RAISING hackles, ire and – for one priest commentator – blood pressure, on Monday the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had named the Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, as a cardinal – along with 20 other prelates from around the world. Why are many commentators perplexed and others angered by McElroy’s appointment? Simple: it is being seen as a characteristically spiteful admonition of the Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, who recently advised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi she was an excommunicant for promoting abortion and misrepresenting the Church’s constant teaching on the subject. But this is only half of the snub.
Because it is somewhat unusual for a suffragan bishop in a canonical province – like Victoria or, in this case, Southern California – rather than the Metropolitan of that province (the Archbishop) to be raised to the red, the naming of McElroy rather than his principal is unquestionably punitive. A zealot for banning the faithful from celebrating the Tridentine Mass, the Pope opposes banning the heretical from receiving Communion if they happen to be left-wing politicians. Francis is thought to have intervened last year to force the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference to embargo a statement that reproached Joe Biden for promoting abortion and the transgender cult.
There is little doubt this interpretation of the McElroy manouevre is accurate and, if true, none that it is damning. Bear in mind that while Catholic provincial and state borders are usually coextensive – as they are in Australia – owing to shifting epicentres of power in its history, California has two Metropolitans: Cordileone and the Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gómez. It was the latter, currently President of the US Bishops, who drafted the tough censure of Biden and it is he – not Cordileone – who is Bishop McElroy’s proximate episcopal superior. The Pope’s exquisitely engineered missile was obviously designed to hit two conservative birds with one clone.
A Francis admirer, it is no coincidence that Bishop McElroy opposed rebuking Biden and has campaigned against denying Communion to obdurate anti-lifers like him. On abortion and euthanasia, he insists that fighting poverty and climate change are “equally central” to the Christian mission. This meritless rise is Borgia-like in design and, one has to hope, embarrassing to the honoree. More than most shepherds in American Catholicism, Cordileone and Gómez are at ground zero of a civilisation’s ruin. Pope Francis’s attempt to undermine them is like sacking the commissioners of the NYPD and NYFD mid-catastrophe on 9/11. But just when you conclude this pontiff has few redeeming traits, another strand of his personality – hermetically sealed from the Peronist tyrant – spoils the invulnerability of your thesis.
Because of the McElroy affair, the second most conspicuous cardinal-elect of the 21 to be formally commissioned later this year hasn’t received any media attention. He is the Australian who wasn’t chosen. Yes, remarkably, ours is the only continent without a cardinal-elector. Having reached the age of 80, George Pell is ineligible to vote. The next conclave will therefore be the first since 1939 at which the Great South Land of The Holy Spirit will submit no ballot. New Zealand’s John Cardinal Dew – like all rigid liberals, he is described by journalists as a “moderate” – will have to choose on Australasia’s behalf. Francis named Dew a cardinal in 2015, no doubt impressed by the fact that the Archbishop of Wellington sounded exactly like himself.
Which is as good a juncture as any to discuss the relationship between Francis and Australia’s best known (and supposedly most conservative) churchman. It would be an understatement to say that Cardinal Pell is not regarded as a man after the Pope’s own heart. In point of fact, he is. They are not opposites that attract: their egos are healthy, both are intellectually unyielding and neither is a respecter of persons. They are more like two old warriors of no threat to one another and with a few common foes. For five years Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, Pell was more fearless in pursuit of the money launderers and scoundrels who have plagued the Vatican’s financial affairs than anyone had ever been. So trusted was he that Francis also appointed him to the elite Council of Advisers (C9) and to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Pell’s indifference to the revival of the old Mass and his Bob Santamaria-like opposition to unchecked capitalism made him all the more clubbable in the Pope’s estimation.
More crucial still, Pell is one of few cardinals who lived up to what the red piping, zucchetto and biretta symbolise: willingness to sacrifice himself for the faith. Some very shadowy people – think Godfather III – were known to resent his new financial rules. At the same time, corrupt officials and perjurers in the state of Victoria rigged a sexual abuse prosecution that ended with Pell’s false imprisonment – the worst miscarriage of justice in Australian history. To his great credit, the Pope stayed loyal to the cardinal up to and beyond his historic acquittal. When he welcomed Pell back to Rome in his Vatican office, Francis made sure the world’s cameras were there to see the reunion. He regards Pell as a mensch, pure and simple.
Finally, what does the Pope’s barbed statecraft tell us about his opinion of the Australian Church? Well, there are hints and then there is what the famous English theologian Basil Fawlty would call the “bleedingly obvious.” Seven consistories under Francis and not one Australian made a Prince of the Church. Like Los Angeles and San Francisco, Melbourne and Sydney – whose archbishops wouldn’t say boo! to any of the geese holding high secular office – are no longer ‘cardinalatial sees.’ East Timor suddenly is. There is more going on here than conventional gerrymandering and global cultural realignment. For 725 years – until 1969 – the pope bestowed on new cardinals the scarlet galero. While no longer worn (except by Raymond Cardinal Burke), the ancient custom of hanging them above a recipient’s tomb until they rot and fall is still followed. Sic transit gloria mundi is the lesson. Perhaps the reason Francis hasn’t promoted Australian bishops above the rank of George Pell is that they left the Cardinal hanging in much the same way.