The Archbishop of Washington occupies one of the most prominent posts in the Church in America. But the assignment, usually accompanied by a cardinal’s hat, comes with a tricky job description.
Because of his proximity to the federal government, DC’s archbishop often sets the tone, or at least frames the debate, for how other bishops in the country react to political events. Washington’s archbishop often finds himself the first point of reference on very public pastoral questions, like admittance to Communion for pro-abortion politicians, and he is often asked to take a lead role in overtly political events like the annual March for Life.
Washington is also one of the more diverse dioceses in the country: pastorally, liturgically, and culturally. It takes a particular skill-set for a bishop to bring together a flock of almost 700,000, which includes the deeply enculturated African-American parishes in the southeast of the city, the affluent parishes of northern parts of the city, large communities of Latin American immigrants, thousands of university students, and the rural communities of southern Maryland.
In addition to ordinary parish life, groups and movements like Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenal Way, and Communion and Liberation are all present in the archdiocese, as are numerous adherents to the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy, the so-called “Traditional Latin Mass.” Encouraging, promoting, and supporting those movements, without seeming to favor or disfavor one or another, can be a challenge all its own.
Beyond that, there are six Catholic colleges or universities in the diocese, and a number of seminary programs, as well as a far higher than average number of religious houses.
The Archbishop of Washington also has the USCCB in his backyard, and he is expected to play a senior role in the USCCB’s deliberations, without being seen to undermine or overrule its work on the federal level. That’s a tricky balancing act.
Before the scandals of the past few months, one of the most common criticisms of Cardinal Wuerl was that he was something of an episcopal Rorschach test; he could appear to be different things to different people, and seemed often to avoid coming down clearly on one side or another of difficult theological debates.
But, by some estimates, the ability to be all things to all people is a necessary skill for an archbishop in Washington – the line between taking a decisive stand and a divisive one is often very thin, indeed.
In short, the Archbishop of Washington is usually expected to represent a balance- neither to keel very far to the left or to the right, because of the scope of the issues that tend to fall into his lap. This means he usually faces criticism from the left and the right- and Wuerl, long before the scandals, faced both. But that balance is understood to be a critical part of the job.
Framing an authentically Catholic response to the issues of the day in a way that does not appear either openly partisan or impossibly vague requires a diplomatic skill set not necessarily found, or even needed, in every bishop.
If the pope were to name a successor to Wuerl who is perceived to be a committed “progressive” or “conservative”, or who has a reputation for a narrow focus on one band of issues, the man might arrive to find a diocese already divided over his appointment.
While it would be myopic to assess Cardinal Wuerl’s tenure solely through the lens of the recent scandals, it is also impossible to deny that they have been the immediate cause of his departure, and that they will be the first priority of his replacement.
When he announced that he was asking the pope to accept his resignation, Wuerl said that the archdiocese needed to begin to move past the summer’s revelations. Last month, a spokesman for the cardinal told CNA that Wuerl believed “healing from the abuse crisis requires a new beginning and this includes new leadership for the Archdiocese of Washington.”
How “new” that “new leadership” is perceived to be could determine how fast healing happens, and how seriously the Vatican is seen to be responding to the situation.
Wuerl himself has given some indications of the kind of bishop he hopes will replace him; key among his criteria would seem to be someone unconnected with the current scandals.
In an interview with the New York Times published Friday, Wuerl said he was stepping aside “to allow for new leadership that doesn’t have this baggage,” and hoped that his replacement would be someone who became a bishop after the last abuse crises of the early 2000s.
Of course, being free from ties to the current scandal will require more than relative youth.
It was, arguably, Wuerl’s proximity to his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, that did as much as anything else to end his tenure. His insistence that he knew nothing of rumors of McCarrick’s alleged misdeeds, or of supposed Vatican attempts to make him keep a lower profile in retirement, left him appearing, at least to some, to be either evasive or negligently incurious, in what became a major crisis of credibility for the American hierarchy.
Other bishops, including some touted as possible successors to Wuerl, have similarly had to account for their reactions, or lack of action, when they were first made aware of allegations against McCarrick.
More broadly, McCarrick’s influence helped to elevate a generation of priests and bishops from the east coast dioceses which he led, many of whom have gone on to serve in important positions in the Church hierarchy, both in the United States and in Rome. Should someone seen to be in McCarrick’s line of succession or patronage be appointed to take over in Washington, the credibility gap he would have to cross could prove immediate and unbridgeable.
D.C. Catholics – including Cardinal Wuerl – are now hoping for a relatively young bishop, one utterly free from association with either McCarrick or the other scandals currently roiling the Church. He’ll need to be someone of proven governing ability and diplomatic savvy, but with a pastoral heart and an established record of leading like a shepherd and father rather than an administrator.
It is a tall order, but not an impossible one to fill.
Of course, as the outgoing archbishop and still a member of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, Wuerl will have had an outsized say in the names submitted for papal consideration.
At the same time, Pope Francis has a reputation for picking unexpected candidates for important jobs, and for favoring personal recommendations from people he knows well, rather than relying on officially presented shortlists.
How closely Wuerl’s successor aligns with his own stated hopes could speak volumes about how deep Francis’s respect really is for the man he so publicly praised while accepting his resignation. It could also be a strong indication of how seriously Rome is taking a crisis still acutely felt in the American capital.