially in the United States. How do you explain that opposition?
There are three substantial areas where that surfaces.
The first is in the prioritization of public policy issues—and specifically the role of abortion. The bishops in the United States have virtually no substantive disagreements on any of the major public policy issues as to what public policy should be or how it should move. We are in agreement on that. The friction is over prioritization because it gets into the politics of what do you do first, what is most important? There are a number of bishops who disagree with the pope in terms of prioritization of those public policy issues.
The second thing is on this whole issue of synodality. One of the legitimate questions that it raises as we are all going through this process; we have these dialogues, people have brought forth important concerns and needs across the world, but they are also conflicting ones. How does this all come together? How does it not end up in a mess?
Many of our bishops are men of faith, but they do not like to make leaps of faith. In synodality, one has to take a leap of faith. You really have to say: “O.K., this process of going forward, we believe God is there and God is going to lead us to a good outcome; a spiritually rich, unified outcome.” But I will tell you, I suppose, on many issues of life, I do not like making leaps of faith. There is an uneasiness about synodality among the bishops in the United States that arises from that question, and that accelerates opposition to where the pope wants to go.
For me it is an easier question, because I went through the Amazon synod. I saw how, at the beginning, there were all different points of view and different questions. But through that month-long synod building on the conversations that had been done in the Amazon beforehand. They were able to come to outcomes, which did not have everything I was hoping for but there was a near universal sense that God had been present bringing it to a place of unity, and with rich outcomes.
U.S. bishops have virtually no substantive disagreements on major public policy issues. The friction is over prioritization and what is most important.
A third source of division within the bishops of the United States goes back to “Amoris Laetitia,” specifically Chapter 8. That occasioned a sharp disagreement within the American bishops over whether there should be such accommodations made for married and divorced Catholics who had led good lives and are remarried. Should they be allowed to receive the Eucharist in the ways that the pope suggested to them in that footnote? The opposition is not confined to that issue, but that issue reveals the fundamental divide, I think, within the American episcopate over whether our pastoral or moral proclamation should be oriented more toward dogmatic truth or accompanying people of faith who have very desperate pastoral situations. I think that is the most important reason for the division among bishops in the United States regarding Pope Francis.
The church in the United States but also worldwide has been hit by the whole abuse question. Francis admitted, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, that, “I myself had a conversion in this field.” He has sought to combat and eliminate the abuses of conscience, power and sexuality in the church, and especially pedophilia. How would you rate what he has done so far?
It is very important that he has put such emphasis on the role of clericalism and the clerical culture in this, because that does lie at the heart of it. There are people who want to emphasize other things, but I think that could easily lose sight of the degree to which we had a culture where because of our theology of priesthood, the notion that you had to reassign priests and that this sin was a private sin and just needed to be forgiven, that all of those elements were part of a clerical culture that lay at the very heart of why we did nothing to stop this. In my view, the great sin of the church on sexual abuse of minors by clergy was not that we had priests who abused, but that knowing that they had abused they were reassigned. It had to do with all of the presumptions of the clerical culture.
Pope Francis has erected a substantial campaign for accountability on these questions; not only accountability for those who abused directly, but also for those who tolerated and sustained it through reassignment patterns or cover-ups.
A third thing the pope has done that is good is that he admits his own mistakes. This is really important for a leader to do, and so much in our ecclesial culture says do not do that. Those of us who are leaders in the life of the church, we make mistakes. I think it is important to say that we have done that because then people will understand when we are honest with them. And it just makes us more human, too.
The pope admits his own mistakes.... so much in our ecclesial culture says do not do that.
I think it is still not mature yet what the system of accountability is and should be. Hans Zollner, S.J., made a statement the other day about where we are on this, and there is still a big question of how you define vulnerable adults; that is a major issue. A second question is, “How do we go back and evaluate actions of reassignment and cover-up from years ago?” And not a slow evaluation; it should be a judicious evaluation, obviously, but the process is very slow in terms of how it deals with challenges, particularly against bishops.
Another big question, of course, especially in the U.S. church, that is emerging in the whole synodal process relates to the role of women in the church. How do you view what Francis has done? And what would you like to see him doing in the rest of his pontificate?
He has been particularly helpful on the question of appointments and structural changes in the reform of the Roman Curia. That was a very important thing which touched upon laity as a whole because a lot of the blockages to women having access, at the diocesan level and at the universal level, have to do with blockages on laity having particular positions. The pope has moved in very significant directions on this front. I think there will likely be some more movement on this at the synod.
There are things I would like to see in addition, though. I am of the mind that the church should invite women to enter into every form of service and ministry in the church that is not doctrinally precluded, and that means a series of openings at the individual level and in parish life. It means in the diocese, certain barriers be taken away to positions they cannot have..
And then on the diaconate, I would like to see women ordained as deacons because I think it is not doctrinally precluded. I think the history is sufficient now to show that there was a form of diaconal ministry in the life of the church with a ritual to formalize that.
I would like to see women ordained as deacons because I think it is not doctrinally precluded.
I would also like to see Pope Francis enunciate a theological framework for the role of men and women that attends to the distinctiveness and uniqueness of women but does not pigeonhole. Too often the concepts which we use in the life of the church pigeonhole women into certain categories, they can do this but they cannot do that, and I do not think that is helpful.
Pope Francis has focused a lot on the social dimension of the Gospel. How would you summarize that, and are people listening?
I am on the border of Mexico and California, and so for us one of these issues that is so important to the heart of Pope Francis and that he points to repeatedly is the whole question of migrants and refugees. Whenever I see him, he asks, “What is the situation on the ground now?” And it is not good here in the United States. I was hoping the policies would be getting better—they have gotten a little better—but it is just not a good situation because our system is basically broken. That is an area, as a worldwide problem, that Francis keeps sustained attention on, because it is easy for us to filter that out of our consciousness.
Pope Francis, like St. Francis of Assisi, keeps pointing to the poor in society and asking what kind of an economy lets this level of inequality exist and become even more exacerbated over time; in which the instruments of finance and financial markets are manipulated in a way where—I see it all the time in our own diocese—the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is counter to our faith, and the pope keeps saying that.
To a great degree, sadly, people listen to those parts of the pope’s message, which they are in favor of, and then ignore the other parts and utilize parts they do like, either in discussion, dialogue or public presentation, or just sit with it in their hearts.
But the deeper question is this: At what level, on these issues, are the pope’s statements and actions bringing actual conversion for people to look beyond their MSNBC or Fox News mindset, and really allow a conversion of heart on these issues of migration, abortion, refugees and the poor?