The only American bishop currently leading a significant curial office is Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston


There are indications that American influence in Rome has been on the wane in recent years, as a number of Americans have left – or been removed from – various high-profile curial posts. These changes reveal something about the state of the Church and the pontificate of Pope Francis. But what they reveal is not what one might first suspect.

A few short years ago one heard quite a bit about the “Americanisation” of the Roman Curia. Pope Benedict XVI had chosen an American, Cardinal William Levada, to be his successor as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Archbishop James Harvey was still prefect of the Papal Household, and Cardinal Raymond Burke was head of the Apostolic Signatura.

In addition to the curial posts he entrusted to American prelates, Pope Benedict created nine new American cardinals between 2006 and 2012. When the conclave of 2013 met to elect Benedict’s successor, 11 electors hailed from the States. Only the Italians boasted more.

Things look quite different today.

The only American bishop currently leading a significant curial office is Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who moonlights as president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Cardinal Levada was replaced at the CDF. Archbishop Harvey was reassigned as Archpriest of St Paul Outside the Walls.

As for Cardinal Burke, his reassignment last November was the subject of much discussion and widely seen as both a demotion for him and a blow to his conservative supporters.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis has yet to create an American cardinal, and the number of American cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave will fall to seven by next summer as two more cardinals pass the age limit of 80.

Some may be tempted to see all this as evidence that Pope Francis has it in for the Americans, but that narrative simply does not hold up to scrutiny. For one, both Cardinals Levada and Harvey departed before Francis was elected. And, of course, Pope Francis chose Cardinal O’Malley to serve as one of nine members of the Council of Cardinals.

As Pope Francis pursues the reform of the Curia, he is likely to continue to rely on those he knows best. The fact is that few American prelates knew Pope Francis before he was elected. (One of the few who did was Cardinal O’Malley, who knows Latin America very well.) Even the newly appointed Archbishop of Chicago, Blaise Cupich (who is often described as a man the Pope “handpicked” for the job) had never even met the Holy Father until several months after his new appointment. The point is: we’re unlikely to see Francis packing the Curia with Americans any time soon for the simple reason that he isn’t that close to many Americans.
Moreover, the Pope has made an obvious and concerted effort to shift ecclesial power away from the developed world and to “the peripheries”. Thus, to pick a vivid example, the Bishop of Tonga – a man whose diocese has fewer Catholics than many large American parishes – was made a cardinal in the last consistory while Francis has yet to name a single American cardinal through two consistories.

Such decisions by Francis are more than symbolic. Giving a voice (to say nothing of conclave votes) to local Churches that are usually overlooked fits neatly with this Pope’s emphasis on including those on the margins.

Moreover, as the Pope himself has hinted, this is unlikely to be a very long pontificate. Durable, lasting reform means preventing a return to the status quo ante (which, let’s not forget, was such a mess it seems to have helped to convince the last pope to resign). Simply reshuffling old personnel into new structures is unlikely to be adequate to the challenge.

Of course, counting curial appointments and red hats is precisely the kind of ecclesiastical scorekeeping Pope Francis wishes to do away with, and was part of the problem to begin with. These are not ultimate measures for any local Church.

As important as curial appointments and conclave votes are, far more important – and more influential in the long run – is fidelity to the evangelical mission of the Church, even in the face of stiff cultural headwinds.

On this score, October’s synod will probably reveal far more about the actual influence of Americans than the latest Vatican gossip and curial politics. The synod is shaping up to be a replay of last year’s showdown between those urging accommodation to the zeitgeist in the name of mercy, and those who see the cultural wreckage of the West as the rotten fruit of just such an accommodation. Expect the representatives of the American bishops to stand firmly with the latter camp.

And if last year’s synod was any indication of what this year’s will be like, look for the representatives from the “peripheries” – especially the African bishops – to be standing shoulder to shoulder with their American brethren.

When that happens, the rest of the Church, Rome included, will surely take note.

Stephen P White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Programme at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington DC

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (02/9/15).

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