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 Wuerl: Catholic Church moving from legalism to mercy

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

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ROME (RNS) “The frame of reference is now going to be: ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ That’s our first task.”

That’s Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl summing up the new course for Catholicism set by the momentous Vatican meeting of 270 bishops from around the world that concluded last weekend, a three-week marathon in which he played a key role.

After often contentious talks on whether to adapt the church’s approach to issues such as divorce and cohabitation, the high-level synod succeeded in giving Pope Francis a document that offers him significant new flexibility in shaping more pastoral policies.

But the final report, and its more controversial measures, won support from the churchmen only after moments of high drama and bold lobbying, especially by hard-liners who charged reformers with trying to manipulate the synod.

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

Wuerl is one of the American bishops most trusted by Francis, and many credited his efforts with helping bring the synod to a successful conclusion that seemed in doubt at many points.

In an interview with Religion News Service on Sunday (Oct. 25) -- the day before he returned home -- the cardinal joked about the late nights of working and writing: “See these circles!” he said, pointing at the bags under his eyes.

Synods are usually held every three years on different themes, and this was the last for Wuerl, who turns 75 next month and has worked on synods for the past 25 years.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity:

Q: The pope’s talk at the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod system spoke of how the “church and synod are one,” and that this wasn’t a single event but an ongoing dialogue of what he called “synodality.” What does that mean?

A: The real takeaway from this synod is that Pope Francis has changed the way the church goes about reflecting on her pastoral ministry. That’s no small thing.

What Pope Francis has done in these two years, and these two synods, and all the collaboration in between -- and we can’t forget that -- he called for a process, not a synod.

You had all this open discussion about issues the church is struggling with. You are not going to be able to close that door in the future. Pope Francis has made it clear that this is the way the church addresses the gospel message and the human condition.

Q: The synod seemed to return repeatedly to Francis’ call for the church to address the realities of people’s lives, to “always consider the person,” as he says, rather than just citing doctrine.

A:  Yes, we have a very clear teaching and yes, we announce that teaching. But at the same time, that teaching includes the mercy of God and the care of the individual believer. Those two elements of the same reality are what the pope has lifted up and made visible in a way they haven’t been in a long time. If you are not able to minister to that person where that person is, you are not completing the teaching.

Q: The final document achieved consensus but did not provide many specifics about how bishops and priests will be able to proceed in “accompanying” people. Do you expect the pope to answer those questions, to put some flesh on those bones in some concrete way?

A: I think the first fruit of this synod will be the idea that we have to be reaching out.

Now, more practically, what will the Holy Father do with this?  He may share reflections on some of this material in his audience talks. He may decide to do some form of writing on this, or he may turn it over to some offices in the Roman Curia to say, ‘Bring back something on this.’

The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ But I think the Holy Father has a whole range of opportunities before him. I think we just have to wait and see what he chooses.

Q: So you expect there’s going to be some concrete follow-up to this document in some form or another?

A: I think there’s going to be something. But the lessons from this may not have to be written documents. The lessons may be, ‘This is the way you discuss things in the church.’ This openness, that’s one lesson.

The second lesson is: Try to live the teaching in the context of where you are, and don’t give up because you’re not living it perfectly. And don’t consider yourself no longer a part of the church if you’re not living it perfectly.

I’ve had priests say to me that the pope is really just affirming what most of us know in our hearts we are supposed to be doing anyway.

Q: Pope Francis in his powerful closing address to the synod called out the intemperate talk that even some bishops and cardinals engaged in before and during the synod. Will tempers cool or could this get worse?

A: I think the two things -- the “manipulation syndrome” and the “end of the world syndrome” -- both of those were not helpful. They were far less than what one would expect from a gathering of bishops in a synod, to have that type of talk.

But as the synod went on, it became clear there is such a thing as ecclesial consensus around the church’s practice.

My impression is that a single three-week synod, and a consensus in that synod, is not going to change everybody’s thinking and way of speaking.

I hope it does set some new parameters in the conversation. ... Don’t be so quick to find fault with the people who disagree with you – that’s the conspiracy side – and don’t be so quick to find doctrinal aberrations in the positions of people who disagree with you.

Q: The one issue that seemed to go off the table, especially compared to last year, was the question of how to better welcome gays and lesbians. Where do you see that conversation going in the future?

A: I think the initial mistake back in the 2014 synod was that the conversation about respecting gays and lesbians got mixed in with the issue of whether there should be same-sex marriage. Those are two different issues altogether. One is a basic part of Catholic teaching: Of course you respect everyone, made in the image and likeness of God. Now if you’re going to talk about institutional things, that wasn’t clearly spelled out. And I think that left a sort of a taint in the synod.

Q: Can you foresee that deeper conversation on gays and lesbians taking place in some forum?

A: I do. I don’t think that’s been taken off the table. You still find in the final document the call for respect for people as they are. And that’s an important thing. But that’s a conversation that's going to take a little bit more time to develop into more practical applications.

Q: In a synod, or elsewhere?

A: I don’t think everything that took place in this synod is to be held in abeyance until another synod. I think part of the genius of this synod was the opening of the church in her discernment process to include these types of conversations going forward. We don’t have to wait for another synod.

Q: What does permanent synodality mean? Do you have to come together every three years or is there some other way to do this?

A: From my perspective, when you are dealing with a worldwide institution that already has over a billion members, yes, you do have to meet. And this is probably the most cost-effective way to run a consultation.

How do you continue the spirit of the Second Vatican Council unless you actually bring people together to talk to one another about the church’s needs? This you can’t do electronically.



  1. The issues faced by the synod are minor in comparison to the errant history and theology of Christianity. Again, the major issue of Christianity is the resurrection/Easter which did not happen. For an in-depth analysis by some very knowledgeable NT scholars, see:

    Professor Gerd Ludemann’s review in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, (Mark 16; 1-8) and also

    For more on the infamous Ascension con, see the same book, Luke 24:50-53 and

    And from Professor JD Crossan:

  2. Bizarre that actually paying attention to the Gospel is marked as a sign that the Roman church is setting out on a new course.

  3. For experts on the resurrection, also look at N.T. Wright, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona for a rejoinder to authors you cited. Also, Pinchas Lapides, an Orthodox Jew, investigated the resurrection of Jesus and he concluded that Jesus did indeed resurrect as the evidence points clearly in that direction.

  4. It’s not as bizarre as asking what the gospel really says when they have been claiming to tell us what the gospel says with the authority of God behind them for 2000 year.s

  5. Bishop Wright’s conclusions are not based on rigorous historic testing. Ditto for the others you noted.

  6. Tsk, tsk…the useless exercise I refer to as”dueling scholars”is just that,Bernado–an exercise in futility.The choice is literally as simple as one can make it: Either The Word of God is true,or it isn’t,simply put.And speaking only for myself, I would’nt listen to John Dominic Crossan if he was right outside my door; I would literally slam it in his face.Anyone who would have the unmitigated gall to claim that The Saviour’s Body was eaten by dogs can never,EVER tell me ANYTHING about the Christian Faith–period.I wouldn’t care how many alphabets you have trailing your name,as far as I’m concerned you’ve proven yourself to be an overly-educated fool.PEACE.

  7. Papal lapdog Gibson calls “momentous” the only result from two synods: i.e. the proportionately miniscule number of divorced, remarried who care can “consult” with their pastors in order to participate in the parish – but NO communion! Meanwhile women and gays are still denied equality and human rights and prelates continue to cover-up, aid and abet pedophiles.

  8. I wonder if stopping firing LGBT folks from Catholic institutions for being married or just publicly “out” would be included in “practical applications” of openness to people as they are?

  9. The good cardinal is in his 70s, nearing the age of retirement in a matter or days(Deo Gratias), and he’s still trying to figure out what the Gospel really says about marriage?

    Talk about a slow learner.

  10. As Jesus stated when he saved the adulterer woman from Stoning , he told her to” sin no more”. That is why we have confession last rights both sacraments(Communion NOT possible without confession) and Org like Courage Encourage, Rachels vineyard Cov. house etc. who minister to Homosexuals and others Living in Sin victims of abuse and Porn -prostitution traffickers . What part of that does not Weurl, Kasper Roisica etc Not understand.???. As AB Sarah has said No mercy without Repentance or Confession Period.

  11. Crossan did not use ordinary “rigorous historical testing” but devised a methodology of his own in order to lead to his own presupposition. And as for Ludemann…isn’t he the guy who purported to psychoanalyze Peter and Paul (2000 years postmortem) in order to attribute the Resurrection story to highly contagious (over vast distances) mass “hallucinations”?

    That’s real “rigorous” all right…not. No, thanks.

  12. I love how these “scholars” produce alternative scenarios for 2000 year old events out of thin air, with no corroborative attestation ANYWHERE in the historical record, and present them as if they were facts — and so many are so easily convinced.

  13. The Church dogmas are as relevant and binding as they have always been. No change need be, or can be, made to reverse their pronouncements. It will be a matter of treating all people with mercy and offering them hope, along with an education on the reasons why the Church speaks as it does. To snub ” sinners” carte blanche without any consideration of their uniqueness is unkind. Listening to their issues does not mean changing dogma to suit them.

  14. In the Psalms, David was shown and experienced mercy –because of his confession (agreement with God) and his repentance (to change sinful behavior). Find me any homosexual who agrees that gay sex is a sin and thus should be repented for. Homosexuals really only want their sins “explained” so they can continue in the behavior.

  15. I thought that McCarrick was a smarmy politician when he was the archbishop of Washington, DC. Wuerl is off the charts!

  16. Rigorous historic testing relies on the number of independent attestations, the time of the publications, the content as it relates to the subject and time period, and any related archaeological evidence. Professors JD Crossan and G. Ludemann’s NT studies are top notch in this regard.

    And again, please peruse the websites previously presented.

  17. you havent given me sex in decades, you left our family for a hussie, and the kids dont even care for whether you live or die

    Yet you pretend to know about family and marriage

    typical of blowhards with tiny pee pee’s

  18. Except that all of those support the resurrection just as well as they do the crucifixion itself, which neither Crossan nor Ludemann denies. Which is why Ludemann, in particular, had to wander off into left field to explain it away, while Crossan simply dismissed it out of hand because he “doesn’t think resurrections happen.”

    Expand your horizons a bit and don’t be so easily impressed.

  19. That’s because Catholic “Tradition” has long ago usurped the gospel in terms of importance.

  20. “Did Jesus *really* say that anyone who gets divorced and remarried commits adultery?”

    I thought Canon Law was the result of 2000 years of the Church reflecting on what the Gospel really teaches.

  21. Exactly, LW. How many of the flock included in these issues are actually seeking a return to the Church? I would think it small, since the complaint is that the Church won’t come around to their logic…..based as it is on self-interest.
    The Church can open up its arms to all sinners seeking salvation, but its illogical to think that the Church needs their input on what Truth is.

  22. It’s just sad that when the Cardinal looks at the world filled with war, poverty, abortion, broken families, government and church corruption Wurel thinks the problem is people follow the rules to closely.

  23. The Resurrection/Ascension Cons, condensed:

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

    “Heaven is a Spirit state” as per JPII and Aquinas i.e. there can be no bodies. i.e. there was and never will be any physical resurrection/ascension of human bodies.”

    And is it not ironical that JPII along with Aquinas are the ones who put meaning to the words “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless.”

    o The “ascension of Jesus” 1a) Luke 24:50-52 = (1b) Acts 1:9-11 Both written by Luke i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann’s book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 413-415, (Luke 24 : 36-53), “The historical yield is nil, both in respect of the real historic event and connection with the visions which were the catalyst for the rise of Christianity.”

  24. The sacrament of reconciliation/ confession con:

    Matt 16: 19
    See: (passage is not authentic)

    Matt 18: 18
    Said passage is not authentic. e.g. see Professor Gerd Ludemann’s review in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 205-206.

    John 20: 23
    From many studies by contemporary NT scholars, John’s gospel has been shown to be historically nil.

    e.g. From Professor Bruce Chilton in his book, Rabbi Jesus,
    “Conventionally, scholarship has accorded priority to the first three gospels in historical work on Jesus, putting progressively less credence in works of late date. John’s Gospel for example is routinely dismissed as a source……

  25. John 8:7

    “When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

    Said passage, as per many contemporary NT scholars, was not said by the historical Jesus. One reason for this conclusion is that it appears no where else in the scriptures.


    “Since “the higher criticism” of the 19th century, some historians have largely rejected the gospel of John as a reliable source of information about the historical Jesus.[3][4] “[M]ost commentators regard the work as anonymous,
    5] and date it to 90-100.”

  26. Sola Scriptura? Reminds me of the discussion between Thomas More and William Roper in a Man for All Seasons:

    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

  27. Seriously, you offer JPII and Aquinas to rebut Paul???

    The spiritual and the material are not incompatible in and of themselves, for the latter came from the former. What makes them presently incompatible is fallenness. The ultimate destination of the redeemed is very much a spiritual AND material state, recreated without the curse of fallenness.

    As for Ludemann’s quote, more begging of the question. You’ll have to do better than that to render me impressed with the gratuitous edicts of academia, for I’ve been there and I know all those guys have shortcomings and agendas like everyone else and are often more interested in making a flash in the pan than in getting at truth. Look how easily one of them impressed you with two millenia postmortem psychoanalysis, after all–which any actual psychologist would laugh at.

  28. And you offer Paul as some expert on anything? After all he predicted the reappearance of JC in Paul’s lifetime. Still waiting for that one. Then there is all that anti-female rhetoric which still haunts 50% of the world’s population.

    Obviously, he fell off his horse one too many times assuming you believe said vision story that also fails rigorous historic testing.

  29. Paul did not say Jesus was returning in his own lifetime — although He COULD have. He simply acknowledges the possibility of it occurring at any time Jesus said few would be expecting His return when it actually happens, and in any case He said that His disciples would have to take the gospel to the nations before any end would come, and would be martyred in so doing, so obviously that leaves precious little room in the 1st century for any second coming.

    But Paul’s “expertise” was not what we were originally talking about, now, was it? I was you who veered wildly off into that after begging the “rigorous historical testing” question to the point of silliness. You give the distinct impression of a high-schooler who gets a 0 on his English assignment for cutting and pasting from

  30. Hebrews 1:1-2New International Version (NIV)

    God’s Final Word: His Son

    “1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”

    Galatians 1:4New International Version (NIV)

    “4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father”

    Hebrews 9:26-28New International Version (NIV)

    26 Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him…

  31. •In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul wrote:

    “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

    Here, Paul seems to be referring to himself and some of the recipients of his letter as being alive when Jesus returns.

    •In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11, Paul wrote:

    “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not…

  32. Bernardo, not one of those quotes necessitates a 1st century Parousia. All these suggest is a POSSIBILITY of an imminent return, and an exhortation to be not unprepared for such an event.

    Your first set of quotes, in particular, indicates your misunderstanding of the kind of timescales we are talking about. The “last days” have been going on ever since Jesus first appeared on the scene. From God’s perspective, as per scripture, it has only been a couple of days.

  33. Might want to Google Paul’s thinking about JCs second coming in Paul’s lifetime and then argue with those experts who debate what Paul said. Really, makes no difference since there was no resurrection and therefore there will be no second coming as evidenced every day. But if you are waiting, so be it.

  34. I love how your omnipotent being can’t produce a new convincing demonstration of his existence after 2000-plus years.

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