Cardinal Wuerl on the Synod: 'There will always be diversity of opinion in the church'

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., agreed to address questions on criticisms of Pope Francis, political responsibilities as the archbishop of the nation’s capital and the forthcoming Synod on the Family in October. 

Your recent blog post on some bishops seeming to be in dissent from the pope has drawn interest. Do you see this as a significant concern? Pope Francis himself seems to want discussion of issues to reflect a variety of points of view, but some bishops think this kind of dialogue itself creates confusion. Do you think Pope Francis' openness to dialogue will continue and if it does will it continue to draw criticism from some bishops? Do you see any problems with dialoguing on matters that in the past seemed not open for discussion? Do you think this openness to dialogue confuses the majority of the laity or is supported by them?

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The starting point I find in the instruction that Pope Francis gave to all of us at the beginning of the process he has determined for the discussion on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” and “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.” At the Consistory, a year ago this past week, the pope initiated discussion on how we pastorally respond to the situation of many Catholics whose marriage may have broken down or who are not getting married in the first place.

Pope Francis asked us to speak our minds and hearts with clarity, to listen with humility and in that process to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

In the closing hour of that daylong discussion, I noted in my brief intervention that obviously there is no challenge to the teaching of the church on the indissolubility of marriage. I also pointed out that many participants distinguish between the doctrine on marriage and the pastoral practice of reception of Communion for those divorced and remarried. A third point was the regularly articulated desire to find 1) some pastoral response to all of those Catholics who feel alienated from the church because their marriage has failed or 2) a pastoral response to those who are so poorly catechized that they do not even understand the need to be married but rather prefer simply to live together. A further point was the desire that some effort be made to streamline the annulment process, particularly in the context of today’s culture and society that offers little support to the idea of a permanent, lifelong, faithful union of a man and a woman as elements of the definition of marriage. I concluded by noting that I heard a great deal of appreciation of the fact that we were beginning a discussion around the pastoral issues even though we have a long way to go.

What I found not helpful were the statements of some few that the discussion itself was a source of confusion, as if conversation around pastoral renewal was something that should be resisted. I was encouraged by the attitude of many that we cannot start in dealing with pastoral solutions from the position that we already know all of the answers.

Your recent blog on some bishops seeming to be in dissent from the pope has drawn interest. Do you see this as a significant concern? Can bishops disagree with Pope Francis?  In what way can they disagree as members of the hierarchy?

There will always be diversity of opinion in the church. But that is very different from denying or dissenting from the articles of the Creed or defined teaching. My understanding of what Pope Francis is asking of all of us is an affirmation of the received faith and an exploration on how we can help reach pastorally those who find themselves in serious situations, particularly relative to their marriage.

The formula articulation by Pope Francis that I find very inviting is his challenge that we go out, reach out, to those who have drifted away from the practice of the faith. Our task when we meet them is not to scold them and announce to them all the things they are doing wrong, but rather to begin patiently and lovingly to accompany them towards a fuller, richer, deeper, more life giving experience of Christ and his church than they now have.

I think that is one of the reasons why there is such widespread and positive reaction to Pope Francis. His message sounds a lot like the voice of the Good Shepherd.

What are the chief needs you see for the church in the United States now?

I have said for nearly my entire priestly ministry of over 48 years and my episcopal ministry of 29 years that one of the chief needs of the church is good catechesis rooted in the core of our faith and presented in an intelligible and inviting manner.

The background for my conviction of the need for good catechesis is the experience of the very poor and sometimes bad catechesis of the 70s and 80s. Today, most pastors recognize that we are dealing with a generation, and in some instances two generations, of people so poorly catechized in the faith that they have almost no serious grasp of it and therefore allegiance to it.

Together with a handful of others in the early 70s, I worked with Father Ronald Lawler and Thomas Comerford Lawler, to produce The Teaching of Christ: A Catechism for Adults which predated by over 15 years the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

One should not be surprised that there is considerable disaffection from the church by many people. The response is not, however, to condemn them but rather, in the words of Pope Francis, to go out, to reach out, to try to meet and accompany them as all of us make our pilgrim way to fuller union with the Lord.

We are heading into a serious political campaign. How can the church live out its role in society without improperly interfering in the political process?

A couple of years ago I wrote Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living our Faith. What I tried to do is answer questions like the ones you raise. I remain convinced that the role of bishops and priests is to teach the faith, to challenge the faithful entrusted to our pastoral care to try to live it as fully as possible. We do that by example not just by proclamation.

However, according to the Second Vatican Council, it falls to the laity to apply the Gospel message to the temporal order. As the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Decree of the Apostolate of Lay People (Nov. 18, 1965) tells us, “Laymen have countless opportunities for exercising the apostolate of evangelization and sanctification” (No. 6). It goes on to teach that, “Laymen ought to take on themselves as their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal order” (No. 7).

The political order is the realm of the laity. Laywomen and laymen well formed in the faith and committed to the Gospel should be the ones to take on the challenge of the renewal of the temporal order. Years and years ago as a young priest, one of my first published articles dealt with the phenomenon of the priest/politician. I do not think the church is well served by clergy being identified with a specific political party since I have yet to find such an organization that reflects faithfully all of the church’s teaching in the areas of life, education, social justice and development and the primacy of charity.

How can concerns for the poor and marginalized that the pope is highlighting be integrated with concerns of U.S.C.C.B.?

One of the areas that the church in the United States, and certainly the bishops in this nation, can be rightfully proud of is the voice the church leadership has been on behalf of the poor and marginalized for decades and decades. A brief review of the pastoral letters, publications, statements, documents, testimonies before Congress and other bodies shows a profound, sustained and consistent commitment for the poor and the marginalized. I hope when Pope Francis comes to Washington that we can highlight for him some of the ongoing works today of Catholic Charities.

As leader of the church in the nation's capital, do you feel any particular obligation to be involved in the political world?

It is inevitable that the archbishop of the nation’s capital would be called upon to comment on a whole range of issues that are the focus of so much of the energy in the city. I have found that as chief shepherd of this portion of God’s flock, my obligation is to proclaim the Gospel in all of its ramifications. I have found doing so in conjunction and collaboration with the U.S.C.C.B. assures a sense of solidarity and unity for our faithful people. At the same time, I have never felt the need to single out individual politicians and denounce them. I much prefer to keep the discussion on the level of issues, and I hope that this level of charity might possibly affect a change of heart.

One example of a heartfelt need today for some leadership is the terrible tragedy of the uprooting and killing of Christians and the destruction of their churches and homes in Syria, Iraq and parts of the Holy Land, India and Africa, particularly Nigeria. We need to raise our voices, calling attention to this atrocity without necessarily telling political leaders by name what they should do to address it. But all of us have an obligation to raise our voice in prayer, in solidarity and in highlighting these barbaric activities.

Our voices are probably best heard when they are least shrill. Our proclamation, as does the teaching of Pope Francis, should sound a lot like the voice of the good shepherd.

You are slated to attend the synod on the family in October. What are your expectations of the synod? How can married people in the church in the U.S. contribute to the dialogue that is expected? What have U.S. delegates  done to gather  information in this regard?

I look forward to the October 2015 Synod on the Family. As you know, I had an opportunity to participate in the 2014 Synod on the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization,” and prior to that in the 2012 Synod on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” I see a thread that runs through all three of these synods. We are called to teach the faith with clarity but in an inviting and intelligible manner and at the same time to reach out pastorally to all of those disaffected, distanced and marginalized.

As the episcopal conference with the highest number of annulments, does the U.S.C.C.B. have anything particular to contribute to this discussion?

The question of annulments and the procedures, processes and even who should be able to grant them is something that has been long discussed in the United States. I suspect that our voice—the voice of the church in our country—will be heard and contribute to the work of the coming synod.

How can the church reach out to people who are ignoring the marriage tribunal processes? Do you see any way to allow couples who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive the Eucharist?

These are the questions that the Synod will probably look at. As Pope Francis reminded us at the beginning of the whole process, we need to speak with clarity, listen with humility and be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Sandi Sinor
2 years 9 months ago
How can married people in the church in the U.S. contribute to the dialogue that is expected? What have U.S. delegates done to gather information in this regard? He didn't answer these questions. I live in the Archdiocese of Washington DC. It has not ever publicized (on its website or in the newspaper) the surveys supposedly meant to be a tool to gain input from the laity, neither for last fall's Synod, nor this spring. It may be the Cardinal just leaves it up to pastors. Before last fall's Synod, some parishes put questions on their websites, usually abbreviated (my former parish asked about 6 questions), but most laity did not hear anything at all about it from either their pastors or the Archdiocese. It was a non-event as far as gathering information from married people or creating a dialogue with them. It seems that maybe the Cardinal doesn't actually want to hear what married people think, what they know from living as married people that celibates do not know and never will know. It doesn't seem that any bishops are honestly interested in "dialogue" with the laity. After all, that would require them to listen. They are much more comfortable telling people what they should do and how they should think and what they must believe.
Martin Eble
2 years 9 months ago
The primary reason that the Archdiocese did not mention the surveys were meant to be a tool to gain input from the laity for last fall's Synod or the next one is that the "surveys" were NOT meant to be a tool to gain input from the laity. The questions were intended to be used by the bishops to consider pastoral issues in preparation for discussion. A common approach, although not the only one, involved the bishop considering the questions in discussions with the priests of the respective diocese. .
Kenneth Wolfe
2 years 9 months ago
Don't worry, Mrs. Sinor -- I actually did participate in the parish-level portion of the synod (complete with a representative from the Archdiocese to take notes) and can assure you that absolutely nothing our parish said was acted upon. Now, you may be happy to know that ours is a traditional parish, so the recommendations we made were traditional in nature. But, still, the entire Archdiocese of Washington synod process was a complete joke, as evidenced by the vanilla final statement published in the Catholic Standard supposedly summarizing the work. It was typical Cardinal Wuerl -- never offending anyone, always in a self-enclosed circle, like the worst of American politicians.
Martin Eble
2 years 9 months ago
Then Bishop Wuerl was called the "Teflon Bishop" in Pittsburgh. I have assumed given his performance in Washington, DC, that he was selected for that See to continue that performance.
ROBERT CUSHMAN
2 years 9 months ago
In the diocese of Helena, way out here in MT, there was no request for lay input before the last synod that i was aware of. More's the pity. We have lots to say on marriage, divorce, reception of sacraments etc. I only knew that some dioceses were requesting input because I read it in the print edition of America. I suggest that the current treatment of the divorced is one of the main reasons for people leaving the church and I believe the Good Shepherd wants us to fix this. Sue Cushman
Richard Lender
2 years 9 months ago
Cardinal Wuerl comments: "I noted in my brief intervention that obviously there is no challenge to the teaching of the church on the indissolubility of marriage." It's curious that His Eminence affirms this view, given that the most noteworthy position being advocated - that of Cardinal Walter Kasper - is urging the adoption of the practice employed by many Eastern Orthodox churches, that of "oikonomia" - that is, the official sanctioning of second and even third marriages by the Church. And it's impossible to see how this does not, in fact, overturn Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Permitting and sanctifying (even if not as a formal sacrament) multiple marriages - and quite clearly labeling them as "marriage" - clearly claims that marriage is not indissoluble. Yet neither here, not in his intervention, is there any recognition of the nature of what Cardinal Kasper and his supporters in the episcopate are advocating.
Jay Kay
2 years 9 months ago
The rate of abortions among Catholics is approximately the same as the rate in the general population. To apply the teachings of Vatican II, the first thing to do is to work on those before we go out and terrorize the general population, who isn't even Catholic. Same thing for all the other hot button issues. When and if they see us acting like Christians, it will make a difference. When we act like pagans and try to force the general population to act like Christians, they're not fooled. They know that's bogus.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 9 months ago
"There will always be diversity of opinion in the church." With regard to the ordination of women, diversity of opinion has been suppressed, using the presumed "infallibility" of CCC 1577 and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and other forms of psychological manipulation, as hammers to keep people intimidated. I hope that, in the October 2015 synod, the bishops will be moved to reconsider the Church as a family that needs both ordained men and ordained women to act in persona Christi Capitis. In particular, the vexing practice of intimidating people with dubious claims of infallibility should be banned, and open discussion of the issue should be allowed.
Martin Eble
2 years 9 months ago
Diversity of opinion describes opinions on matters not settled or of prudential judgment - e.g., the death penalty. Settled matters - e.g., the intrinsic immorality of abortion - are not the subject of Catholic diversity of opinion. The inability of the Church to ordain women is one of these settled matters. The fact that some wish to disagree is an example of unfamiliarity with the Church's teaching and its basis, and the nature of a teaching, not of diversity of opinion.
Anne Danielson
2 years 8 months ago
That which we, who profess to be Catholic, must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith is not up for debate. We cannot transform The Word of God, Christ transforms us.

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