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The Vatican’s Man in Washington
Comments () | Published October 17, 2011

Wuerl might have angered the more liberal wing of the faithful during the marriage debate, but his stand allowing pro-choice politicians to receive Communion has frustrated conservatives. The cardinal’s position on Communion is important in a city where powerful lawmakers such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts senator John Kerry are Catholic and pro-choice.

“It’s the task of the priest in the pulpit to present the message clearly, completely—all the demands of the Gospel,” Wuerl says, “and then, when he comes out of the pulpit, to meet people where they are and to try to help them get closer to Christ. Rather than deny the sacraments, I prefer to try to convince people.”

Some anti-abortion activists disagree with Wuerl’s stance. “To allow a rebellious sinner to come to the Communion table is outside the Church’s historic teaching,” says Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group based in Wichita.

Wuerl was elevated to cardinal last year along with just one other American official, Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Vatican’s supreme court and the former archbishop of St. Louis. While in Missouri, Burke became the first American bishop to say he would deny the Eucharist to then–presidential candidate Kerry. It was a lobbed bomb in critical swing-state territory and produced negative headlines for Kerry.

So Burke is a firebrand, Wuerl a conciliator. Their joint elevation illustrates a tacit awareness in Rome that effective leadership of the evolving US Church—unlike its more consistently conservative counterparts in Latin America and Africa—requires a balancing act. Wuerl appears to be in the forefront of compromise around the Communion conversation. The position has buoyed his reputation—here and nationally.

“I think the perception in the bishop’s conference is that Don Wuerl represents the dead center,” John Allen says. “It means he is seen as a fair broker, somebody who is respected and taken seriously by all sides.”

One thing everybody would acknowledge about Don Wuerl is that he does not like a nasty public fight.

Donald William Wuerl was born November 12, 1940, in Pittsburgh to Mary and Francis Wuerl. His mother died of cancer when he was almost four. His father remarried two years later, and his second wife, Kathryn, raised Wuerl and his three siblings.

Wuerl attended parish schools, and the family went to church each Sunday. Francis Wuerl, a weighmaster on the Pennsylvania railroad, would linger in the pews after the service ended. His son took note.

“He would see that we got to church, got to confession,” Wuerl says, “but it was clear he had his own prayer life, and it wasn’t something that he bantered about, it wasn’t something that he made very visible.”

The cardinal’s high-school yearbook notes this of the teenage Donald Wuerl: “Good natured, efficient and energetic; industrious student; born leader and orator.”

Wuerl’s first brush with Washington life was in the early 1960s when he studied at Catholic University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy. The nation was captivated by John F. Kennedy, its first Catholic President, and his beautiful young wife, Jackie. “It was a very exciting time,” Wuerl says.

From there, he headed to Rome to study. He was ordained in 1966 at St. Peter’s Basilica. After early assignments back home in Pittsburgh, Wuerl returned to Rome, where he spent a decade as secretary to Cardinal John Wright, who was prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Clergy. In that role, Wuerl found himself inside the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II; Wright was in a wheelchair, and Wuerl was permitted to escort him in and get him situated, though Wuerl wasn’t on hand for the balloting.

After Rome, Wuerl returned to Pittsburgh. But in 1985, he was assigned to be auxiliary bishop of Seattle—a move that proved the first major snafu in Wuerl’s otherwise smooth trajectory. It was there, perhaps, that Wuerl lost any taste for public conflict.

In Seattle, then-archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was drawing concern from the Vatican for allowing, as People magazine reported at the time, “a cathedral service for gay parishioners and permitting altar girls to serve during Mass.” Hunthausen was too liberal for leadership in the Holy See, and after an inquiry shepherded by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—Wuerl was dispatched to Seattle. He was given authority over several critical areas, including marriage, the liturgy, and moral issues.

With an untenable tag team of bishops, the Seattle situation was covered coast to coast by newspapers and TV. It became a symbol of American dissatisfaction with the Vatican. Church leaders in the United States were newly grappling with social issues and a diversifying membership. The San Diego Union-Tribune asked: WILL RIFT WITH ROME LEAD TO SEPARATE U.S. CATHOLIC CHURCH?

With Wuerl in the awkward position of unwelcome Vatican enforcer, Hunthausen’s allies revolted. And as national attention mounted, Hunthausen’s power was restored; Wuerl was sent packing after 18 months. Having advocated unwaveringly for the Vatican’s position, though, he had earned his chits with Ratzinger.

“I was sent there because the Holy See felt there was a need for some redirection of some areas of ecclesiastical life,” Wuerl says. “And I keep reminding myself that any animosity directed to me wasn’t personal.”

Next: "He certainly is the type of bishop that Benedict likes."

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