Reconnecting the church “with the energy of the Second Vatican Council,” may be the pope’s greatest achievement, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington said in an exclusive interview with America as the fourth anniversary of the pope’s election approaches on March 13.
According to Cardinal Wuerl, the pope is changing the papacy and “completely refocusing the role of bishop.” He said Pope Francis has “picked up where we left off” on Vatican II themes of collegiality and synodality and has refocused the church on “a moral theology that rests on scripture and Jesus’ command to love” and on “an evangelizing discipleship.”
Cardinal Wuerl, who is archbishop of Washington, also commented on the pope’s post-synodal magisterial document on the family “Amoris Laetitia,” the opposition Pope Francis has experienced and the U.S. church’s stance regarding migrants in the face of challenges from the Trump administration.
An edited text of an interview given at the North American College in Rome on Feb. 22 follows:
On March 13, Francis will enter the fifth year of his pontificate. As you look back over his first four years, how do you read them? What are the major achievements?
I think his great contribution to date has been the reconnecting of the church with the energy of the Second Vatican Council, the energy coming out of that council. I was a student, studying theology when that council was going on and we were all caught up in the excitement of aggiornamento—renewal.
I think what happened next was that following the council there were some exaggerations. Theologically there was the hermeneutic of discontinuity; liturgically there were all kinds of experimentation. And in a way what got lost was the council’s call for us to return our focus to the primacy of love as the engine driving the church, her teaching and her outreach.
John Paul II was the great refocusing moment in the life of the church to get us back on track and say no to the exaggerations and discontinuity. Pope Benedict put the nail in the coffin on the discontinuity.
Now comes Pope Francis who’s saying, “Why don’t we pick up where we left off: collegiality, synodality.” The synodality that Paul VI initiated has flowered under Francis. Those two synods on the family were unlike any of the other synods prior to them because they actually invited the bishops into the process in a transparent, open way.
Then came the emphasis in “Amoris Laetitia.” It told us that we have to get back, as the council said, to a moral theology that rests on scripture and Jesus’ command to love and to the virtues that are the signs of a moral life, not the rigid following of the letter of the law.
So, when I look back over these four years, I see that Francis has accomplished all this refocusing, even though we have a long, long way to go to begin to change the direction of an institution as big as the Catholic Church and to get it focused back again on the path that I believe the council set out on. I think what he has done is already a huge accomplishment.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has urged the church to reach out to people.
He has certainly given us focus on an evangelizing discipleship that is now becoming the trademark of church, but we have a huge way to go. The maintenance aspect of church will always be there, but he’s saying don’t forget that that’s only the support system for an evangelizing outreach.
Cardinal Wuerl: The pope is changing the papacy and “completely refocusing the role of bishop.”
Having put that in place as a focus, personally I think he is completely refocusing the role of bishop. Think of it, at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, John XXIII, “the Good Pope John” went into St. Peter’s basilica on the sedia gestatoria [the ceremonial papal throne] and had flabella (large fans), the Noble Guards, the tiara and yet with all that he was saying, “We need to look at this; this can’t be what the Gospel is all about.”
Now you see Pope Francis, he shows up in a simple white cassock and everyone says that’s where it should be. It was no small accomplishment for him to say that a much simpler church in terms of all the accoutrement is going to be a much more effective church.
So if I had to say what were Francis’ great accomplishments to date, I would say was that one was the refocusing of the church to speak and look much more like the Gospel and then to invite bishops once again to take their responsible role in the life of the church.
In the process, of course, Francis is changing the papacy.
Yes. It will never look like it did 25 or more years ago. We have of course to remember that so much of the external appearance of the church was residual; it was what was left from another era when the need for the church to have this political and state quality to it was so very important. But we are past that. That’s not what people look to now when they’re trying to determine what allegiance they should give to the Catholic Church.
Francis has moved in three directions: he’s focused on poverty and the poor in the world; he’s focused on the care of creation and our common home; and then in “Amoris Laetita” on the family. What do you see as the great contribution in “Amoris”?
In “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) the Holy Father is recognizing what we have all come to see—that a pervasive secularism is now the dominant cultural voice. But without family you can’t pass on anything. John Paul II said faith, culture, civilization and everything is passed on through the family because every child becomes the heir to the heritage of the generations before.
This Holy Father has recognized that marriage in the culture in which we live needs to be totally renewed. But you can’t do this without recognizing that this is a different moment in history to 25 years ago, and the people the church is talking to don’t understand the words the same way as we do.
I’ll give you one example. In the summer, we always have some time when I meet with young people, young couples, just to talk about where they are, what’s going on. In one conversation, they were very clear about marriage being “permanent,” that is, until it doesn’t work, they said. Permanent for them had a different meaning that it had for me.
I think that’s what the Holy Father is saying: this culture, this language—even the words we use—they have a different meaning for this culture, and we have to find a different way of demonstrating that we’re walking with them, so that we can hear them and they can begin to hear us.
This concept of accompaniment is key here.
Accompaniment is essential to where we’re going to be. The voice of the faith, the voice of the Gospel, isn’t going to be announced today to crowds of people waiting to hear. Nor is it going to be announced through the structures of culture, society—all the routine elements that used be part of the Christian culture. It’s going to be heard because believers are walking with others and saying, “You know I think there’s a better way; I have a different take on this than you do.”
Paul VI put it this way in “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (“Evangelization in the Modern World”): “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
I think that’s so true.
Some have alleged that “Amoris Laetitia” is not magisterial teaching.
I would never, ever begin to challenge the voice of the Petrine Office because if you say, as an individual, I can determine which of the teachings of the church are magisterial and which aren’t, then which of the papal encyclicals and which of the apostolic exhortations are valid and which aren’t? Who gets to determine that?
It’s determined when they come out with the signature of the pope on them. That’s what makes them part of the Petrine Office—not somebody else’s judgment about their thought or about the content. And so every apostolic exhortation, and that is all post-synodal ones, are all Petrine magisterium.
Remember it was Paul VI who said to the synod, “You can’t be issuing things because you don’t have any magisterium, I do.” And from “Evangelii Nuntiandi” on therefore, they were all exercises in the Petrine Office or Magisterium.
Why do you think there has been this opposition to Francis?
I think it comes on multiple levels. It comes when the Holy Father takes on a structure that includes all the institutions that are a part of the Holy See like the Secretariat of State, dicasteries, congregations and asks if this ought not to be looked at to see if it’s really functioning the way it should. As soon as you touch any of these, you touch personal interests, so there’s always going to be some opposition because of the natural instinct to say, “We have always done it this way, why do we have to change?” Francis is saying, we need to look at this because we’re centuries after these structures were set in place. So there’s opposition on the institutional level.
Then there are some whom I think just feel very uncomfortable; everything was quite secure and safe and now that’s being challenged. They’re being asked to look at even the way they go about doing some of the routine things, and Francis is calling them to look and see if that is really the best way.
So, there’s both the institutional challenge and the personal challenge.
Moreover, I think, there are just some people who can’t bring themselves to move beyond where they are. These look at things through one lens only. But this pontificate and “Amoris Laetitia” are multifaceted, and if you can only see them through one lens, you’re never going to be able to appreciate this.
Do you think the cardinals are doing enough to help him?
I do. But let’s distinguish between the curial cardinals and the cardinals around the world. I think the cardinals around the world, the vast-majority of whom are residential bishops, empathize with what the pope is doing because what he’s talking about is what we’re engaged in—pastoral ministry.
Curial cardinals have a different perspective because they are, in a good sense, bureaucrats. They run offices; they run the bureaus of the church, but I get the impression that there is some foot-dragging because, as one said to me, “Why are we changing something that has worked for almost 500 years?”
And there may be a few who just feel intimidated by the change.
Do you see the need for the U.S. residential cardinals to support Pope Francis just as the Council of Nine cardinal advisors did recently?
I’m not certain that it’s necessary to be any more explicit than we are. You know in a family it’s customary to exchange gifts at Christmas, and to use a birthday to say, “Hey, I love you.”
So, in the life of the church, on the fourth anniversary of his election, we’ll be saying, “Holy Father, God bless you, Ad multos annos!” And for the rest of the time it’s assumed that we’re with him.
We see growing concern in the United States and in the church with the approach of the Trump administration to migrants and undocumented workers, at the appointment of a climate change denier as head of the office for the environment, and much else. You live in Washington, D.C.: How do you read this?
I think right now it is very difficult to get a handle on where this administration is going because a lot of the things that are being said and a lot of the appointments that are being made have yet to begin to be played out. I think it’s still too early to say.
In some areas, I think we have a hope that there will be a better focusing, but I think it is just too soon to say where all this is going because the president and this administration keep refining and changing all they have already said.
But that’s not quite the case on the migrant question.
On that issue, I think the church in the United States has to stand strong and together. Our conference of bishops has issued statements, most of us have issued statements, saying the sovereignty of the border is one thing and that has to be addressed—although this should be done in reasonable terms—but for the people who are already here, that’s another issue altogether and we have to address this in a humane way. We just cannot be tearing families apart. I think those two issues are related, but distinct, and the church has been solidly in support of the care of immigrants already in the United States.
Do you feel there is great unity in the church on this question?
I do. The substantial majority of voices representing the church are united on this.
There’s a lot of talk that President Donald J. Trump may meet Pope Francis in May. How do you see that working out?
Looking to the future, the only thing I can go on is that this pope made an enormous impression and strong impact on President Obama. President Obama has said this. I would expect the same thing if President Trump and Pope Francis meet.
I think Francis would have the same impact on him because the pope comes from a moral, spiritual, religious perspective, and it necessarily impacts people whose task it to be political. But now we’re just looking at the crystal ball...