Pittsburgh Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, a man known for his loyalty to Rome by taking on unpopular assignments, was named archbishop of Washington yesterday by Pope Benedict XVI.
He will replace retiring Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, 75, who submitted his resignation to the Vatican in July. Cardinal McCarrick introduced his successor yesterday at a press conference as “one of the great churchmen of the United States.”
“I truly cannot think of a better choice for Washington than Donald Wuerl,” he said. The cardinal added that he had prayed that the pope would name “a great bishop to take my place.”
“He has done that in spades,” Cardinal McCarrick said.
Bishop Wuerl, who will transfer from a diocese of 800,000 Catholics in 214 parishes to one with 560,000 Catholics in 140 parishes, told reporters he accepts his new assignment “with a truly humble heart.” Washington, he added, is “a significant Catholic center and all the more distinguished as the nation’s capital.”
After lauding the archdiocese for its “rich cultural diversity,” he then gave a few remarks in Spanish.
He will be installed as Washington’s sixth archbishop on June 22. The last four archbishops here all have been elevated to cardinal, a position Bishop Wuerl is expected to assume in about two years, when the pope names a new batch of candidates.
The 65-year-old Pittsburgh native has long been discussed as a finalist for the position, along with Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke.
“It surprised me a little,” said Michael Novak, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a scholar on Catholic social theory, who said he has only met the new archbishop “glancingly.”
“But his reputation is as one who knows his theology, who is brave and forthright in it, has a good, stout character and is not deterred by criticism,” he said. “He has a reputation for being of sound and good character. He has a good knowledge of doctrine; he’s internalized it and embodied it. I think it’s a good choice.”
Cardinal McCarrick is known for his good relationships both with President Bush and with Catholic Democrats on Capitol Hill. He was pressured to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians during the 2004 election, but he refused to deny the sacrament. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said Bishop Wuerl is of the same mind as Cardinal McCarrick on that issue.
“Wuerl is not confrontational,” he said. “He wants dialogue. The Vatican didn’t want someone causing a crisis with the U.S. government in the nation’s capital. They wanted someone who is smart, conservative, pastoral and prudent.”
Born Nov. 12, 1940, Bishop Wuerl received graduate degrees from Catholic University in the District and the Gregorian University in Rome. He became a priest in 1966 and worked in Pittsburgh under Bishop John J. Wright. When Bishop Wright was transferred to Rome as the prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, he took along Father Wuerl as his secretary.
The young priest, who would earn a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Rome in 1974, spent much of the first 20 years of his priesthood in the church’s central city. In January 1986, Pope John Paul II made the unusual move of personally ordaining him to the episcopate in St. Peter’s Basilica; a pope usually only ordains cardinals, not bishops.
But the pope had an emergency on his hands: He needed an American priest to serve on quick notice as the new auxiliary bishop to Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a pacifist who dissented on homosexuality, sterilizations and remarriage after divorce. The Vatican stripped him of much of his power in early 1986 and forced him to share his duties with Auxiliary Bishop Wuerl.
Protesters denounced the Vatican outside the Capitol Hilton the following November during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting there, and TV cameras followed both Archbishop Hunthausen and Bishop Wuerl about the hotel. Two years later, Bishop Wuerl was assigned his own diocese in Pittsburgh.
“Most of the bishops felt poor Wuerl was caught in the middle of this whole thing,” said Father Reese, whose 1989 book “Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church,” described the Hunthausen situation.
“He was a good soldier and doing what the Vatican told him to do. He was someone Rome trusted to go to Seattle. But there, he was getting death threats. It was a terrible situation. He’s not a guy who likes conflict, and boy, there was tons of it there.
“As soon as he could get out of Seattle, he was happy as a clam. He’s a nice guy, not a tough guy looking for a barroom brawl like some of these bishops looking for a heretic they could beat up.”
However, Bishop Wuerl didn’t shy away from conflict when it came to sexually abusive priests. After he suspended the Rev. Anthony Cipolla in 1988 after a former altar boy sued for damages, Father Cipolla persuaded the Vatican to reinstate him. Bishop Wuerl, according to press accounts, travelled to Rome in 1993 with suitcases full of papers to document the priest’s sex crimes. The Vatican changed its mind in 1995 and upheld the suspension.
BISHOP DONALD J. WUERL
Archbishop-designate of Washington
Born: Nov. 12, 1940, in Pittsburgh, the second of four children
Education: Bachelors and masters degrees, Catholic University, 1962 and 1963; graduate degrees, Gregorian University and University of St. Thomas, both in Rome
Career: Ordained a priest, Dec. 17, 1966; consecrated auxiliary bishop of Seattle, Jan. 12, 1986; made bishop of Pittsburgh, Feb. 12, 1988; chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Catechesis; chairman of the board of the National Catholic Bioethics Center; vice president of the executive board of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center
Source: The Washington Times