VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Wednesday named an American moderate to head the new Vatican office for families and laity as part of his aim to bring a more pastoral approach to the Vatican’s bureaucracy.
Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, a former Legion of Christ priest whose brother is also a top Vatican official, now becomes the highest-ranking American at the Holy See.
Francis appointed the Irish-born Farrell on Wednesday as he formally created the new Dicastery for the Laity, Families and Life, which combines several Vatican offices into one. The reform is part of Francis’ bigger overhaul of the Vatican bureaucracy to make it more efficient and reflects the pope’s focus on better ministering to Catholic families and laity.
Farrell is known as a moderate with a warm, friendly approach that balances a strong emphasis on social justice issues with a defense of church teaching on issues such as abortion.
In a related appointment Wednesday, Francis named the former head of the Vatican’s family office, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, to lead the Vatican’s bioethics think tank and marriage institute. Combined, the appointments signal a more moderate direction for Vatican offices responsible for hot-button, culture war issues such as life and marriage.
Paglia, for example, is a moderate Italian who was responsible for investigating and pushing through the beatification of El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero over opposition from Latin American conservatives who accused the assassinated archbishop of Marxist sympathies.
The two institutes Paglia now heads — the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family — both were created during the pontificate of St. John Paul II to emphasize traditional church teaching opposing abortion, artificial contraception and defending other life issues.
Farrell’s new office is expected to include many lay Catholics in top positions, part of the pope’s aim to reinvigorate the participation of ordinary Catholics in the church and get away from what he has long criticized as an overly “clericalized” hierarchy.
The statutes of the office, released in June, say it will have three sections: laity, family and life. The life section is designed to coordinate initiatives promoting “responsible procreation” and supporting initiatives to help women choose alternatives to abortion.
In a statement on the Dallas diocesan website — written in both English and Spanish in a reflection of Farrell’s predominantly Latino flock — the bishop said he was humbled by the unexpected appointment and would leave his home of 10 years with mixed emotions.
Farrell, a tweeting and blogging 68-year-old, said he looked forward to defending life and promoting the laity and family in accordance with Francis’ recent teaching document on family life, “The Joy of Love.”
The document has been controversial because it opened the door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Farrell has defended Francis’ emphasis on mercy over divisive social issues in the face of criticism from some American conservatives who dismiss the pope as confusing and insufficiently faithful.
“Each of us must resist the temptation to choose a particular teaching of the church as the touchstone of our orthodoxy while disregarding others as less important,” Farrell wrote in a 2013 blog post. “If we don’t agree with what the Holy Father teaches, we don’t need a new pope, we need a new attitude.”
Farrell seems very much on message with Francis on some key issues. He has spoken out for the rights of immigrants, including writing in 2010 on his blog that “immigration reform is a moral issue.”
He drew the ire of many Texas conservatives when he praised President Barack Obama’s executive action this year tightening gun regulations. Farrell, writing on his blog, criticized a new open carry state gun law as a sad reflection of “the cowboy mentality.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide last year, Farrell wrote that the church would never accept gay marriage, but also emphasized that gays and lesbians should be treated with respect and compassion. Both positions are in line with Francis and church teaching.
Farrell and his brother, Brian, both were ordained as priests of the Legion of Christ religious order. Kevin Farrell left the scandal-marred order in the early 1980s and incardinated into the Archdiocese of Washington. Brian Farrell remains a Legion priest and is the No. 2 in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York and AP writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this story.
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