Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 06, 2017
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington (CNS photo/Bob Roller)Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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...

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Barberi
7 years 3 months ago

I wonder if Cardinal Wuerl will be issuing guidelines to parish priests in his Washington diocese to permit Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried without an annulment under certain conditions? I have not read anything yet to confirm whether Cardinal Wuerl agrees with this interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, but based on this article, it seems he will do so.

Robert Lewis
7 years 3 months ago

"“You can’t be issuing things because you don’t have any magisterium, I do.”

THIS applies to the "Dubia," and it's about time that Pope Francis and/or his supporters began to answer the resisters back. I once read that, in the history of the Church, it always took the reforms of the Church defined at Councils seventy or eighty years to be actually implemented. Now the directions of Vatican II are finally being followed, and I rejoice at Francis's courage and determination in doing so. And I would remind the "Traditionalists" that their most recent favourite pope, Benedict XVI, frequently opined that the strength of the Church lies not in her numbers, but in her spirit of faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and her communicants' determination to live out its imperatives. So the Church can now do without her "whitened sepulchers".

michael mohl
7 years 3 months ago

Mr Lewis, perhaps I am misunderstanding your comment, but it seems to me you are implying that Pope Francis should use his authority to crack down on the 'traditionalists' and 'cleanse the temple' of them, so to speak. We all now know that Pope Francis has an authoritarian side to him unmatched by his recent peers, but I respectfully ask Pope Francis to use his authority to charitably and mercifully fulfill the duties of his office as universal shepherd by answering the respectfully submitted Dubia for the good of all Christ's flock. Those questions are my questions. If as you say, the magisterium is his, then what better place to go with these important questions (as has been the historical custom), and what better place to expect an answer, since the good of souls and the unity of the Church is at stake?

Ronald Roberts
7 years 3 months ago

'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....".

Wow! Donald Wuerl has certainly come a long way since his brief visit to Seattle. The man who should be wearing that red hat, the last surviving American Vatican II father is in Montana. The original "smells of his flock bishop".


Brian Buckley
7 years 3 months ago

"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.'" I'm confused: How are these things that Pope Benedict didn't do?

Michael Barberi
7 years 3 months ago


Pope Benedict XVI followed St. JP II and both were strict conformist to the letter of the law. Pope JP II stripped the Conferences of Bishops of their authority to issue guidelines and interpretations of various encyclicals and teachings by subjecting all communications to their dioceses and parishioners to the approval of the CDF. This prevented any disagreement of bishops and conferences of bishops with a papal teaching. Note that many Conferences of Bishops disagreed with Humane Vitae and such disagreement started decades of debate that Pope JP II profoundly disliked.

Also, both JP II and Benedict XVI, as bishops and later popes, were against the reforms started by Vatican II. Both popes, in particular JP II, centralized more power in the Vatican where it became a top-down ecclesial governing body. Under their papacies, any priest who whispered that a teaching should be subject of a re-thinking would never become a bishop. This style of governance that dominated the Church for the past 50 years is the complete opposite of the style of governance that Pope Francis wants. This is upsetting the traditionalists to the point that some are actually calling for Pope Francis to step down as Pope.

As for the 'dubia', the pope's supporters are speaking out and answering such questions. The most rigid of traditionalists don't want to read Amoris Laetitia (AL) and its emphasis on the role of virtue, discernment, accompaniment and conscience. AL is about the spirit of the law and the application of the letter of the law in complex moral circumstances. Both can exist without contradiction as life is not all black and white.

Richard Booth
7 years 3 months ago

Cardinal Wuerl is quoted as saying: "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."

I tend to believe this particular prelate when he speaks, and I agree with his quotation above. Far too many people do not realize the complexity of the history of "Amoris Laetitia," particularly Chapter 8, which has received a lot of attention. The answers to the "dubia" lie in church history and tradition, which renders a response from the pope unnecessary. They require the hierarchy to understand that history and tradition. If they did, there would be no "dubia." Let them figure it out. That's what Francis wants them to do, but they seem intellectually unable to meet his challenge. I understand the craving for "the" answers on the part of some clergy and laity but, as I indicated, one can deduce what he means and I do not think he will answer their queries.

Ronald Roberts
7 years 3 months ago

I am dismayed by the chameleon like behavior of Donald Wuerl and the gracious reception he receives from the media. He is frequently reported extolling the leadership, vision and virtues of Pope Francis. But my, how far Cardinal Wuerl has come since his brief stay in Seattle.

From this article, Donald Wuerl makes it seem as if he recognizes that a community needs leaders more than it needs authorities, he responds to the question about accompaniment :

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.

From John McCoy's book "A Still and Quiet Conscience".

But a fundamental culture clash hampered the ability to move forward. Wuerl's orientation was hierarchical, legalistic, and institutional; Hunthausen's was collegial, consultative, and pastoral. Wuerl's administrative style was top-down: explain your position and expect people to fall in line.


.....Espen was often called into Wuerl's adjacent office. “We spent a lot of time on these things: general absolution, altar girls, laicized priests, whether Father So-and-So had some ex-priest giving out communion,” Espen recalled. “I'd tell him there was nothing wrong about this.” That was not what Wuerl wanted to hear. He ordered Espen to write a set of liturgical guidelines for pastors, guidelines that adhered scrupulously to canon law. Espen described the clash between the Wuerl church and the Hunthausen church in computer terms. Wuerl saw the world as digital; Hunthausen saw it as analogue. Wuerl saw folks as either inside or outside the box; Hunthausen didn't see the box.


“For Don Wuerl, the absolute first question was: What does this do to the institution?” Pinette said. “For Ray Hunthausen, it was: What does this do for the person? They saw the world in such fundamentally different ways.”


Wuerl regarded the in-house support group for Hunthausen as impolitic and subversive. When he got wind of the “What Kind of Church Are We Becoming?” letter, he summoned McMullen to his office and told her, “Sister Carol Ann, if that statement ever reaches the press, I can tell you right now, the archbishop will be gone tomorrow.” Born, raised, and educated in Seattle, McMullen was a warm, cheerful woman who'd been a teacher, catechist, and leader in the community of Holy Names Sisters. “Are you threatening me?” she responded. “Yes, I am,” Wuerl retorted. “Bishop Wuerl,” McMullen replied, her voice rising in anger, “as far as you're concerned and as far as the Vatican is concerned, the archbishop is already on his way out and we know that. If he goes tomorrow, no matter how he goes, that's beside the point. We're not standing up for him. We're standing up for what he stands for; we're standing up for the church we believe in.”

The man who should be wearing that read hat, the last surviving American Father who attended all of the Vatical II sessions and who "smelled like his flock" long before it became the entreaty of Pope Francis, is watching his vision of the church sprouting from Montana.

Richard Booth
7 years 3 months ago

The first part of your McCoy quote makes sense to me. If Cardinal Wuerl is, as alleged, a hierarchical, institutionalist autocrat, it makes sense that he would support Francis. Francis is, after all, the leader of the institution and autocrats tend to obey those above them while being hard on those below them. Now, I am left wondering...

Henry George
7 years 3 months ago

There is a reason why the Shepherd's crook is shaped the way it is:
To bring recalcitrant sheep back to the fold.

The question is when is a sheep being recalcitrant and when it he being
faithful to the Church.

I never understood why, after Vatican II, the Church did not allow
"The People of God" to make choices.

The "Old Mass" in Latin, the "Old Mass" in the Vernacular, the "New Mass"
in Latin the "New Mass" in the Vernacular - and/or a mix of the
Vernacular and Latin.

Was it truly necessary to tear out Altar Rails, the Altars that my grand parents paid for, the Statues of various Saints that people were fond of ?
To inflict - and it was and still is an infliction - of mostly mediocre songs
in terms of music and lyrics - upon the Congregation ?

There are Bishop who are quite approachable and there are Bishops where
even Priests in distress have to make "Appointments" two weeks in advance.

I don't want to be an American Catholic, I don't want to be a
Liberal or Conservative Catholic. Pope Francis will not be Pope forever.
Must the Church be whipsawed by each new Pope/Bishop ?

Somehow Bishops and Priests must learn to live a simpler life.
No Bishop should be building a retirement home that costs close
to a million dollars, no Priest should be driving a $ 80,000 car,
no Liturgy Director should act as if the Parish is their fiefdom.

If someone wishes to attend the "Old Mass" they should not be
dismissed for doing so. If someone finds God in a "Simpler Mass"
should not be dismissed as being un-informed.

What any Pope should not do is drive people from the Church because
his own view is that they are not living up to the "Spirit of Vatican II"

Barry Fitzpatrick
7 years 3 months ago

I think it might be fair to say that Cardinal Wuerl speaks of what he knows personally and has experienced himself. He, I hope, would be the first to admit that he is not the same priest or bishop that he was 20 years ago, that growth and development has taken place in his own life as well as in the lives of all those to whom he has ministered. He, I hope, would also admit, as did Pope Francis, that he is, like all of us, first and foremost, a sinner. Judging him and his comments outside of this context merely serves to prolong an animosity that impedes forgiveness and growth. I think the interview speaks of a vision formed by years of experience and informed by the teaching of a man the Cardinal clearly admires, Pope Francis.

Wuerl points us toward a Church not yet realized, not yet in existence in its full form, one which accompanies and does not simply mandate, one in which "dubia" speak only of an era long gone by the wayside. Wuerl and Francis speak as men unafraid of where we are going but also as men ready to lead us in such a way that our reality is not discounted as suspect or simply wrong. It is refreshing to live in a time where faithful leadership can seek the good in the world and in the recent past and try to build on it so that the Church once again realizes that its mission is NOT in regalia, rules, and "dubia," but in real people loved by God, seeking to get closer to Him.

Ronald Roberts
7 years 3 months ago

Perhaps you're correct, but I'm inclined to believe that the "growth and development" that you allude to, occurred slightly less than 4 years ago.

Henry George
7 years 3 months ago


Bishop Wuerl was given a very difficult task when he was sent to Seattle.
There are those, as one of the comments makes clear, who think his whole time and actions were a mistake.
I thought the "experimentation" that went on there went too far and needed to be dutifully trimmed.
Others did not and Wuerl and Bishop Hunthausen paid the price.

Andrew Di Liddo
7 years 3 months ago

This is a wonderful article with Cardinal Wuerl. Thank you, Your Eminence, for your answer on Amoris Laetitia. What is it about Papal Authority that people do not understand? Are these critics of Pope Francis "cafeteria Catholics", cherry picking what they like as magisterial and things they don't like as apocryphal??

Johnny Smith
7 years 3 months ago

What is it about Papal Authority YOU don't understand. No Pope can contradict divinely revealed infallibly defined truths. That is traditionally known as "heresy" and it results in the loss of papal office. Read Bellarmine and get back to us.

Robert Lewis
7 years 3 months ago

I think it would behoove those of us who support the direction in which Pope Francis is trying to take the Church to come to grips with the fact that there is now a movement within "Traditionalist" and "curial cardinal" circles to force him into early retirement. I suggest that you not only read this article, but also listen to the podcast, in which Damien Thompson's language drips with hatred of the pontiff; Thompson is not just a crank (although he is that), but he is also a Vatican insider who probably knows what he is talking about when he says that, if and when Francis is forced to abdicate the papacy, we will never know which "curial cardinals"--so-called "moderates" formerly supportive of his election--turned against him and forced him to quit:http://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/03/the-plot-against-the-pope/

The latest from america

In his general audience, Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to keep reading to Bible, which reveals God’s love. He also directed a message to preachers to keep homilies to no more than eight minutes.
Pope FrancisJune 12, 2024
A Homily for Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinJune 12, 2024
Sister Luisa Derouen has provided spiritual companionship to some 250 trans people, assuring them that they are God’s children.
David Van BiemaJune 12, 2024
Pope Francis reportedly used a homophobic slur to refer to a gay culture in the Vatican and warned it would not be prudent to admit young men with homosexual tendencies to seminaries.