Action Alert!

Conservative prelates needn’t panic

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 07, 2014

I have my own take on the question of whether Pope Francis is purging conservative prelates, and it may be useful to suspend my dislike of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” as Catholic descriptors just long enough to make my point.

In the recent controversy over the Kasper Proposal, the following leading prelates played significant roles in demonstrating the weaknesses of the Proposal and why it should be rejected. Granting the confusion of our terms, most people would describe them as “conservative”. The list follows. (Names marked with asterisks contributed to the key book refuting the Kasper Proposal, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church—see review.)

  • Cardinal Walter Brandmüller*: Documented, contra Kasper, the consistency of the Catholic understanding of the unity and indissolubility of marriage from the Middle Ages to the Council of Trent.
  • Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke*: Insisted upon the nature of canonical nullity in the marriage process as a search for truth.
  • Cardinal Carlo Caffarra*: Explained marital indissolubility in terms of the very ontology of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
  • Cardinal Gerard Ludwig Müller*: Emphasized, contra Kasper, the importance of the power of grace in the indissolubility of marriage.
  • Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, CS*: Explained how the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance have always been applied to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, and why.
  • Cardinal George Pell: Wrote the foreword to an important book entitled The Gospel of the Family, which used Cardinal Kasper’s own title in critiquing his Proposal and offering a more authentically Catholic understanding of how marriage and family life lie at the heart of the Christian message (see review).
  • Cardinal Fernando Sebastián: Introduced the book containing Cardinal Müller’s extensive interview reaffirming the Church’s traditional approach to marriage and family in the wake of the Kasper Proposal (see review).
  • Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, SJ*: Demonstrated, contra Kasper, the weakness of the way second marriages are (sometimes) handled in the Orthodox Churches.

Now, how many of these men have been rumored to be out of favor with Pope Francis? Just one, Cardinal Burke.

How many have clearly received significant trust from Pope Francis? At least three: Cardinal Müller, who has been retained by the Pope in what is arguably the most important curial position, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Archbishop Vasil’, who has been retained by the Pope as Secretary for the Congregation of Oriental Churches; and Cardinal Pell, who has recently been brought in from Australia to head the brand new Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.

And how many enjoy the same status as they had before Pope Francis was elected? Four. Of course, we would in any case expect no change in status of the three fully-retired cardinals, Brandmúller, Caffarra, and Sebastián; and de Paolis, who has been overseeing the reform of the Legion of Christ, will be 80 next year.

Sometimes we tend to fasten on the little we know and then assume that whatever is uppermost in our own minds must be the only logical explanation for a papal decision. This leads to rash judgments. Respecting the term “conservative” in this context only insofar as it is frequently (and inaccurately) used to mean “orthodox”, I confess that I am not alarmed.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Nov. 10, 2014 7:19 PM ET USA

    Jeff, we are looking at a "process" decision not a doctrine decision. Francis wants to "streamline" annulments and he wants to be sure that key dioceses move quickly on process changes. Neither action changes doctrine, but each involves a major shift in governance. Burke was at a bottleneck in bishop selection and in the annulment processes. Burke plays it by the book. Francis is a christian romantic. Logic and clearly defined process definitely cramp his style. (exhibit A, is the Synod.)

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Nov. 09, 2014 2:24 AM ET USA

    "Respecting the term 'conservative' in this context only insofar as it is frequently (and inaccurately) used to mean 'orthodox', I confess that I am not alarmed." Why blemish an excellent piece with that inaccurate and entirely gratuitous dig at your conservative (i.e., orthodox) readers? You are not the authority on what the term "conservative" means. If you don't see the utility of the term, don't use it. It's imperfect, but good shorthand for the opposite of "liberal" (which Francis is not).