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The Francis Era
There's a New Bishop in Town

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.

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  • qet

    Not being a Catholic, I have no brief for offering an opinion on things Catholic one way or the other, but still: mark me down for one who supports preservation of, and even a movement back to, the traditional forms. Syncretism has maintained the vitality of the Catholic Church for centuries, but it can’t syncretize (is that even a word?) with the fundamentally anti-religious bourgeois Enlightenment liberal rational world-view. If American Catholics want their Church to embrace gay marriage, abortion, ordaining of female priests and all the rest, let them become Unitarians!

    • Jim__L

      The idea that “bourgeois Enlightenment liberality” is inevitably anti-religious flies in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary. The social history of England and Britain in the 19th century alone — with tremendously devout Christians making strides in science, technology, and small-“l” liberalism — makes a mockery of secularist mythology.

      Don’t drink the Kool-aid.

      • qet

        That isn’t what I mean by “fundamentally anti-religious bourgeois Enlightenment liberal rational world-view.” Nor am I saying that there can’t be scientists (natural scientists) who are also devout, practicing Christians. What I mean is a world-view whose ideal society is one of abstract individuals each bearing the exact same set of universal rights derived from a mechanical-rational-utilitarian system. Or something like that. Hard to describe in just a few words. John Gray in Enlightenment’s Wake covers the matter pretty well. So does Oswald Spengler.

  • PKCasimir

    Once again Via Media has authors writing articles who are about as knowledgeable about the subject they are writing about as Obama is about healthcare.
    The “pre-Vatican II extraordinary form of the Mass” – are you serious? That’s straight out of Wikipedia and a term used by opponents of it. From 1570 to 1969, the Catholic Church used the “Tridentine Mass’. That’s 400 years for those who can’t count. The Tridentine Mass is an extraordinarily moving and profound experience that was replaced by a pseudo-Protestant hodge- podge of banality by Vatican II.
    And now we have the ultimate, Pope Francis is a great Pope because the New York Times thinks so. Right!

    • TommyTwo

      Via Meadia: “the pre-Vatican II *extraordinary* form of the mass.”
      You: “The Tridentine Mass is an *extraordinarily* moving and profound experience.”

      I take it you too are an evil pseudo-Protestant reformer? 🙂

      “A term used by opponents of it.” Such as Benedict?

      “Pope Francis is a great Pope because the New York Times thinks so.”

      Seriously? That’s your take-away from this post? I’m sympathetic to your basic position, but your obvious passion is harming your reading comprehension.

      • PKCasimir

        Invest in a dictionary and look up the different manner in which the word “extraordinary” can be used, you just might be enlightened.
        No, I’m a Catholic traditionalist who has served more Tridentine masses as an altar boy than you probably have hairs on your head.
        Pope Benedict encouraged the use of the “Latin mass” during his papacy ( as did John-Paul II) and is hardly an opponent of it. So your attempt at a snarky comment only demonstrates your ignorance of Catholicism.
        There’s nothing wrong with my reading comprehension. You, however, have a problem in understanding where the NY Times is coming from and has come from. This form someone who has read it everyday for 65 years.

        • TommyTwo

          “So your attempt at a snarky comment only demonstrates your ignorance of Catholicism.”

          Sigh. Since I have to spell it out for you:

          You: “The ‘pre-Vatican II extraordinary form of the Mass’ – are you serious? That’s straight out of Wikipedia and a term used by opponents of it.”
          Benedict: “The last version of the Missale Romanum prior to the Council, which was published with the authority of Pope John XXIII in 1962 and used during the Council, will now be able to be used as a *Forma extraordinaria* of the liturgical celebration.”

          More substantially, you have accused Via Meadia of being ignorant anti-conservatives who believe “Francis is a great Pope because the New York Times thinks so.” Please provide us with any support for this allegation from the above post.

  • Pete

    Francis is proving to be an unmitigated disaster for the Catholic Church.

    • Jim__L


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