Thursday, May 07, 2009

To Burke's YouTube, Wuerl's "You Face"

Three years ago this month, Pope Benedict's reshaping of the American hierarchy in his own image began with the appointment of the "famously mild" Donald Wuerl -- theologian, Curial veteran, conference man and "education bishop" -- to the archbishopric of Washington, the hottest seat of the Stateside church's political crucible.

It was no accident -- according to several reports, the pontiff tapped Wuerl on his own initiative, declining the recommendation forwarded to him by the Congregation for Bishops. And from the first, the move was seen as both a building upon the game-changing legacy of his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who redefined the post, leveraging its voice beyond the capital to unprecedented effect, and a contrast of style from the omnipresent verve Wuerl's New York-bred predecessor brought to the city's political and social scenes.

Yet despite their marked differences in personality, both DC archbishops have taken heat in recent years for serving in turn as the lead voice of the majority of the American bench opposed to public denial of the Eucharist to those politicians whose platforms don't square with definitive church teaching.

While McCarrick faced scornful criticism from rank-and-file anti-abortion activists over his stance, the tensions escalated earlier this year when Wuerl -- who, as bishop of Pittsburgh, penned a widely-circulated treatise on the question during its first outbreak in 2004 campaigns -- seemed to be squarely in the sights of Archbishop Raymond Burke as, in a videotaped interview shown at a Washington press conference, the church's "chief justice" insisted that Canon 915 (the law that those "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion") be universally, uncompromisingly applied by diocesan bishops.

Within 24 hours of the video's airing, Burke retreated, apologizing for the "confusion and hurt" that, as he described it, his words were "used as part of a campaign of severe criticism of certain fellow bishops," adding that the comments were not given in his capacity as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court.

Now, however, with the former St Louis archbishop slated to give the highly-awaited keynote at tomorrow morning's National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Wuerl's archdiocese, a conspicuously-timed interview sees the DC prelate hitting back in his strongest language yet at what PoliticsDaily's Melinda Henneberger calls the "whole game of Who's More Catholic?"

Emphases original:
"There's always been a certain amount of [infighting]," Wuerl said, "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 [915]'' – 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."...

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.''
Speaking of tomorrow's breakfast -- a favorite of church conservatives that became a standing appointment for former President Bush -- Wuerl gave the keynote at the 2007 nosh in the presence of the 43rd Commander-in-Chief.

Keeping with his standard practice since, however, the capital's chief shepherd won't be attending the early-morning event.

PHOTO: AP/Steve Ruark