Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl to a Vatican board with strong influence on the appointment of bishops -- the latest in a string of appointments of native Pittsburgh clerics to high places.
The move is also seen as reflecting the pontiff's emphasis on pastoral rather than combative leadership.
Pope Francis on Monday named Cardinal Wuerl, the former longtime bishop of Pittsburgh and now archbishop of Washington, D.C., to the Congregation of Bishops, a body of bishops from throughout the world who recommend appointments for positions as bishop. Although the congregation as a whole votes on recommendations, and the pope has the final word, the recommendations of individual members for positions in their home countries typically carry clout, say Vatican observers.
Cardinal Wuerl's is the latest and one of the most important in a string of high-profile appointments of clerics with Steel City ties. Several priests from the diocese already serve as bishops and recently were elected to influential roles in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal Wuerl's latest appointment puts someone familiar with the Diocese of Pittsburgh's corps of priests in the position of recommending future bishops.
"I think Cardinal Wuerl demonstrates pastoral sensitivities that would be reflective of Pope Francis," said Bishop David Zubik, who succeeded Cardinal Wuerl as head of the Pittsburgh diocese after the latter went to Washington. He noted that Pope Francis' diplomatic representative to the United States made a pointed call last month to American bishops for pastoral rather than ideological bishops.
"Pittsburgh is doing pretty well these days," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent news service, and author of books on the Vatican and the American Catholic hierarchy.
In fact, Father Reese said, "You can see the hand of Cardinal Wuerl already" in recent appointments, such as the naming of Bishop Bernard Hebda from the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich., to be an archbishop in the larger Diocese of Newark, N.J. "I think he was listened to even before this happened. And this is just simply going to strengthen his influence in Rome."
Bishop Zubik, however, minimized the potential for future Pittsburgh appointments, said "Cardinal Wuerl is a man of integrity, and he's going to be looking at what's best for the church in the United States" regardless of where bishop candidates come from.
Father Reese said the appointment is "very clearly a sign of Pope Francis' favor toward him," and this should also strengthen his influence among other American bishops.
Cardinal Wuerl's appointment came even as Pope Francis chose not to reappoint Cardinal Raymond Burke to the Congregation of Bishops.
Cardinal Burke, who remains head of the powerful top judicial court at the Vatican, has been a champion of an assertive church posture on the culture wars, including denying communion for Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion despite the church's condemnation of the practice.
Cardinal Wuerl "is no liberal, but he's much more moderate than Cardinal Burke" on tactics, such as being reluctant to withhold communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians, Father Reese said.
Cardinal Burke recently said that Pope Francis' comments that the church should be less obsessed over culture-war issues cannot be interpreted to prescribe a de-emphasis on opposing abortion. "We can never talk enough about that as long as in our society innocent and defenseless human life is being attacked in the most savage way," the cardinal told the Catholic news site EWTN.
Cardinal Burke's past influence, according to Father Reese, can be seen in such earlier appointments as Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, to the Archdiocese of San Francisco -- the city at epicenter of the gay-rights movement.
John Thavis -- author of "The Vatican Diaries," a memoir of his three decades as Vatican correspondent for Catholic News Service -- described Pope Francis' choice of Cardinal Wuerl as "yet another sign that the new pope wants people in synch with his more pastoral vision of the church, and in particular with his views on what makes a good bishop."
The Pittsburgh pipeline to high places dates back decades, to when Cardinal John Wright served as prefect of the congregation for the clergy in the Vatican. Cardinal Wuerl, who also studied in Rome, served as cardinal Wright's secretary then.
In addition to Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Zubik, other Pittsburgh-area clerics with influential appointments include Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska.
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.