Cardinal Wuerl: Catholic Church moving from legalism to mercy

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington speaks at a conference on climate change at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome on May 20, 2015. (Paul Haring, courtesy Catholic News Service)

Rome — “The frame of reference is now going to be: ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ That’s our first task.”

That’s Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl summing up the new course for Catholicism set by the momentous Vatican meeting of 270 bishops from around the world that concluded last weekend, a three-week marathon in which he played a key role.

After often contentious talks on whether to adapt the church’s approach to issues such as divorce and cohabitation, the high-level synod succeeded in giving Pope Francis a document that offers him significant new flexibility in shaping more pastoral policies.

But the final report, and its more controversial measures, won support from the churchmen only after moments of high drama and bold lobbying, especially by hard-liners who charged reformers with trying to manipulate the synod.

Wuerl is one of the American bishops most trusted by Francis, and many credited his efforts with helping bring the synod to a successful conclusion that seemed in doubt at many points.

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In an interview with Religion News Service on Sunday, Oct. 25 -- the day before he returned home -- the cardinal joked about the late nights of working and writing: “See these circles!” he said, pointing at the bags under his eyes.

Synods are usually held every three years on different themes, and this was the last for Wuerl, who turns 75 next month and has worked on synods for the past 25 years.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity:

The pope’s talk at the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod system spoke of how the “church and synod are one,” and that this wasn’t a single event but an ongoing dialogue of what he called “synodality.” What does that mean?

The real takeaway from this synod is that Pope Francis has changed the way the church goes about reflecting on her pastoral ministry. That’s no small thing.

What Pope Francis has done in these two years, and these two synods, and all the collaboration in between — and we can’t forget that — he called for a process, not a synod.

You had all this open discussion about issues the church is struggling with. You are not going to be able to close that door in the future. Pope Francis has made it clear that this is the way the church addresses the gospel message and the human condition.

The synod seemed to return repeatedly to Francis’ call for the church to address the realities of people’s lives, to “always consider the person,” as he says, rather than just citing doctrine.

Yes, we have a very clear teaching and yes, we announce that teaching. But at the same time, that teaching includes the mercy of God and the care of the individual believer. Those two elements of the same reality are what the pope has lifted up and made visible in a way they haven’t been in a long time. If you are not able to minister to that person where that person is, you are not completing the teaching.

The final document achieved consensus but did not provide many specifics about how bishops and priests will be able to proceed in “accompanying” people. Do you expect the pope to answer those questions, to put some flesh on those bones in some concrete way?

I think the first fruit of this synod will be the idea that we have to be reaching out.

Now, more practically, what will the Holy Father do with this?  He may share reflections on some of this material in his audience talks. He may decide to do some form of writing on this, or he may turn it over to some offices in the Roman Curia to say, ‘Bring back something on this.’

The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ But I think the Holy Father has a whole range of opportunities before him. I think we just have to wait and see what he chooses.

So you expect there’s going to be some concrete follow-up to this document in some form or another?

I think there’s going to be something. But the lessons from this may not have to be written documents. The lessons may be, ‘This is the way you discuss things in the church.’ This openness, that’s one lesson.

The second lesson is: Try to live the teaching in the context of where you are, and don’t give up because you’re not living it perfectly. And don’t consider yourself no longer a part of the church if you’re not living it perfectly.

I’ve had priests say to me that the pope is really just affirming what most of us know in our hearts we are supposed to be doing anyway.

Pope Francis in his powerful closing address to the synod called out the intemperate talk that even some bishops and cardinals engaged in before and during the synod. Will tempers cool or could this get worse?

I think the two things -- the “manipulation syndrome” and the “end of the world syndrome” -- both of those were not helpful. They were far less than what one would expect from a gathering of bishops in a synod, to have that type of talk.

But as the synod went on, it became clear there is such a thing as ecclesial consensus around the church’s practice.

My impression is that a single three-week synod, and a consensus in that synod, is not going to change everybody’s thinking and way of speaking.

I hope it does set some new parameters in the conversation. … Don’t be so quick to find fault with the people who disagree with you -- that’s the conspiracy side -- and don’t be so quick to find doctrinal aberrations in the positions of people who disagree with you.

The one issue that seemed to go off the table, especially compared to last year, was the question of how to better welcome gays and lesbians. Where do you see that conversation going in the future?

I think the initial mistake back in the 2014 synod was that the conversation about respecting gays and lesbians got mixed in with the issue of whether there should be same-sex marriage. Those are two different issues altogether. One is a basic part of Catholic teaching: Of course you respect everyone, made in the image and likeness of God. Now if you’re going to talk about institutional things, that wasn’t clearly spelled out. And I think that left a sort of a taint in the synod.

Can you foresee that deeper conversation on gays and lesbians taking place in some forum?

I do. I don’t think that’s been taken off the table. You still find in the final document the call for respect for people as they are. And that’s an important thing. But that’s a conversation that’s going to take a little bit more time to develop into more practical applications.

In a synod, or elsewhere?

I don’t think everything that took place in this synod is to be held in abeyance until another synod. I think part of the genius of this synod was the opening of the church in her discernment process to include these types of conversations going forward. We don’t have to wait for another synod.

What does permanent synodality mean? Do you have to come together every three years or is there some other way to do this?

From my perspective, when you are dealing with a worldwide institution that already has over a billion members, yes, you do have to meet. And this is probably the most cost-effective way to run a consultation.

How do you continue the spirit of the Second Vatican Council unless you actually bring people together to talk to one another about the church’s needs? This you can’t do electronically.


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