Selection of Wuerl shows pope wants loyal, diplomatic voice in Washington
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Archbiship-elect Donald Wuerl listens to a question during a news conference last night at St. Paul Seminary.
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The appointment of Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl to head the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., indicates that Pope Benedict XVI wants bishops who are loyal but who nevertheless are flexible and diplomatic when dealing with sensitive issues of faith and public policy.
"They are not heresy-hunting types by any stretch of the imagination," former Vatican Radio journalist David Gibson said of Bishop Wuerl and newly appointed Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco. "They are people who are comfortable engaging the culture, standing up for Catholic orthodoxy, certainly, but not condemning with fire and brimstone."
Because of Bishop Wuerl's reputation as a leading intellect in the U.S. hierarchy, "this is an indication that Benedict wants the best minds in the most prominent positions," said Rocco Palmo, Philadelphia-based U.S. correspondent for the influential British Catholic newspaper, The Tablet.
"It shows he wants people who will be nuanced, people who will not be ideological, people who can speak clearly, authoritatively and -- especially in the context of Washington -- persuasively."
Bishop Wuerl, 65, said he would be sad to leave his hometown of Pittsburgh on June 22, but that he gave up his desire to chart his own path when he was ordained in 1966.
"You really have to put yourself aside," he said. "There is a certain joy, though, in coming to this archdiocese because it has been cared for and shepherded so well. ... I hope through my ministry to establish the same bond [with parishioners] that I felt in Pittsburgh."
At a news conference yesterday morning in suburban Washington, reporters bombarded him with questions on where he stands on immigration, administering communion to abortion-rights advocates and whether he would be as outspoken as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been in his 5 1/2 years there. Cardinal McCarrick had reached mandatory retirement age.
Bishop Wuerl was careful to avoid specifics in his answers, saying the church's focus should be on moral and spiritual issues.
"We do have something to bring to the [political process], but it is not necessarily determining a specific course of action," he said. "Sometimes a course of action would be so blatantly contrary to human dignity or to justice that you have to speak out on it, but normally the role of the church -- the voice of the church -- is to call us to be the best we can be."
The Archdiocese of Washington has a smaller Catholic population than the Diocese of Pittsburgh, with 579,000 Catholics and 140 parishes, compared with 801,000 Catholics and 215 parishes in Pittsburgh.
And it is in far better shape than the diocese Bishop Wuerl inherited in 1988. The Pittsburgh diocese was then nearly $3 million in debt -- a situation he soon rectified.
Washington is solvent and recently raised $185 million in a capital campaign. It is about to ordain 12 new priests, the second largest group this year behind Newark, N.J., Cardinal McCarrick's former archdiocese with 18, and the most in Washington since 1979.
But because Washington is the nation's capital, it has a visibility and political importance far beyond its size. Any top appointment there is evaluated in terms of how the archbishop will relate to the government and the people who forge public policy.
Bishop Wuerl's appointment is an affirmation of the policy he helped Cardinal McCarrick draft regarding Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, Mr. Gibson said. The heart of the policy is that such politicians should not come forward to receive communion, but that if they do the priest should not deny it to them because he cannot judge what is in their hearts at that moment.
Some conservative Catholic groups criticized the policy, arguing that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict -- believed such politicians should be denied communion.
The appointment shows the pope believes that "whoever is archbishop of Washington, D.C., has to be seen as someone who can dialogue, who has a certain degree of flexibility. To have a headliner in the wafer wars in Washington, D.C., would just be a constant battle with headlines every weekend," Mr. Gibson said.
Bishop Wuerl first articulated his communion policy in 2004, and weeks later it was closely echoed in guidelines that Cardinal McCarrick and his committee -- with Bishop Wuerl as a consultant -- had drafted for the U.S. bishops as a body.
The statements came as a handful of the nation's 195 diocesan bishops said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, of Massachusetts, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, would not be allowed to receive communion in their dioceses. Last year, Bishop Wuerl drafted a follow-up paper proposing that no bishop should speak out on divisive national issues without first consulting other bishops and trying to reach a consensus.
The communion issue was a live one in Pittsburgh because Mr. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has a home in Fox Chapel, and the couple occasionally attended St. Scholastica in Aspinwall.
After initially giving communion to Mr. Kerry, the Rev. Robert Duch, pastor of St. Scholastica, asked the bishop whether he should refuse if the senator came forward again.
"He said, 'You did the right thing. You should do the same thing again. Do not change,' " Father Duch said.
Father Duch said he believed Bishop Wuerl would be more interested in educating Catholic politicians about their faith than lobbying them on public policy.
"He would approach them more as a teacher, teaching them about what we believe. Then the politicians have to follow their own conscience, weighing what he is saying," Father Duch said.
A similar approach to communion to abortion-rights politicians two years ago by Cardinal McCarrick brought harsh criticism from Judie Brown of the American Life League.
While she said yesterday that she was "elated" by Bishop Wuerl's appointment, she nonetheless would be watching him closely.
"If it is true that he intends ... to do nothing about pro-abortion Catholic politicians, then we will be extremely disappointed. And he will know it," she said.
Cardinal McCarrick identified his successor as a consensus-builder.
"He is so balanced intellectually," the cardinal said. "He's a man who can hold the middle. And I think we have to hold the middle because if you hold the middle, you can reach out to both ends, and that's important. But if you're on one end, you're going to let the [other] end fall."
Bishop Wuerl has strong ties to Washington. He earned two degrees at the Catholic University of America in the 1960s and was a trustee of that school in the 1990s. He is often there on business for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Education Association, and he has a sister who lives outside the city.
He said he would work hard to bring more men into the priesthood and would reach out to disaffected Catholics. A new challenge will be Washington's substantial Hispanic population, many of whom are being wooed by Protestant churches.
Bishop Wuerl made remarks in Spanish during his prepared statement but later told a Spanish-language television reporter that he preferred to be interviewed in English until he had time to sharpen his fluency in Spanish.
Cardinal McCarrick is known as a stellar preacher who is popular with youth, and has a down-to-earth style with parishioners, priests and news media. Bishop Wuerl has a more introverted personality, and is a master of nuance in his public statements.
Yet in terms of where they stand on key issues, "this is a vote for continuity," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an observer of the U.S. hierarchy who was just appointed senior fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.
"[Bishop Wuerl] is very loyal to the pope. He's very orthodox, but he's not a cop. He's not going to come down like a ton of bricks on people. He's going to listen to people," he said.
George Weigel, senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington and a mainstream Catholic conservative, said he believed the new archbishop would be good for Washington.
"I think he's a man who can make the church's convictions make sense in terms that non-Catholics -- and less-than-fully-on-board Catholics -- can understand," Dr. Weigel said.
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, an outspoken Catholic who knows Bishop Wuerl well, said he expected him to keep a fairly low political profile.
"He understands the role of the church in a pluralistic, democratic society," he said.
"I don't think you're going to find the bishop weighing in to the political scene in a lot of ways. He never did in Pittsburgh, and I don't think he'll do so here, even though politics is the center of this town."
Washington is a "cardinalatial see," meaning its archbishop is expected to be named a cardinal. But that might not happen for several years, in part because the archdiocese will have two retired cardinals younger than 80 when Bishop Wuerl takes over June 22.
There was widespread speculation that during the last dozen years of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Bishop Wuerl had fallen out of favor with certain influential Vatican bureaucrats, Mr. Gibson said.
First Published May 17, 2006 12:00 am