Cardinal O’Malley on Vatican Reform and Other Key Church Issues

In a Register interview, the archbishop of Boston discusses his service as an adviser to Pope Francis, and hot-button matters the U.S. bishops are addressing.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston
Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was appointed by Pope Francis to serve on a council of cardinals that will advise the Pope on Curial reform. He is also the chairman of the Committee on Pro-life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and has played a key role within the conference on advocating for immigration reform and the needs of undocumented workers.

Cardinal O’Malley spoke Nov. 12 with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall meeting in Baltimore.


Reform of the Curia is a key issue on Pope Francis’ agenda. You were selected to a council of cardinals — and you are the only American — who will advise Francis on reforming Church governance. What can you tell us about the council’s mission and work thus far?

As has been announced, there is a desire to reform the curia, to make it more at the service of the Holy Father and the local Churches. The goal is to make the Curia more efficient and thus to allow the Holy Father to govern more effectively. It is important to review the functions of the dicasteries and pontifical councils, to see how they can work better.

The Holy Father is also concerned about the pastoral care of people working in the Curia. Many within the Curia have given their lives in service to the Church. But there should not be an approach of careerism, but of mission. The Holy Father wants to make sure that is the spirit of the Curia. He wants to care for their pastoral needs.

I was touched that he is having a retreat, and he celebrates Masses and invites the workers. Whether their job is to change the light bulbs or perform translations, they are part of a team.

Further, the Church has grown so much and is more international. So there is a desire to internationalize the Curia to some extent. That could be difficult, however, because of linguistic challenges and the need for people to live in Rome.

Those are some of the issues. The council is not only to reform the Curia, but to advise the Holy Father on the government. As the American on the council, I do try to help the Holy Father to see what some of the American issues are.


Recently, there has been discussion about expanding consultation within the Church more widely. Is this council appointed by the Pope a model for Church governance at other levels?

The Church is not a democracy. But the Church can only function if there is a sense that you are trying to discern God’s will, and we don’t do that just as individuals; we do that in an atmosphere of dialogue and prayer. But ultimately, the Holy Father will make decisions, and we will abide by them.


The U.S. cardinals played a distinctive role before the conclave that elected Pope Francis, giving press conferences in Rome until that practice was halted. What was it like?

A lot of people were upset that we couldn’t continue our daily briefings, which were held in an auditorium. We didn’t reveal anything inappropriate, but we wanted to keep the public informed. We talked about the traditions involved in the papal election.

For me, it was very strange. It was almost like a Pentecost experience. You felt a connection with the whole Church. Everyone was counting on us to pray and follow the promptings of the Spirit.

They started a “pray for a cardinal page” [online], and a half a million people had gone on this page. I got emails from people in Chicago and Ireland. Catholics were connected in prayer. It was very important.


Pope Francis has asked us to be a “Church for the poor.” Does that involve leading a simpler lifestyle?

In the Church, we have always encouraged people to adopt a simpler lifestyle. The Holy Father’s interest in ecology gives another dimension to this concern. We need to be more conscious of people’s needs and be willing to forego superfluous wealth and creature comforts.

The Order of Malta has the tradition of seeing the poor and sick as “our liege lords.” Mother Teresa said the poor are Christ in a “distressing disguise.” We need to see the value of people who might be invisible to the culture, and that includes the unborn child, the Alzheimer’s patient, the drug addict. Some of these people have very challenging situations, and they aren’t the beautiful or productive people, the glitterati. We are called to see their value in God’s eyes.

Socrates said, “People believe me because I am poor.” The witness of a simple lifestyle is important in the Church. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t live according to the demands of their station of life not everybody has a vow of poverty. When we read about the first Christians and see how they shared with each other, there was a sense of responsibility for the poor, the orphan and the strangers in their midst. We need to do more.

I have often thought, "It is nice to have partnerships with government, but it would be wonderful if the Catholic community could [serve the needy] on their own."


In his interview in America magazine, Pope Francis spoke about his own deep experience of spiritual paternity, but he also made it clear that all Church leaders and pastors should reach out to others like a spiritual father.

For any priest, it is important to see ourselves as the spiritual father of our people. The Holy Father, during his chrism Mass homily, said, “The shepherd should have the smell of the sheep.”

As the father of the family makes many sacrifices for his children, a priest needs to make many sacrifices for his people. When the father makes those sacrifices, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself; he sees this as his mission. And that is the way a good priest has to function.

I fear, however, that the clergy-abuse crisis has led some priests to stay apart from people so their motives won’t be suspect.


In 2012, you were elected the chairman of the USCCB Committee for Pro-life Activities. What are your goals for this critical work of the conference?

In the last year, I tried to bring up the importance of changing the mentality of the country around adoption.

When I was young, my generation had friends who were adopted. Now, many young people don’t know children who were adopted, and if they do, they are foreign-born. It isn’t something Americans do.

In the past, I blithely said, "Adoption not abortion." Then I read Paul Swope’s 1998 article in First Things, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate.” Swope pointed to research that showed how women in difficult pregnancies ended up choosing abortion.

They see three options available to them: keeping the child, having an abortion or putting their child up for an adoption.

Keeping the child is often interpreted as a personal death. Giving the child up in an adoption is seen as a terrible option they are a bad mother who is exposing the child to abandonment, abuse and neglect.

And at that moment, they are looking for closure, so giving their child up for adoption drags out the process.

Somehow we have to break through that view of adoption and help women see that there are many wonderful childless couples who are well-equipped to be loving parents. We need to do more to support adoptive parents.

In Boston, we are preparing catechetical materials for our young people about adoption. And carrying this issue even further, I would like to see more people be generous in adopting older children.

Foster-care programs have not been successful, so many children who go through these programs go from family to family and end up in prison and on drugs.

The USCCB Pro-life Activities Committee is also promoting post-abortion care, and we proposed the hiring of a full-time staff member at the USCCB to offer resources for dioceses that want to provide support groups and train priests.

So many women have had an abortion. They believe they have committed an unspeakable crime beyond forgiveness, and they live with that guilt. We need to help them find the path to reconciliation and experience God’s mercy.

That is one of the beautiful things about Pope Francis. He is showing how the Church must be a “field hospital,” reaching out to those who have been devastated by sin.


One challenge the pro-life movement faces today is a new effort to normalize abortion by making it part of mainstream health care. Congressman Chris Smith, R-N.J., recently introduced the Abortion Full Disclosure Act, proposed legislation that would require health-care plans offered on the state exchanges, authorized under Obamacare, to make clear whether they cover abortion. Is this bill important?

On Nov. 1, I wrote a letter backing that proposed bill. The bill can be cast as a consumer-protection effort: People have a right to know whether a health plan provides abortion coverage before they pay the premium. Now, Smith is looking for members of the Senate to support his bill.


Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex "marriage." What has been the experience of the Church, pastors and families?

In Boston, we have a commission set up to study the impact of same-sex "marriage" and the issue of homosexuality. We are looking at what is being taught in the public schools. We know it is an entirely different anthropology from that of the Church.

There is such an aggressive attitude toward anyone defending traditional marriage that many people are intimidated. And there is a movement now that is trying to stop religious people from adopting.

The challenge we face now is helping people focus on the fact that marriage involves families. As Archbishop [Salvatore] Cordileone [of San Francisco] explained in his report to the conference this week, “Every child comes from a man and a woman. Marriage recognizes that reality and binds the children to their parents.”

Every study shows that the optimal circumstance for raising a child is with their biological parents in a loving, committed marriage.

But at the same time, we need to communicate — and this is difficult — that homosexual persons are not unwelcome in the Church.

The great threat that marriage faces is cohabitation. As Charles Murray reported in Coming Apart, almost 50% of children are born out of wedlock in the white working-class community. Cohabitation and the divorce mentality have both been bad for marriage, and I am so glad the Holy Father will give this issue more focus with the Synod on the Family.

He also wants us to find ways to help people in second marriages to return to the sacraments and be reconciled and to see if the annulment process can be more user-friendly.


You have served immigrants and undocumented workers from the early days of your priesthood. It looks like comprehensive immigration reform will not go forward this year. What does that mean for people who were hoping for a reprieve?

Part of the problem is that we need immigrants; our quotas have often been far too low. There are also horror stories of someone coming into the country as a political refugee, but their children must wait 10 years to get in the country.

Immigration law is very complex, and sometimes it can be very punitive.

The immigration issue won the election for President Obama. His promise of amnesty for the students locked in the entire Hispanic vote.

Yet Obama is the president who deported more Hispanics than any other president. He was facing that charge, and conservative Republicans weren’t anxious to take advantage of that issue because of their own attitude about immigration.

We need immigration reform, but it has fallen victim to the polarization that we see in government.