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In a surprising move, Pope Francis dramatically changed the makeup of the Congregation for Bishops. This Congregation is responsible for advising the Holy Father on the appointment of bishops around the world, so you might say it’s kind of important. Given the power a bishop wields in his diocese, this is an extremely influential table of advisors. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, a tireless defender of the unborn, a major proponent of liturgical tradition and protege of Benedict XVI, was dropped from the Congregation and replaced by the moderate, and not particularly inspiring, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C. (One could argue whether or not this shake-up was all that “surprising”…)  Both men have, over the past several years, clashed politely and indirectly over the question of reception of Communion by pro-abortion politicians.

Cardinal Burke, the Church’s chief canon lawyer, arguing from Saint Paul, Canon Law and tradition, argues in favor of denying the Sacrament to public officials who are known to be complicit in grave sin. The integrity of the Sacrament should be protected from sacrilege, and the individual himself should be prevented from having that mortal blight on his soul. For his part, Cardinal Wuerl, apparently more concerned with being nice and liked by everyone (in other words “pastoral”) strongly disagrees with Burke, positing that Communion should not be withheld from politicians involved in scandal. It’s just mean, you see. All are welcome at the table of plenty. To clue in those in the dark, “pastoral” is one of the many bastardized words in our vocabulary. There is nothing wrong with being truly pastoral, but now, “pastoral” is simply code among many bishops for never saying or doing anything that might upset some easily offended special interest group living in Swaziland. If the interest group is left-of-center, that means never, ever offending it. If it’s a traditional group, then it’s open season. Fire away.

And if Burke’s departure wasn’t bad enough, also dropped from the Congregation was Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, another stellar protege of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The decision to deep-six two outstanding prelates and genuine liturgists in favor of someone like Cardinal Wuerl is a hard one-two punch to the gut. I pride myself on being able to read silver linings in bad news, but this development is bleak, all around. And I’m far from the only one expressing dismay.

There’s no other way to interpret this move, folks. I don’t know who was responsible for advising the Holy Father on this one, but it’s a huge mistake, in my opinion. Cardinal Burke represents a vision of the Church which has inspired large swaths of young men to enter seminaries and traditional religious orders. Liberals hate him, and even mild mannered conservatives find him unpalatable because he is unambiguous and fearless. Jealousy no doubt plays a role too. Life Lesson 101: The insecure and unscrupulous are intimidated and fearful of the balanced and secure. Cardinal Burke speaks about the important truths in a firm, uncompromising voice. Cardinal Wuerl, for his part, represents the soft-sofa brand of Catholicism that so many of us younger Catholics grew up with, and find so unattractive. Listening to Wuerl’s answers to interview questions is like reading, no, enduring, a pep talk from a Hallmark Card. You get the sense that he is preoccupied, obsessed even, with not stepping on anyone’s toes, even at the expense of moral clarity. 

Here in Milwaukee, we know all-too-well the consequences of weak, tepid bishops. The acidic, corrosive effects of the nearly three decade reign of Weakland remain with us to this day. The thought of a fresh infusion of mediocrity in our Church is disheartening, to say the least. Just when we thought that, with Pope Benedict’s brilliant papacy and peerless catechetical instruction, things were finally starting to get better, we could possibly be looking at (yet another) step backwards. 

It is very important to remember that Cardinal Burke still heads up the Vatican’s Apostolic Signatura. This is not an insignificant role. He is still very powerful and wields great influence. Burke is also a good deal younger than Wuerl, who will face the mandatory retirement age in a few years. (Although I believe one can still serve on the Congregation even past 75.) But Burke’s influence on the men chosen to head-up dioceses in the United States has been severely, if not completely mitigated as a result of this move.

If we’re looking for a silver lining, I can at least offer the consolation that budding, stubborn bastions of orthodoxy and tradition are out there, thanks first and foremost to the Holy Spirit, and to the young men and women who are answering the call to serve the Church in total fidelity, whether in the religious life or as laity in the world. The True, the Beautiful and the Good will always draw people in, regardless of the storms that pass. Even if many bishops don’t get it, the old way of compromise and watered-down doctrine is unpalatable to younger Catholics, and that is the future of the Church.

What can we do? Of course, pray for our pope and the bishops. As younger Catholics, we also need to make our voices heard and flock to those parishes in our diocese where tradition and doctrine are honored, not scorned. We should support organizations like the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the  Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius to name a few, with prayer and yes, monetary donations. I know a lot of young Catholics who simply refuse to prop up their diocese with financial support because of the culture of compromise that so many bishops have embraced there. Sorry, we’re not supporting mediocrity anymore. Period. Yet, these same young Catholics send substantial checks to support traditional religious communities and orders. They put their money where their mouth is, and that is the modus operandi we all need to follow. If you’ve got a traditional parish in your diocese, go there, support it, bring friends. Don’t settle for mediocrity.