Wuerl draws spotlight over stand on gay marriage
Three years after he left Pittsburgh, Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., faces a harsh glare from the capital's media as he seeks a broad religious exemption to a proposed city same-sex marriage law.
Without such an exemption, he has warned, Catholic Charities will stop accepting city money so it won't be required to offer employment benefits and adoption services to same-sex couples.
His stand surprised some Washingtonians, but it's deja vu for Pittsburghers. The Mount Washington native, who was bishop here for 18 years, won a similar showdown with Pittsburgh City Council months after his 1988 installation. Two years before that he received scorching national news coverage as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle. He says he can still take the heat.
"I guess the lining of my clerical vesture is asbestos," he said.
In 1988 he sought changes to a proposed gay-rights bill in Pittsburgh that he said would force faith groups to hire workers who led lifestyles in conflict with their teaching. That bill failed, but two years later he did not oppose a version with religious-neutrality language. That bill passed, despite continued opposition from some Protestants.
He wants a similar compromise in Washington. But that city lacks Pittsburgh's Catholic culture. Washington is perhaps 20 percent Catholic, while Pittsburgh is about 60 percent.
"The Catholicism of Pittsburgh is wrapped into the city's broader identity. ... None of that is true in D.C.," said Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute at UCLA, a gay-rights think tank.
The leading clergy in Washington is black Protestants, many of whom opposed this bill before the archbishop joined them.
"We urged him to get involved in the battle," said the Rev. Patrick Walker, pastor of The New Macedonia Baptist Church and chairman of the task force on same-sex marriage for the metro area's Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference.
Catholics "are able to hold the council's feet to the fire because of their contracts. My church doesn't have large contracts with the city, but what I think we can hold over their head are votes."
Archbishop Wuerl said that as soon as the draft became public, he called the councilman who authored it.
"I said I hoped we would be able to address the needs of everybody involved and to do so in a way that demonstrated the civility that should mark political discourse," Archbishop Wuerl said.
He said that was derailed by headlines accusing him of issuing ultimatums that threatened the poor. A take-no-prisoners political culture sets Washington apart from Pittsburgh, he said.
"I always found that, even in disagreement, in Pittsburgh there was always a high level of personal respect. It's not as evident here," he said.
During the gay-rights dispute in Pittsburgh, he said, he met with gay activists in his office.
"It didn't turn into some kind of uncivil confrontation," he said. "I gave them the reasons why we thought there should be an exemption, they disagreed and everybody went their way. ... I don't think they felt the need to distort what we were saying."
Last week, when a key lobbyist for same-sex marriage was asked about the archbishop's stand, Michael Crawford said he "came out with the statement that they'd be unable to continue social services to the poor if we ended discrimination against gay and lesbian families."
Questioned on the accuracy of that summary, he quickly revised it to "they said they won't accept city money." Either way, he doubts the council will compromise.
Some clergy support the bill, including Dennis and Christine Wiley, co-pastors of Covenant Baptist Church, and members of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage. The archbishop should have engaged months earlier if he wanted to make an impact, Dennis Wiley said.
"To me it seemed like it was 11th hour," he said.
The bill won a preliminary vote, 11-2, on Tuesday.
Religious conservatives aren't alone in expressing concern about D.C. government's intrusion into religious matters. A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union urged stronger religious protections to withstand litigation. Six constitutional scholars submitted a draft exemption modeled on same-sex marriage laws in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut. The archdiocese did likewise.
The bill's supporters say the archbishop should compromise as the Archdiocese of San Francisco did on domestic partnerships in 1997. While it wouldn't explicitly offer benefits to same-sex partners, the church offered them to a second adult in the household, regardless of relationship.
But Archbishop Wuerl said the San Francisco bill didn't create a theological obstacle by redefining marriage.
"The struggle today is for the church to sustain religious liberty," he said. "If you're talking about legal arrangements and sharing benefits, I think you can find a way to make that work. But when you must redefine marriage, we have to say we can't. You have to make room for us to define marriage as it has always been defined."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center who studies the Catholic hierarchy, said the archbishop has been restrained in his comments.
"He isn't going on the talk shows and making a big deal of it. That's both a plus and a minus. He's not pouring gasoline on the controversy, but he's losing the spin game," he said.
"The first presentation of this in the media was that the mean, homophobic Catholic archbishop threatens to starve little children because the city council wants equality for gays, rather than pointing out that it's the city council that is changing the rules and threatening these programs."
Since then, the archbishop has written a column for the Washington Post. The Post, which supports same-sex marriage, ran an editorial scolding the city council for "complacency" about its ability to replace Catholic Charities. They "ought to be able to find a way to ... to satisfy fairness without offending church principles," it said.
The archdiocese insists it isn't threatening to abandon the poor. "We will continue serving and seek more resources if we are restricted from working with the city," said Susan Gibbs, the archdiocesan spokeswoman.
But Catholic Charities gets $22 million of its $52 million budget from city contracts. While it will seek other funding if it loses city contracts, "realistically, we see no possibility that we would be able to continue services as they are," said Ed Orzechoski, president and CEO of Catholic Charities.
"We remain very hopeful that the negotiations with members of the DC council will lead to a resolution."
The issue has obscured the archbishop's nuanced history with gay Catholics.
He became a bishop in 1986 when Pope John Paul II made him an auxiliary bishop with unprecedented powers. He dispatched him to Seattle, where the pope believed the archbishop had failed to address dissent on matters including homosexuality. The major news media swarmed Seattle to cover an ensuing rebellion among Seattle clergy.
But he never stopped the Masses for Seattle's gay Catholics. In Pittsburgh he resisted calls to denounce a group for gay Catholics, New Ways Ministry, when it held its national symposium in a Pittsburgh hotel. New Ways is based in the Archdiocese of Washington, where it had been denounced or ignored by previous administrations.
After writing to the new archbishop, New Ways Executive Director Francis DeBernardo was invited to meet with one of his top aides. "We saw it as the first opening in the Archdiocese of Washington for a more sensitive approach to gay and lesbian ministry," Mr. DeBernardo said.
He was later dismayed by what he called a "hardball" approach to city council. But he appreciated a letter that the archbishop wrote to gay Catholics, acknowledging that church teaching on marriage "may be difficult" and inviting them into parish life.
"His admission that the teaching is difficult is remarkable," Mr. DeBernardo said. "No other bishop I know of has admitted that. Most just assume that the reason people disagree is due to stubbornness."
The archbishop is puzzled that some Washingtonians don't view him as active in public concerns. Within a month of his installation he wrote columns for the archdiocesan newspaper explaining church opposition to embryonic stem cell research. He has joined Maryland bishops in speaking against the death penalty and addressed the Council on Foreign Affairs about world peace. He wrote for politicsdaily.com, endorsing health-care reform but saying it must include all immigrants and exclude federal funding of abortion.
"I was surprised by a recent article saying that the archbishop hasn't been that involved politically. I think what they meant to say is that the archbishop hasn't been lobbying politicians," Archbishop Wuerl said. "I don't mind talking privately to a politician about issues, but I don't lobby. I teach."
Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., recalled Archbishop Wuerl's popularity in Pittsburgh -- based on the cheers and waves he got in Labor Day parades -- and said the archbishop is "a wonderful guy, a great spiritual leader and someone I admire greatly." Since Archbishop Wuerl arrived in D.C., Mr. Casey said he has spoken with him a couple of times about faith and family, but not politics.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, said that in Pittsburgh he could talk easily with Bishop Wuerl even when they disagreed. But he hasn't heard from him in Washington.
His style in Pittsburgh was "to pull you aside quietly and have a conversation with you and get his point across, but to do so in a manner that wouldn't be embarrassing," Mr. Doyle said.
That has led to denunciations from the Catholic right, of the sort that can cause bishops problems in Rome. As he did in Pittsburgh, the archbishop has said that Catholic legislators who support legal abortion should refrain from communion, but he won't tell his priests to withhold the sacrament. Communion isn't a political "weapon," he said.
The archbishop's stand took the heat off pastors, said Monsignor Ronald Jameson, rector of St. Matthew Cathedral, four blocks from the White House.
"We don't have to guess what he wants," he said.
"It's not easy being a teacher in the nation's capital, but he's never flinched from it. That's what he's doing now, explaining what marriage means."
First Published December 6, 2009 12:00 am