“When we use the word sanctuary, we have to be very careful that we’re not holding out false hope. We wouldn’t want to say, ‘Stay here, we’ll protect you,’ ” he said, explaining that he’s not sure churches can legally guarantee protection to people who might move into a church building, or that federal agents would necessarily respect the boundaries of a church as a place that they cannot enter. “With separation of church and state, the church really does not have the right to say, ‘You come in this building and the law doesn’t apply to you.’ But we do want to say we’ll be a voice for you.”
Wuerl made the comments in a meeting with editors at The Washington Post, where he discussed many issues of interest to the Archdiocese of Washington, which covers the District and much of Maryland and is one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic dioceses.
Catholics have been torn politically since the election of President Trump. A majority of Catholics voted for Trump, but bishops and leaders of Catholic nonprofit organizations have fiercely opposed some of Trump’s policies in the first weeks of his presidency, particularly Trump’s attempt to suspend refugee admissions to the United States. Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about the virtue of welcoming refugees and has made thinly veiled references to those who would build walls, as Trump has proposed doing along the country’s southern border.
The Catholic Church has long advocated for religious liberty in the United States and around the world, but one of Trump’s first proposals on the subject is an unexpected one that Wuerl indicated he would not necessarily approve of.
Trump has vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, the law banning tax-exempt houses of worship from supporting political candidates. Wuerl suggested that he doesn’t see a need for Trump to do away with the 63-year-old law.
He said he was content with the restrictions currently placed on churches and other nonprofit groups. “I feel much more comfortable with what has been the traditional separation of church and state, so that you don’t have the pulpit used then as a place where candidates are invited to speak to the congregation. … I like to keep a distinction between the role of the pastor and the role of the politician.”
Indeed, Wuerl said repeatedly during his discussion with Post editors that he did not feel it was his place to voice opinions on specific government policies. But he did name serving the needs of immigrants — from providing food to offering legal representation — as one of the archdiocese’s highest priorities now.
“When we come to something like immigration, our voice is always going to be: Aren’t we supposed to be welcoming people, especially those who are fleeing persecution?” Wuerl said.
The cardinal took issue with Trump’s earlier statement that he would prioritize Christian refugees over Muslims and others. Catholics have long been concerned about the persecution of Christians by the Islamic State, he said, but the United States should be just as open to Muslims and anyone else suffering persecution.
He also expressed concern for undocumented immigrants living in the United States — many of whom are Hispanic Catholics — who are fearful that they may be deported, as ICE officials have been conducting raids in numerous states.
“It’s one thing to talk about securing sovereign borders,” Wuerl said. “The people that are here now, we have to treat them as brothers and sisters.”
Many of the Trump administration’s policies may have tremendous implications for the Catholic Church. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos envisions a major expansion of school voucher programs that could pay for more children to attend Catholic schools. A repeal of the Affordable Care Act would reverberate for Catholic hospitals, which account for 1 out of 6 hospital beds in the nation. The global and national church has been very active in its opposition to abortion and its advocacy for policies to address climate change.
But so far, the church has no official channel for expressing those views to the White House, Wuerl said on Thursday. He hasn’t heard anything about a White House office for faith-based programs, which presidents Obama and Bush each used to communicate with religious organizations.
“I think it’s an important structure, so that there’s somebody in the administration we religious can go to,” he said. But he said it was too early to tell whether Trump would appoint someone to lead a faith-based office, or which religious figures might gain the ear of the president and his advisers.
Wuerl also discussed with Post editors the resignation of Marie Collins, a prominent figure in the Vatican who survived sexual abuse by a priest, from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Collins said in a scathing statement Wednesday that she was quitting the committee on preventing clergy sexual abuse because she was frustrated by Vatican officials’ reluctance to fix the problem. Some officials refused to even reply to letters from people who said they were victims of abuse, Collins claimed.
But Wuerl was not alarmed by that statement. “I think a lot has been done. An enormous amount has been done. I’m not sure, does every letter that comes in get a response?” he said.
Pope Francis had agreed in 2015 to set up a tribunal that would investigate whether bishops were negligent in addressing abuse in their dioceses, but the tribunal has not come to be. That also did not trouble Wuerl, who suggested that bishops might be removed from their prominent positions because they covered up abuse, but without anyone knowing why they were demoted. “It’s not the style of the Holy See, if they remove someone, to have a news conference. It’s just not the style,” he said.
He emphasized that the goal of the Washington archdiocese, and the church elsewhere, is to take a zero-tolerance approach toward abusers, so that no one who has abused a minor remains in ministry.