John Quinn, the late archbishop of San Francisco, was one of the most liberal prelates in the post-Vatican II Church in America. A few years before he died, he told a group of priests that Pope Francis had blessed his progressive vision for the Church. Quinn recounted an accidental meeting with Jorge Bergoglio at a coffee shop in Rome shortly before his election to the papacy. Bergoglio told Quinn that he had read his book The Reform of the Papacy and supported its proposals.
Quinn’s anecdote is worth recalling in light of San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy’s recent elevation to the College of Cardinals. Ordained a priest in the archdiocese of San Francisco in 1980, McElroy was one of Quinn’s protégés. He delivered the homily at Quinn’s funeral in 2017.
The press has interpreted the Church politics at work here as a papal rebuke to doctrinaire American bishops. But it is more like a rebuke to cautiously conservative ones.
Quinn was famous for bucking the conservative direction of the Church under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In 1992, for example, the Vatican issued a letter condemning gay adoption and a blanket extension of civil rights to homosexuals. McElroy, speaking for Quinn, made it clear to the press that the archdiocese of San Francisco would not honor the letter. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story titled “SF Archdiocese Opposes Vatican Letter on Gay Bias Law” and quoted McElroy’s dismissal of the letter as “not binding on them.”
In 2006, McElroy defended a partnership between Catholic Charities and a gay adoption agency in Oakland — a policy that the archdiocese of San Francisco abandoned after it provoked too much controversy.
Back then, few would have predicted McElroy’s meteoric rise in the Church. But his mentorship under Quinn turned out to be decisive. Through Quinn, McElroy met a now-powerful circle of prelates, including Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, another Quinn disciple. In his funeral homily for Quinn, McElroy referred to Cupich as Quinn’s “close friend.”
Some accounts of McElroy’s elevation have noted his connection to the Theodore McCarrick scandal — that McElroy stonewalled psychotherapist Richard Sipe after he presented McElroy with evidence of McCarrick’s abuse. But none of these stories mention where McElroy learned how to overlook corruption — from his service under John Quinn who shared a residence with a credibly accused abuser in his retirement. This came out after James Jenkins, a psychologist on the archdiocesan abuse review board, expressed his outrage that “a former archbishop had any business keeping house with someone who had acknowledged on a wiretap that he had sodomized a 15-year-old boy.”
McElroy has called his elevation to the college of cardinals “stunning.” But it is not. True, he is the first cardinal from San Diego. And his elevation is a remarkable snub of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, which traditionally gets a red hat. But McElroy’s appointment isn’t novel. It is similar to Pope Francis’s elevation of Joseph Tobin to cardinal while still serving in the obscure archdiocese of Indianapolis. Tobin was shortly thereafter sent to the much larger archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. McElroy can expect a similar step up in the near future.
The press has interpreted the Church politics at work here as a papal rebuke to doctrinaire American bishops. But it is more like a rebuke to cautiously conservative ones. Gomez is hardly a fire-breathing traditionalist. Notice that he hasn’t endorsed Archbishop Cordileone’s Communion ban on Nancy Pelosi. What appears to have put Gomez in bad odor with the Vatican is that he merely raised the issue of Joe Biden and Communion and hinted that Biden should voluntarily refrain from it. The battle lines in the Church have moved so far to the left that now a Gomez or an Archbishop Charles Chaput (who was similarly passed over for cardinal before he retired, even though he led the Church in Philadelphia, another large archdiocese that customarily gets a red hat) is seen as an outlandish conservative. This alone tells us much about the direction of the Church.
After the news of McElroy’s elevation, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporterwrote excitedly, “The Holy Father has sent an unmistakable sign: Gomez leads the largest archdiocese in the country, he is the president of the conference, and he is McElroy’s Metropolitan Archbishop.… By naming one of Gomez’s suffragans as cardinal, and not Gomez himself, the pope has rendered an unmistakable sign of the kind of episcopal leadership he is seeking. An unmistakable sign.” Such intense gloating speaks to the ambitions of the Catholic left, which seeks to wipe out not only the traditionalists in the Church but also go-slow conservatives in the mold of Gomez. The modernists can’t rest until every member of the Church is a full-blown modernist.
In his waning days, John Quinn was seen by some as a passé figure — the voice of an exhausted and failed theology. And few paid attention to his bragging about running into an approving Bergoglio in Rome. But in retrospect it revealed much about the Church’s direction and helps explain his acolyte’s ascent to the top of it.