It is no secret that America’s Catholics are deeply divided. Even before the Dobbs ruling by the Supreme Court which overturned Roe vs. Wade, the Pew Research Center discovered deep divisions on attitudes towards abortion, but with some correlation between Mass attendance and opposition towards the practice.
As the Associated Press explained, McElroy is a Francis loyalist, generally at odds with the conservative majority in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), having been chosen over Cordileone and the Archbishop of Los Angeles and USCCB President, José Gomez, another noted conservative. McElroy has not only questioned why the conference insists on identifying abortion as its “preeminent” priority – instead of giving more prominence to poverty, immigration or climate change – but has denounced the campaign to exclude Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from Communion.
What a contrast with Cordileone, who barred US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion because of her support for abortion access. While McElroy signed a statement expressing support for LGBT youth, Cordileone has spoken out about same-sex marriage and Gomez has fiercely attacked “woke” culture. McElroy has also been the subject of criticism for his strong support for the Association of United States Catholic Priests, a more liberal group whose priorities include expanding the role of women in Church leadership and creating “priestless parishes”.
The fact the Pope has elevated a man who once said “the death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity” speaks volumes. This, after all, is a Pontiff who has described the Eucharist as “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” The Pope has said priests should not be politicians and condemn their flock but should be pastors who accompany the faithful with compassion.
So, while the promotion of McElroy over Cordileone, and Gomez, points to the Pope’s efforts at legacy-building it also gets to the heart of a divergent interpretation of the faith. In one context, this was recently summed up by Niall Gooch, when contrasting the Pope with Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Writing for the Catholic Herald, Gooch argued that – for Orbán – “the guiding light of politics is the continuity and integrity of a particular community and its particular way of life rooted in Christianity.” By contrast, “the Pope shows little interest in the idea of preserving any given country as a Christian nation.”
In fairness, this divide doesn’t fit as neatly with the divide in the US Church, since the USCCB has supported the DREAM Act, with the Mexican-born Gomez stating: “The United States is a great country because it is a land of opportunity, family values, and compassion. Throughout our history, we have given newcomers the opportunity to work hard and be successful, to our country’s substantial benefit.” More recently, Cordileone said: “Let us, here in San Francisco, lead the way by example. Let us make our Golden Gate an authentic symbol of a city that will let no stranger wait outside its door, and where the wandering one will say, “I’ll wander no more.””
Of course, many on the traditional right in the US – who espouse strong conservative values on, say, abortion or same-sex marriage – take a more defiant tone on immigration as well. Regardless, the dividing lines of the American (and wider Western) culture wars: the sanctity of human life vs. the sanctity of human choice, and tradition vs. modernity, have been exposed by the Pope’s choice of McElroy and passing over of Cordileone. One final thought: the US is perhaps the last country among all the countries of the Anglosphere and western Europe which has serious conservative pushback against an enforced consensus of liberalism. Whether such pushback will ultimately prove to be in vain – and whether the US, like western Europe, is now on a train which has likely already left the station – remains to be seen.