The Wuerl Effect | Sojourners

The Wuerl Effect

Washington's Archbishop On Being a Witness to History
Illustration by JP Keenan/Sojourners. Images: Giulio Napolitano / Raul654, Shutterstock, Wuerl image: Public domain.

In papal conclaves, the secret meetings in the Sistine Chapel during which new popes are elected, the cardinals swear themselves to secrecy and bar the doors. No one is allowed in. But in 1978, when the cardinals convened for the second time in a year after the 33-day papacy of Pope John Paul I, there was one exception.

The priest Donald Wuerl, secretary to Cardinal John Wright, escorted the cardinal into the chapel in his wheelchair. Sworn to secrecy like the cardinals, but without a vote, Wuerl stayed with the ailing Wright throughout the conclave. The meeting concluded with the historic elevation of the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who honored his predecessor by taking the name Pope John Paul II.

In 2013, now a cardinal himself, Wuerl returned to the Sistine Chapel to participate in another historic election — that of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentinian Jesuit who took the name Pope Francis.

For one reason or another, Donald Wuerl has found himself present for many of the most important events in the Catholic Church in the past half-century: He was in Rome during Vatican II; he orchestrated a landmark diocesan reorganization in Pittsburgh; he anticipated — and battled — the Vatican over the clerical abuse crisis in the United States. With a career in which he has ended up in the right place at the right time over and over again, some might dismiss Wuerl as a climber. But his determination to follow his conscience on difficult issues — and empower others to do the same — shows that he has been searching for something deeper than prestige.


Pope Francis escorted by President Barack Obama,
greets Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl on Sept. 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews. Image: Public Domain.

Wuerl has been trying to guide his flock toward the heart of the Gospel, and in doing so, his ministry has become glue holding together major personalities and events through some of the Catholic Church’s most trying times in recent history. His public life says quite a lot about the man — and maybe even more about the Church to which he belongs.

Cardinal Wuerl submitted his letter of resignation in November, something required of all bishops when they turn 75 (a bishop who is named a “cardinal” is still a bishop; the cardinal title is an extra honor — with extra responsibilities). But he’s not quite finished yet.

“The pope hasn't accepted the resignation yet, so I'm not actually being measured for my leisure suit,” he told me. “We still have some work to do.”

When Cardinal Wuerl says “work,” he means it. Tales abound citing the cardinal’s inexhaustible energy, which may partially explain why he’s been at the heart of Catholic history in the past 50 years.

Yet his manner betrays no sense of hurry or fluster, even on the day I met him at the archdiocesan offices in Maryland, where four different staff members shuttled him between multiple interviews, briefing him as they readied him for a camera appearance and handing him a glass of water as they walked.

Wuerl speaks slowly, deliberately, softly. In fact, his speech pattern reminds me of the brothers of the Taizé monastery, where I lived while in France. Sitting with him, I briefly wondered if all Catholic religious leaders secretly take classes together in order to speak in an archetypally sage and monkish way.

Some questions must remain unanswered.

Pittsburgh: Early Innovation 

Wuerl, who is of Irish and German ancestry, grew up in blue-collar Pittsburgh. His father Francis worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the immediate post-World War II period, when Catholicism thrived in urban, immigrant-heavy industrial centers like Pittsburgh. In this way, Wuerl’s childhood was representative of much of Catholic life in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century.

Wuerl went from “playing Mass” with his siblings (he got to be the priest while his older brother “was always the one who was asked to be the server,” Wuerl told me) to eventually entering the priesthood. When Cardinal Wright was appointed to a post in Rome, Wuerl followed him as his secretary. Later, he was appointed auxiliary bishop in Seattle.

When he returned to his city as bishop in 1988 — the hometown boy who “made it” — Wuerl found a very different Pittsburgh and state of affairs in the Church. The collapse of the once-thriving steel industry, combined with migration to the suburbs, had left the diocese overextended. Beloved but nearly empty ethnic parishes stood just down the street from each other while the diocese was operating with a deficit over $3 million.

The new bishop promptly responded with an effort so successful that, as Vatican reporter David Gibson notes, it “is still studied as a model by many other dioceses that have had to follow a similar course.” He listened carefully to concerns, arriving at somewhat strange but ultimately successful solutions — like combining two parishes into one, but letting the newly formed parish keep both church buildings. This way, parishioners retained emotional attachment to their buildings and some autonomy over how to cut costs. In the end, parishes would often approach the diocese of their own accord and request to close one of the buildings.

It wasn’t the only early challenge Wuerl would face. In Something More Pastoral: The Mission of Bishop, Archbishop and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Ann Rodgers and Mike Aquilina write that Wuerl was faced with an accusation of child abuse by a priest in his own diocese within months of becoming bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988. His attorneys advised him not to meet with the accusers.

“You know what?” Wuerl replied.

“I’m their bishop. I’m their bishop and I need to respond to their pain.”

Wuerl met with the family at their home. The meeting changed him, according to his biographers: “I left them convinced I would never reassign a priest who had abused someone. They should never have a chance to do that again.” But a challenge to his resolution was brewing.

When a 19-year-old seminarian brought an accusation against a priest in the diocese, Wuerl questioned the accuser’s story — something he later regretted. But despite Wuerl’s skepticism, the priest, Father Anthony Cipolla, was sent for evaluation. A report then surfaced of a previous accusation against him from the ‘70s that had been withdrawn. Wuerl had Cipolla removed from ministry, but Cipolla’s appeal to the Vatican ended in his acquittal. They ordered Wuerl to return Cipolla to ministry. Wuerl demanded the Vatican reconsider, which was then an unheard-of act. Two years later, after he made multiple trips to Rome, the Vatican finally sided with Wuerl.

Spotlight, this year’s best picture winner at the Oscars, portrays the revelation of the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to protect children from abusive priests and its complicity in protecting abuser priests. At a time when numerous bishops failed to say, “we’re here” for children, that’s exactly what Wuerl did in Pittsburgh.

After such a bruising battle with the Church hierarchy, it appeared that any hope for Wuerl’s advancement was over. But when The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team broke the abuse story in 2002, Wuerl’s hard line against child abusing priests came to be seen in a new light. Not only had he stood up to his superiors in order to protect children, he also led the fight in the bishops’ conference to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for child abuse.

Wuerl’s early leadership in Pittsburgh combined two things that most leaders struggle to put together: a vision for dramatic reform, and the humility to bring others into the process. But when it mattered most — when the safety of children was at stake — Wuerl had no time for compromises or gradual reform. He acted swiftly and unilaterally, even at great danger to his career prospects.

The balancing act Wuerl has pulled over the years is remarkable. While respected for his ability to bring everyone to the table and make sure that every voice is heard, he does not allow the search for consensus to dilute his own moral vision.

Archbishop: Between Francis and Benedict

Wuerl’s carefully measured tone seems to clash with Pope Francis’ propensity to make headlines by means of one-liners and zingers. Appearances aside, their approaches might in fact not so much clash as complement — Wuerl’s steady bass line backing up the sometimes daring melody of Francis’ papacy. After all, both men are in pursuit of the same thing: “something more pastoral,” a phrase Wuerl used when asking Pope John Paul II to let him leave Rome to go back to the U.S. as a parish priest. Once, when talking to inmates at Allegheny County Jail, Wuerl told them that when looking at paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion, one never sees the prisoners he died with.

“I thought I would like to remedy that by spending time with you,” he said, according to Rodgers and Aquilina. Wuerl’s hope for “something more pastoral” finds its answer in Pope Francis’ style of embrace.

While Wuerl (who received the cardinal’s red hat from Pope Benedict in 2010) has been an outspoken defender of Pope Francis against conservative critics, in certain ways he looks more like Francis’ predecessor: circumspect, well dressed, speaking in measured tones, friendly but not effusive.

Washington: Religion and Politics

If Wuerl thought spearheading the reorganization of a diocese and confronting the Vatican over child-abusing priests would be the most politically sensitive job he’d have, that illusion was dispelled in 2006 when he was appointed archbishop of Washington, D.C.


Pope Francis with church and congressional leaders on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.
Wuerl on far right. Image: Public Domain.

“Here, everything is interpreted politically. So you have to be so alert,” he told me.

It’s the hardest part of being archbishop in the nation’s capital, he said.

“The archbishop always has to be seen as a pastor, not a partisan politician.”

Like Benedict, who famously decried the secular world’s intolerance for religion as “a dictatorship of relativism,” Wuerl is deeply concerned with the spread of secularism and the accompanying threat to religious freedom.

“The secular view — it has every right to express itself, but what it doesn't have a right to do is claim it's the only view,” Wuerl said. “And I think that's the challenge we're seeing today: the hegemony of the secular position and the relativism that's at the root of it, saying, ‘Your position now is no longer acceptable.’”

In what was perhaps a reference to the contraception case, Zubik v. Burwell, argued before the Supreme Court in late March, Wuerl continued:

“The challenge to religious faith is becoming the challenge to be able to speak it. Because the politically correct current is saying, ‘That's discriminating. If you say this or that or some other thing out of your faith conviction, it's a form of discrimination, because we hold a different position.’ That's going to be the challenge. That's why there are so many institutions right now in court, fighting for what was always a part of our heritage: the first freedom, religious freedom.”

Calling religious freedom “the first freedom” is no mere rhetorical flourish. In Zubik v. Burwell, opposing freedoms are at stake. The plaintiffs, who include Wuerl’s Archdiocese of Washington, argue that the religious exemption in the Affordable Care Act — which requires them to sign a waiver so that they don’t have to subsidize contraception for their employees — still makes them complicit in providing birth control, since signing the waiver “triggers” employees’ access to it directly from the health insurance company.

Wuerl believes Zubik v. Burwell is not just an argument about contraception. It may very well help decide whether religious freedom really is the United States’ “first freedom,” a freedom that transcends all others.

Individual Conscience, Not Culture War

Wuerl is hardly a traditional culture warrior. In 2004, some Catholic bishops argued that because of his pro-choice views, then-presidential candidate John Kerry should be denied Communion. As Rodgers and Aquilina relate, Wuerl, who can be reluctant to publicly campaign on divisive issues, spoke out in opposition.

“All of a sudden we were faced with the fact that politicians were being refused Communion, and we were being told that it was something we should all be doing,” Wuerl said. “But that was never part of the American tradition … It has never been the responsibility of the priest or the bishop distributing Communion to judge the conscience of the person coming up in line. I don’t know how you can do that.”


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Cardinal Donald William Wuerl after they bid
farewell to Pope Francis at Joint Base Andrews on Sept. 24, 2015. Image: Public Domain.

“Individual conscience” is something of a theme for Wuerl. The two-part Synod on the Family, a Vatican meeting of bishops in 2014 and in 2015 to discuss Catholic family life, featured an unresolved discussion of the state of divorced and remarried Catholics, who under current Church teaching are not permitted to receive Communion. Pope Francis is due to publish The Joy of Love, his summary of the Synod, on April 8, and many are wondering if the pope will settle the question in some way.

“I'm not sure that there's something to be settled, as there is something to be lived pastorally,” Wuerl said, channeling all of the smiling ambiguity — delightful to some and infuriating to others — that Pope Francis, too, has become known for.

But he went on to clarify that reception of Communion is a separate issue from remarriage. In the end, “You make a judgment about the state of your soul; your conscience makes a judgment, in light of the teaching.”

He continued: “This document I don't think is going to start with: This is the only way you can live as a part of the Christian community. I think it's going to say: This is the beautiful vision and many people live it, but for those that are having trouble with it, you're still part of the family, and we're here.”

We’re here. The phrase doesn’t answer the question of what will happen — Wuerl himself doesn’t really know at this point — but it underlines Wuerl’s approach whenever the Church encounters difficulty.


When Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned in 2013, Wuerl had been named a cardinal, this time giving him a vote at the papal conclave.

Before the meeting, Wuerl lobbied for extended coffee breaks during the conclave, according to Something More Pastoral. It seems like a strange request, especially for someone with as rigorous a work ethic as Wuerl. But he wanted it, he told Rogers and Aquilina, because coffee breaks are the time that you talk and find middle ground. For someone like Wuerl, who prefers private discussion over political grandstanding, those times are crucial. And for however much longer Wuerl has left until Pope Francis accepts his letter of resignation, this Cardinal of the Coffee Break will have to “hold the middle” as much as possible on divisive issues. It’s a task that his emphasis on careful listening and consensus building is well suited for. But his impact on the Catholic Church is bound to endure beyond his tenure, especially because of his role on the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, the body that selects priests to become bishops. By selecting Wuerl for the Congregation, Pope Francis empowered him to begin refashioning the Church into one concerned more with the pastoral concerns the two already share, something that, for example, the appointment of Blase Cupich as archbishop of Chicago confirms.

But ultimately, it’s not Wuerl’s church — and for that, he is thankful.

“They say that Pope John XXIII would say at the end of the day, ‘Well Lord, it's your church, and I'm going to bed.’ There's a certain sense in which you have to believe that,” Wuerl told me.

“That's also the reason why you work so hard. When you realize this is the body of Christ, the church is the body of Christ, the presence of Jesus Christ in the world — of course you're going to do your best, and of course you're going to work as long and as hard as you can, and when it's all done at the end of the day, you can say, ‘It's your church, I did my best.’”

Pope John XXIII is now a saint — he was canonized at the same time as Pope John Paul II. I asked Wuerl if he ever dreamed of being canonized.

“No,” he said, saying that as a boy, the saints seemed too distant in time — they weren’t an example he could ever emulate.

“And then, it came, the canonization of saints much closer to our time, and then you realized, you really are called to be the best disciple of Jesus you can be.”

Wuerl thinks back to his time in seminary. Much less a life of holiness, he couldn’t even believe that he was worthy of ministry.

“I said to the spiritual director, ‘I'm really having some doubts about being here, because I just can't imagine myself being worthy of being a priest,’ and [the spiritual director] said, ‘Nobody can. It's not that you're worthy of being a priest, it's that God calls you, and Jesus asks you to do your best.’

“And that's at the heart of holiness.”

If Cardinal Wuerl has found himself at the heart of contemporary Catholic history, it hasn’t been on purpose. He’s been searching, from Mass to committee meeting, from fundraising event to coffee break, to get to the heart of something else.

Editor's Note: In 2018 a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report detailing rampant abuse in the Church over a period of 70 years, including during Cardinal Wuerl's tenure. In October 2018, Pope Francis accepted his resignation. 

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