A red hat is just a red hat (unless it isn’t)

If Pope Francis is rightly praised for his willingness to look to underserved and underrepresented quarters for heads on which to perch red hats, his unwillingness to foster relationship and community among his choices is problematic.

Cardinals gather before the start of a consistory in 2014 at the Vatican. Pope Francis announced May 29, 2022, he would create 21 new cardinals in August; the 16 who are under the age of 80 include Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

After one of the consistories earlier in Pope Francis’s pontificate, for which I did the radio commentary – maybe in 2016 but more likely the one in June of 2017, as the sun was bright and it was pretty warm outside and I recall the city in bloom (a glorious sight) – I bumped into a monsignor on the way out. He had an office that brought him into pretty close and frequent contact with the comms apparatus. He was in his glad rags.

“What renewal for the Church!” he said to me, a propos of the creation we had just witnessed.

“They’re red hats,” I offered, no biggie. Red hats are what they are. The pope needs to give them out from time to time.

If Pope Francis is rightly praised for his willingness to look to underserved and underrepresented quarters for heads on which to perch red hats – and there is much to be said for it – his unwillingness to foster relationship and community among his choices is problematic, to say the least. Cardinals help the pope govern the universal Church while he lives and reigns, and choose his successor when the See of Rome is vacant.

In order to do that well, they need to know each other. They need to have a feel for each other’s interests – real and perceived – as well as each other’s concerns and priorities. They need to be familiar with each other, personally. Each man needs to have a feel for what makes each other man tic, or at least to be on good working terms with someone who does have such a feel. That sort of working dynamic just doesn’t develop on its own or overnight. Popes frequently call the cardinals to general meetings, which help them to develop a feel for each other. Francis did so at the start of his pontificate, but has not brought the whole College of Cardinals together for such an “extraordinary consistory” since 2015. Francis says he wants to meet with the whole College for two days following the August ordinary consistory, but that on its own will bring him in a day late and a dollar short.

Men who hardly know each other cannot work well together, and Pope Francis has not gone out of his way to give his closest collaborators chances to know each other meaningfully, to understand each other’s personalities, interests, concerns, priorities. Francis’s detractors have accused him of playing politics with his appointments to the College of Cardinals, but every pope does that. Francis’s appointments do frequently strike observers as rather theatrical (though they are political theatre), however, and this time is no exception.

Sunday’s announcement of new red hats sent up cheers from many quarters, as well as groans and shrugs from Rome to the peripheries – geographical and existential – for names on the list and names omitted (some of them rather conspicuously so).

The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, did not get a red hat, for example. Catholics in war-ravaged Ukraine and Ukrainians in general may well have appreciated such a gesture of solidarity in the face of Russia’s unprovoked invasion undertaken without any plausible case for war (and with a little nuclear terrorism thrown in for measure). Pope Francis, however, is playing his own game with Russia these days and will be neither distracted nor deterred.

Pope Francis has seen fit to elevate a Legionary curial official, Archbishop Fernando Vergez Alzaga, President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and President of the Governatorate of Vatican City State.

The Legionaries of Christ are the religious congregation founded by the notorious sociopath and inveterate pervert, Marcial Maciel, who used the priestly society as a front for his criminal exploits. Maciel also used the lay arm of the Legion – a group called Regnum Christi – as a cash cow to fund his debaucheries.

It’s one thing to forbear suppressing the Legion entirely, as Pope Francis has (and Benedict before him, though at least they did not protect and promote Maciel, as did Pope St. John Paul II, no doubt influenced by the late Angelo Cardinal Sodano, his long-serving Secretary of State, who died this past week at 94). It’s quite another to elevate people attached to it, even if they are curial lifers like Archbishop Vergez.

Pope Francis made Vergez a bishop in 2013, after more than four decades of curial service in various offices and departments. Then, Francis made him an archbishop and put him on the Vatican’s secret financial oversight board and installed him as chief administrator of the Vatican City government. The Presidency of the Commission for Vatican City and of the Governatorate is a cardinal’s billet (though the city had a layman for a governor until well into the last century), only … why raise a man like Vergez to such heights?

It is wrong to ascribe guilt by association, and wrong to destroy a man merely because he has an unfortunate attachment. Still, prudently letting a man personally untainted serve out his time in lower office is light years from destroying his career or sullying his name.

If personnel is policy – and it is – then victims of the Legion and of clerical sexual abuse in general may be forgiven the impression that Pope Francis’s policy is somewhere between “Nothing to see here,” and “Get over it, already.” That’s an impression made even more easily forgivable by Francis’s decision to create Bishop Lucas Van Looy, SDB (emeritus of Ghent in Belgium). Van Looy hasn’t what one could precisely describe as an unproblematic track record when it comes to abuse and coverup.

The big one for Catholics in the United States – whose name raised both cheers and jeers – is Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a “Francis Bishop” very much in the mold (and very much in the shadow) of Chicago’s Blase Cardinal Cupich. Smart money has it that Cupich had something to do with getting McElroy’s name on the list.

Church watchers and Vatican insiders already knew that Cardinal Cupich is powerful. If Cupich is intent on building and consolidating his power base, it appears that Pope Francis is willing to play with him and with McElroy. Neither Cupich nor McElroy is exactly popular among the brethren of the US episcopate, but popes do not give red hats on the basis of performance in popularity contests.

The announcement of the San Diego bishop’s imminent creation as Robert Walter Cardinal McElroy may well be a tough pill to swallow for the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, not least because San Diego is a suffragan see of LA, where Gomez has been without a red hat since he succeeded the notorious Roger Cardinal Mahony in 2011.

Gomez’s statement regarding the business was nonetheless cucumber-cool and pitch-perfect Church-speak.

“By naming Bishop Robert McElroy as a cardinal,” the official statement of the USCCB’s president read, “Pope Francis has shown his pastoral care for the Church in the United States.” It’s the sort of thing to which both supporters and critics may reply: “Indeed.”

Archbishop Gomez said he has “known and have had the privilege of working with Cardinal-designate McElroy for many years,” and that they have worked “as brother bishops” on several issues and initiatives in service to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the California Catholic Conference.”

“[Bishop McElroy’s] strong faith and the pastoral concern for the faithful he has shown in his diocese will serve the global Church well,” Archbishop Gomez also said.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco noted that Bishop McElroy “is a native San Franciscan,” and sent “congratulations to Cardinal-elect McElroy.” Cordileone, you will recall, recently made headlines when he announced that the staunchly pro-choice Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi – whose electoral district comprises most of San Francisco – should not present herself for Holy Communion within the archdiocese, citing her stance on abortion.

The move itself was not a major surprise. If the timing of it was somewhat puzzling, this Sunday’s announcement perhaps offers some clarification. Suffice it to say that McElroy takes a different view of the best pastoral approach to wayward and recalcitrant politicians, when it comes to Holy Communion. Oh, well. Different strokes.

It used to be fun to tease the message out of who got a red hat and who didn’t. These days, maybe not so much.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 237 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Thanks for the rundown.
    This Belgian-born Canadian had to look up Bishop Lucas Van Looy (Ghent, Belgium). Not impressed.

  2. How is McElroy’s elevation not an immediate papal slap in the face to Archbishop Cordileone? Whatever the reality, those are the optics.

  3. Supposedly, Archbishop Cordileone [not a good fit for Francis’ New Age Church] is abiding to good neighborliness. If we compare their doctrinal polarity it’s almost like the Maquis extending congrats to Collaborateurs for their recognition by the Gestapo [not to overly deride the Vatican just an analogy].
    Yes. Altieri’s red hat is just a hat unless it’s obvious, as he suggests something more. Archbishop Gomez’ chortle that His Holiness’ choice of McElroy demonstrates his earnest desire for American pastoral care is more of the political correctness that’s inhibiting manly priestly [prelates and presbyters] action to address the issues that are ruining Catholicism in the American Church. More and more Catholics agreeing with abortion and the liceity of communion for apostate politicians, embrace of LGBT as the new norm.
    Altieri rightly perceived the Pope’s “playing games” on the Ukraine Russia war by not naming Archbishop Shevchuk, apparently a desire for improving relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Other than that the list may be seen as His Holiness’ desire to reshape the Church according to his liking. Any resemblance of the choices for the cardinalate to inspiration by the Holy Spirit is, at best, purely coincidental.

  4. Perhaps the distance between McElroy and bishops like Gomez isn’t as great as many think. They seem to hold similar positions on immigration, climate change, capital punishment, criminal justice, the welfare state, “racism” in America, the moral duty to receive the Covid jab and many other issues. Not only that, they attach great significance to these matters and really refuse to acknowledge that faithful Catholics are not bound to reach the same conclusions that they do. They also are in complete harmony with Francis on all of the above. Gomez, et al object slightly more to abortion and sodomy, but even there they don’t push too hard. Exactly how bishops have publicly voiced support of Cordileone’s actions against Pelosi?

  5. Isn’t it remarkable that epicene mediocrities like Cupich are so powerful and, dare I say, feared? Does it not suggest that they are largely stooges of people of a more formidable nature (and I don’t merely mean Francis)? I don’t pretend know all the answers, but surely these guys can’t be doing this all by themselves.

  6. The reaction among American Catholics to the San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy’s elevation to the College of Cardinals is predictable. The vast majority are cheering and are thrilled. A small but loud minority is jeering and groaning. This can be seen from the lens of the understanding and application of the Church’s “Pro-Life” teaching, that includes the Social Teachings of the Church. The highly politically partisan bishops who misled the small minority into aligning their political engagement and affiliation with the GOP by wrongly teaching and applying this teaching to focus on the womb only. The true, genuine and faithful application of the Church’s “Pro-Life” teaching embraces the womb to tomb, that is the full spectrum of life, and now in this time of climate crisis including the very matrix of life. It is “Pro-Whole Life” not “Pro-Birth” (or “Anti-Abortion”) only. San Francisco native Bishop McElroy has faithfully applied this “Pro-Whole Life” teaching in his writings, talks, and pastoral care, while for supreme example the San Francisco Archbishop (San Diego native) Cordeleone has persistently focused only on the “Pro-Birth” application of the Church’s “Pro-Life” teachings. From this lens one gets to understand better and deeper who are cheering and jeering right now.

    • This age of Neomodernism will soon be over and future generations will be puzzled how so many were defenders of its principles. Upholding dogma and doctrine cannot be equated with differences in matters concerning prudential judgment.

  7. I’m not familiar with +Roche but British people seem upset by his being included for similar reasons as the above.

    • Roche despises the TLM and refused to implement Sommorum Pontificum when he was a bishop. He was also widely seen as one of the prime movers behind Traditiones Custodes to restrict and punish the TLM. He also lied repeatedly the need for it and Pope Paul VI’s motivates regarding the introduction of the Novus Ordo (i.e that it “abolished” the TLM).

  8. Mr. Altieri is indulging in some speculation regarding Metropolitan Shevchuk of Kyiv here. As the article noted, Shevchuk is Archbishop-Major of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As such, he is a patriarch in all but name. Only three other hierarchs currently hold this modern title (i.e. the A-Ms of Romania, of the Syro-Malankara and the Syro-Malabar churches). This being the case, he certainly would not “need” the status of cardinal. Despite the fact that his three immediate primatial successors accepted the “Red Hat,” he may well have respectfully refused it, as the Eastern Catholic patriarchs generally do these days. By doing so (if this was the case), he prevented an historically anomalous situation of being an Eastern primate with a “Roman” title and office and provided for better ecumenical parity with his Orthodox counterparts.

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