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

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009; B01

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).

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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