In Pope Francis’s acceptance of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl’s resignation from the See of Washington, DC, we see an unmistakable pattern emerging. By accepting Wuerl’s resignation, but also keeping him on as Apostolic Administrator, the Pope shows he is working to a particular modus operandi.
There seem to be three basic steps: (1) ignore criticism and impugn critics’ motives; (2) when that becomes impracticable make a big show of doing something, without actually doing much of anything; (3) if necessary, remove a high-profile figure, but not really.
With Cardinal Wuerl, Pope Francis has done exactly this: he is officially out, and also officially in.
The Pope’s letter expresses support for Cardinal Wuerl and confidence in his record of leadership. It also indicates reluctance to accept the resignation. “You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes,” Pope Francis writes. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense,” he continues. “Of this, I am proud, and thank you.”
The New York Times reports Wuerl as saying he expects to keep his roles in various powerful dicasteries, including the Congregation for Bishops.
The Pope did something very similar in his management of the dust-up at his Secretariat Dicastery for Communication and in his handling of the crisis in Chile.
In March of this year, Pope Francis’s hand-picked prefect of the Secretariat for Communication, Mgr Dario Edoardo Viganò (not to be confused with whistleblower Carlo), landed himself in hot water over doctored photographs and manipulative claims about a letter from Benedict XVI. Mgr Viganò resigned after several days of increasingly intense media scrutiny — but, in the same letter announcing acceptance of Viganò’s resignation, Pope Francis also praised him and announced he had created a special ad hoc position for him within the Secretariat.
In Chile, Pope Francis first accused the now-disgraced and retired Bishop Juan Barros’s principal accusers of calumny, then said he’d seen no actual evidence against Barros even though he’s had a letter from one of Barros’s accusers since 2015. Then Francis ordered an investigation into the whole hierarchy, then he summoned the bishops of Chile for a pow-wow at the Vatican, obtained their resignations, and began to sit on all but seven of them while the Chilean government continues to raid chanceries and offices of the national bishops’ conference.
Meanwhile, three central figures remain in place, despite serious misconduct allegations pending against them (allegations all three strenuously deny): Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati continues in peaceful possession of his see — the capital Archdiocese of Santiago de Chile — while Ezzati’s predecessor, Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, remains a member of the Pope’s C9 “kitchen cabinet” of cardinal-advisers, and Archbishop Ivo Scapolo remains in place as Apostolic Nuncio.
There have been varying degrees of emphasis on different parts at different times, but the basic pattern is fairly straightforward.