According to his critics, Archbishop Donald Wuerl
of Washington is insufficiently outraged – chronically, and on multiple fronts. The latest complaint is that he's not exactly apoplectic
over President Obama's upcoming commencement address at Notre Dame. (He doesn't think a Catholic university ought to honor a pro-choice politician, but doesn't see disinviting him, either.)
During the more than two years that Nancy Pelosi has been Speaker of the House, Wuerl has been under constant pressure
to bar her from receiving Communion
. Why, he was asked
recently, can't he be more like that nice Raymond Burke
, who as archbishop of St. Louis told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
that unless she fell in line on abortion, she couldn't join the Communion line on Sunday?
Instead of following Burke's example, Wuerl wrote a relatively pointed editorial
, published in the diocesan newspaper a couple of months back, calling a halt to the whole game of Who's More Catholic
? "Incrimination of others has become a hallmark among some groups and individuals in the Catholic Church in our country today,'' he wrote. But "the intensity of one's opinion is not the same as the truth. Speaking out of anger does not justify falsehood.''
So how did we get here, anyway, with the peace-and-justice Catholic faction I'm more in line with so permanently at odds with the Church of the Republican Party? Is the polarization really any worse now than it's been at any other time since Vatican II
? And is there any way out of this standoff? In an hourlong interview in the pastoral center where he works, Wuerl talked about why he thinks we've gotten angrier, and way more inclined to vent.
I hadn't met Wuerl before, and much like his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
, he's a gentle presence, which I guess is part of the knock against him. As family fights go, I ask him, is this one more intense now than at any time in the last oh, 45 years?
He thinks it is: "There's always been a certain amount of that, but the polarization in our culture seems to flow into our Church. It's the society in which we live – it's so easy to be anonymous. We have websites, YouTube and You Face'' – Facebook, I think he means – "so people can unburden themselves.''
On the question of who should and should not be allowed to receive Communion, people are all too happy to be quoted by name, aren't they?
Sure, he says, because this is also "an age of polemicists'' who "seem to think they're not bound by the commandment, 'You shall not bear false witness.' The glorification of pundits contributes'' to a world in which "you're not bound by the rules of decency.''
He's beyond sorry to see Communion wielded as a weapon: "That's the new way now to make your point. We never – the Church just didn't use Communion this way. It wasn't a part of the way we do things, and it wasn't a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it; the challenge has always been to convince people.'' Whereas sanctioning them, in his view, has the opposite effect.
For bishops, "there are two different approaches'' to bring Catholic politicians in line with Church teaching. "One is the pastoral, teaching mode, and the other is the canonical approach'' – the legal approach, in other words. He doesn't think it's a very close call: "I have yet to see where the canonical approach has changed anyone's heart.''
Has he seen his approach change anyone's heart? He smiles, and says one has to take the long view: "The teaching approach that we've used for centuries requires patience, persistence and insistence, but I believe if we teach our people, we will not have a problem with our politicians.''
Of Pelosi in particular, he cites two big reasons he hasn't and won't try to keep her from receiving Communion:
First, "there's a question about whether this canon'' – the relevant church law – "was ever intended to be used'' to bring politicians to heel. He thinks not. "I stand with the great majority of American bishops and bishops around the world in saying this canon was never intended to be used this way.''
And second? Pelosi, as a San Franciscan, "isn't part of my flock!''
Moving on to the issue of embryonic stem cell research, I wonder if Obama's position is really all that different from Bush's. Though Obama has loosened restrictions on federally funded research, he hasn't done away with them, and Bush, too, allowed a limited amount of study. So is the difference really quantitative rather than qualitative? No, Wuerl says, it isn't, in part because the terms of the stem-cell debate have been set by the conversation over abortion.
Is that conversation ever going to get us anywhere?
"I would hope that with quiet, articulate persuasion, hearts can be changed. When we were growing up, one way we knew to pay attention was when my father spoke very softly and slowly; then we knew we were in trouble.''
I tell him that in my own experience, that hasn't worked at all; no matter how mildly or respectfully expressed, my pro-life views only infuriate my fellow liberals, who literally can't hear me when I talk about abortion. Meanwhile, I can't fathom why the party of science – my party, in all other regards – maintains that it's only a baby if and when we say it's a baby.
"Oh, I think we've been making progress,'' Wuerl assures me. "There was just a setback with the distraction of Communion. But sonograms are an enormous support. I still remember the day I got the call from our niece and she said, 'We just saw our baby!' She called me on my cell phone, which is really supposed to be for emergencies. But back to what we said earlier, [proponents of abortion rights] have to keep the child anonymous. The party of science also couldn't bring itself to recognize that an embryo is the beginning of human life.''
What most worries him about Obama's shift on stem cell research, he says, is "the perception that this administration is moving us to a point where people who conscientiously object to taking human life'' might lose their jobs in clinics and hospitals as a result. That's a fear expressed by opponents of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate restrictions on abortion and might – or might not – force pro-life heath care workers to choose between their jobs and their beliefs.
Only, FOCA has zero chance of passing, or even being introduced, doesn't it? Wuerl strongly disagrees, closing his eyes and tapping his finger on the conference table in front of him as he argues, "FOCA will probably be passed, but not using the name FOCA. It will be repackaged so it will have a new name, and they'll do it step by step.
Wasn't it Huey Long who, when asked whether Fascism would come to America, said, "Of course not. But when it does, it will be called the Fight against Fascism.''
He also disagrees when I equate Notre Dame's invitation to pro-choice Obama to its past invitations to George W. Bush, as enthusiastic a proponent of capital punishment as is possible to find, or to Ronald Reagan only a few months after the murder of Catholic nuns by Salvadoran death squads funded by the government his administration was supporting.
"The big difference is that abortion is the defining issue of this generation," Wuerl says. "Those other situations you're talking about could have gone either way. On the death penalty, the church has said it's not necessary, but it hasn't said it's intrinsic evil.''
Then the famously mild Wuerl goes all fire and brimstone on me – in his smiling, bookish way: "In his circles of Hell, Dante places the people with sins of passion at the very brim – barely burned. But at the core are those who sinned against the truth.''
And circling back to where we began, he says he sees a lot of sinning against the truth in our squabbling over who is and is not fit to call himself a Catholic. Yet in the very long run, he remains optimistic, both as a Catholic and as an American: "One of the best parts of our nation is if we're left to struggle with an issue long enough, we'll get it right. The truth wins; you just have to wait a long time, and that's why the Catholic Church feels so comfortable preaching and teaching, preaching and teaching, preaching and teaching...We're in it for the long haul.''