Back in 2004, Roman Catholic Bishop Donald Wuerl traveled often to Rome to work with the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, led at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Both were scholars, both were of German decent, and they worked well together. Two years later, after Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, he appointed Wuerl archbishop of Washington, D.C., a post considered by many the de facto Vatican spokesman position in the United States.
Wuerl was well placed for the position. Having led the Pittsburgh diocese for 21 years, he rescued its parishes from a $2 million deficit and wrote a book on Catholic teachings that became a best-seller. He was lauded for his strong record in fighting to remove priests involved in the church's sexual abuse scandals. Compared to the populist personas of their predecessors, Benedict and Wuerl are both considered traditionalists who hold conservative views on Catholic doctrine and emphasize the importance of teaching to confront new challenges like dwindling church attendance and the dilution of social teachings.
Just days before the pontiff's arrival in America, Wuerl invited NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone and Eve Conant for a rare interview inside his home—a renovated church attic—to discuss the challenges facing the Catholic Church in America, Wuerl's relationship with the pope and his expectations for the upcoming trip. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You first met Ratzinger in 1985, but just now you mentioned you had an interesting interaction with him soon after he became pope.
Archbishop Donald Wuerl: This was back in 2005 in January, when he was still Prefect of the Congregation. He was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I was in Rome for some work that had to do with a number of things. One of the items was at his congregation, and in the course of the work he looked in to see how everything was going, offer words of encouragement. We were delighted. And off he went. Who would have thought that several months later that he would be pope. [Five months later] I went over to the general audience and stood in line with the other bishops to say hello to him. And when I went up to greet him, he said, "Did you ever finish that project?" [Laughs] I was very complimented that he even remembered, but he seemed genuinely interested in what he set out to do.
And you replied?
I said, "Uhhh, we're working on it."
Because you hadn't finished, had you?
Well, it was a work in progress.
He obviously thinks very highly of you, having elevated you from your diocese in Pittsburgh. Do you think you line up with him theologically more than you did with Pope John Paul II?
I'm just so impressed by the way this Holy Father goes about his ministry. I like to think that I try in my own small way to reflect that. He does put a lot of emphasis on teaching. I find that this Holy Father speaks out of the same great tradition that we bishops all speak out of. I just feel very comforted by what he's saying, by the way he presents the teaching. And that's not in contrast with his predecessor; it's really in continuity with his predecessor. I think one of the things that we probably could all recognize is Pope Benedict is the logical successor to Pope John Paul II.
Because they both have this ability to look at the faith, analyze the current situation and then find ways to apply the faith to the circumstances of today. And maybe that accounts for these huge crowds of people coming down to St. Peter's Square. I'm told there are more people coming to St. Peter's Square and to the audience hall to hear this pope than any pope in history.
You upset the [U.S.] bishops when you first came to D.C. and said you would not deny communion to pro-choice politicians.
I'm not sure about that. I think there are some people who have their own views on that. But what I said was—and this is what the bishops said too—when it comes to the matter of communion, there are a lot of pastoral approaches and bishops can differ on that. And they do. There's no one correct way that everybody has to follow, but there are a number of pastoral approaches to how do you bring people to understand what their obligations to the faith are. The task of the bishops is to help people understand what it is we believe and what the implications of our faith are, and out of that will come their decisions, their right decisions. You can't force people.
Statistics show a good number of Catholics in the U.S. don't believe you have to follow the guidelines issued from the Vatican. For example, 75 percent believe you can be a good Catholic without obeying church teaching on birth control. How do you confront that mismatch between people who say they're Catholics and identify with the core beliefs of Catholicism but distance themselves from the social teachings of the church?
I think that's been the case from the very beginning of the church. The church has always proclaimed Christ has risen—that's the heart of our proclamation. With that comes a way of seeing life and therefore a way of acting. I think there are many people who struggle with living out their faith. And that's a reflection on our need to teach and the need of the Catholic faithful to accept more fully the challenge of the faith.
Another [survey] states that 76 percent of Americans believe you can be a good Catholic without going to church on Sunday.
It's one of the reasons why the number one priority of the Conference of Bishops in the U.S., when we were asked, all of us together, what would you highlight as the number one priority of the church in the United States for the next five years, we said faith formation.
And what does that mean?
Educating people in the faith, faith formation particularly around the sacraments. It means helping people understand better what the faith actually means and how we live it. We come to mass, for example, because we believe in the mass, in the Eucharist. We're not only hearing the proclamation of the faith, but we're being changed, transformed by it. Now that's not an easy concept for our culture to deal with, because it brings us into the whole world of sacraments, of supernatural or spiritual world that you can't measure in a quantifiable way. There's a lot of Catholics who don't understand the faith because of that, and for that reason don't live it in all the aspects.
A good number of people just refer to themselves as bad Catholics. Is there such a thing?
I would never call people struggling with their faith bad Catholics. What I would say is that they're Catholics very much caught up in this highly secular world that's very caught up in the here and now. It's the world in which they live, because it's the world in which all of us live. And they have come out of a background where they were not fully catechized, not fully instructed in their faith. If we talk about people in their 30s today, those are the ones who the church regards as not fully catechized. If you look back at elementary schools in the '70s and '80s, well, we're not playing catch-up ball because we dropped the ball in too many instances in the '70s and '80s when we should have been helping these now young-adult Catholics get an understanding of the faith. We didn't do a very good job. We've spent an enormous amount of time in the past 10 years just working with publishers just to redo all the catechism texts that were defective that lacked the substance of the faith.
Why was that? Were the books changed in the '70s?
Yes. That whole time of social ferment, upheaval. It was happening in the church as well as the society.
There's some concern that Pope Benedict might be stricter than Pope John Paul II in terms of keeping Catholic universities in line.
You have to remember, and this is important: what a Catholic university announces with its very name is that this institutionally reflects our Catholic heritage. So when you come onto that campus, you should expect to hear the faith echoed in the theology classrooms that are talking about the Catholic faith. You should expect on campus a milieu reflective of Catholic ethics and morality, and you should be able to access your faith support system: the sacraments, a campus ministry that's there for you. So there is a big difference between a Catholic college or university and a secular one.
What about academic freedom? Universities tend to be hotbeds of discussion, ideals and thinking.
And [they] should be. A Catholic university provides for the church what secular universities provide for culture. It's the context in which you do that. That's always been a part of our American tradition. You contextualize, you provide a forum and discussion for the debate. You wouldn't want to exclude that. I believe that's where the Catholic identity of the university provides richness for the whole debate … Let me give you an example. In a theology class the teaching of the church is normative for Catholic theology. It would be parallel to a law school: the judgments of the Supreme Court are normative for good law. You couldn't have a good law class where the professor said, "I'm going to teach you what I think the Supreme Court should have said, so forget about all these rulings, because I'll teach you what the law should be." I think after a while the university would say, "We need to shape up this law school."
What do you think the pope is going to say to the collection of Catholic educators who are obviously very concerned about this?
I think he's going to affirm the work of Catholic universities all over this country. Remember, we here have the largest number and largest percentage of Catholic universities in the world. I think this is a great tribute to the vitality of the church. I think he's going to point out words of encouragement and highlight that there are efforts to refocus on our Catholic identity and our Catholic mission, and then I think he could say words of challenge, to say, "Are you doing this as well and effectively as you should?"
How heavily do you think the sexual abuse scandals of this past decade will overshadow his visit?
When you think that all happened, we're talking about something that came to the surface as a very public event, but happened years ago and in many cases had been resolved—the priest had been out of ministry. I think where we are today is, we have to look at what the Catholic Church has done in the past five years. I don't think there's any institution on this planet that can say it has done as much to ensure the safety of children entrusted to its care. We have all sorts of programs—the safe environment programs. I think the church recognized that some terrible mistakes were made, but then began to address them in a way that was admirable, extremely admirable. In fact, exemplary. How it has addressed the outreach and care of people that were victimized, how it has removed from ministry anyone engaged in that and how it's provided this system of accountability—these audits that are reviewed by an external group. And then all of the programs we have to see that anyone working with youngsters today in schools, parishes, education programs, they have to go through an enormous check.
So in your opinion the church has addressed the issue fully?
Oh, yes. I think so. We do a study every year, and we make it public. If there's any new accusation, it's usually about a case from 20 to 30 years ago.
Your schedule is packed, but you are known to be a sportsman. We've read that you swim at least 50 laps a day.
I used to. I don't really have access to a pool like I used to.
If you're tapped for further promotion—as has traditionally happened with your position—you could become a cardinal. Then you won't swim at all.
Well, you can't have everything in life.
Of course, that would put you in line for a potential papal election, too.
Well, I don't want to look that far down the road. I have enough trouble just balancing tomorrow's schedule.
You pointed out this ivory crucifix on your wall. What is its history?
This is probably an 18th-century ivory crucifix, and I found it in a flea market in Rome. I needed something to put it on and they had just finished redoing all the papal apartments in the Vatican. This was the damask that had hung on the walls in the study under John XXIII and Pius XII. So I asked if I could have a piece, and that's the background. It has been with me ever since.