In less than a year, Pope Francis has stamped the Vatican with his own imprint and in the process made himself one of the most admired leaders in the world. But his inspirational example also is reaching to the nuts and bolts organization of the church.
Last Monday, he chose not to reappoint American Cardinal Raymond Burke to the Congregation of Bishops, the influential Vatican group which recommends candidates for appointment as bishops. At the same time he appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Pittsburgh’s native son who served as priest and bishop here before becoming archbishop of Washington, D.C.
Although familiar political terms are imperfect in this context, it is understandable that this move has been publicly interpreted through a conservative-moderate-liberal lens.
Cardinal Burke is indeed an outspoken opponent of culture war issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which the new pope, promoting a larger pastoral mission, has not sought to disavow but to change emphasis. The cardinal also has favored grand and colorful vestments that Pope Francis has rejected for himself.
Although Cardinal Burke remains the head of the top judicial court at the Vatican, he doesn’t seem the right fit for a pope with a new outlook, at least in the selection of like-minded bishops to carry the work forward. Not so Cardinal Wuerl.
He earned his pastoral spurs in a gritty city known for its pragmatism and struggles. As bishop of Pittsburgh, he was one of the exceptional figures who made no concessions to priests who abused children. As archbishop in Washington, he would not politicize his opposition to abortion by denying communion to errant Catholic politicians.
The word moderate fits Cardinal Wuerl, but so do the words compassion and humility. In his hometown, divining the meaning of the Vatican tea leaves may be less important than the sense of recognition this promotion conveys.
Whatever the reason, one of the most admired men in the world who leads one of its most influential institutions has taken a Pittsburgher as his friend. That is cause for congratulations and celebration.