Book helps decode post-conciliar Church in America

I’ll confess that when I received a copy of Mike Aquilina and Ann Rodgers’s new biography of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “Something More Pastoral: The Mission of Bishop, Archbishop, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl” (Lambing Press, $13.95), I opened the book immediately to the chapter on Cardinal Wuerl’s brief tenure as auxiliary bishop of Seattle in the 1980s. I’m old enough vividly to remember this extremely controversial moment in post-conciliar American Catholic history, when a young (45-year-old), newly ordained bishop was sent into the lion’s den. Many complaints had come forward regarding the governance of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, and then-Pope John Paul II determined that he would assign Wuerl as auxiliary bishop with authority in five key areas of archdiocesan life. To say that this move stirred opposition would be the understatement of the 20th century. Young Bishop Wuerl was pilloried as the conservative enforcer, the pope’s hammer, an agent of oppression. Things got so bad that he was assigned police protection when he went for his morning jog! But for years afterward, Bishop Wuerl had the reputation, around the country, for uncompromising conservatism.


Flash-forward to the last several years, the era of Pope Francis. Wuerl, now cardinal archbishop of Washington, is appreciated as one of the pope’s staunchest allies, a supporter of the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, an outspoken advocate of mercy, an opponent of the death penalty, and someone who does not favor adjudicating the moral status of politicians at the Communion rail. And all of this leads many in the Catholic blogosphere and commentariat to refer to him as a dangerous revolutionary, a liberal’s liberal. Whenever I come across these assessments, I smile: “Don’t they remember when ...?” What happened (or didn’t happen) to the conservative warrior of Seattle, to John Paul’s reactionary foot soldier? It is precisely this tension, this anomaly, that makes Cardinal Wuerl such an intriguing figure, indeed a sort of lens through which much of the post-conciliar Catholic Church in America is helpfully read. I believe that the signal virtue of the book under consideration is that it gives us considerable help in deciphering this riddle.

One of the most fundamental pieces of the puzzle is Donald Wuerl’s long and intimate friendship with Cardinal John Wright, one-time bishop of Wuerl’s home diocese of Pittsburgh and eventually prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome. In both of those incarnations, Wuerl served as Wright’s personal secretary, and at the older man’s side, the young apprentice absorbed many lessons. During the Second Vatican Council, Wright strongly supported the statement on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, which was seen by many at the time as a departure from the Church’s tradition. Further, he passionately urged that the Church take a clear stand against racism and for ecumenical dialogue. But when he came to head the Congregation for the Clergy, Wright saw the deleterious effects of many questionable ideas and movements that flourished in the post-conciliar Church, and he spoke out against them. Rodgers and Aquilina provide a well-chosen quote from Wright himself. When the prefect would hear of some innovation, whether married priesthood, permission for the use of contraceptives, or the notion that Jesus was nothing more than a good man from long ago and not the incarnate Son of God, he would respond, “I never heard that at the council!”

This opposition to some of the more extreme expressions of the post-conciliar confusion led many of Wright’s former supporters to revile him. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, characterized him as “a man whose beliefs are dangerous in the long run, because his actions and words demonstrate a harmful bias in favor of the institutional church ...” To this last accusation, Wright would undoubtedly reply, “Guilty as charged.” Wuerl explained that Wright taught him that the Church, properly understood, is infinitely more than an institution; rather, it is a living organism, the mystical body of Christ, from which follows the principle that, strictly speaking, it is impossible to love Jesus without loving his Church. It seems clear that Donald Wuerl absorbed this idea into his heart and bones. How could he have been a favorite of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, and how could he have followed them all with equal enthusiasm? Because he loved the Church and the successor of Peter who headed it. Being left or right mattered much less to him than being a man of the Church.

A second major piece of the puzzle is Cardinal Wuerl’s commitment to, as he put it, “consultation, collaboration and communication.” From the time of his sojourn in Seattle, no serious observer doubts that Cardinal Wuerl is clear and forthright when it comes to the teaching of the Church. Whether the issue is artificial contraception, capital punishment, the integrity of theological language in regard to God, or the existence of foundational moral principles, Cardinal Wuerl has taught what the Church teaches. At the same time, he has come to recognize that teaching, unaccompanied by a deep understanding of, and outreach to, those one wants to teach, will bear no real fruit. Accordingly, Wuerl has listened to those who disagree with the Church, and he has tried to communicate with them in a language that they are more likely to grasp — and with an attitude and style they might actually find engaging. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once told an assembly of seminarians that it is never enough simply to drop the truth on people; one must also be willing to walk with them and help them appropriate and integrate the truth that you have given them. Cardinal Wuerl understands that such care for the recipients of the Church’s message is not tantamount to wishy-washy indifferentism, as some fear; instead, it is an integral part of the process of evangelization.

Cardinal Wuerl attended seminary in Rome during Vatican II; he worked closely with one of the most significant American players at the highest levels of the Church; he took on the most challenging assignment given to an American bishop in the last 50 years; he very effectively governed the complex and struggling Diocese of Pittsburgh; he emerged as one of the leaders of the United States episcopal conference; finally, as archbishop of Washington, D.C., he has assumed the role of spokesman for the Pope Francis program in this country. And in all of it, he has held fast to the teaching of Catholicism, even as he found new ways to reach out to a contemporary audience. Attacked throughout his career from both left and right, he has embodied much of the richness and multivalence of the Vatican II consensus.

If you want a thorough exploration of this life as well as a sense of the texture of American Catholicism over the past half-century, you should savor “Something More Pastoral.”

Bishop Robert Barron writes from California.