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David Gibson, an observer of the U.S.Catholic hierarchy and author of several books — including “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World,” released last year — said the archbishop was fortunate to have a year of adjustment before the 2008 presidential election.

“He is not a headline-grabber and he hasn’t been through a presidential campaign,” Mr. Gibson said. “Now he will be. As much as he’d like to keep a low profile and be a pastor, all those things are going to press in on him.”

Lawmakers and Communion

Archbishop Wuerl’s primary focus has been to establish himself as a teacher — much like his boss, Pope Benedict XVI, now into his third year of what religious observers and journalists have called a “teaching pontificate.”

The archbishop said he goes to Capitol Hill occasionally to meet with “a number of people on both sides of the aisle” for “conversations” to help people “form a conscience.” Just recently, he added, someone called to ask him about conscientious objection.

“The whole idea was, ‘Bishop, can you help me understand what the church’s take on this is?’ ” Archbishop Wuerl said of the dialogue with the lawmaker, whose name he did not disclose.

“I think that is one of the things a bishop can do that helps his flock: to try to help people understand the distinction between political actions and the moral import of those actions,” he said.

The archbishop’s relationships with lawmakers have generated some controversy, particularly on Jan. 3, when House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi attended Mass at Trinity University in the District. Her presence set off protests from Catholics who believe that canon law plainly bars pro-choice Catholic lawmakers from receiving Communion. A week later, the archbishop told a reporter in San Diego that he had no plans to bar Mrs. Pelosi from receiving Communion in his diocese.

“He created great scandal in the archdiocese for choosing not to deny Nancy Pelosi Holy Communion,” said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. “She persistently draws attention to her Catholic identity and her public support for abortion. He had a tremendous opportunity to set the record straight while publicly instructing her. What kind of teacher is that?”

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — wrote a letter to U.S.Catholic bishops saying they must try to convince pro-choice Catholic legislators that their stance is wrong. If the lawmakers did not change their minds, the letter said, they should be barred from receiving Communion.

Archbishop Wuerl declined to say whether he would ever take such a step.

“My primary responsibility is to teach and therefore to help every Catholic inform their conscience,” he said. “When people do things contrary to church teaching, my responsibility is to help them understand that is wrong. Sometimes that takes a lot of conversation. Sometimes you’re not successful at it.

“The next step — after lots and lots of conversation — is that if a person is acting out in a way that contravenes their faith, you ask them, ‘Do you think you should be receiving Communion?’ and even to say to them, ‘If you really do need to examine your conscience and if you can’t bring yourself to what the church calls a coherent position, don’t you think you should refrain from Communion?’

“I think that’s what the pope is talking about,” Archbishop Wuerl said.

Is there a time when teaching stops and discipline starts?

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