Quiet bishop Wuerl plans to be heard in Washington D.C.
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At a St. Patrick's Day breakfast, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl quietly took U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle aside to talk about an immigration bill that he feared would punish the church for providing services to illegal immigrants.
"He asked, 'Do you really want to put us in jail for helping people?' " said Mr. Doyle, a Democrat from Swissvale. Mr. Doyle had not supported the bill, but he directed the bishop to a Republican colleague who had. Bishop Wuerl resumed his quiet conversation with the Republican.
Now that Bishop Wuerl has been tapped to lead the church in the nation's capital, his public policy work, done so quietly in Pittsburgh for 18 years, has taken on new importance.
"His style has never been confrontational. He's more like a friend who pulls you aside, a father or a teacher," Mr. Doyle said. "You know he's never going to do anything to embarrass you. But if he wants to speak with you about something, he's not afraid to call you up and talk in an earnest, sincere and thorough way."
Archbishop-elect Wuerl said he expected to spend time getting to know Washington's movers and shakers, not just in elected office, but also in education, health care, communications and other fields. That will mean attending events to show that he is interested in what they have to say, he said.
"You can't be heard if you're not present. And you can't be present if you're not invited. And you won't be invited if people don't know who you are and that you want to be a part of what's happening," he said.
The fact that he is already the in-house expert on bio-ethical issues for the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops guarantees a high- profile role on issues such as embryonic stem cell research.
"It isn't automatic that the guy in Washington is highly political and highly visible," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and an expert on the hierarchy.
But the post brings unparalleled entree. President Bush's first dinner outside the White House was with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is stepping aside after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. When the cardinal was crafting guidelines for U.S. bishops regarding Catholic legislators who support abortion rights, he organized meetings with Catholic politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Cardinal McCarrick spends little time on Capitol Hill because the staff of the U.S. bishops conference does the heavy lifting on legislation, said Susan Gibbs, his spokeswoman. Nor does he work the cocktail circuit, though he sometimes makes phone calls or arranges private breakfasts. He has testified at legislative hearings. He chats with legislators when he meets them at rallies.
Like most dioceses, Washington has a Red Mass for judges and lawyers, and a Blue Mass for police officers.
"Usually, at least half the Supreme Court attends our Red Mass," Ms. Gibbs said, adding that they are not a venue for political speeches.
"At our Blue Mass, we get directors of the FBI, immigration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals and other agencies."
Cardinal McCarrick works hard to stay nonpartisan, she said.
"We are very careful not to attack individuals, not to attack parties, but to work on issues," Ms. Gibbs said.
That also has been Bishop Wuerl's stated philosophy.
For years, anti-abortion activists pressured him to denounce or discipline former Democratic Rep. William Coyne, of Oakland, a Catholic who supported abortion rights. The bishop did not do so.
"When you are dealing with the whole range of human issues, if someone agrees with you on a lot of them and disagrees with you on some of them, don't you still want to keep talking and working? Because on a lot of things that you agree upon, good things for people can be done," Bishop Wuerl said.
He does not expect to address much specific legislation.
"I don't think that's necessary. It's not [a bishop's] job. We presume on our legislators to frame good, just laws. ... But there will be times when something becomes so blatant that the bishops have to speak out," he said.
"You have to present the teaching of the church in a clear and convincing way."
In his role with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the bishops' public policy arm in Harrisburg, he exercised that teaching role very effectively, said Robert O'Hara, the executive director.
He once spent three hours with a non-Catholic legislator who had questions about Catholic theology and how it related to public policy, Dr. O'Hara said.
"I learned a great deal myself that day, just listening to the dialogue," he said. "He was so patient, so clear, and I think was very helpful with that particular legislator."
Bishop Wuerl always wanted to make sure the bishops' public policy statements appealed to non-Catholics, said Bishop Donald Trautman, of Erie.
When addressing abortion, "he was trying to use technology and science to support the theological position of the church," Bishop Trautman said.
In Pittsburgh, he rarely took high-profile public stands. Months after becoming bishop in 1988, he opposed a proposed city gay rights bill, which, he said, provided inadequate protection for religious groups that didn't want to hire people who modeled lifestyles in conflict with their teachings. He indicated willingness to seek an amendment that would make the bill acceptable.
"Defending civil rights and supporting this specific piece of legislation are two separate issues," he wrote to his priests.
That bill failed. Two years later, a somewhat amended bill passed without opposition from the bishop.
At the same time, without publicity, he was deeply involved in regional economic development. He attended high-level meetings, said Evan Stoddard, then director of economic development for the Urban Redevelopment Authority, now associate dean of the liberal arts college at Duquesne University.
"He was an active participant. He stayed the day and participated in group discussions," Dr. Stoddard said. As the church contemplated Jesus' crucifixion during Holy Week last year, he released a pastoral letter opposing the death penalty. He has given fairly quiet support to the church's stand that marriage is for a man and a woman only, but in interviews has been open to possibilities such as extending heath-care benefits to all members of a household, no matter what their relationship.
In 2000, Bishop Wuerl took a vocal stand for gun control, without backing any specific bill. That grew from his work on the Youth Crime Prevention Council, created in the 1990s by then-U.S. Attorney Fred Thieman. Bishop Wuerl was a key figure in that group, said Mr. Thieman, now a lawyer in private practice.
"Bishop Wuerl's influence was not the typical back-scenes deal-making," Mr. Thieman said. "It's much more a question of compassion and persuasion. He is very outspoken on issues that are close to his heart."
His arguments were moral, not partisan, Mr. Thieman said.
"He would talk to anybody, regardless of the political hat they were wearing," he said. "He was not naive. He was savvy enough to know that politics are important to people. But he was dedicated to building consensus."
The bishop's party affiliation, if any, is not known.
"In my heart, I see him as a Democrat. I have no idea what he really is. I'm sure Republicans look at him and think he's a Republican," Mr. Doyle said.
Mr. Doyle, who opposes abortion, went against Bishop Wuerl's counsel and supported limited use of donated embryos from fertility clinics for stem cell research.
"He's never grabbed me and chastised me for it," Mr. Doyle said. "I haven't been on the side he's been on with this, but when I see him, I see a friend."
Anti-abortion activists wanted him to protest in the streets, but "no one from the chancery has ever been down in front of Planned Parenthood," said Helen Cindrich, president of People Concerned for the Unborn Child.
But before he became bishop, he invited her group to meet at the seminary where he was rector. She can still reach him when she has to. He donates to her organization and its offshoot, Angels Place, which provides free day care to single mothers who are full-time students, she said.
"Bishop Wuerl works on a diplomatic level. He would not be the person you would see [protesting] on the streets," she said.
Whether dealing with other bishops or with politicians, he has always believed that the most effective work is done behind the scenes.
"Most human discourse is carried out quietly among people" whether over the dinner table or in the halls of Congress, he said. "It only becomes loud when something is breaking down."
That quiet, conversational approach will carry clout in Washington, said U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-McCandless.
"When people walk into your office and say, 'I want you to vote a certain way,' you have a certain reaction," she said. "When people call and want to have a discussion in depth, which is what he is always interested in, it's much more valuable and has much more of an effect."
Mr. Doyle calls him, "the perfect person" for the Archdiocese of Washington.
"Down here, everyone wants you to make a stand, to put you in a camp. He's way too smart for that, and much too much a follower of Jesus ever to fall into that trap. Don Wuerl is the real deal."
First Published May 21, 2006 12:00 am