Same-sex marriage pushes D.C. archbishop into limelight

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When the D.C. Council votes Tuesday on a historic measure to legalize same-sex marriage in the District, one of the most visible faces of opposition will be an unlikely one: Catholic Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, a mild-mannered man known for compromise, pragmatism and working behind the scenes.

For most of his three years in the nation's capital, Wuerl, 69, has avoided the limelight -- a prelate who prays in front of abortion clinics without calling in the cameras. His profile has been so low that some D.C. Council members -- who are expected to overwhelmingly approve a bill giving gay couples the right to marry -- said they have never met the highest-ranking Catholic official in the Washington region.

Wuerl's emergence as a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage came late, after a summer of activism led by Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of a Pentecostal Beltsville church, and a small group of conservative clergy. But in the final days before the vote, Wuerl became the most influential opponent of the bill by using the church's social service arm, Catholic Charities, as a negotiating tool. The Church said it would not be able to continue taking $18 million to $20 million in city funding for homeless shelters, medical clinics and other charitable endeavors if the wording of the law forced the Church to violate its teachings on marriage.

"When this legislation was introduced, it was my obligation as a teacher and member of community to say, this is a radical change in the definition of marriage as it's always been understood by humankind, and we simply would not be able to accept that as compatible with our faith," Wuerl said in an interview.

Eleventh-hour talks were being held Monday to see whether the law's wording could be tweaked to keep the Church from having to recognize same-sex marriages by, among other things, offering benefits to gay employees' partners. The measure requires two votes, so the wording that will be voted on Tuesday might not be final. The impasse has been a reminder that religious liberties and civil rights are on a collision course in the same-sex marriage debate.

For many non-Catholics in the city, the controversy has been their first introduction to Wuerl, who arrived in Washington in 2006 from a much less visible post in Pittsburgh.

Vatican-watchers say he was sent to Washington because he is a politically moderate voice, not likely to jump into public debates with the area's Catholic colleges about what they teach or with Catholic politicians about how they vote.

St. Matthew's, the archdiocese's cathedral, "is in spitting distance of the White House and Capitol Hill, and, despite that, he has been amazingly successful at keeping the Church not embroiled in politics," said Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America. "He's been, until this point, very deft at stepping around those difficulties."

Although some church leaders have threatened to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, Wuerl has made it clear he isn't among them. It isn't his job to judge the hearts of those seeking Communion, he said, and he wouldn't deny the sacrament to anyone.

With 580,000 Catholics, the Washington archdiocese includes the city and its Maryland suburbs. But the archbishop's position tends to be focused more on national issues than local matters.

Wuerl's predecessor, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, reveled in the job's prominence and enjoyed operating on an international stage. Church-watchers invariably note the difference in style between Wuerl and McCarrick, a red-hatted jet-setter who preferred to delegate the minutiae of running the archdiocese.

Wuerl is described by many people as a well-liked bureaucrat, a description he physically embodies by being both warm (of smile) and formal (of posture).

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