At the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California, San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy electrified attendees with a challenging analysis of this “pivotal moment as a people and as a nation, in which bitter divisions cleave our country and pollute our national dialogue.”
He told his Modesto audience on Feb. 18 that the fundamental political question of our age is whether the nation's powerful economic interests and structures "will enjoy ever greater autonomy or whether they will be located effectively within a juridical structure which seeks to safeguard the dignity of the human person and the common good of our nation.”
“In that battle,” he said, “the tradition of Catholic social teaching is unequivocally on the side of strong governmental and societal protections for the powerless, the worker, the homeless, the hungry, those without decent medical care, the unemployed.”
Jim McDermott, S.J., spoke to Bishop McElroy on Feb. 22. The two began by discussing some of the criticism Bishop McElroy has received for his public positions. This interview has been edited and condensed.
McDermott: As a bishop, how do you deal with opposition? In December, for instance, you commented on “Amoris Laetitia,” and Ross Douthat in The New York Times took you on. Not to single him out, but how do you deal with those sorts of reactions?
Bishop McElroy: I think there's several different types of reactions. For example, there is a group of websites—and I don't include his—that simply ratchet up against any thought within the life of the church in the United States that they consider out of step with a worldview that has largely become partisan. Those are not people who are thoughtfully considering what's said. Those are people who prefer to categorize other people and then gin them up in a way that is not fair-minded. I don't spend much time thinking about that.
In the Diocese of San Diego we have 200,000 Catholics who are undocumented. We simply can't stand by and watch them get deported.
But Mr. Douthat is a person genuinely trying to consider the reality here. One of the problems with his analysis is that he misinterpreted a word in my talk. He didn't purposely distort it, but it was a misreading of what I was saying. That's a different thing. That's somebody that's trying to work through what is being argued. That’s a substantive position and I take it seriously.
The third group is people of goodwill, some of whom are people of my own diocese who are very concerned about the problem of immigration and who follow where the president's going on it. They don't see why it would be incompatible with Catholic faith. That's the group that I try to spend the most time thinking about and taking into consideration.
McDermott: How do you do that? I’ve got to think that’s the most challenging group because you're their pastor as well.
Bishop McElroy: That's right. You're their pastor. But it's true whenever you speak about parts of the Gospel that are controversial within a given area. A month ago with our March for Life here in San Diego, I said that the new administration and new Congress provide us new avenues for moving forward on the laws that pertain to abortion, for example, national parental notification laws, which I haven't seen being proposed very much. But when I say that, there's a whole other group within society who would disagree with me.
You can be a bishop and be faithful to the cause, but you're going to have some moments where people on various sides of different questions will vehemently disagree with what you're saying.
The interesting part on the reaction to the Modesto speech from my own people has been that for those who have been opposed to it, the focus seems to be on the immigration question more than on the economic issues.
That surprised me a bit because in the Diocese of San Diego we have 200,000 Catholics who are undocumented. We simply can't stand by and watch them get deported.
What we're facing is a step-by-step move toward a massive deportation of people who are undocumented, who have committed no major crime, who are now facing great fears because they are getting swept up in these new raids. It's clear to them that there has been in these weeks an expansion of both the scope of deportation and the resources that will be devoted to it.
McDermott: In Modesto you spoke of disruption, how the president presents himself as a disruptor and how we need to be disruptors now. In the area of immigration, how do you imagine Catholics can be a source of useful disruption?
Bishop McElroy: One is simply being in solidarity with individual people we know who are undocumented and terrified right now. They need emotional support and a sense that they're not alone in this. The church needs to be with them, and we as individuals, as people of faith, need to be with them and help them through this.
There's a great deal of fear now that's been unleashed, not only among the adults but among the kids. We can't go through multiple years of this kind of fear being ramped up within a community of 10 million people.
There's another level of institutional reaction that will occur in a state like California. There are bills being introduced in the legislature to limit the effective ability of the federal government to use local resources and state resources to further this sweep of deportation.
So the bishops of California are looking at these different bills trying to figure out which ones are fair-minded, substantively make sense and are aligned with the Gospel. We want to provide some help for the undocumented here and also prevent the law enforcement community from getting entrapped in a situation where the undocumented community feels totally alienated from local law enforcement and thus aren't cooperating.
In all of that human tragedy that's unfolding, we have to be there. That's the sort of disruption I’m talking about, trying to find pathways of integrity where we can show solidarity and actually assist undocumented people in the fight that they're facing.
McDermott: The primary thrust of your talk was the economy and its dehumanizing effects. How would you describe the state of the economic structures in our country?
Bishop McElroy: In terms of Catholic social teaching I think we start within the economic context in the United States by saying that free markets are needed as a way of propelling economic growth and rewarding effort. There is great merit to a structure which fundamentally is oriented toward free markets.
But throughout American history we have recognized that free markets, unfettered, create immoral consequences. In the nation’s recent past, you had child labor going on and industrial exploitation in egregious ways. Over time the country has had laws that seek to curtail those abuses inherent in the free market system.
In terms of the life of the church, a life of grace, what we do for other people, most of the time you don't see the exact benefits. But you have faith.
The growing acquisition of wealth by a very small number of people who are involved in financial speculation, and the effects of that speculation, has been devastating. These elements of the markets need to be curtailed.
There were efforts to do that, and now those are being unwound. Middle-class and lower-middle-class incomes had kept pace for so many years with increases in worker productivity. Now growth in productivity is still occurring, but the rewards are not going commensurately to wage earners. These are substantial problems that need to be addressed where market systems are creating unbalanced solutions. The shrinking of the middle-class is a great worry for our society, along with the increase of inequality.
In the past, the great bulk of the American people were in the broad middle-class, and that's where the great concentrations of the wealth were. Now more and more wealth is going to a very high earning stratum of society, and the percentage going to the middle-class is diminishing appreciably. That's a very bad thing for our society, not only in terms of economic distribution, but in terms of social effects.
McDermott: In your talk you said: "Wealth is a common heritage. It's not a right of lineage or acquisition."
Bishop McElroy: Catholic social teaching talks about "the universal destination of material goods," meaning the creation of God was given as a legacy for all, and everything that exists came from that creation. Private property, which is necessary to make economies work in the practical order, is not a call for unfettered free markets. We have to constantly keep that in mind while having threshold economic rights for all peoples in the society, making sure our trading practices with other countries are fair-minded. All of these things flow from that notion that the creation of God from which everything derives is a legacy for us all.
McDermott: I was challenged by your insistence that Pope Francis’s idea that "the economy kills" can be literally true.
Bishop McElroy: It is literally true at times. You can see it at both ends of the age spectrum. Most of us know some seniors who are in such difficult financial situations that they go without something important—medicine, food, rent. It wears away at their health or their ability to cope.
The other way the economy kills is among young adults, when there are no jobs. We're more fortunate here in a place like San Diego where there are a lot of jobs. In Imperial County, it's much tougher to find jobs. Unemployed young people can fall into a number of dangerous situations, whether it's drugs or gangs. It’s heart-rending to see.
Most people know somebody who on one end of that spectrum has gotten sucked up in such a way that their life has ended. And it's because of the economy.
McDermott: At another point in your talk, you posited the need for “a spirit of hope that is realistic.” What does that look like?
Bishop McElroy: To me it goes back to the great parable Christ gave us of the sower and the seed, which was given to the disciples to help them in times of discouragement.
In the parable there two very interesting things take place: The great bulk of the seed doesn't sprout, and only a small part of what does is the harvest. But the harvest is bountiful—30, 60 or 100 fold. Know that when you plant the seed of God's grace and God's Word, most of it is not going take root, but in God's grace, some of it will.
The other thing is the sower in Jesus's time was not the owner of the field, generally. The sower was a profession. He went from field to field; he doesn't see the harvest, mostly. That's true of most of what we do, in terms of the life of the church, a life of grace. What we do for other people, most of the time you don't see the exact benefits. But you have faith.
In that parable, Jesus is telling you, "Have faith! God's grace is going to work, and your cooperation with God's grace is going to have a great effect, even though you're probably not going to see it."
In so many areas where people really give of themselves in this world, helping others, they don't get to see the harvest. Our hope is rooted in the end in God's grace. But that's why God tells us to have faith that that growth takes place, to not lose heart in these efforts to preach the Gospel, to try and discern what the Gospel is calling for at the present moment and to try to live out the Gospel as best you can.