Much has been made — probably too much, in fact — of Pope Francis’ decision to name Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops in place of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American who heads the Vatican’s top court.
Some media suggested that by appointing a liberal to take the place of a conservative, the pope was showing his own true colors. The Los Angeles Times, for example, spoke of a “purge.”
The only problem is that — to use the shopworn terminology usually employed — Cardinal Wuerl, like Cardinal Burke, also is a conservative. Calling the replacement of a conservative with a conservative a purge is over-interpretation with a vengeance.
The most visible difference here is that Cardinal Burke, 65, a canonist who heads the tribunal called the Apostolic Signatura, favors denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians and Cardinal Wuerl, 73, perhaps thinking of the scores of pro-choice Catholics in Congress, does not.
Whether this swayed Pope Francis in making his decision is not known, but it makes equal if not greater sense to suppose he simply preferred having a residential bishop in this position rather than a Vatican official stationed in Rome.
Yet his mid-December action undoubtedly was significant. Personnel changes at this level of the Church always are. Along with other actions involving members and consultors of the bishops’ congregation, the pope confirmed another American member — Cardinal William Levada, retired prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — and failed to reappoint Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired Archbishop of Philadelphia. Both are doctrinal conservatives.
As for the congregation, whose prefect, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, was confirmed in office by the pope, it’s possible the new faces, taken together, do add up to a modest leftward shift. But hardly much more than that, since in all cases Francis drew on the ranks of seasoned prelates who have functioned for years and under several different popes within the same ecclesiastical system.
To put these matters in context, it helps to know something about the Congregation for Bishops. Its considerable importance derives largely from its role in the process by which bishops of the Western Church are named, transferred and promoted. Basically, this is to review the names of candidates submitted by the papal representatives — nuncios and apostolic delegates around the world — and then submit a list to the pope.
Congregation members for the United States — Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Levada — are believed to be especially active when an episcopal appointment in their country is involved. Always, however, it is the pope who makes the final decision, and he is not bound by what the nuncios and the congregation say.
Although the process is shrouded in secrecy, the nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, spelled out the kind of bishops Pope Francis wants in an address last November to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Speaking to the USCCB in Baltimore, Archbishop Vigano recounted a conversation with the Pope in June in which Francis made “a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.”
In some quarters there is anxiety lest this mean a return to the 1970s and 1980s, when prelates often described as “pastoral” were in charge in a number of American dioceses and the Church experienced serious confusion and turmoil, along with the departure of many priests and religious, a sharp decline in Mass attendance and other alarming symptoms.
It’s difficult to say exactly what “pastoral” means now, but presumably it signifies at least the avoidance of head-butting doctrinal controversies along with an emphasis on helping the poor and fostering ecumenical relations, both priorities for Pope Francis.
Finally, it should be noted that Cardinal Wuerl already serves on another key congregation — Doctrine of the Faith — and membership on the bishops’ congregation could mean traveling to Rome as often as twice a month for separate meetings of the two bodies. That has fueled speculation he might be in line to be named prefect of a congregation of his own.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.