The appointment of Bishop Farrell suggests the Pope wants the Church in the US to move away from confrontation and towards dialogue

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Last week saw the long-awaited nomination by Pope Francis of a head for the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Irish-born Bishop Kevin Farrell, who turns 70 next week, moves from his current post as head of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas to take up the reins of this newly created body.

The new dicastery emerges from the fusion of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family as part of the Pope’s ongoing reform and rationalisation of the Curia. From September 1 these offices cease to exist and are replaced by the new department, whose statutes were published in June. Its responsibility concerns life issues, pastoral care of the family and the role of the laity.

Farrell’s name had not figured prominently among those tipped to take the new job. The choice of a prelate barely known outside his own diocese will cause little surprise when we see how his track record fits several of Francis’s known priorities.

The dicastery’s remit cover themes which have been at the centre of attention – and controversy – during the three years of the Pope’s pontificate. Francis wants the issues that Pope Benedict had termed “non-negotiable” – the sanctity of life in all its stages and the inviolable status of the traditional family with the indissolubility of marriage as its cornerstone – to be defended in a way that does not allow the Church to be seen as an unbending institution closed to dialogue. He believes that such a stance obscures the preaching of God’s mercy, which he sees as the heart of her mission.

So where does Bishop Farrell stand on these issues? There can be no doubting his pro-life orthodoxy – he attracted attention in the 2008 presidential campaign by stating that abortion was “the defining moral issue” of the age. And yet he has been careful to distance himself from the more robust “culture warriors” who often appeared as the rising force in American Catholicism under the preceding pontificates.

A clear example of this was an intervention by Farrell in the University of Dallas, the Catholic institution in his diocese. The college had opted for a robust affirmation of Catholic teaching which attracted many students in search of a strong Catholic identity, but which others decried as a strident, even aggressive “neo-conservatism”.

In 2009 Farrell spoke critically at the university of a “dogmatism, closed-mindedness (and) judgmentalism”. The bishop proposed instead that the Catholic identity of a place of learning should be marked by “honest debate, not confrontation – true dialogue where we seek to understand the other, not facile condemnation”.

These words might serve as a handy summary of Francis’s approach, at least when seen from a sympathetic point of view. Others might see it as naïve in a context where Catholic teaching is exposed to an unprecedentedly hostile environment where militant secularism will only accept dialogue on its own terms.

On the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried, the most contentious in the areas for which he now assumes responsibility, Farrell has not directly taken up a position. He is, however, on record effusively praising Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, echoing the interventions of Cardinal Christophe Schönborn, who has interpreted the document as a relaxation of the discipline.

It may be significant that Farrell’s rise to prominence came about under the patronage of the Washington DC archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. In 1976 Wuerl published a catechism for adults which reaffirmed the basics of the faith at a time of alarming doctrinal fluidity. More recently he has emerged as an opponent of a supposedly intransigent counter-culturalism, notably refusing to debar pro-abortion politicians from communion.

Farrell’s life story shows that he has made counter-cultural choices of his own. As a young man of 19 in Ireland, he joined the Legionaries of Christ. This order, austere and regimented, had not yet been tarnished by the scandal surrounding its founder Fr Marcel Maciel. Growing rapidly, it gave the appearance of solidity and vigour at a time when a crisis of priestly and religious identity was beginning to shake the Church.

Although Farrell left the Legionaries and joined the Archdiocese of Washington in 1984, six years after ordination, this formation will have given him an iron self-discipline, put to good use in his subsequent, impressive career. The Legionaries also gave him a solid academic formation (his five degrees include a masters in business and administration) and a fluency in Spanish which allowed him to become head of Washington’s Hispanic ministry, and may have contributed to his being noticed by Pope Francis.

Was it his decision to leave behind the closed and secretive world of the Legionaries which convinced him of the limitations of the fortress approach to the faith, and the necessity of openness and dialogue with the world? In any case he will have taken with him the skills which enabled him to master the workings of the ecclesiastical machine. (His older brother Brian, who remained with the Legionaries, is also a curial bishop, serving since 1981 at the Secretariat of State, then in the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.)

The choice of an American, albeit by adoption, as head of a major Vatican department may well signal recognition of the US Church by Pope Francis, at a time when many American Catholics have feared that their importance in Rome was being diminished. It also sends out a clear statement on the direction that he wants the Church in the US and beyond to take in its relationship with modernity – away from confrontation and towards dialogue and accommodation.

Support for this direction is far from unanimous, in Rome and elsewhere. The coming years will reveal its strengths and its weaknesses. Meanwhile, in the coming months Pope Francis will have other personnel choices to make which will give him an opportunity to advance his vision.

This article first appeared in the August 26 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.

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