Pope Francis may have just made his most important personnel decision yet. In a shakeup of the Congregation for Bishops—one of the most important Vatican bodies because of the direct role it plays in suggesting future Bishops to run dioceses worldwide—Francis has replaced a few key players. The change causing the biggest stir was Francis’ decision to give Cardinal Raymond Burke’s seat to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of the Washington archdiocese. The NYT’s framing of the story is the same one that Vatican insiders like John L. Allen Jr. are using: a moderate has been brought in to replace a conservative. Here’s how the NYT put it:
“One gets the impression, or it’s interpreted this way in the media, that he thinks we’re talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman,” Cardinal Burke said of the pope in an interview with EWTN, a Catholic broadcaster. “But we can never talk enough about that” […]To replace Cardinal Burke, Francis chose Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, an ideological moderate with a deep knowledge of the Vatican but also with pastoral experience. Father Reese noted that Cardinal Burke had been a leader of American bishops arguing that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be barred from receiving communion, while Cardinal Wuerl had taken an opposite tack.
This move is bound to trouble even further some worried about Francis’ papacy, just as it’s likely to make those who already love Francis for a perceived softening on culture war issues love him even more (hence the big Times story on it). Burke was also a liturgical traditionalist, who, like Pope Emeritus Benedict, is interested in things like the pre-Vatican II extraordinary form of the mass (the “Latin mass”) and favors a more formal approach to worship. Because the Congregation for Bishops plays such a large role in suggesting Bishops for appointment, it has a direct influence on the way parish-level churches across the whole world operate, even down to the liturgical atmosphere of various dioceses. On the liturgy as well as on the culture wars, Wuerl appears to be more “moderate” than Burke. This preference for moderates appears to be a pattern for Francis, as Allen’s piece on the new appointments to the Congregation as a whole suggests.But it’s important to remember that Pope Emeritus Benedict himself was the one who appointed Wuerl to DC, and made him a cardinal. Both Benedict and John Paul II were careful to appoint bishops and cardinals they trusted, so Francis’ decision to elevate Wuerl to the Congregation of Bishops isn’t as much as a deviation from his predecessor as some seem to think. For one thing, it’s a sign Francis intends to make good on his promise to make the Vatican more efficient: Wuerl arguably is more knowledgeable about the needs of the American episcopate, given that Burke has spent most of his time in Rome over the past several years.More importantly, it likely has to do with Francis preference for “pastoral” bishops who are good with people or administratively competent over “doctrinal” bishops who are especially good with scholarship and theology. One AI staffer who’s interacted with Wuerl before very much sees him as a skilled people-person, particularly good at connecting with young people. In suggesting that Burke’s replacement will signal a push for a relaxation of church teaching, the NYT writers may be guilty of making the wish the father of the thought.Once again, Francis has succeeded, intentionally or not, in making elite Western outlets think he’s pushing things in the direction they prefer. But the appointment is still big news, for it shows a Pope who’s determined to remake the Vatican hierarchy into a more pastoral body. That alone could have big effects down the road.