Cardinal Donald Wuerl: The pope’s man in Washington

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Cardinal Wuerl and Pope Francis greet seminarians at St. John Paul II Seminary during the pope's visit to Washington on Sept. 23. Photo by Paul Fetters, courtesy of Archdiocese of Washington

Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Pope Francis greet seminarians at St. John Paul II Seminary during the pope’s visit to Washington on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo by Paul Fetters, courtesy of Archdiocese of Washington

(RNS) Cardinal Donald Wuerl is an eminently approachable churchman, and unfailingly polite, yet the archbishop of Washington is hardly the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve.

So it surprised even Wuerl at how moved he was when he hand-delivered his official letter of resignation to Pope Francis’ representative to the U.S. on Nov. 12. That was Wuerl’s 75th birthday, the date every bishop is required to submit his request for retirement to the pontiff.

“Now if the Holy Father were to accept it tomorrow, I would be well-prepared to take time to write, to read, to pray a lot more,” Wuerl said in a reflective moment during an interview with RNS a few days after the milestone.

But don’t wave goodbye just yet.

Wuerl is far too valuable to the pope where he is, in his high-profile job in Washington, and on half a dozen Vatican bodies. “One of the world’s most influential bishops,” The Washington Post has called him.

The most critical of those Roman posts is on the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, which vets candidates for the pope to name as bishops and archbishops around the world.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington speaks at a conference on climate change at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome on May 20, 2015. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington speaks at a conference on climate change at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome on May 20, 2015. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

More important for the 65 million-member U.S. church, Wuerl is one of just two Americans on the congregation — the other, retired Cardinal William Levada, will cycle off when he turns 80 in June. Along with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Francis relies heavily on Wuerl’s counsel given that the Argentine pontiff has little familiarity with the U.S.

When Francis named Wuerl to the bishops’ congregation in December 2013, he also removed another American and longtime curial official, Cardinal Raymond Burke, a vocal culture warrior who has been seen as a leader in the opposition to Francis’ reformist agenda.

Vatican insiders say Wuerl’s influence in bishops’ appointments has already been seen in the pope’s surprise choice last year of Archbishop Blase Cupich to head the prominent Chicago archdiocese, helping Francis shape the future of the American church in a more pastoral and moderate mold.

What’s at stake for Francis and the church — especially as conservative opposition to his reforming ways has at times reached a boiling point — is essentially immersing Francis’ innovative pontificate into the river of tradition that sustains and unites Catholicism even as it moves forward.

Few are as well-positioned as Wuerl to advance that goal.

He has lived through seven papacies, and he is both deeply orthodox and committed to making the church more open and pastoral. It’s a paradoxical mix that allows critics on the left dismiss him as an ambitious “company man” and critics on the right to rip him as a doctrinal squish.

Yet Wuerl is, in short, a lot like Francis, even though the two seem to differ so dramatically in temperament and background: the Latin American pope with little Roman experience who loves to press the flesh and talk off the cuff, and the Vatican-savvy North American cardinal, friendly but formal, and impeccably dressed, disciplined and organized to the point that he always seems to speaking in crafted paragraphs, even in casual conversation.

Between reforms and ‘aberrations’

Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh in 1940, one of four children in a devout Catholic family where faith was “the frame of reference.” His father worked nights weighing freight cars for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Wuerl landed in Rome as a seminarian just as the Second Vatican Council, a three-year re-examination of the church’s teachings and way of doing ministry, was getting underway in the early ’60s.

“It was an extraordinarily exciting time,” Wuerl says. The council’s reforms and opening to the world profoundly shaped his outlook and became the touchstone that he constantly refers to — as does Francis, who was also studying to be a Jesuit priest in Argentina at the same time.

Yet Wuerl also worried that some took the council’s reformist template too far, and in 1985, John Paul II, in his campaign to reinforce doctrinal orthodoxy in the American church, made Wuerl a bishop and sent him to Seattle with a special brief to rein in the liberal ways of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen.

Hunthausen was a progressive icon at the time who had questioned the ban on women’s ordination and let gay Catholic groups hold liturgies in the cathedral.

It was an unprecedented move by the Vatican. Wuerl, then 45, was the good soldier cast in the role of the bad guy. “The unwanted bishop,” as Ann Rodgers and Mike Aquilina call him in their chapter on the controversy in a new biography of Wuerl.

Now, 30 years later, Wuerl recalls the episode gingerly. He says Seattle did have real problems and insists his mission was “an institutional issue.”

But he acknowledges the hostility he faced, and says he learned from that experience that “if you’re going to work with people you’re going to have to get to know them. … You’re going to have to listen. You have to invite people into the discussion with you, and you have to go to where they are to be part of that discussion.”

‘You have to express your convictions’

To Wuerl’s relief, he was made bishop in 1988 of his old hometown diocese of Pittsburgh.

“It was a joy,” says Wuerl. But also a huge challenge.

The heavy industry that had anchored the community was tanking, along with the U.S. economy. During Wuerl’s early years the diocese saw an exodus of some 200,000 residents, about half of them Catholic. In the end, Wuerl had to shrink the diocese by a third, from 333 parishes to 219.

What was not followed as closely or quickly was Wuerl’s aggressive policies against priests who molested children, a decade before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would take concerted action.

When the Vatican in 1993 ordered him to return to ministry a priest Wuerl insisted was credibly accused of abuse, he traveled to Rome six times over several years in a dogged effort to overturn that ruling.

Wuerl eventually won the battle and in 2002 successfully petitioned John Paul to involuntarily laicize the priest. It was a surprising victory in the face of Vatican resistance — and an episode that goes against the idea that Wuerl was only interested in keeping his superiors happy.

“You have to be able to express your convictions,” Wuerl says today of that episode. “What I hope I’ve learned over the years is that you have to be able to do it in a respectful, loving way. But you have to speak the truth in love.”

When the prestigious Washington archdiocese came open in 2006, Wuerl was a natural fit. With the job came the prestige and influence of a cardinal’s red hat but also intense opposition from the Catholic right — an unusual position for Wuerl, so often seen as the quintessential insider. But the conservatives’ criticism then was only a prelude to the deeper anger that would burst forth after the election of Francis in March 2013.

Pope Francis ‘is picking up where Vatican II left off’

From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis, Wuerl has seemed transformed. What is it about the revolutionary Francis papacy that has the cautious Wuerl so animated?

“His heart has always been with the people on the margins,” says Rodgers, who covered Wuerl for years as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before joining the Pittsburgh diocese as communications director two years ago. “Pope Francis has freed him to be the bishop he has always wanted to be.”

Wuerl’s enthusiasm for the Francis papacy might also be read as a vindication of sorts — not only a demonstration of his cardinal virtues of perseverance and moderation, and working behind the scenes more than through the media — but also the triumph of the vision of Vatican II that inspired Donald Wuerl from his days as a seminarian.

“I think what we are seeing (with Francis) is picking up where Vatican II left off,” Wuerl says. The turbulence of recent decades has stabilized, and the Second Vatican Council is now the tradition, yet one that allows for reform, even demands it. In that view, Francis is not so much a novelty but part of the continuity.

“So my excitement about Pope Francis is that he sees all this work that went before, and he embraces that and says, ‘Now we have to do it.’”

(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)