The National Catholic Review

Cardinal Donald Wuerl has flatly denied the allegations by some of his fellow cardinals and bishops that the fathers attending the synod are “somehow” being manipulated by the pope and the synod structure that Francis approved. He wonders whether the underlying reason why they are suggesting or saying such things is because “they just don’t like this pope,” and find the church that he is calling for “somewhat threatening.”

In this interview with America on Oct. 18,  the cardinal archbishop of Washington charged that a number of his brother cardinals and bishops have their own position and think that some questions now on the synod agenda should not even be discussed.  He said some of these people “are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around” and in this way they have "tainted" the synod process in the public eye with their groundless allegations of manipulation, and so cast a cloud over its outcome.

Cardinal Wuerl has a long experience of synods, having attended seven as a bishop and having served as general rapporteur at one. He is known as a man of great equilibrium, patience and wisdom and, not surprisingly, Pope Francis appointed him as one of the 10 members of the special commission he established to draft the final synod document.

Given all this background, Cardinal Wuerl is well positioned to judge the present synod process and, in this interview, he categorically states that he hasn’t seen even the slightest hint of manipulation at this synod. On the contrary, he says, the bishops have greater freedom than ever before to speak their mind and have more time than in any of the past synods to discuss the issues in depth in the small language groups.

Cardinal Wuerl said, “there are always people who are unhappy with something that is going on in the church, but the touchstone of authentic Catholicism is adherence to the teaching of the pope.”    

Three articles have been published in recent days: Archbishop Chaput, writing in the Wall Street Journal, expresses "anxiety" about the synod’s outcome, Alexander Stille in the New Yorker predicts the synod will be "a failure" for the pope, while the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat detects "a plot" to subvert Catholicism. And even before all this happened, a letter to the pope from 13 cardinals—among them Di Nardo and Dolan—was leaked to the press and has, perhaps, ignited some of the suspicion and suggestions of a manipulated synod. How do you respond to all this?
My read of the synod, apart from what other people are saying about it, is that what we have is a very real effort on the part of the Holy Father and of the synod structure to allow the bishops to come together and to speak very openly and very clearly about whatever they think needs to be said. And that should take place in the synod hall. 

Then the processwhich is an improvement, at the request of the bishops, on what has been taking place over the years—the process of the synod is to allow the smaller groups much more time because that’s where the real debate takes place. And out of that comes the reflection on this report ("relatio" working document) by all of these bishops in the 13 small (language) groups.  

I don’t see that as being manipulated in any way. I don’t see how you can manipulate all of those groups and all of the people leading them; all of the 13 moderators and the 13 rapporteurs (‘relators’) of the groups were elected. They were all elected. So I don’t see how they could be manipulated.

The 13 rapporteurs have then the task to report back to the full body of bishops. Then, at the end of all this debate, those 13 elected rapporteurs have to sift through all of the amendments, and once they have sifted through them and said these are the ones that reflect some sort of consensus, they pass them on to the writing committee.  

Now remember, the writing committee itself is a great step forward in terms of a widening participation of the bishops. There were not writing committees in the past, the general rapporteur (general relator) and the special secretary did all that (and both were always appointed by the pope!). At the last synod in 2014, however, the Holy Father said this is not working very well because after the first interim report there was this great outcry that it wasn’t done well, so he enlarged it. And he has enlarged the writing committee even more for this synod. 

I don’t see any of that as manipulative. I see it as widening the participation of the bishops (compared to the past).

Now there are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality. I just think that these are people who have their own position and they just want to articulate that, and they have taken to saying that somehow the Holy Father and the synod structure are trying to manipulate all of the bishops. I just find that does not correspond to what I see, to what I experience, and what I’ve experienced over the years in dealing with synods. 

How do you interpret these people who seem to imply that the pope is somehow manipulating the synod? It seems almost like a vote of no-confidence in Pope Francis.
I don’t know what would bring people to say the things that they are saying because we are all hearing the pope, and the pope is saying nothing that contradicts the teaching of the church. He’s encouraging us to be open, to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate, but he keeps saying that you cannot change the teaching of the church.

I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

Pope Francis is calling for a church that, to my mind, is much more in contact with the Gospel, with the living out of the Gospel. Not just the articulation of the Gospel, the voicing of the Gospel, the proclaiming of the Gospel, but the personal living of it, and that seems to be what is the most attractive part of this pope, why so many people find him inviting, why so many people follow him, why so many people are coming back to the practice of the faith. And for reasons known only to them, there are some who find this somewhat threatening.

Many now think that the thermometer of the success or failure of the synod is how it will address three controversial questions: whether the divorced and remarried can be allowed to communion, what approach the church will take to homosexuality and homosexuals, and how the church looks at cohabitation and cohabiting couples.
I think what’s going to happen in the synod is we’ll continue to talk about the teaching of the church which remains unchanged, and we will continue to hear the pope calling us to be compassionate, to be caring, to be open, to meet people where they are, to try to accompany them. Whether that will be clearly reflected in the synod’s final document I can’t say, because one never knows what type of momentum building up under this proclamation that this is a rigged event, that this is being manipulated. But, in the long run, I think the voice of the church’s openness to people in difficulty, and the church’s caring embrace of people who are having difficulty in living up to the fullness of the Gospel will win out, it just may not make it into the final document of this synod.

How did you interpret Pope Francis’ talk yesterday, at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod, which seemed to have gone down very well, earning him a standing ovation?
I thought the pope’s speech yesterday focused exactly on where we need to be. The church “with and under Peter” moves forward. There are always people who are unhappy with something that is going on in the church, but the touchstone of authentic Catholicism is adherence to the teaching of the Pope. The rock is Peter, the touchstone is Peter and, as the Holy Father said, it’s the guarantee of unity, it is in no way suppression, any more than John Paul II was a suppression of freedom, or Paul VI was a suppression of freedom. They’re the touchstones of the authenticity of the faith.

So what is a realistic expectation from this synod?
I think that right now there has been so much tainting of how the synod is being seen. I don’t think the process has been tainted, I don’t think the synod itself has been tainted, but the lens through which it is being seen by many, many people has been tainted, and so I suspect that that will have some impact. It’s not going to be a long term impact because you can only paint something in false tones and have it remain understood incorrectly for so long, after a while the church wins out.  The great maxim—magna est veritas et semper prevalebit—the truth is great and it always wins out, even with all of this propaganda and all of this distortion.

Are you expecting the pope to publish a document after the synod, given that yesterday he said that the synod journey culminates when the pope speaks authoritatively?
I don’t know in what manner that will take place. I know that at the end of the synod, synods have always in recent years turned over to the pope the material and asked would you do something with it. Part of the tradition has been to do an apostolic exhortation, although it wasn’t always that way in the first synods. And it doesn’t have to be that way now; there’s nothing that says there must be an apostolic exhortation, but the pope can speak on any of the material from the synod that he chooses to. He has lots of different prerogatives, and there’s no one way in which the voice of Peter is to be articulated.

So you are very confident that even if in the short term there may be some cloud over the conclusion that in fact the dawn will come rather quickly.
Well, as I said, there’s this tainted lens through which everything is being seen because there have been those that said, and set out to call into question the integrity of this synod, but at the end of the day I think the truth is going to win out.

What do you say to those brother bishops who said and did this?
There’s not much you can say because if someone isn’t willing to hear you then obviously.... I have been saying all along I do not see this synod has some manipulated operation of the pope and the synodal leaders to somehow pervert the will of the bishops and change the teaching of the church. I know that has been said, I just don’t see it.


Lynn Hoover | 1/8/2016 - 10:29am

First, I'd like to thank Cardinal Wuerl for his courage and fidelity to Pope Francis. I don't know that I would characterize the other cardinals as "opponents" of the Pope, though believe good will prevail when they sit more humbly before him.

Second, as some have alluded to here, Jesus did say that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. What Jesus did NOT say is, what then should we do about this particular type of sin. He said quite explicitly that we, sinners all, should eat his body and drink his blood, and doing so is transformative. He did not say that some sinners should be turned away from His table. After all, Catholics make communion available to individuals who have committed horrible crimes such as murder, spousal abuse, and pedophilia.

I have never thought the Church was right to turn away the divorced who are trying, for example, to make things right for their children by remarrying and leaving behind a hurtful spouse. Everyone's circumstances are different and some who remarried likely made a highly moral choice. Yes, there may be some sin in there, but there is also moral courage. Pope Francis, it seems to me, wants us to see the nuances and show compassion and respect for individuals struggling to do right on their life's journey---just like you and me. In the messiness of life, let us be open to the light of His Spirit in those we encounter who wish to draw strength from their faith. Hooray for them for they are God's children and they are beautiful. Catholics born homosexual become Christ when we welcome and serve them (after attempting to marginalize them for perceived sins).

I've been married 33 years, no divorces, and we have no homosexuals (that I know of) in our family...and this is how I feel: we must not sit in judgement of people trying to make the best of their lives, and we must not withhold communion from sinners because we all sin and Jesus asked us to be there with Him anyway. The power of the Eucharist comes from God and, besides, we sinners and strivers need all the help we can get.

Paul Graham | 10/23/2015 - 7:55pm

"we’ll continue to talk about the teaching of the church which remains unchanged"?
"Change" can be healthy; Church "rules" have been changing for 2,000 years.

Mike Escril | 12/2/2015 - 7:09pm

Not on matters of faith and morals, they haven't changed !! What liberals want is the complete repudiation of Catholic Church sexual morality. They want HV repealed, want divorce OK'd, and want sodomy to be a Sacrament.

Mark Herwaldt | 10/22/2015 - 4:58pm

I totally disagree with the Cardinal. The only bishops that I have seen or read are trying to protect the teachings of the church. This progressive Cardinal is using an old political trick made popular by the Clintons. Make people who disagree with you look like evil people. I have yet to read anything written by any bishop who is an enemy of the pope. Just bishops who care about church teaching on truth. They are working hard to keep the church rooted in the truth. We can't throw out church teaching in the guise of offering mercy. It isn't mercy to allow people to stay in their sin. Jesus always challenges us to sin no more. The church must do the same if we are offering true mercy. Cardinal Wuerl would be doing the church a service if he would concentrate on offering mercy in truth and quite trying to throw mud. If he doesn't see the press office of the Vatican trying to change the narrative of the synod than he hasn't been listening nor watching.

Lila Anderson | 10/20/2015 - 1:21am

Inertia is such a powerful force in and of itself, and doesn't need much assistance by powerful Cardinals or Bishops.

E.Patrick Mosman | 10/19/2015 - 8:25pm

A Synod to "Square a Circle"
Can " a more inclusive notion of “family” and "personal needs, sexual experience, and covenant commitment of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers with the utmost pastoral care and sensitivity.”" be parsed to obtain a rational belief system that continues the prior beliefs that Catholics have been taught for thousands of years?
What do these mean and exactly how would these linguistic legerdemains work in practice as it would seem to accept and/or endorse an "anything goes" as long as it is done in the name of or under the auspices and banner of the Catholic Church? Also it appears to be a repudiation of the tens of thousands of martyrs who have given their lives over 2000+years for beliefs that could now be modified, changed or declared A-OK by the Synod. For what purpose, to be more like the Church of England and other Protestant religions that have accepted many of the practices now being considered for the future of the Catholic Church. Has any study been done to determine how well that has worked out? One wonders what those Church of England/Episcopalians who left their church to become Catholics because of its conservative beliefs must think of Pope Francis and his liberal advisers?

Kenneth Wolfe | 10/19/2015 - 5:20pm

Donald Cardinal Wuerl would make a terrific American politician -- someone who will say and do whatever it takes to advance his career. Watch for him to get a promotion to the curia as he turns 75.

William Rydberg | 10/19/2015 - 11:34am

To begin, I was gobsmacked by the Headline here. To all but the most naive, one needn't go any further to get the gist and the position of America Magazine.

Frankly, to characterize fellow Catholics who are participating in the Synod as well as interested observers as the “..Pope’s Opponents.” is In my humble opinion almost libellous and amounts to an ad hominem...!

Now to begin looking at just the facts as I have been able to assemble them:

I am having a hard time with the Pope’s 50th Anniversary Synod speech message because it seems to be so far out of step with current international central agreement global trends like Globalism, and has frankly left me with the impression that the author of the speech was somehow lost in the 1980’s.  I won’t even go into the confusing comments relating to Papal Infallibility?

You must know by your own experience that people are in touch across the world in real-time. The last thing we need are national bodies writing up their own particular rules of conduct with respect to Faith and Morals makes no sense to me.  It seems like a recipe for confusion-which is not of God.

Anybody that goes to downtown Masses here in Toronto observe fellow parishioners that after the Mass, can be found to be talking to relatives in Africa, the South Seas, the Asian sub-continent, south america, etc.. the result of the humble cell phone.  To declare that Church should be run by 1980 style National Synod Committees (lets face it in the real world, Committees run things because everybody else is part-time!) Which is my impression of the the CCCB Model - Committees that are  in practice run by monsignors who do not have the fullness of Holy Orders).

To suggest that the Church be run by Countries, thus avoiding the efficiency and benefit of a central processing “nexus” (based anywhere geographically) is 20th Century thinking (1980’s in fact).  Give me a break, things have moved on and if Globalism has taught us anything, things need to be sorted out with great global participation, not in national Synods. Take a look at the TPP- Trans Pacific Partnership.

Let’s not go back to the 1970s and 1980s and the problems that happened.

Finally, I read the "13 Cardinal's letter" - at least the one placed on Sandro Magister's website, and quite frankly, it reads like a typical "let's not quench the Spirit letter, which is eminently in harmony with the New Testament. I believe the Pope heard the message, and its now there for the record. Everybody has moved on...

Beth Cioffoletti | 10/19/2015 - 9:34am

I have resolved not to post any comments unless I have something substantial to say. However I am so appalled by Ross Douthat's column in the NY Times yesterday that I have to protest. Ross's rigid interpretation so undermines the insights of Vatican 2 that I can only conclude that he has never deeply understood his faith. Nor have many of these other JP2 appointed bishops and cardinals and the many Catholics that they influence. Thank God Francis has the peace and conviction to stand his ground. From my perspective, this can only be the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Mike Escril | 12/2/2015 - 7:11pm

Beth, by "rigid" you mean not ignoring solid Church teachings, right ?

What you want is to disregard Church rules.

Joshua DeCuir | 10/19/2015 - 10:00am

I find it sad & disappointing that we can't disagree with another Catholic without impugning the quality of his of her faith. I don't agree with Douthat's points this week, but I don't find it necessary to attack his understanding - or lived response - the Mystery of Faith we all "see through a glass, darkly."

I also find it odd that you attack "JPs appointed bishops and cardinals". This attack is baseless seeing as how several of the leading voices of moderation are, in fact, "JP2 bishops & cardinals." Wuerl, Schonborn, Rodriguez...oh yeah, & some guy named Bergolgio.

Vince Killoran | 10/19/2015 - 2:58pm

Ironic. Wasn't just a few years ago that some readers--who now plead for nuance and filled the comments section of this website with charges that fellow Catholics weren't "real" Catholics? It's good to see that the self-appointed guardians of the Faith are adjusting to a new context.

Joshua DeCuir | 10/19/2015 - 5:50pm

Would you care to procure whatever specific evidence you may have of that being my attitude? Otherwise, how does it respond to the specifics of my comment?

Michael Malak | 10/19/2015 - 1:58am

Cardinal Wuerl is the voice of Catholic reason in American.

Thomas Piatak | 10/18/2015 - 9:11pm

I am glad that His Eminence mentioned St. John Paul II, and also mentioned that Catholics should follow what the Pope teaches. Here is what that great pope (and saint) taught on the issue that has consumed so much media attention: "the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage."

St. John Paul II was merely following the clear words of Jesus Christ, who said, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery."

Rather than trying to find ways around the clear words of Jesus Christ and the clear teaching of St. John Paul II (and of many popes before him), the Synod should be discussing ways to help people live their lives in accord with those words and that teaching.

Lynn Hoover | 1/6/2016 - 7:42pm

Here's where you and the Church are wrong: it is true that Christ said these things about remarriage after a divorce. What Christ absolutely did not do is to say what we should do about it. He NEVER said we should deny communion to individuals who sin in this particular way. Now, let the light shine on this truth. The Church makes Eucharistic Communion available to Catholics whose sins have unleashed terrible evil---such as murder and pedophilia. Does the Church convey that murder, including genocide, and pedophilia are ok? Of course not. The denial of communion is a punishment conceived of by humans, not found in scripture, and therein lies the problem.

John Lord | 10/19/2015 - 11:06am

Thomas Piatak - your comment says all that needs to be said. So many important issues concerning the good of the family have been ignored or sidelined while the Synod has gone down a path that has already been decisively resolved.