By Christopher White
The Tablet National Correspondent
SAN DIEGO – In many respects, the Diocese of San Diego has served as the American ground zero for implementation of Pope Francis’s encyclical Amoris Laetitia, which calls for the Church to find innovative ways to reinvigorate family life and evangelization.
Last October, Bishop Robert McElroy held his own diocesan synod as a response to two global synods on the family called by Francis that took place in Rome in 2014 and 2015. In an interview with The Tablet, Bishop McElroy said he had two major purposes for doing that.
First, he said he wanted to better understand the needs of his own diocese, having just been appointed by Pope Francis as Bishop of San Diego in March 2015. Secondly, he wanted to determine “how to have meaningful lay consultation at the diocesan level that really has an impact on vision and decision-making and the life of the diocese.”
The idea of synodality – listening to people’s concerns, and making decisions on a local level – has been a major theme for Francis. While the Diocese of San Diego had held a previous general synod several decades prior, Bishop McElroy said this was the first to ever focus on a specific topic.
One year later, he described it as a “stunning success,” as it both united the 100 parishes that make up the diocese and also reflected the diversity of its many communities.
The Bishop tasked his pastors with appointing a delegate from every parish to participate in working groups and a general assembly and given the nature of the issues to be discussed, he made it clear he wanted a range of perspectives and ages.
“Our oldest was 80, our youngest was two months,” he said, noting that one of the mothers brought along her newborn.
While the original hope was to develop a blueprint for new programming that could be tested in 12 pilot parishes, Bishop McElroy noted that “it became clear after three months or so there was going to be no model, because the reality from parish to parish is so different.”
Such a realization is perhaps reflective of one of the major messages of Amoris, that particular situations need particular responses.
“The parishes each took the principles and cast it against the background of their experiences and realities and needs in radically different ways,” said Bishop McElroy.
Among the immediate takeaways was a reboot of the diocesan family life office, now reopened and renamed as the Office for Family Life and Spirituality.
“Most young couples don’t bring a spirituality to their marriage,” He said. “They might have a personal spirituality, but not one as a couple.” He’s hoping that the focuses of his new offices might help change that.
Perhaps no document has divided American Catholics more than Amoris Laetitia, with its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Yet Bishop McElroy, who has become one of the strongest and most vocal champions of Francis in the United States, says the heart of the document contains the necessary tools for giving the Church a much-needed boost.
“We Americans, on a variety of issues, tend to take a black-and-white view on a number of things,” he said.
“For example, I’ve talked to people in different parts of the world about the way we look at the immigration question and the way the rest of the world does. My impression is that for the many Americans who are sympathetic to the president’s approach to immigration, it’s not from an anti-immigrant perspective as much as it is a black-and-white, law-and-order thing.”
Yet Bishop McElroy believes that a Church with nothing but a “law and order” reputation won’t be one capable of being a field hospital.
“One of the things that came out of this synod that we had is that virtually across the board, across the ages, across the cultural backgrounds, and the economic strata, there was a strong sense of crisis vis-à-vis the young people and that if the Church appears to be fundamentally judgmental then they will simply not listen, they will go elsewhere. And that’s a very serious problem.”
For Bishop McElroy, his preference to put mercy at the heart of the Church’s mission is an effort to help the world realize a deeper truth.
“How do we wrestle with the reality – which is what I view as the most important message for us today – for the Church to bring to our culture, particularly to the young people – is our contention is that sexual activity is profound and not just something casual?” he asked.
“My own view is that when we look at what Christ did in the gospels, yes he called people to reform their lives. However, look at what he did first,” said the prelate. “First, he embraced them. Secondly, he tries to see what’s wrong and tries to heal them. And then, he says reform your lives.”
“All three are important, but the order is important too,” he added. “What I think Pope Francis is saying is approach these things in that order.”
Bishop McElroy – like many Americans, both inside and outside of the Church – is trying to make sense of the severe polarization that has come to define our times.
In a much-discussed essay published in July of this year, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian pastor Miguel Figueroa – both of whom are close with Pope Francis – argued that the relationship between conservative U.S. Catholics and evangelicals was based on “an ecumenism of hate” rooted in political alliances, further contributing to the polarization of both the Church and the country.
“They certainly had their finger on something,” said Bishop McElroy, while adding a few qualifiers.
“There is a group of actors in our society and within the life of the Church who utilize methods of confrontation at time that is a way not in keeping with the Gospel. That’s one group. Then there’s a group of actors who are antagonistic toward the changes that the Pope has brought but are not using tactics like that – that’s a different group,” he said.
“It’s important to engage with that group, and understand what are the realities behind it… Then there’s a group of people in the life of the Church who have question marks or who are uneasy, but those are three different groups.”
“I think it’s the first group the article was aiming at,” said Bishop McElroy, “but what happened is that in the structure of the article itself and the reaction to it, those three groups tended to all get blended into one thing, so it was like an undifferentiated attack upon ecumenical efforts with evangelicals.”
“I’ve been involved and participated in many evangelical groups that have been productive. Sometimes I disagreed with them on different things, and sometimes we didn’t end up going where the project wanted us to go, but it certainly could not be reduced to an ecumenism of hatred. I don’t think that’s what Spadaro meant to do, but that’s how it got taken.”
“There is a cancer in the Church,” in his assessment, “but it’s that first group that really uses tactics that are incompatible with the Gospel. With that group, we need to draw a line and say this is not acceptable.”
Bishop McElroy believes the election of President Donald Trump has only exacerbated these tensions within the Church – though he believes it has helped unite the Catholic bishops in this country, particularly as they’ve banded together on the issue of protecting immigrants.
“Since January, it really has become a front-burner issue and that will continue to be the case,” said Bishop McElroy. “And that begins to lessen the stance of those who say the conference is politically aligned with the Republican party and so forth. More and more, it’s clear that the conference is not.”
Much of Bishop McElroy’s energy at the present time is encouraging Catholics to look beyond their political affiliations and instead to be guided by their faith commitments.
“How do you even get most American Catholics to reflect on the panoply of issues that are important that we face now in light of faith rather than in light of their party?” he asked.
“I think that’s the question of the moment. Partisanship is so deeply embedded… party has become shorthand for worldview. That has displaced religion as a force in helping people thinking through how to approach these things. I’m really concerned that this partisan lens has become a poison to our society now.”
A few weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, Bishop McElroy delivered a much-publicized address at the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a Catholic gathering of social activists and organizers, where he memorably said, “President Trump was the candidate of disruption. He was the disrupter,” and went on to add, “Well now, we must all become disrupters.”
What most commentators missed was his rejoinder that, instead, Catholics should become “rebuilders in solidarity,” and Bishop McElroy contends that the disruption that he speaks of isn’t about breaking laws or creating an environment of social unrest.
“By ‘disrupters,’ I mean seeing new ways of doing things,” he said. “In the Silicon Valley sense – seeing new solutions that are outside of the ones that seem to be on the table. I think that’s part of what the Church needs to be helping to do.”
It’s for that very reason Bishop McElroy is prioritizing looking at the immediate needs of his flock and the ways in which the Church can respond concretely, such as the Synod process that he began a year ago.
“The way in the life of the Church that is most effective on any of these issues is narrative,” he said.
“When you get small groups of people together in parishes or other groups, you break down this partisan framework. It’s more focused on ‘what have your life experiences been?’ My own view is that the most effective tool for really advancing the way of the Gospel is for having moments in parishes where people really tell their stories and you understand ‘Okay, this looks different when you see this reality’.”
“I’d say, across the board, that’s the most effective way,” Bishop McElroy concluded.