Pope Francis on Saturday is elevating to the rank of cardinal a San Diego bishop whose embrace of the pope's more liberal positions on the LGBTQ community, the role of women in the church and other hot-button political and cultural issues has put him at odds with some of the more conservative U.S. bishops.
Cardinal-designate Robert McElroy, who was appointed bishop of San Diego by Francis in 2015, will also be receiving his red hat, the symbol of the cardinals’ office, without ever having served as an archbishop, which is the traditional stepping-stone to becoming a cardinal.
In an interview with NBC's Anne Thompson before the Vatican ceremony, McElroy tried to downplay the differences between himself and the more conservative U.S. bishops over issues like "abortion, climate change, poverty, immigration, race."
"There are not differences between the bishops much on the question of substance," McElroy said. "The difference is in the area of prioritization. That’s where the conflicts come."
Still, McElroy has on numerous occasions publicly criticized his fellow American bishops for not fully embracing Francis' pastoral priorities, and he outraged many conservative Roman Catholics in 2017 by branding then-President Donald Trump “the candidate of disruption.”
Also, McElroy is getting a promotion while the leader of the much larger Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez, was passed over for cardinal again.
Gomez last year offended Black Catholics and others by branding social justice movements like Black Lives Matter “pseudo-religions.”
At 68, McElroy is likely to be one of the cardinals who will pick Francis' successor, and who will carry on the reforms that the Argentinian-born pope has tried to push through despite opposition from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic clergy.
Asked if he would deny communion to pro-choice Democratic politicians, like the Archbishop of San Francisco did recently to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McElroy said no.
"I think it’s an assault on the Eucharist," said McElroy. "It’s taking the symbol of unity in the church, which makes us all one sacramentally in Jesus Christ, and making it a sign of division."
McElroy acknowledged there are "great tensions" between Catholics who agree with Francis that the church needs to evolve and more traditional Catholics who fear "giving up too much of traditional Catholic teaching."
Ordaining women as priests is one example of that tension where cultural clashes between traditional Catholics and more progressive Catholics play a role, said McElroy, who is in favor of women deacons.
"I think the primary obstacle to ordaining women isn’t exactly doctrinal," he said. "I think it is the reality that it would be very wrenching in the life of the church."
Still, McElroy said, he agrees with the pope that one of the biggest challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church, which is still reeling from the priest sex abuse of minors scandal, is "the fact that young people are departing from the church in such large numbers."
"We have to find a way to deal with that and to make the message of Christ more attractive to young people," McElroy said.
McElroy also said he doesn't think the world is ready for an American pope.
"America has so much power in the world already — economic, military, cultural, political," he said. "I think to have an American as pope, too, would not be a good thing — that is, symbolically to the world, it would just be another accumulation of power for the United States."
McElroy, a San Francisco native who grew up in San Mateo County, told Thompson that as far back as age 7 he wanted to be a priest.
"I can’t really remember a time when I did not want to be a priest," he said.
But after graduating from high school, McElroy attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1975 and got a taste of the "wider world."
"I grew up in a Catholic culture, a very Catholic, faith-filled family," McElroy said. "I went to Catholic schools and grammar school. So it was a different experience."
Among his classmates was future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. "I knew him, for example, ‘cause we were both in American history,'" said McElroy.
After Harvard, McElroy earned a master's degree in history at Stanford University before enrolling in a seminary. He was ordained in April 1980 and began serving as a parish priest in the San Francisco suburbs.
"My life is more interesting now, but it was happier then," McElroy said and laughed. "I didn’t want to be a bishop. I didn’t want to be a cardinal. I wanted to be a parish priest. And I got to do that for a lot of years."
McElroy said his 97-year-old mother is "quite pleased" with his elevation to cardinal.