Making Sense of the Vatican Shakeup

by Michael Potemra

Back when I worked in Washington, one of the pillars of the conventional wisdom was that “personnel is policy”: Who gets appointed to important posts is often a better indicator of what the eventual policies will be than are explicit policy pronouncements. Yesterday, Pope Francis named some key personnel who will themselves play a crucial part in the selection of further personnel: He made appointments to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops — the powerful body that makes recommendations on who should be named to lead Catholic dioceses worldwide.

The pope appointed Washington archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl to the group, but failed to confirm the prominent American curial official Raymond Cardinal Burke to continue as a member. Burke is a favorite among conservative Catholics for, among other things, his opinion that pro-abortion-rights Catholic politicians should be denied communion. Wuerl has incurred the displeasure of some conservatives owing to his desire not to use this particular tactic.

The pope’s decision is being hailed by liberal Catholics, who tend to view Burke with a distaste perhaps even stronger than the conservatives’ uneasiness with Wuerl. It is also being condemned by some conservatives. One prominent blogger, at Creative Minority Report, calls it a “purge” and mocks those who would downplay its importance: “I am sure this is just another translation issue where the obvious interpretation is a complete overreaction. Right? . . . The Pope also dropped a number of other Bishops close to Pope Benedict. Nothing to see here folks, move along.”

I agree with CMR that some of those other appointments announced yesterday are eyebrow-raising. The pope did indeed fail to reappoint to the congregation Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, a protégé of the late Giuseppe Cardinal Siri (who was one of the most important traditionalist Catholic leaders of the 20th century). And he did name to the congregation the British archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who has attracted the ire of traditionalists with his statements about gay civil unions; and Brazil’s João Cardinal Bráz de Aviz, who criticized aspects of the Vatican’s investigation into liberal American nuns.

So I think CMR is right that there is a recognizable tilt here. But I think it’s important not to overstate what happened. In Wuerl’s case, I have read a couple of his books and believe, based on that reading, that he is a mainstream and orthodox Catholic thinker. With him, as with the other appointees, what’s at stake here is not a doctrinal shift in any heterodox direction but merely a change in pastoral approach. Based on my understanding of how the Vatican works — and most especially of its concern for continuity — these personnel changes do not betoken the kind of policy upheaval that analogous changes would entail in American government. A few days before Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, Walter Cardinal Kasper gave a speech that, while not mentioning Ratzinger by name, was widely understood to be warning against electing someone of the Ratzinger type; but Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, reappointed Kasper to his Vatican post. It was not an endorsement of all of Kasper’s opinions, it was an attempt to make use of his talents. I think the same dynamic is in play in Pope Francis’s announcement yesterday.

I am not suggesting that there are no “factions” in the Vatican — there have been, for some 18 centuries — but rather that “party spirit” operates there in a rather different way than it does in our overtly political American context. That the pope has failed to reappoint some conservatives, but appointed liberals, is not a straightforward zero-sum win for the liberals. Note, in this regard, the fact that Cardinal Burke will retain his post as the Catholic Church’s “Chief Justice,” at the Apostolic Signatura: a strange purge indeed, in which the purged fellow keeps his main post!

There was only one comment I saw on these Vatican announcements that made me suspect, momentarily, that it’s as big a deal as some of the liberals are hoping it is. It came, ironically enough, from the conservative Catholic World Report:

The Pope’s decision not to confirm Cardinal Burke as a member of the Congregation that helps choose the world’s bishops has been interpreted by many Vatican-watchers as a policy shift. Cardinal Burke has regularly championed conservative positions in Church debates, while Cardinal Wuerl represents positions closer to the mainstream of the American hierarchy.

The switch, however, could be explained by other reasons. Cardinal Burke, who now serves in Rome as head of the Apostolic Signatura, may be regarded by the Vatican as less current with the needs and desires of the American hierarchy, and with the potential candidates for episcopal office.

Now, isn’t the fact that Cardinal Burke is not in sync with the “desires of the American hierarchy” precisely why he is such a beloved figure among so many conservatives, who view the U.S. hierarchy with more than a little bit of skepticism? But no: I think the other part of that last sentence is, finally, the most important one. As a Vatican-based official, Cardinal Burke probably does not know as many of the potential candidates as the D.C.-based Wuerl does.

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