Hunting heretics or seeking converts: Analyzing the split between two California Bishops

San Diego’s McElroy sees things much differently than San Francisco’s Cordileone

By Don Lattin

Special to The Examiner

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has become a key leader in a politically fraught crusade to declare Joe Biden “unworthy” of Holy Communion because the Catholic president supports abortion rights.

But another Catholic prelate with deep San Francisco roots warns that some American bishops are heading down a dangerous path as they threaten to use the most sacred rite in the Roman Catholic Church as a political weapon.

“Fully half the Catholics in the United States will see this action as partisan in nature,” warns Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a fifth-generation San Franciscan and the former pastor of churches in The City and on the Peninsula. “It will bring the terrible partisan divisions that have plagued our nation into the very act of worship that is intended by God to cause and signify our oneness.”

McElroy, the current president of the California Catholic Conference, issued that prophecy on the eve of the June meeting of the American hierarchy. He urged his brethren to reject a motion that called for the drafting of a new “teaching document” that some right-wing prelates clearly want to use as a device to shame and isolate Biden and other Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to choose, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

But a divided online gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ignored McElroy’s warning, voting 168-55 last month to draft the politically charged document and present it to the bishops at their November meeting.

During my tenure as the religion writer for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, back in the 1980s and 1990s, Rev. McElroy served as a top aid to the late Archbishop John Quinn, and also to Quinn’s successor, the late Archbishop William Levada.

So I reached out for an interview with McElroy, who is still fondly remembered as the former pastor of several Bay Area churches, including St. Cecilia Parish in San Francisco, where McElroy’s parents grew up, attended grammar school and were married.

Through his spokesman, Bishop McElroy politely declined my request. “He’s not interested in stirring the pot on this issue right now,” said Kevin Eckery, the vice chancellor of the Diocese of San Diego. “He is committed to being a unifier.”

Faced with Catholic outrage on both sides of the abortion rights battle, some leaders of the U.S. bishops’ conference are now trying to downplay the political threat to Biden.

So it’s understandable the San Diego prelate does not not want to square off with his San Francisco counterpart, reducing a theological debate about Holy Communion into a hierarchical heavyweight fight — McElroy vs. Cordileone.

But that’s exactly what the two men did in the weeks leading up to last month’s bishops’ meeting.

On May 1, Archbishop Cordileone issued a lengthy pastoral letter in which he called abortion “the axe laid to the roots of the tree of human rights” and “the pre-eminent political issue of our time and place.”

President Biden, only the nation’s second Roman Catholic president, has said he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy — a position condemned by Cordileone.

“Those who killed or assist in killing the child (even if personally opposed to abortion), those who pressure or encourage the mother to have an abortion, who pay for it, who provide financial assistance to organizations to provide abortions, or who support candidates or legislation for the purpose of making abortion a more readily available ‘choice’ are all cooperating with a very serious evil,” wrote Cordileone.

Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to abort “must answer before the tribunal of God for the innocent blood that has been shed.” Their punishment, according to Cordileone, may include “the public form of exclusion from the reception of Holy Communion.”

Ironically, Cordileone, 65, was born and raised in San Diego, in the diocese that the 67-year-old McElroy has headed since his appointment six years ago by Pope Francis.

Just four days after Cordileone issued his pastoral letter, Bishop McElroy published his own statement on the “Eucharistic worthiness” of pro-choice Catholics. (The Eucharist is the church ritual commemorating the Last Supper, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed.)

Writing in the May 5 issue of America, a Jesuit magazine, McElroy said “the proposal to exclude pro-choice Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist is the wrong step. It will bring tremendously destructive consequences — not because of what it says about abortion, but because of what it says about the Eucharist.”

If the bishops embrace “a theology of unworthiness” around abortion rights, McElroy writes, shouldn’t the communion ban also be applied to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty?

“Why hasn’t racism been included in the call for eucharistic sanctions against political leaders?” McElroy asks. “Our own conference of bishops has proclaimed that ‘racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denied the new creation of a redeemed world.’ As to whether racism is a sin that threatens human life, anyone with doubts should talk to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin.”

McElroy notes that the church, including its bishops, is a “church of sinners.” Holy Communion is ritual of unity and a mystical means by which the faithful become one with each other and (according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation) with the actual body and blood of Christ.

Pope Francis has taught that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

“It would be particularly wounding,” McElroy concludes, “to embrace a theology of unworthiness and exclusion rather than a theology that emphasizes Christ’s unrelenting invitation to all.”

In my view, the bishops aligned with Cordileone appear more interested in hunting down heretics. Pope Francis and Bishop McElroy are looking for converts, or at least a way to bring lapsed Catholics back into the fold.

The church and its Holy Inquisition has a long and bloody history of hunting down heretics — be they pagans, Protestants, Muslims or Jews. Those who seek to align the Catholic church with the conservative evangelicals and the culture warriors of the GOP seem ready to re-ignite the Wars of Religion — only this time on the shores of the New World.

Don Lattin is the author of seven books, including an ancestral memoir, “Running from Religion — Five Centuries of Mystics and Misfits.” Learn more at www.donlattin.com.

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