Mollie Wilson O'Reilly

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Is Francis About to Decapitate Cardinal Burke? Or...Just Give Him a New Job?

Something outrageous is happening in Rome: a new pope who was reportedly elected with a clear mandate to reform the curia has, over the course of a year and a half in office, been reappointing curial officials and moving bishops around in order to assemble a team that shares his priorities and can help implement his program for reform.

What's that? You're not outraged? I must have put it wrong. Let me try again: an upstart newcomer pope with no respect for tradition is carrying out a reign of terror at the Vatican, virtually executing respected princes of the church by denying them their God-given right to a high-status curial berth for life -- right under the nose of the defenseless pope emeritus who appointed them. Madness!

Sandro Magister, Vatican journalist and gloomy observer of the Franciscan papacy, is taking the latter view, as evidenced by his breathless report on rumors that Cardinal Raymond Burke is about to be removed from his position as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and reassigned to a largely honorary post, Prefect of the Knights of Malta, at the tender age of 66.

You remember Cardinal Burke, formerly bishop of St. Louis and, before that, La Crosse. His Wikipedia entry has an extensive section on his "Notable Actions and Statements" that may jog your memory. (He has also come up at dotCommonweal now and then: see here, and here, and here, and here.)

He is, in Magister's telling, an eminent man of virtue ("With a very devout personality, he is also recognized as having the rare virtue of never having struck any deals to obtain ecclesiastical promotions or benefices") and an indispensible canon-law expert, now condemned to the "metaphorical guillotine" by a capricious pontiff. Where conservatives regard him as an upright defender of church teaching -- Magister describes him as "not afraid to follow [canon law] to the most uncomfortable consequences" -- others view him as prone to unnecessarily divisive grandstanding over things like giving Communion to politicians and Sheryl Crow benefit concerts. (Magister calls this being "free in his judgments.") He is known as a promoter of the Tridentine Mass -- you've no doubt seen photos of the man in his cappa magna -- and a supporter of the efforts to bring schismatics like the Society of St. Pius X back into communion with Rome. He is not, in short, much in sync with the Francis agenda, and that Francis should want to move him out of a position of influence is not surprising. (I think it's a very good idea, myself.)

We don't actually know yet that he won't get another job, one that would keep him a little busier than his duties with the Knights of Malta. But Magister is already convinced that this is a "definitive downgrading," a "grave demotion of one of the most untarnished personalities the Vatican curia knows." (Well, nobody ever said the curia was in great shape.) And this after Francis "humiliated" Burke by removing him from the congregation for bishops. The rumored reassignment is an "exile," an ignominous fate for a man who by rights should be moved, if at all, only to bigger and better things. That, Magister takes for granted, is how it is supposed to work.

Henry Kissinger Does Not Care for Your Unserious Questions

Henry Kissinger has a book to promote, and so he found himself appearing on The Takeaway -- a news magazine program that airs on the New York City public radio station WNYC.

In the book, World Order, Kissinger offers his thoughts on the present state of foreign policy, drawing on his long career observing and advising on same. But he bristled, to put it mildly, when that long career prompted a few pointed questions from interviewer Todd Zwillich. It seems the Nobel Peace Prize winner isn't accustomed to being asked to defend his role in some of the uglier episodes of the 1970s.

That Kissinger doesn't want to talk about such things is no surprise. It is surprising that he hasn't come up with a better way to deflect questions about, say, Allende or Vietnam by now. The grounds on which he objects to Zwillich's bringing up the past are pretty flimsy: first of all, it happened a long time ago, and therefore is not something contemporary audiences should be interested in or consider themselves able to assess; and second, it is unfair to the people who were involved in making the decisions that are now being questioned.

In response to this from Zwillich:

One passage in your book says that idealism is a critical part of American policy, but that the most sustainable course will involve a blend of realism and idealism, [which is] too often held out in the American debate as incompatible opposites. It made me think of your history in places like Chile. Was it the case that realism trumped democratic idealism there when you engineered the coup against Salvador Allende, was that an example of that?

Kissinger replies:

Ahem. You know one trouble with discussion of this...You’re referring to an event that happened 50 years ago, and so it’s very hard to reconstruct…

Zwillich presses on, correcting the timeline ("forty years") and noting that, despite Kissinger's disavowal of any involvement with the coup, "Many other people testified in front of the Church Commission in the Senate later on that in fact you were well informed of that operation even after officially turning it off in a memo –"

Once again, Kissinger falls back on his not-quite-an-argument about how it's all off-limits for discussion because it happened a long time ago.

Sorry, influential Catholics: it's not so easy to get in to see Pope Francis

John Allen's new project for the Boston Globe, Crux, launched with a lengthy interview with New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The first section, published yesterday, focused on Dolan's impressions of Francis, and (as ever) the Cardinal strikes a very cheerful note. "Look, as a local bishop, I’m pretty pragmatic," Dolan said. "My question remains, is the pope helping me or hurting me? This pope is helping me immensely.

Francis wants more women theologians advising the CDF

In an interview with L'Osservatore Romano (not yet published in English Update: strike that, here it is), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, revealed that Pope Francis has directed that more women be included in the Vatican's international theological commission.

No, Marcial Maciel was not like Mary Magdalene, at all - UPDATED

Don't miss Jason Berry's lengthy update on the Legion of Christ's ventures in the Holy Land, in the National Catholic Reporter this week. How has the order coped with diminishment and disgrace following the belated exposure and censure of its founder, serial sexual abuser and all-around con artist Marcial Maciel? Oh, you know, they're working on it.

"Marcial Maciel's initials are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene. She had a problematic past before her deliverance, so there's a parallel. Our world has double standards when it comes to morals. Some people have a formal, public display and then the real life they live behind the scenes.

"But when we accuse someone else and we are quick to stone him, we must remember that we all have problems and defects. With modern communications so out of control, it is easy to kill someone's reputation without even investigating about the truth. We should be quieter and less condemning."

Berry quotes the above from a booklet promoting the Legion's new project, the $100 million Magdala Center at the Sea of Galilee. (Learn more at this website -- but be warned, there's a startling autoplaying introductory video.) The author is Fr. Juan María Solana. [UPDATE: Solana has apologized and the booklet has been withdrawn: see below.]

When the allegations against Maciel were first surfacing in the media, I remember hearing that rank-and-file Legionaries themselves were shielded from the worst of it. That, at least, was the excuse offered for why some priests didn't leave the order sooner. Given the amount of control Maciel and his fellow leaders exerted over the lives of their recruits, it seems plausible. But Maciel is dead; his corruption and crimes are definitively exposed; the order is supposedly reforming itself under Rome's supervision. So what's the excuse now for someone in a leadership position with the LCs to be referring to Maciel as having had any kind of "deliverance" (when, in fact, he and the order denied the allegations against him to the end of his life, even after Benedict removed him from ministry and ordered him to a life of repentance), or using his story as an example of how "We should be quieter and less condemning"?

I understand how awkward it must be for anyone who remains with the Legion of Christ to talk about their founder, given that the order itself has always been directly based in the spiritual leadership of Maciel. But if you can't talk about him honestly, non-defensively, with a sense of shame and sorrow and not self-pity, then maybe just don't talk about him at all.

At LCWR Assembly, Elizabeth Johnson Speaks Her Mind

You may recall, from Grant's coverage on this blog or from the column I wrote in May, that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dressed down the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its decision to present Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, with an award at this year's assembly. The award, Müller said, was an “open provocation against the Holy See,” because Johnson had been criticized by the U.S. bishops for alleged doctrinal errors in her book Quest for the Living God.

As I wrote at the time, Müller's presumption of bad faith on the part of the nuns -- and of correct judgment on the part of the bishops -- did not seem to leave much of an opening for a mutually respectful and collaborative process of reform. After all, as Müller might have known if he'd looked into it, the USCCB's doctrinal committee's indictment of Quest was a pretty shoddy piece of work, one that even contradicted its own claims in its rush to condemn Johnson for "undermin[ing] the Gospel."

Johnson accepted that award on Friday, at the end of the LCWR's annual assembly. For the most part, according to reporters who covered the event, the conflict with the CDF was absent from the group's public talks and deliberations. But in her acceptance speech, Johnson addressed it directly -- deciding, I gather, that since the honor had already been labeled a "provocation," she might as well say what she thought. And did she ever. David Gibson has the full transcript at RNS, and it's excellent: a forthright, clear-eyed, and (in my opinion) very astute analysis of what motivates the hierarchy's suspicion of American sisters and what would be necessary to overcome that tension.

House Museums and the Pressures of Preserving the Past

The weekend "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe featured an article by Ruth Graham titled "The Great Historic House Museum Debate," with a subtitle that asked, "Do we have too many?"

An abusive "culture of violence" at Rikers's youth prisons

The front page of today's New York Times reports on the findings of the U.S. Attorney's Office that there is a “deep-seated culture of violence” in the prisons that hold adolescent inmates on Rikers Island.

David Frum's "skepticism" and the Israel-Palestine conflict

There's no foreign-policy issue I've found as frustrating and hard to get a grasp on as the Israel-Palestine conflict. When a conflict flares up, especially one with longstanding roots, the natural thing for someone like me to do is try to get up to speed on the basics: What did I miss while I was growing up (or not yet born) that will help me understand what's going on now? But when it comes to Israeli politics, that neutral accounting of facts has always been nearly impossible to find. Try to find someone who can explain what's going on over there, and they skip directly to an impassioned rebuttal of the other side's views. Everyone wants to tell you why the other side is wrong and their own side is misrepresented. Everyone wants to tell you how it's all about bias. It's the one issue that, to judge from the public discussion, seems to be ideology all the way down.

That's finally changing for me; with this latest flare-up I finally feel like I can get a handle on what's happening and why. I'm skeptical of "how social media changes everything" arguments, but in this case I do think there's a lot to be said for the power of Twitter in helping me find arguments and reporting and images I wouldn't have seen otherwise -- a lot of it coming from journalists in my age cohort who, I assume, are also fed up with the "pro-and-anti-Israel" posturing that has dominated any discussion of Israel and its actions (and U.S. involvement in same) throughout our lifetime. They want to move beyond the calcified positions and tired slogans and try to see what's really happening now, because that might lead to a way out instead of just more retrenchment and identity politics. (Read Paul Waldman's excellent post at the American Prospect on that.) I finally feel like I can follow the events as they unfold without having to choose a side first.

Which is why I've been so fascinated by what's been happening with David Frum, now a Senior Editor at the Atlantic, regarded by many as an independent thinker because, after serving as a speech writer for George W. Bush, he distanced himself from and became highly critical of the radical elements in the Obama-era GOP. Frum is smart and sharp and right about a lot of things, but also smug, and surprisingly sloppy in his thinking when it suits his ideology. (Just because he's not totally partisan doesn't mean he's not ideological.) And when the subject is Israel, he puts his critical-thinking skills on a shelf and goes all in on the propaganda. He has become a vivid illustration of the poisonous conversation around Israeli politics, and the way it reduces otherwise responsible thinkers to frothing idealogues eager to jump to the worst conclusions about anyone who they think might see things differently than they do.

Mary Gordon on "Francis and the Nuns" in Harper's

In my column last month, I asked, "Why hasn’t Pope Francis stepped in to get the Vatican off the nuns’ backs" and revoke the CDF's mandate to reform the LCWR? "If Francis really wants a less authoritarian, more mission-focused church," I wrote, "shouldn’t he have called this whole thing off already?"

Mary Gordon asks a similar question in the August issue of Harper's, in an essay titled "Francis and the Nuns." It's a strong piece of writing and a very good summary of the tensions between U.S. sisters and the Vatican. Harper's readers will be well caught up on where things stand and how they got that way. And the piece ends with an interview with Simone Campbell, SSS, that gives a personal dimension to the way she and her fellow sisters from LCWR congregations have responded to the scrutiny and censure directed their way from Rome.

But when it comes to the Francis angle, Gordon's analysis is less solid. That's because there simply isn't much to go on. "Is the new Vatican all talk?" the essay's subhed asks. But on this subject Francis has hardly talked at all, so that anyone who wants to build a case for or against him has to resort to reading tea leaves. And silence has many interpretations, after all.

After an introduction that sums up the remarkable shift in tone and priorities that Francis has brought about since taking office, Gordon brings in the nuns as a test case. I think she's right to propose the U.S. sisters as the embodiment of what we might call the Francis agenda: