By naming Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas on Wednesday as the first head of the Vatican’s newly created mega-department for Laity, Family, and Life, Pope Francis has accomplished two things at once: He’s handed another major victory to pastoral moderates, and he’s also further disabused notions that he’s cool to Americans.
(Farrell, 68, isn’t American by birth since he was born in Dublin and came of age in Ireland, but by now he’s spent almost half his life in the States, including the last 14 years as an American bishop.)
Farrell joined the Legion of Christ but left fairly early on, before sexual abuse controversies broke out around the order’s controversial founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. He moved into the Archdiocese of Washington in 1984, where he served as a pastor and also took over a center for Hispanic ministry from then-Capuchin Father Sean P. O’Malley, who’s now the Cardinal of Boston.
(No doubt that background was part of Farrell’s appeal for Francis. Farrell blogs in both English and Spanish, and in 2012 he became the first U.S. bishop with a Spanish-language Twitter feed.)
Bishops who come to the Vatican from the outside often face a steep learning curve, but that’s not likely to be the case with Farrell, since his brother, Brian, is also a bishop and has been serving for the past 14 years in Rome as the number two official in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
I’ve known both Farrells for a good stretch, Kevin a bit better than Brian since I generally see him every year when I speak at Dallas’s annual ministry conference, and this past year Farrell presided over awarding me an honorary doctorate when I delivered the commencement address at the University of Dallas in May.
By most measures Farrell profiles as a moderate, with a pastoral touch and a social justice orientation very much in keeping with the Pope Francis style.
For example, when Farrell was named to Dallas in 2007, he took over an uneasy relationship with more conservative elements at the University of Dallas, which was on its way to earning a reputation as one of the bastions of a fairly agressive “new orthodoxy,” and did his best to steer it back to the center.
In 2009, Farrell delivered a memorable commencement address in which he warned against “dogmatism, closed mindedness, judgmentalism, [and] suspicion of another’s motives.”
He returned to the subject in 2011, when critics objected to a new ministry degree program they saw as insufficiently orthodox. On that occasion, Farrell took the unusual step of releasing a video in response.
“Let me remind the Catholic people of the diocese that this is my responsibility,” he said. “And I’m the one who has to stand before God and say whether or not this is truly Catholic. That is my responsibility, and I do not take it lightly.”
In not-so-subtle fashion, part of what he was saying boiled down to, “I’m the bishop and you’re not, so relax.”
At various other points, Farrell has come under similar fire. When he recently supported Father Thomas Rosica, who operates the Salt and Light media platform and also assists the Vatican with English-language press relations, when Rosica denounced a “cesspool of hatred” in the Catholic blogosphere, some of the same blogs angry at Rosica went after Farrell.
Others howled when Farrell publicly objected to a new Texas carry law on guns, and praised President Barack Obama for pursuing stronger gun control.
Yet liberals too have also lodged complaints.
In 2008, for instance, Farrell and Bishop Kevin Vann, then of Fort Worth, issued a joint pastoral letter on Catholics and politics, calling abortion “the defining moral issue not just of today but of the last 35 years.” It was widely seen as a warning to Catholics about supporting Barack Obama (or, at least, doing so uncritically), and led to protests outside the Dallas chancery.
Farrell’s reputation for balance, therefore, isn’t about any hesitance to speak his mind, or timidity about drawing lines in the sand. It’s more about an instinctive aversion to ideological extremes, a sense that busting people’s chops generally isn’t the right immediate response to any new problem.
On the issues that will loom largest in his new gig – abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and so on – the bottom line is that Farrell is robustly pro-life, but nobody’s idea of a cultural warrior.
In his new position, Farrell will also be responsible for overseeing implementation of Francis’ recent treatise on the family, Amoris Laetitiae, which among other things seemed to open a cautious door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion after a process of discernment.
Although Farrell hasn’t directly addressed the Communion issue, when the document appeared he was broadly supportive.
“Some feel Pope Francis does not go far enough in addressing the hopes of those in irregular marriages, others who feel it compromises traditional teaching,” he said. “In my opinion, it reflects the call of Jesus to his church to continue his healing and saving mission.”
Farrell also warmly praised comments on Amoris made by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, who was among the proponents of opening Communion to the divorced and remarried at the pope’s two Synods of Bishops on the family.
On the pastoral level, Farrell won high marks in July for his response to the sniper attacks on police that left five law enforcement officers dead, in retaliation for police shootings of African-Americans.
Farrell gets good reviews as an administrator and manager (he has an MBA from Notre Dame), and is seen as a strong leader. That’s a quality that will come in handy in the Vatican, where outsiders, especially those who aren’t part of the Italian clerical world, can easily get steamrolled if they aren’t careful.
Personally, Farrell is relaxed and accessible, with a sharp wit and a keen sense of humor, without any of the pretense one sometimes associates with senior Vatican mandarins.
As for the American angle, Francis had already gone a long way to assuaging doubts about a perceived coolness to Americans by naming Greg Burke, a veteran Time and Fox News correspondent, as his new chief spokesman effective Aug. 1.
Yet there was still no American prelate heading a major Vatican department, something of an anomaly in recent decades when the informal rule was there should be at least one.
By tapping Farrell, therefore, Francis has again shown his respect for the Church in the United States in arguably the most consequential way any pope can, since, in the small world of the Vatican, personnel is always policy.
Here’s the bottom line on the Farrell appointment: Moderates can claim another big win, and Americans (as well as the Irish, of course) can feel like they’ve got a powerful new friend in Rome.