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

He closed nearly a third of the parishes in his home town of Pittsburgh with relatively little animosity, and in Washington, he turned seven Catholic schools over to the District's public charter system without much difficulty. He considers his biggest accomplishments in Washington his efforts to limit the number of Catholic-school closings, his managing of Pope Benedict's visit last year and his fine-tuning of best practices for religious schools.

"He's been an excellent archbishop," said Thomas Melady, a former ambassador to the Vatican who attends St. Matthew's. "He's very personable, easy for conversation and responds quickly" to concerns with a "small but effective staff." Given his aversion to controversy, Wuerl's involvement in the furor over same-sex marriage has come as a surprise to a number of Catholics.

Even some outspoken liberals say the city gave Wuerl no other choice, and that states with same-sex marriage give religious groups broader exemptions than those Washington is offering. But others are disappointed in Wuerl's choice to be outspoken on this issue, and say that a bishop could -- if he wished -- make a case for denying benefits to people who divorce without annulment.

"This puts the spotlight on a question which a lot of Catholics have been happily ignoring," said Ron Castaldi, who runs the social justice ministry at the left-leaning Holy Trinity parish, where he said the consensus about Wuerl boils down to: "What the hell is he up to? And, 'Not in my name.' "

Kevin Chavous, a former council member who worked with Wuerl on converting several Catholic schools into charter schools when the archdiocese could no longer afford them, said it was unusual to see the church "aggressively weigh in" on a local issue. "That's why it's rubbing some the wrong way."

Jack Evans, who has been on the D.C. Council for 18 years, said he has never met Wuerl and doesn't appreciate what he regards as the archbishop's ultimatum: Change the law's wording, or Catholic Charities will walk away from the city.

"There is a great disappointment among Catholics, among everyone, at the Church's 'Do it our way or we'll pull out' stance," Evans said. "It's unfortunate, because on this issue there is no middle. You can't be mostly equal. You either are or you're not."

But Wuerl, described by one archdiocese insider as a "raging pragmatist," remained hopeful that a compromise could be worked out. "One thing that remains the same for me," he said, "is a profound conviction that people of good will, if they're willing to talk things through, can make things happen."

If not, and Catholic Charities' contracts with the city come to an end, the archbishop could find himself in an uncomfortable place for months to come: the public eye.

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