It’s a safe bet that Cardinal Raymond Burke never could’ve guessed his seat on an important Vatican committee was in jeopardy given his track record of criticizing celebrities, withholding communion from politicians, ousting feminist nuns, and being generally outspoken on conservative causes (including the persecution faced by American Christians).
But that was before Pope Francis took on the papal tiara.
Cardinal Burke, best known in America for announcing that John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi were bad Catholics “in manifest grave sin” who should avoid presenting themselves for Communion, is being replaced by Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a moderate thinker who doesn’t consider it good pastoral practice to deny communion to anybody, and who better reflects the new attitude Francis seems to be bringing to papal politics.
The Congregation for Bishops is the Vatican department responsible for deciding who’s eligible to rise to the rank of Catholic bishop. By demoting Burke in favor of the more progressive, less intrusive Wuerl, Pope Francis is signalling a hope that the Church of the future might be less divisive and contrarian than ever before.
And unlike some of his past overtures, this inches beyond mere words. Changing the composition of the Congregation for Bishops can actually have an impact on the power structure of the Church hierarchy, allowing more liberal-thinking pastors to achieve greater power within the Church hierarchy.
There’s still cause to be wary; it would likely take more than just one high-profile switch to undo the impact of the previous popes’ retrograde views about women, contraception, and LGBTQ equality. And the Congregation will still be led by Canada’s Marc Ouellet, who maintains highly conservative views on same-sex marriage (“pseudo-marriage, a fiction”) and abortion (“a moral crime”). It’s not clear that replacing one fiercely conservative cardinal with a moderately liberal one will do much to change the composition of up-and-coming bishops. It’s like replacing a current Republican member of the U.S. House with a Democrat — it’s better for liberals but it really won’t change how the House acts.
Moreover, Burke will retain his position as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s version of the Supreme Court, which handles a variety of ecclesiastical law cases as well as marriage dissolutions under appeal from lower courts. (If I wanted an annulment, I can’t think of anyone I’d be less thrilled to have judging my marriage.) Maybe Francis just thinks Burke needs to cut down his workload. Maybe he’s worried about stress.
But this one switch, whether tactical or merely coincidental, hardly constitutes a progressive coup. It will take a lot more evidence to prove that Francis is really aiming for change at the core of Catholicism.