Pope Benedict XVI has decided that Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick should continue as archbishop of Washington despite McCarrick's having reached the retirement age of 75, the archdiocese said yesterday.
"The cardinal's understanding is that he'll be here another two years or so," said Susan Gibbs, McCarrick's spokeswoman.
McCarrick, who has headed the Washington archdiocese since January 2001 and is in good health, had formally offered his resignation July 7, his 75th birthday, as required of bishops by church law. He told the archdiocese's priests at a Labor Day gathering that he received the pope's decision in a letter from the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican's ambassador to Washington.
"I accept the Holy Father's decision with gratitude and confidence," McCarrick said in a written statement. "The confidence is based on the fact that I can count on the help of God. . . . The gratitude comes from the privilege of working with my brother bishops and priests, deacons and religious, whose generosity and zeal I have already experienced over the last four and a half years."
Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, routinely allowed bishops to continue past their 75th birthdays as long as they were in good health, untainted by scandal and running their dioceses without major problems. The late Cardinal James A. Hickey, who preceded McCarrick as Washington's archbishop, remained in that post until he was 80.
Some activists in the church had made no secret, however, of their hope that Benedict would replace McCarrick with someone who would take more aggressive positions on issues such as the admission of homosexuals to seminaries and the denial of Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.
McCarrick has said that all candidates for the priesthood must show that they are ready to live in celibacy, regardless of their sexual orientation. Some Catholic leaders favor a strict ban on anyone who acknowledges a sexual attraction to other men.
During the last presidential campaign, McCarrick suggested that politicians who publicly oppose the church's teaching against abortion should not present themselves for Communion. But he also said he did not think the Communion rail was an appropriate place for confrontation.
Domenico Bettinelli, editor of Catholic World Report, a conservative monthly in Salem, Mass., said yesterday that in his view, McCarrick is part of "a passing generation of bishops" who took "a soft-pedal approach where it's more important to not offend people than to stand firmly for the truth and the church's teaching."
McCarrick "has given long service to the church, is obviously dedicated to the church and is doing what he thinks is right for the church," Bettinelli said. "But it would be a service to the church to bring in a younger man with more energy to renew the faith."
The Rev. William J. Byron, former president of Catholic University and former pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Northwest Washington, disagreed. He said McCarrick was popular with clergy and laity in Washington and would be very difficult to replace.
"He loves the job, he loves being archbishop of Washington, and it shows," Byron said. "It's a very good venue for a person with his interests and personality. He moves well in diplomatic circles. He has been very active internationally, and he has managed to do that without neglecting the store at home."