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Pope Francis Shakes Up Important Congregation For Bishops

Bishop Raymond Leo Burke.
Bishop Raymond Leo Burke.

Pope Francis continues to shake up the Vatican establishment. This time, in what observers are calling a major move, he reshuffled the membership of the Congregation for Bishops, one of the most important organizations in the Vatican.

In the biggest shakeup announced on Monday, Francis removed Cardinal Raymond L. Burke from the group and replaced him with another American, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C..

Burke is known as an outspoken critic of abortion and gay marriage. In fact, in an interview with EWTN on Dec. 12, Burke disagreed with Francis about how much the Catholic leadership should talk about the issues.

"One gets the impression, or it's interpreted this way in the media, that he thinks we're talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman," Cardinal Burke said. "But we can never talk enough about that."

The New York Times adds:

"The pope's decision to remove Cardinal Raymond L. Burke from the Congregation for Bishops was taken by church experts to be a signal that Francis is willing to disrupt the Vatican establishment in order to be more inclusive.

"Even so, many saw the move less as an effort to change doctrine on specific social issues than an attempt to bring a stylistic and pastoral consistency to the church's leadership.

"'He is saying that you don't need to be a conservative to become a bishop,' said Alberto Melloni, the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy, a liberal Catholic research institute. 'He wants good bishops, regardless of how conservative or liberal they are.'"

Rocco Palmo, who writes the definitive Vatican blog Whispers in the Loggia, called the move a Franciscan "flush." A big deal.

"For those who enjoy what Italians do best, that Wuerl – already known to be a sought-out figure in Francis' orbit – has replaced Burke, his historic rival and cardinal-classmate, on the Congregation's membership is nothing short of extraordinary," Palmo wrote. "With today's nod, the District cardinal becomes the first shepherd of the nation's capital to have a seat at the Curia's most significant table of all; until now, only prior archbishops of New York, Boston and Philadelphia have known the role."

Today, Pope Francis made another move. He named Fr. John Doerfler of Green Bay the new Bishop of Marquette.

As Palmo explains, Doerfler is very much affiliated with the new school. But his appointment also sends a conflicting message.

"... Given the enduring public impression that Francis has effected some sort of 'change' to church teaching on homosexuality – most recently seen yesterday in the Pope's selection as "Person of the Year" by the flagship LGBT magazine The Advocate – it's worth noting that Doerfler's bio lists the bishop-elect's involvement with the church-sanctioned support group for Catholics who seek to live chastely with same-sex attraction," Palmo writes.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.