VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Wednesday outlined his vision for how the Vatican will promote family and life issues, naming an American moderate to head the new Vatican office for families and laity and directing related institutes to give merciful care to spiritually wounded Catholics.
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.
Francis also named an Italian moderate, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, to head two academic institutes affiliated with the new laity office — one dealing with bioethics, the other with marriage — and told Paglia he should focus on promoting the merciful side of church doctrine.
Combined, the appointments signal a more moderate direction for Vatican offices responsible for hot-button, culture war issues such as abortion, contraception, marriage and divorce.
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.
Paglia too is a moderate, an Italian who was responsible for investigating and pushing through the beatification of slain El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero over opposition from Latin American conservatives who accused Romero 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 —were created during the pontificate of the conservative Polish pope to assert church doctrine on core sexual morals, bioethics and marriage. The institutes' members were often hard-liners and their conferences often featured only like-minded academics.
In a letter to Paglia, Francis said he wanted the institutes to focus on imbuing church teaching on life and marriage issues with mercy, opening dialogue with other academic and scientific centers, Christian and not.
"Bowing before the wounds of mankind, to understand them, treat them and heal them is the job of a church that believes in the light and strength of the resurrected Christ, able to go even to places of tension and conflict like a field hospital," Francis wrote to Paglia.
Farrell's new office is expected to work in tandem with Paglia's institutes and will include many lay Catholics in top positions. That's 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.
At a news conference in Dallas, Farrell said that above all he will promote the pope's desire to ensure that lay people are an integral part of the church.
"I have always had in mind that in the church, lay people needed to play an important role," Farrell said.
The tweeting and blogging 68-year-old also said that in this new role he'll bring his department's work "into the age of technology and to make it a little more user-friendly."
The statutes of Farrell's 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 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.
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.
"We don't all have to agree with each other. We just have to treat each other with respect and build bridges," Farrell said Wednesday.
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.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield