Donald Wuerl, master of the archdiocese

wuerl 01Jacqueline L. Salmon of The Washington Post wrote what I consider a very regrettable story about Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl. Salmon's mini-profile of Wuerl, written in preparation for Pope Benedict XVI's visit, was shallow and unfair, the sort of story that the Archbishop detests and rightly so. Salmon's portrayal of Wuerl reads like a male character in a Tom Wolfe novel: concerned above all with his worldly standing and status. She writes:

... (The) pontiff declined an opportunity last year to elevate Wuerl to the highest ranks of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The promotion might well come in a few years, and a successful papal visit now could only enhance Wuerl's reputation.

For the hardworking archbishop, who usually prefers to operate behind the scenes, hosting the pope April 15 to 18 is a high-profile mission.

Wuerl's "stock goes up not only in Rome but in the United States if all this goes well," said Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "His stock will go down if something goes really poorly." ...

Wuerl and Benedict share a warm relationship, and Wuerl serves on influential bodies at the Vatican and in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. So it was somewhat of a surprise in November when Wuerl was not elevated to cardinal as Benedict named 23 churchmen to the post. A cardinal traditionally heads the archdiocese of Washington.

Experts say the Vatican avoids having two cardinals eligible to vote for the pope from the same diocese. Wuerl's predecessor, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, 77, is eligible to vote until he is 80. Wuerl will probably receive a cardinal's traditional "red hat" after that.

Salmon's passages are superficial, for any reader that knows much about the Catholic church.

For one thing, why it matters that Wuerl is an archbishop, not a cardinal, is never mentioned. The effect on Catholics and non-Catholics in the archdiocese is unclear. For another thing, Salmon fails to mention whether Wuerl really cares about his status. Although Wuerl himself would not comment on this touchy subject, certainly the Catholic experts Salmon interviews would have addressed this, if only on background.

Salmon's characterization betrays a misunderstanding of the man. Yes, he has dined with President Bush. But Wuerl's tenure in Pittsburgh and Washington suggests that he is more interested in fulfilling his spiritual duties than seeking power.

As bishop of Pittsburgh, he insisted on laicizing a priest over the objections of the Vatican. If he sought to curry favor with Rome, he showed it in a funny way. As archbishop of Washington, he has instituted an annual program at every diocese at Lent that encourages Catholics to go to confession. A public relations campaign this is not. (For an excellent profile of Wuerl, read Julia Duin's 2007 story in The Washington Times.)

The Post's take on Wuerl would be forgivable if the rest of the story were fair to him or balanced. It was not. To wit:

Some Catholics have accused Wuerl of abandoning the black community with his proposal to convert seven inner-city Catholic schools to publicly funded charter schools. He also angered some conservative Catholics by refusing to discipline House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, after she accepted Communion at Mass last year at her alma mater, Trinity Washington University.

"It is extremely difficult to make a public judgment about the state of the soul of someone else," Wuerl said. "Our task is to convince people and win people over to what is the correct view."

A few Catholic school advocates also find Wuerl's leadership lacking. They want to halt the charter school conversions, which mostly affect African American children. Last month, the archdiocese said that almost all of the schools' faculty members and parents signed forms endorsing the plan.

Charter opponent S. Kathryn Allen said Wuerl did not put enough effort into raising funds to keep the schools Catholic. "His predecessors worked hard to find alternatives" to closing the schools, she said. "And it doesn't appear that he has tried as hard."

"(A)bandoning the black community" -- them's fighting words in the global, multicultural reality that is modern Catholicism. Wuerl would no doubt protest this characterization vehemently. Did he? Salmon never says. That's a problem.

Perhaps the archbishop or his spokesmen failed to return her calls or perhaps a Post copyeditor inadvertently deleted the archciocese's disavowal. Whatever the case, her story leaves the impression that Wuerl treated African American Catholics and non-Catholics with indifference and neglect. If this charge is true, Salmon needed more documentation than a few quotes.

I have talked with Archbishop Wuerl twice.

The second time was after a Mass. During that private conversation, he came across as gentle, smart and shrewd. The first time was for a story I was writing about giving Holy Communion to Catholic politicians. During this conversation, Bishop Wuerl was unyielding, stern and extremely sensitive. He ended the interview after only a few minutes and told me that he would call my editor if his comments were included. But unlike the case with Salmon's story, mine never ran.

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