VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, is a moderate whose clout increased last December when Pope Francis tapped him to serve on the Congregation of Bishops. Advising the pope on appointments, Wuerl was in a position to give the green light for the recent selection of another moderate, Blase Cupich, to serve as archbishop of Chicago beginning next month.
As cardinals and bishops enter their fourth day of discussion at the synod on the family, Wuerl spoke to Crux about his hope that his brother bishops will spend more time considering how to apply doctrine to the “concrete order where people live.” He said he talks with people, including gays, “who have drifted away from the Church,” but who feel their experiences are, under Pope Francis, now being heard.
Can you share your general reactions to the synod so far?
So far I’ve been very impressed by a number of things. The Holy Father began by saying he wanted people to speak with clarity and he wanted people to listen with humility. That’s been what I’ve been experiencing.
People have been very open in saying what’s on their mind, how they’re looking at things, and this is particularly true when we have to talk about doctrinal issues and pastoral application of them. You see all the different perspectives. I’m also very impressed by the amount of rethinking. People are listening.
I just had the experience right now as we were leaving this session, of running into a brother, who said, What did you think of …, and he mentioned the very talk I was thinking about. I thought, it gave us a lot to rethink.
So there’s a lot of really good listening going on. I don’t know — and I prayed a lot over this, including this morning, very, very intensely — I don’t know how you bring all this together in a short period of time.
Now I’m beginning to see more and more the wisdom of Pope Francis saying, This is a process, that we’re gong to be at this for this synod, all the time in between, and the next synod. And the key to it, as he said, and, I think he’s absolutely right, we need to let the spirit move us. We just can’t assume we have the answers.
Are there any issues that are rising to the top among the bishops?
I think what’s becoming more and more, at least, in my mind, it’s one thing to doctrinally state the obvious. It’s another thing to take that and get it to work in the concrete order where people live.
Now you don’t deny the doctrine, in any way, but you have to make it apply to people. That’s going to be the challenge, and I think that’s what the Holy Father is calling us to do.
He’s saying, We know this, we believe this, this is what is at the heart of our teaching. But how do you meet people where they are? And bring them as much of that as they can take, and help them get closer?
That’s going to be the challenge. That’s going to be the really difficult part. How do you help people live all the beauty of family life when some of them may not have experienced what we know to be family?
In the weeks leading up to the synod, there was a pointed, spirited debate among different cardinals and bishops about divorce and remarriage. Has there been progress on that issue?
Well, that’s really a very good question. I wish I could say that I’ve seen a lot of progress. I very much try to hear, and to let people on both sides know that I am hearing, by talking with them and letting them give their position again.
I think we’re still maybe too early into this synod for that process of people saying, Well, maybe this position of mine isn’t quite as clear as I thought it was. I’m not hearing of that yet.
In my experience of synods, the real give-and-take takes place in the small circles, and we’re not there yet. Monday we start those. That’s where the real give-and-take begins to take place.
We’re listening now. In the small circles, you have to not only speak, but you then have to answer to someone else who is challenging one of your points.
The divorce question has certainly received much attention in the media and, it seems, in the synod. What other issues have come up, that maybe have surprised you, or issues you wish were getting more attention?
One of the things that I seen in the preparation for all of this, and that our Holy Father keeps speaking about, is meeting people where they are. We have something wonderful to bring them.
We have this beautiful, beautiful vision of reality that comes to us from God. Our task is to bring that to people where they are. I’m not hearing as much of that yet. But I think that’s going to take place, again, once we get into the give-and-take of the small circles.
So far, I’ve been very impressed. We’re only in this three days, this is our fourth day of it. It’s beginning, to my mind, it’s beginning to gel around the issues that we’re going to have to work with.
Can you share examples of how the Church has been able to reach people where they are in these difficult situations?
One of the things that I think we have all learned, under this Holy Father particularly, is sometimes when you’re dealing with these intractable problems, the one thing you can do is you can be there with people and let them know that they’re not alone.
We’re seeing more and more people who used to feel that the Church had nothing to say to them, now saying, They’re not condemning me, they’re talking about something that is bigger than an individual.
I think many people who are of a homosexual orientation feel that at least the Church is hearing them, and I think that’s something refreshing.
I think people who have drifted away from the Church because they live in this very secular world, they don’t hear anything that means something to them coming from the Church.
I think some of the people I talk to who belong to that mindset are saying, You know, Pope Francis is giving me reason to think a little bit more about some of the things being said. I think that’s a refreshing point.
This is all still very, very early into the game.
Are issues affecting young adults making their way into the synod conversation?
Right now, the whole discussion has been focused on marriage, and [young adults] are not the largest group getting married.
But I also think that some of the issues that young people have today, that are not specific issues [to them] but to the overall picture [are being discussed]. Questions like, What values should I live by? How should I live? I think those questions are being raised by younger people.
I know back in the Archdiocese of Washington, we have a very, very vibrant young adult program, and I get to talk to a lot of young adults, 30 and under, who really are saying, There has to be a lot more than what this culture’s giving me.
Can you speak to the presence of lay couples at the synod?
Anytime we get varieties of perspectives, we’re enriched by it. And it’s very, very difficult not to impressed when you hear couples speaking, coming out of decades of marriage, and having faced all kinds of issues, you can’t help but be impressed by that.
I just find it all so very encouraging. When I talk to members of my family, when I talk to them who are married and with children, what I’m hearing here echoes a lot what I hear when I’m with family.
Life is not simple, life is not easy, but people who’ve committed to one another can make it work. And that’s what we’re hearing from them.
The Synod of Bishops on the family continues through Oct. 19.