Synod: Interview with Archbishop Donald Wuerl

Interview with Archbishop Donald Wuerl
October 10, 2008

Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. is an old Rome hand. He earned a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum in 1974, and later returned to Rome as secretary to Cardinal John Wright, who served as Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy from 1969 to 1979. This is Wuerl’s fourth Synod of Bishops, though his first as the Archbishop of Washington; he succeeded Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in the nation’s capital in June 2006.

On Friday, October 10, Wuerl sat down for an interview, dealing not only with the Synod of Bishops but also the looming elections in the United States. Among other things, Wuerl responded to questions about whether it’s possible to be pro-life without supporting a legal ban on abortion, or the overturning of the controversial 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Some American Catholics have invoked that possibility to justify support for Senator Barak Obama, despite what is conventionally labeled his 'pro-choice' record.

The following is a complete transcript of the interview.

Cardinal George Pell told me that this is the least divided synod he’s ever seen. Would you agree?

I don’t know. From my perspective, I’m marveled at all of them, and I did a piece about this for the diocese after the Synod on the Eucharist. What I find so amazing is the unity in the hall. When you think of it, we’re 20 centuries after the event, and you’re looking at these bishops from all over the world. Every continent is represented. Yet when you start to talk about the essential things, everybody’s on the same page.

What’s probably coming out in this synod is that we moved almost immediately to the pastoral dimension. We know what the Word of God is, we know the theology of the Word of God … the logos, the incarnation, the scriptures. Now, what do you do with this to make it come alive today? How do you help people access the Word of God? How do you better present the Word of God?

In other words, there’s no big-picture doctrinal question at stake?

The focus is very pastoral. So many of the interventions have done that, jumped immediately into how you help our people focus on the Word of God as normative in their lives, rather than just an adjunct that they hear from time to time. How do you help people understand it? How do we help our faithful recognize the Word of God as it’s affecting their choices in life today? To do that, you have to insert that Word into the living tradition of the church.

What do you make of Cardinal Francis George’s suggestion that the CDF might consider a document on the inerrancy of the Bible?

It might be helpful, though it’s a fairly arcane issue, and not something that would make its way into a pastoral statement from the synod itself. It might be something for the International Theological Commission to consider. [Note: The International Theological Commission is an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.]

At the pastoral level, are you hearing anything new or creative?

I think one of the things we’re hearing is a recognition that somehow we haven’t been as effective as we should be in presenting the Word of God. We jumped very, very quickly into the scriptures when we start talking about accessing the Word of God, but I think we have to step back from that. I think doing so will be helpful, and I’ve heard a number of bishops speak to this point.

God’s revelation has always been in deeds. God’s interventions in history have always been in deeds, in actions. Then there are those who interpret the actions, and then there are those who write down the interpretations of the actions. The scriptures are already two steps removed from the decisive event. One of the things we need to be reflecting on, and helping this generation of our people in particular to understand, is that you don’t just open the Bible, you don’t just get a little study group together and start reading it. It has to be read within the context of the understanding of those deeds, and those words, in the church, because that’s how they got written down. So, the living church as the context of the scriptures is something we’re hearing over and over again surfacing in the talks. Some of that may have to do with South America, where they’re dealing with a more fundamentalist approach in some circles.

We’ve also heard that from some of the African bishops. Cardinal Pengo spoke in dramatic terms about the challenge of the Pentecostal “sects.”

It’s there. I suspect it’s probably everywhere. The temptation today, in the culture we live in, this more and more cosmopolitan and international culture, is a highly individualistic approach to life. We’re not communitarian by outlook. Certainly in the United States, we’re conditioned to think in very individualistic terms. That’s the way many people, including many Catholics, would look at the scriptures … you go to church, you pray, you receive the Eucharist. If you’re going to get into scripture, you go join a Bible study. The temptation is to open it up and say, ‘Okay, this is what that means,’ as opposed to asking, ‘How does the broader community I’m part of understand this?’

What would your hope for this synod be?

It’s already beginning to take place. There’s a growing momentum that we need to pay more attention at the parish level. We haven’t heard much of it yet …parish, parish, parish … but I think that’s what’s going to come out of the synod. At the parish level, where the church lives and moves and breathes, that’s where we need to be engaging our people much more in understanding the Word of God … the Word of God reflected in the traditional teaching of the church, the Word of God reflected in the scriptures, is as much a part of their lives as anything else.

If you had one practical thing to suggest to people in terms of spiritual use of the Bible, what would it be?

To take a line from the New Testament, every day, and simply carry it with you the whole day. Read it, one line, whatever it is … ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ or ‘I am the resurrection’ … whatever it is, take that and just have that as your personal prayer all day long. It’s one way to put the scripture right back into the center of your life.

Do you do that yourself?

Yes. I start every day this way … I make the sign of the cross, the morning offering, and then take a line. It’s just a reminder that this is really what’s at issue today. Sometimes when you’re sitting there in traffic, you can forget what the issue is.

Let’s take a step back. There’s a lot of drama in the world at the moment, from an economic meltdown to the elections in the United States. Why should anyone care what’s happening in the synod?

Well, perspective. Doesn’t the church always deal with things in the long term? Granted, there’s a financial crisis going on right now, and we also have an election. Four years from now, we’re going to have another election. Four years after, we’ll have another. We’ve been in this campaign for almost two years. From one perspective, you could say that these things are ephemeral, they’re passing. What the church is really concerned about is what endures. There will be people struggling with their lives, trying to make sense out of their lives, because of this financial crash, because of the election and what will follow upon it, whatever that may be. Engaging those deep questions of meaning is the church’s role. We don’t have answers to political or financial problems, but we do have the task of passing on that revelation.

If there’s one thing that’s come out in this synod, and we’re only a week into it, it’s a determination to renew the conviction in the hearts of our people that God has spoken. This isn’t human reflection, even at its best. This is the received message, received and passed on within a living community, that goes back to events which tell us who we are and what’s going to happen to us in our lives.

In effect, are you saying that even without making it explicit, there is a sense in which the conversations here are relevant to the big problems of the day?

They’re foundational to the answer. What the church offers us today is Jesus’ answer to the great human questions: How shall I live? What’s the purpose of my life? What shall I make of the events of my life? We just finished reading the Book of Job all last week. Isn’t that what we bring? There was a crash in the 1930s, there was a terrible time in the 1980s, and we’re facing another cycle of market difficulty right now. I’m not saying they’re all equal, but they all cause commotion in people’s lives. The church’s response isn’t to say, ‘Here’s how you resolve those difficulties.’ I think what we say is, ‘You have no lasting city to begin with.’

Maybe it takes a crisis like this to help us grasp the importance of nurturing our relationship to God … this is ultimately the good news, that [material success] is not the end of life. The accumulation of things, the gathering of things, is not the point … as terribly painful as the loss of that may be. But at the end of the day, you’re going to lose it anyway. When all is said and done, that day comes. You close your eyes on this world, and that’s all gone. For a person of people, what you’re opening your eyes to is a whole other world.

In good times and in bad, whether the market’s booming or crashing, you still have to answer that question: What’s the meaning of my life? You might put it off. There are some for whom it never dawns until they get very, very close to the end. People tend to get more reflective as they get older, especially as they get clearly closer to the end, because wrestling with these questions is built in to who we are. At a certain point, we have to answer them, and that’s what this synod is all about. Isn’t the church trying to say, ‘There are answers to those great human questions.’ Every generation asks them, so they’re never old.

Speaking of things that are impossible to avoid, for several years it’s been tough to enter a bookstore in an airport or a mall without tripping across Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Whatever one might make of the book, it was a phenomenally successful popular treatment of Biblical themes. Is the synod paying enough attention to these sort of forces out in the marketplace that are shaping people’s imaginations?

I’m not sure that ten years from now, The Da Vinci Code is going to be shaping very much, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John will still be in people’s hands. Mothers and fathers will still be helping their children to come to grips with the Bible.

Does it frustrate you that there’s no Catholic, or Christian, novelist who’s achieved anything like the success of The Da Vinci Code?

Let’s put it in this frame of reference, and this is what we deal with every time we get up into a pulpit. You read a section of the Gospel and start to talk about it, and everybody in that church has heard it how many times? They already know what you’re going to say. It doesn’t make it less true or convincing, but that’s how familiar they are with. Along comes The Da Vinci Code, and it’s myth … it’s engaging, challenging, but it’s myth.

I believe one of the reasons it captured people’s imaginations and sold was that for some, this was a way to justify that they don’t go to church. For others, it was just fun to read.

Shouldn’t the church be able to make the Bible just as engaging and captivating?

I think we do, and I think it’s going on all the time. Today across the world, there are more people familiar with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – more people familiar with the story of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection – than anything else. That’s because all over the world, faithful people are proclaiming that and announcing that. It doesn’t have the same attraction as a flash in the pan like The Da Vinci Code might have, but I think it is capturing people’s imaginations.

How many people have given their lives to follow The Da Vinci Code? Look at the people who give their lives every single year to follow the gospel. I’m staying at the North American College, where there more students this year than since sometime in the 1960s. In the Archdiocese of Washington, we have 72 men studying for the priesthood. I just had Mass this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica with a young man who was ordained to the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Washington. All of our seminarians were there, and these are people for whom that gospel message has not only captured their imaginations, it’s captured their hearts.

You sound like an optimist.

It’s been going for 2,000 years. Seriously, that line from the Tale of Two Cities , “It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times.” Don’t people always say that? This might sound trite, but I keep reminding myself of it when I get home and have to ask, ‘Did anything work today?’ It all started with Jesus saying to Peter and Andrew, James and John, ‘Come follow me.’ They didn’t do a great job, and yet here we are.

At a pastoral level, are there concrete new ideas about how to bring the Bible alive that you’ve heard at the synod?

There are a number of things. One is a pet peeve of mine. We’ve got to tie the Bible, our scripture readings, and our lectionary-based homiletics, to the issues of the day, and you can do that simply by opening up the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What are people talking about? What are the great moral issues of the day? What are the great faith issues of the day, the great prayer issues?

Tying the lectionary and our preaching to the catechism is something we need to do. Up until maybe a generation and a half ago in the United States and in most of Western Europe, you could presume [catechesis] was happening. Catholic schools and Catholic education carried it out, we had religious teaching. The priest could get up on Sunday and moralize, because that foundation was there. We now have to provide that foundation.

Speaking of engaging the issues of the day, as you and I speak we’re 25 days away from election day in the United States. What should pastors across the country be saying in the pulpits?

I think one of the things that all of us need to recognize is that in a democracy, in the United States, every single person bears responsibility for what happens in the country. We may be multiple levels removed from final decisions, but every one of us bears a responsibility. When you vote, you vote as conscientiously as you can, and then you can say before God, ‘I did my best to see that this country is moving in a direction that’s in conformity with your gospel.’ I think the big challenge is to convince all of our faithful people that each one of us has a responsibility.

Lots of pastors don’t want to touch politics in the pulpit because it’s so divisive. You live in Washington, D.C. so I imagine it’s tough for you to steer clear of politics. What’s the trick to doing it right?

One of the things we did as a conference of bishops is to produce the ‘Faithful Citizenship’ document on forming conscience. I think that’s an excellent document. What it says is that the role of the bishop is to teach. We present what the gospel says, what it means in terms of today, but the translation of that teaching into action belongs to the lay person. It belongs to people with responsibility for the “transformation of the temporal order,” as the council put it. That’s their responsibility. It’s the task of the faithful. I think we’ve done a good job in ‘Faithful Citizenship’ of saying, ‘These are the things you need to be aware of,’ but the transformation of this culture is not going to depend on us.

So the top note is taking seriously the lay role for the transformation of culture?

Yes, while listening to what the church has said on all of these issues, multiple issues. At the head of that list of priorities, as ‘Faithful Citizenship’ says, are the life issues. I believe that’s what we’re going to be judged by historically, down the road. I think one hundred years from now, people are going to look back and wonder how it was possible that we could have had a culture that builds into it the wholesale destruction of unborn life.

On the life issues, especially abortion, one feature of the ’08 election is the emergence of high-profile Catholics making the case that it’s possible to be pro-life without seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. Does that position make sense to you?

What the church is saying is that you must defend human life, that you cannot destroy innocent human life. That’s what the church is saying, and it goes back to the very beginning of the church’s proclamation. How you best achieve that is a political decision.

To be coherent with the faith, a Catholic does not necessarily have to support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?

I think that’s a decision that you have to weigh in light of what are the other practical alternatives. Today, what are those practical alternatives? That’s what has not been presented.

Does overturning a specific piece of legislation, or, in this case, a court decision, fall into the category of prudential judgment?

Except that here, this prudential judgment is up against something that is profoundly intrinsically evil, so you begin to cross the line.

Some Catholics believe that abortion is profoundly intrinsically evil and must be combated, without believing that criminalization is the best way to accomplish it. Is that at least conceptually possible?

Yes, it’s conceptually possible. But when you get into the realm of politics, the realm of translating the need to preserve life into the circumstances of our day, what is conceptually possible and what is pressingly obligatory now begin to become two different things. That’s why there is so much confusion. I don’t think you can make things black and white, I don’t think you can separate or rule out the grays.

Part of what makes this difficult to talk about is that many Catholics saying it’s possible to be pro-life without supporting a legal ban on abortion are doing so to support Obama, so immediately the debate focuses on him. It’s hard to separate the larger issues from people’s reactions, either positively or negatively, to this one candidate.

That’s true, but I also think that in the long run, it doesn’t necessarily make as much sense to say, ‘Let’s not work for overturning Roe v. Wade, because there may be some other alternative.’ If you put it into the bigger picture, I think one hundred years from now people are going to say, ‘How could they have allowed that to happen?’ It’s similar to someone saying a hundred years ago, ‘We shouldn’t work to overturn slavery, because there may be other ways to resolve these tensions between the states.’ At a certain point, you have to come to the issue itself.

To put the question in its sharpest form, is overturning Roe v. Wade an article of the Catholic faith?

No, but it is one of the most clearly aligned practical ways to stop what’s happening.

Seeking a legal ban on abortion is, however, a political strategy, not a point of doctrine?

Here, a lot of that meshes. It is the firm teaching of the church that you cannot take that life, you simply cannot do that. It’s an innocent life, and when you do that, you cannot claim to be innocent and participate in it.

So if you want to make the argument that a legal ban is not the right way to go, you better have an awfully persuasive alternative?

You would have to have some way to appeal to the political process to bring an end to abortion. As you know, Bob Casey Sr. has made the case that the American people were grappling in conscience with this issue [before the Roe v. Wade decision]. The prohibition of abortion, particularly after the first trimester – although people were not put in jail – was a moral consensus in this country. The Supreme Court simply wiped that away. It wiped away the political consensus of the American people, in favor of something now we’re trying to get back to. Maybe that politician you’re speaking about, who’s going to come up with a solution to this, would say, ‘We did have a step in the right direction when we had a consensus that at least abortion past a certain period of time couldn’t happen.’ That’s not where you want to be, but it’s where we were, and it’s better than where we are now.

It was a judicial fiat that brought us to where we are, and that’s why it just makes such good sense politically, and conscientiously, to say, ‘Get rid of that.’ That’s what caused the problem, Roe v. Wade. Get rid of that, and you now have a playing field upon which the arguments can be heard. My frustration is that the arguments for and against abortion really aren’t being heard, in terms of the reality what actually takes place in an abortion.

To reiterate, is it possible to be pro-life without seeking a legal ban on abortion?

The question is, can you translate your faith conviction that taking innocent, unborn life is always evil into practice in any other way?

As you know, some Catholics and others argue that a legal ban would not reduce the abortion rate, but simply make abortions more dangerous. Instead, they advocate steps such as better pre-natal care, more funding for adoption services, reducing the poverty rate among women – which, they contend, would do more to address the circumstances that often lead women to consider abortion in the first place.

Even if Roe v. Wade were overturned and abortion were prohibited, we’re still a step away from putting people in prison. We simply stop the practice in hospitals, in medical centers, wherever the practice is taking place, and you revoke the licenses of people who do it. So, it seems to me there’s a way you can right what is wrong without putting people into prison.

You’re going to find a range of voices on this question. Of course, this brings us back to forming conscience. It’s out of one’s conscience, weighing all these issues, that one has to vote. Politically right now, existentially, if Roe v. Wade is not overturned, is there any other possible strategy that’s going to work? That’s the question with which we’ve got to grapple.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement