Bishop Robert McElroy spoke at USD five days after returning from an “ad limina” visit to the Vatican with other bishops from California, Nevada and Hawaii that included 3 hours with Pope Francis. Photo by Chris Stone

Bishop Robert W. McElroy turned 66 on Wednesday, feted at a surprise birthday party with a piñata in the shape of his favorite drink: Diet Coke.

On Thursday, he took a whack at the belief that only one issue — say, abortion — dictates who Roman Catholics should vote for.

In a half-hour talk before 200 at the University of San Diego, the leader of the San Diego diocese cited 10 “salient goals” from the Gospel that Catholics should weigh in their political choices. “Protecting the lives of unborn children” was one, but so was reversal of climate change “that threatens the future of humanity.”

Bishop McElroy speech: “Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting.” (PDF)

Also: immigrant and refugee rights, opposition to racism, universal nuclear disarmament, workers’ rights and “efforts to fight poverty and egregious inequalities of wealth.”

“In the end,” he said, “it is the candidate who is on the ballot, not a specific issue. The faith-filled voter is asked to make the complex judgment: Which candidate will be likely to best advance the common good through his office in the particular political context he will face?”

McElroy’s talk in the KIPJ Theatre at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice came the same day President Trump made what many considered crude remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Though McElroy wrote his speech weeks ago, it made a timely call for Catholics to consider character.

“Because our nation is in a moment of political division and degradation in its public life, character represents a particularly compelling criterion for faithful voting in 2020,” he said in a talk titled “Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting.”

U.S. political leaders, “especially at the highest levels, imprint their character in pivotal ways upon the entire political culture, and thus on society itself,” he said. “Today, leaders in government embrace corrosive tactics and language, fostering division rather than unity.”

Sounding current concerns, he said: “The notion of truth itself has lost its footing in our public debate. … Principles are merely justifications for partisan actions — to be abandoned when those principles no longer favor a partisan advantage. There is a fundamental lack of political courage in the land.”

Was he talking about Trump?

McElroy later denied it, saying his themes were drawn from an essay he wrote during the 2008 presidential campaign — intended for the Jesuit magazine America but never published.

“It’s not exactly the same talk,” he said, “but I had those same three things of competence, character” and what he now calls opportunity — picking candidates suited to their offices.

In his talk, he said: “It does little good to elect a saint who echoes Catholic social teaching on every issue if that candidate does not have the competence to carry out his duties effectively and thereby enhance the common good. Faith-filled voters must assess the intelligence, human relations skills, mastery of policy and intuitive insights that each candidate brings to bear, for voting discipleship seeks results, not merely aspirations.”

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Giving another example of complex choices, he said: “It is a far greater moral evil for our country to abandon the Paris Climate Accord than to provide contraceptives in federal health centers.”

Afterward, in a chat with Times of San Diego, McElroy hailed Mitt Romney, who broke with fellow Republicans in finding Trump guilty of abuse of power. The Utah senator said his religious faith led him to the verdict.

McElroy called it “really edifying” when any political leader takes a stance from “the informed conscience.”

“It’s not so much the content of [Romney’s] decision that makes me pleased … as much as I believe authentically he was wrestling with his conscience in faith, and he came to that conclusion,” he said. “So that’s the part that I really salute whenever it happens.”

But in his talk, McElroy condemned Republican and Democratic policies alike.

“More than 750,000 unborn children are directly killed in the United States every year,” he said. “At one time there was bipartisan support for erecting policies that made abortion rare. Now that commitment has been eviscerated in the Democratic Party in a capitulation to notions of privacy that simply block out the human identity and rights of unborn children.”

He also saw grave danger in human-driven global warming.

“The United States, which was once a leader in this effort, has in the current administration become the leader in resisting efforts to combat climate change and in denying its existence,” McElroy told an audience of teachers, students and other religious at the Catholic university. “As a consequence, the survival of the planet, which is the prerequisite for all human life, is at risk.”

He asked: “How can one evaluate the competing claims that either abortion or climate change should be uniquely pre-eminent in Catholic social teaching regarding the formation of Americans as citizens and believers?”

McElroy has addressed such issues before, notably at a recent U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore and at a San Diego conference on climate change.

In Baltimore, during debate on a pastoral message, he backed a losing effort to add a paragraph based on a Pope Francis encyclical warning against the push for only “one particular ethical issue or cause.”

Thursday, he said: “There is no mandate in universal Catholic social teaching that gives a categorical priority to either of these issues as uniquely determinative of the common good.”

While the death toll from abortion is more immediate, he said, the long-term toll of “unchecked climate change” is larger and threatens the future of humanity. “Both abortion and the environment are core life issues in Catholic teaching.”

Afterward, Times of San Diego asked him whether Trump’s appearance two weeks ago in a Washington Walk for Life locked up the Catholic vote.

McElroy agreed many Catholics will vote for the president over the issue of abortion, “but it won’t be because he showed up for that rally. It’ll be because of the court appointments. The rally is a minor footnote in how people will evaluate his position.”

In a preface to his speech, McElroy stressed the American Catholic tradition of not endorsing particular candidates — no matter what Trump says about ending the tax code’s Johnson Amendment barring nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing candidates. (The rule stays in effect.)

In fact, during the 2016 election, when McElroy heard that two local priests urged support for Donald Trump, “I had to call them up and say: Knock it off.”

(He later said he was pleased to learn that another cleric endorsed Hillary Clinton — “so at least I was able to be evenhanded … and say: You’ve got to knock it off, too.”)

He said the question of pre-eminence was further clouded by a third issue this election cycle — “the culture of exclusion.”

A growing racist culture, he said, has “unleashed a poison of animosity against immigrants that paralyzes our politics so deeply that we cannot even find a pathway to protect young men and women who came to this nation as children and now thirst to be citizens of the only land they have ever known.”

He cited anti-Muslim acts and rising “incidents of vile and pervasive anti-Semitism.”

McElroy then took 10 questions from the audience.

He touched on civility, recalling how, as a 14-year-old in 1968, society seemed to be coming apart. But he is hopeful things will return to less division.

He told a woman bemoaning the Democratic dominance of California politics that “I don’t think it’s healthy to have a one-party state.”

A young man noted that many voters start with an “answer” and fit their choices to that end. McElroy said such rationalization reminded him of how his mother dealt with him when he made poor choices: “What would Jesus do?”

McElroy shared a new shorthand: “When you sit down with the ballot, pretend Jesus is sitting next to you.”

A final question came from Turner Nevitt, a USD assistant professor of philosophy who suggested that people — when faced with only bad choices — simply not vote.

In reply, McElroy recalled a forum he attended at Georgetown University that featured two Democrats and two Republicans booted from office because they voted against their party. One carried a photo of a fallen soldier from the Iraq war. His widow wanted him to say he hadn’t died in vain.

The former office-holder said he carried the photo as a reminder of “how I betrayed my conscience” in voting for the war.

Said McElroy: “I don’t think society is better off when good men and women don’t participate. … Disengagement will not help us get better.”

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