Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, says Wuerl avoids the limelight—a trait that has won him fans. Catholics “see him as a priest, as their bishop, rather than as their political leader or as somebody who is trying to form public policy,” Reese says.
Church watchers say Wuerl prefers one-on-one consultation and behind-the-scenes lobbying on high-profile issues, from abortion and birth control to opposition to the ordination of women and gay marriage. He doesn’t use his platform to bully.
As a result, a feud with DC’s city council over gay marriage would have been Wuerl’s last desire. “One thing everybody would acknowledge about Don Wuerl is that he does not like a nasty public fight,” Allen says.
In 2009, the DC Council approved a bill allowing same-sex marriage. During public discussion of the proposal, Wuerl said he wanted an exemption for faith organizations so the archdiocese wouldn’t be forced to offer benefits to individuals in same-sex marriages; the Church maintains that marriage can be recognized only as the union of a man and a woman. Without an exemption, Wuerl suggested, Catholic Charities would no longer continue its contractual work with DC to provide services for needy residents.
“For us, the issue is what is the definition of marriage,” Wuerl says. “Because it has been universally accepted across human history and across all humanity. And our concern was if you change that, then you can change the definition of anything.”
Headlines criticized Wuerl for playing politics with a Church-backed social safety net. DC Council member Phil Mendelson, who supported the marriage bill, says the archdiocese could have been “more generous,” allowing a benefit provision to a second designee, regardless of that person’s relationship to the employee.
The council didn’t include an exemption when the bill passed. But rather than end its partnerships with DC, Catholic Charities assumed a policy that no new employees would receive spousal benefits.
The change was an earnest effort, Wuerl says, to bridge the divide between the archdiocese and the city—and, he notes, it’s a concession the local media failed to highlight.
The episode provided a crash course in how dialogue over hot-button issues is conducted in Washington. Wuerl feels the Church’s view was distorted by the media and says he learned not to rely on reporters and editors to get the message out. “We have to find ways of directly reaching our people,” he says.
During his tenure here, the marriage debate is the chapter for which he has received the most attention and for which he’d most appreciate a redo. “I thought it was a great opportunity lost,” he says.
One local politician applauds Wuerl’s consistency. “Given all the issues around same-sex marriage and sexual orientation, I think he handled it as well as you can in a very, very difficult situation,” says former DC mayor Anthony Williams, a Catholic who supports civil unions but also counts Wuerl as a friend.
Like Wuerl, Williams has been tagged by some as personally distant. He says the cardinal is a listener who is thoughtful and gracious. “I am someone who was accused of being standoffish and aloof,” Williams says, “but you know, you come to know him, he’s a very, very, very warm person. He’ll meet a person and know their name.”
Next: Wuerl's journey to the Vatican