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Pope Francis shows no regret over a shocking appointment

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2019

Was Pope Francis sending a subtle message to his critics this week? Or have I become a bit paranoid about papal statements? You decide.

In a statement of condolence after the death of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Pope Francis summed up the ecclesiastical career of the Belgian prelate in two sentences. Pay particular attention to the second sentence:

This zealous pastor served the Church with dedication, not only in his diocese, but also at the national level as president of the Conference of Bishops of Belgium, while being a member of various Roman dicasteries. Attentive to the challenges of the contemporary Church, Cardinal Danneels also took an active role in various Synods of Bishops, including those of 2014 and 2015 on the family.

Cardinal Danneels was Archbishop of Brussels for more than 30 years. In all that time, did he do nothing more memorable than serve as president of the episcopal conference and participate in Synod meetings? And why does the Pope make a special mention of those very controversial Synod meetings in 2014 and 2015? If Cardinal Danneels made any noteworthy statement during those sessions, it escaped my notice.

The Vatican News service, in its coverage of the cardinal’s death, also put a special focus on his attendance at Synods, methodically listing all eleven (!) of the Synod meetings he attended. But Vatican News, too, paid particular attention to the 2014 and 2015 meetings on the family, setting them apart in a separate paragraph, and mentioning that in these cases, rather than beting elected by his brother bishops as a delegate, “he was appointed by Pope Francis himself.”

Which is—or should be—a sore point. Cardinal Danneels was chosen by the Pope to participate in the Synods on the Family after he was caught on tape advising a man who had been sexually abused by another Belgian bishop to keep quiet about the crime. It was shocking then, and is still shocking today, that the Pontiff would have chosen to bring a prelate out of retirement—to discuss the problems facing the family, no less—after he had been exposed to public disgrace. Even while loudly insisting that bishops should be held responsible for covering up abuse, the Pope bestowed this honor on a cardinal who was widely recognized as one of his key supporters: as a member of the “St. Gallen mafia” that had backed his election.

Yet now, when Cardinal Danneels died, Pope Francis chose to call attention to that shocking appointment. And Vatican News—which presumably seeks to follow the Pontiff’s wishes—did the same. And again, notice that neither the papal statement nor the Vatican News story suggested that Cardinal Danneels had contributed anything of unusual significance to the Synods’ discussions. They mentioned only that he was there—at the Pope’s invitation.

Reading first the Pope’s statement and then the Vatican News story, I had the impression that they were crafted to include an implicit challenge to papal critics: a bold affirmation that the Pope hs no regrets, no second thoughts, about rewarding an old ally.

Maybe that message was sent unintentionally. But even on a more benign reading, the statements from Rome show that the howls of protest about the Danneels appointment made no lasting impression on the Pope and his media team.

In other words, the message from Rome could be interpreted in one of two ways:

We know that you were outraged by the appointment, and we don’t care.


You were outraged, and we didn’t even notice.

I’m not sure which is worse.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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