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 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

(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.

Although Wuerl himself is characteristically reserved about his future, church sources say Francis likely won’t accept his resignation for another year or maybe two: Wuerl is far too valuable to the pope where he is in his high-profile job in Washington, and in particular on half a dozen Vatican bodies. “One of the world’s most influential bishops,” as The Washington Post has called him.

The most critical of those Roman posts is on the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, where Wuerl is one of 30 churchmen who vet candidates for the pope to name as bishops and archbishops in thousands of dioceses 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 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

More important for the 65 million-member U.S. church, Wuerl is one of just two Americans on that congregation — the other, retired Cardinal William Levada, will cycle off when he turns 80 in June.

Along with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the pontiff’s nine-member personal advisory body, Francis relies heavily on Wuerl’s counsel given that the Argentine pontiff has little familiarity with the U.S. (His trip here in September began with a stop in the nation’s capital — another feather in Wuerl’s biretta).

Moreover, 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.

Burke is no fan of Wuerl’s, either, and has long been viewed as a hard-line critic of Wuerl’s more pastoral approach on a range of hot-button issues; Wuerl’s efforts to make peace with Burke some years ago were reportedly rebuffed, and Burke’s hardcore fans were not in a forgiving mood when Wuerl effectively replaced him in the key post.


READ: Cardinal Wuerl: Catholic Church moving from legalism to mercy


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, as well as in a number of other recent and pending picks that are helping Francis shape the future of the American church in a more pastoral and moderate mold.

But that shift will also take time, another seven years or so, by one calculation, until Francis will have named more than half the world’s bishops and cardinals — that is, if the pope, who turned 79 a week before Christmas, remains in office that long.

While that process moves ahead, Wuerl can also perform another useful role as a kind of mediator in a U.S. hierarchy that has grown increasingly fractious as the more than 200 active bishops struggle to figure out whether, and how much, they can shift their long-standing culture war priorities to the more traditional social justice agenda favored by the pontiff.

That strain was never more in evidence than during November’s annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, when several prelates clashed openly over adjusting their political priorities to line up more closely with the pope’s approach.

In a classic Wuerl moment, the Washington archbishop stepped to the microphone and with his characteristically measured tone advised the bishops to take a centrist course, acknowledging that the voter guide they were debating could be better but that they had to have something in time for next year’s presidential campaign. “I would not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good,” Wuerl told his colleagues in an effort to cool tempers and provide a rationale for moving ahead with what they had.


READ: Catholic bishops revise voter guide after debate over ‘Pope Francis agenda’


In the end, the revised voter guide was adopted by a 210-21 vote, with 5 abstentions. “There is a reason Wuerl may be the most respected member of the conference and even if one disagrees with him on this issue or that … Wuerl’s combination of intellectual power and pastoral sensibility is remarkable,” wrote Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

Wuerl is “the center of our conference,” Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who has known Wuerl for 40 years, said in a new biography of the cardinal.

But the most important role in this final chapter of Wuerl’s long career may go beyond any of these other more “political” considerations.

What’s really 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.

Connecting Francis to the church’s past can reassure the right wing about Francis’ orthodoxy (as far as that will ever be possible) and can ensure that the pope’s focus on an openness to the world and pastoral flexibility to the flock are part of the church’s future even after this pontiff leaves the scene.

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

He has lived through seven papacies and seen one council up close, has been in two conclaves and numerous synods — global meetings of bishops at the Vatican — and he spent years studying in Rome and working in the Curia. He has been a diocesan bishop and a papal adviser, 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 to 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, impeccably dressed, and disciplined and organized to the point that he always seems to speaking in crafted paragraphs, even in casual conversation.

Between reforms and ‘aberrations’

Born in Pittsburgh in 1940, Donald Wuerl was one of four children in a devout Catholic family where faith was “the frame of reference.” Wuerl’s father worked nights weighing freight cars for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a job that “required hard work, precision and organizational skills, all traits that Francis Wuerl passed to his middle son,” as Ann Rodgers and Mike Aquilina write in their biography of Wuerl, “Something More Pastoral.”

Despite the seeming stability of that era, momentous transitions were just ahead, for the Catholic Church and for the world.

Pius XII was the pope of Wuerl’s childhood, but John XXIII (1958-1963) was the pope during Wuerl’s undergraduate days at Catholic University of America in Washington. It was John who recognized that the church needed an “aggiornamento,” as the Italians say, an updating, and he convened all the world’s bishops in 1962 to begin the Second Vatican Council, a three-year re-examination of the church’s teachings and way of doing ministry.

Wuerl landed in Rome as a seminarian just as the council was getting underway. He points to an assistant pastor, the Rev. Joseph Bryan, who worked at his home parish of St. Mary of the Mount, for first inspiring him to become a priest. And Wuerl’s brains and talent quickly led his superiors to send him to finish his seminary studies at the North American College in Rome overlooking the Vatican.

“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 studying to be a Jesuit priest in Argentina at the same time.

But the openings at Vatican II were also controversial.

Wuerl recalls one of his university professors, disturbed that John XXIII would dare to convene a council, warning the future priests “that even the pope can lead the church astray.” It’s a memory that would often come to mind for Wuerl in this current pontificate. “There was a feeling that somehow because he (Pope John) called a council and seemed to be so open to those who in previous pontificates were not all that welcome, that somehow his orthodoxy was questioned.”


READ: Pope Francis opts for honey over vinegar in Curia address. But will it work?


And in fact, the council was followed by a period of great upheaval and experimentation, as many Catholics, some feeling suddenly freed of age-old strictures and customs, either left the church or stayed and tried to push the reform agenda even further.

They often went too far for Wuerl, who, after just two years as a priest in a parish back in Pittsburgh, returned to Rome when Pittsburgh’s bishop at the time, John Wright, was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI and named to head the Vatican department overseeing the world’s clergy.

The decade of the 1970s that Wuerl spent in the Vatican as Wright’s secretary was a remarkable experience but also a time of “so many aberrations,” as Wuerl says, when even reform-minded prelates such as Wright — who was later ripped by liberals for seeming to revert to conservatism — saw how “things actually could go astray.”

“Even though he (Wright) was considered by many to be a very conservative defender of the faith, I found him to be an example of being so immersed in the tradition of the faith that he was comfortable seeing its development,” Wuerl says, providing a description that he could apply to himself.

Wuerl recalled Wright’s telling him how he met with Pope Paul one day amid all the tumult of the time and asked the pope, in near-exasperation, “What are we to do with all of this confusion?” The pontiff responded calmly: “You know the gospel. So all we can do is say it, and repeat it, and repeat it again.”

It was an answer that struck Wuerl, and stuck with him: “I’ve kept that as my own personal mantra.”

In fact, Wuerl has always seen himself as a teacher of the Catholic faith, a core self-definition that kept him centered — and connected to the church’s power centers — through the turbulent aftermath of Vatican II, and then through the course correction that came with the election of the more doctrinally conservative John Paul II in 1978, who was then succeeded on his death by the theologically rigorous Benedict XVI in 2005.

(A historical note: Because Cardinal Wright was so frail at the conclave of October 1978 — he would be dead a year later — Wuerl was allowed in to assist him, one of three non-cardinals permitted inside the secret election in the Sistine Chapel. Wuerl’s next conclave, and the only one in which he had a vote, was the most recent one, in 2013.)

‘The unwanted bishop’

For Wuerl, it’s all about “balance” — a favorite word — and remaining in the center in order to push for change. “The most important thing in life has to be your love of Jesus, but Jesus in his church, and being open to where is the Spirit moving us. The Spirit moved the council; the Spirit continues to move the church.”

For critics, however, that framing could come off as a rationalization for hierarchical loyalism, a label that would brand Wuerl in 1985.

That’s when 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 at the time the iconic progressive U.S. churchman: He had moved out of the bishop’s mansion and drove around the sprawling archdiocese in an old Volkswagen, and one year he refused to pay half of his income taxes to protest the U.S. stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

But it was Hunthausen’s perceived doctrinal laxity that disturbed Rome. He questioned the ban on women’s ordination and let gay Catholic groups hold liturgies in the cathedral; he promoted general absolution of sins — the church prefers individual confession — and wanted to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion.

John Paul’s solution to the Hunthausen problem was to make Wuerl a bishop and send him to Seattle, stripping Hunthausen of authority in several key areas and giving those powers to Wuerl.

It was an unprecedented move by the Vatican, a humiliation for Hunthausen — and not much fun for Wuerl, the good soldier cast in the role of the bad guy. “The unwanted bishop,” as Rodgers and Aquilina call him in their chapter on the controversy.

Wuerl was 45 at the time, and while he wound up spending just over a year in Seattle, it was by all accounts a searing experience. Even now, 30 years later, Wuerl recalls the episode gingerly, in measured tones. He says Seattle did have real problems and insists his mission was “an institutional issue.”

The move was “never personal” between him and Hunthausen, he says, and he still telephones the now 94-year-old retired archbishop — “a person of great integrity,” Wuerl has called him — to check in.

But Wuerl 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’

It was a lesson that came in handy when, 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. The church had to radically restructure, and Wuerl launched a three-year process of assessment and dialogue; at one point, he says, there were 10,000 Catholics on committees at churches around the diocese.

In the end, Wuerl had to shrink the diocese by a third, from 333 parishes to 219. It was a dramatic reduction, but one that is still studied as a model by many other dioceses that have had to follow a similar course.

What was not followed as closely or quickly was Wuerl’s aggressive policies against priests who molested children. The issue had begun to percolate into the public square in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Wuerl started in Pittsburgh, but it would be more than a decade before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stunned by The Boston Globe’s revelations in Boston in 2002, would take concerted, collective action.

Wuerl was well ahead of that curve, in dealing both with victims and accused priests. In one case, 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.

Remarkably, Wuerl eventually won that battle, and in 2002 he 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.”


READ: Who won? Who lost? 5 points on the contentious Vatican summit


Many believe that Wuerl’s approach to the clergy abuse scandal hurt any chances he had for further advancement. But the years passed, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI and having a strong record on the abuse issue was considered a plus.

When the prestigious Washington archdiocese came open in 2006, Wuerl was a natural fit. He was known as a moderate who wouldn’t make the altar rail a battle line over a Catholic politician’s support for abortion rights, and he knew how to lobby hard in private while maintaining good relations in public — vital traits for a relatively small archdiocese like Washington but one that has an extraordinarily high percentage of high-profile Catholics.

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 anger that would burst forth after the election of Francis in March 2013.

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

How Wuerl voted in that conclave he will never reveal. But 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. Friends and colleagues say that if Wuerl remains as precise and focused as ever, he’s also so enthusiastic and almost voluble that they joke they barely recognize him.

What is it about the revolutionary Francis papacy that has the cautious Wuerl so animated?

Part of it could be chalked up to frustration at the backlash that the pope’s new approach has prompted, especially in the deeply polarized American church.

The criticism from Catholic conservatives is something that Wuerl has experienced himself, and something he reportedly finds confounding, to say the least. That’s not only because Wuerl considers himself thoroughly orthodox, but because such public haranguing offends his sense of loyalty and his idea of what a good bishop should be, especially vis-à-vis the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter.

“The bishops of the United States have always stood with the pope, always stood with the pope,” he says firmly, “because that’s our way of being bishops. And we should always be with, and never without, Peter.”

That so many bishops are criticizing Francis and trying to undermine his agenda, often in backhanded ways, has at times elicited unusually pointed rejoinders from Wuerl. At the most recent Vatican synod last October, Wuerl grew so vexed by the critiques of the pope by many of his colleagues — some of them fellow Americans — that he called reporters to defend the pope and deliver his own message:

“I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope,” Wuerl told America magazine, a Jesuit-run weekly. “I wonder if that isn’t part of it.”

Asked what he would say to those bishops who said and did such things, Wuerl told America: “There’s not much you can say because if someone isn’t willing to hear you … ”


READ: Clash of the archbishops: Synod dispute between US senior churchmen goes public


Wuerl is also personally loyal to Francis, whom he has known for years, even if they’re not exactly bosom buddies.

“I feel extremely comfortable and in tune with this pope,” Wuerl says. But, he adds — no surprise — that he felt that way with every pope he has served under. He was “very comfortable with the theology of Benedict XVI,” he says, and he was closest to John Paul II: “I had a wonderful relationship with him, probably far more personal than any other pope.

“But now comes Pope Francis, and I have to say I feel very comfortable, very much in tune with what he’s saying, because it’s what a pastor’s heart says.”

That rings true to those who know Wuerl well, like Ann 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.

“His heart has always been with the people on the margins,” she says. “Pope Francis has freed him to be the bishop he has always wanted to be.”

But above all, Wuerl’s enthusiasm for the Francis papacy might 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)

  • Betty Clermont

    Pope Francis’ “reformist agenda”? Pope Francis recently went to Uganda and Kenya. “The Catholic Church in Uganda has been in alliance with all the other Churches in condemning and discriminating against LGBTI persons” (aljazeera.com) where “homosexuality is illegal and attacks against gays have forced many to seek refuge abroad or lead secret lives at home.” (usnews.com) The leading cause of maternal death in Kenya is unsafe abortion. “More than 70 percent of women seeking post-abortion care in Kenya were not using contraception.” That country also has the fourth-largest HIV epidemic in the world. (aljazeera.com) During the Q&A with journalists on the trip from Africa back to Rome, a reporter pointed out to Pope Francis that “In Uganda alone there were 135,000 new infections of HIV, in Kenya it’s worse. It’s the greatest cause of death in Africa.” He asked the pope, “Is it not time for the Church … to allow the use of condoms to prevent more infections?” The pope changed the…

  • Lance Woodruff

    David Gibson’s report on Cardinal Donald Wuerl, ‘The pope’s man in Washington,’ is the most helpful overview of seen both of the personages and the state of the Catholic church. I’m not a Catholic, but I greatly appreciate this essay.

  • Curt Schmidt

    The last time I checked, the Pope had/has absolute authority over every single institutional issue/question/decision. He also has the entire Vatican bureaucracy to assist in making his choices known. St. John Paul II certainly did his best to finalize the issue of ordaining women.

    Could not Francis remove every bishop opposed to his reform agenda? They would still be bishops — ordained forever — but just not in charge of anything — servants who could be sent, as if they were Jesuits, to any corner of the marginalized world to minister to the poorest on earth. Francis could then replace those bishops with ones who understand how a shepherd of souls should communicate dogma and authority.

    Either the Pope has this authority, or he doesn’t. John Paul II certainly ran the Church with assurance that what he ordered would be carried out. Must we take seven years’ energy away from reforms so badly needed, while we wait for Francis to replace half of America’s bishops?