On the Resignation Non-Resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl

My head has been swirling this week. It has been difficult to focus on a particular topic for writing. Monday’s self-imposed deadline looms passed, and I find myself a dog in a park with a high squirrel population. Part of the difficulty is that the things occupying my mind are interwoven. Unraveling the threads seems beyond me at this time, so why try?

I have these past couple months been calling for Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation. This call was prompted by his woefully incompetent understanding of the McCarrick affair. Any bishop, especially one of Wuerl’s influence, who says this isn’t a “massive, massive crisis” has no business being part of the resolution of the crisis. In making such a statement about the McCarrick affair he showed that he is wholly inadequate as a protagonist in addressing and handling the problem. He confirmed this with absolute certainty when he followed his statement by proposing a group of bishops be entrusted with handling accusations against bishops. The suggestion made it clear just how out of touch Card. Wuerl was with the faithful. To suggest such a thing when so many of the laity no longer see bishops as trustworthy! In the words of my students, I was shook. There could be no reasonable doubt that Card. Wuerl was not reliable. His Eminence reenforced this when in anticipation of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, he said that it would be critical of him, but also show his record on sex abusive priests to be strong. This is the action of a man trying to lighten the blow before it has landed. With the release of the report was also the launch of a website to strengthen Wuerl’s position against the information released pertaining to his time in Pittsburgh. Again the actions of a man rallying his defense.

Hours after its launch, the website was taken down. Telling. Wuerl began not long after to sing a different tune. He apologizes; he sends a request to Pope Francis that he accept his resignation submitted two years previously upon turning 75. The Grand Jury report showed he had done some things well (from what I hear others say of it). It also shows that there are multiple cases of abuse by priests in which his action may be deplored (from what I read in it). This, of course, is contrary to his statements of holding to a zero tolerance policy. What the report shows is one who is inconsistent. Contra Wuerl’s premature assertions, inconsistency never indicates one who is strong; it indicates one who is weak. In the wake of his laughable response to McCarrick and his Pennsylvania fumble, he wasn’t just found wanting; he was found impotent.

Wuerl’s statements on the McCarrick affair and his response to the Grand Jury report would not be the only marks against him. Approximately one week after the report, there came the testimony – Vigano’s testimony. In the 11-page testimony, Archbishop Vigano reported that there had been sanctions placed on then-Card. McCarrick and that Wuerl knew and ignored these sanctions. If true, it would mean that Wuerl lied when he said he knew nothing of McCarrick. However, Vigano’s testimony also accused Pope Francis and called for his resignation. In doing so it was no longer about McCarrick, but about the Pope. Of course it isn’t about the Pope or McCarrick. It is about an episcopacy, an abusive power structure, and corruption in the Vatican. This was the case before Vigano’s testimony and after it. However, it is now for many people about the Pope and discrediting Vigano. Vigano’s accusations against Wuerl have been verified by Card. Ouellet’s response to him given with pontifical permission.* No matter. Donald Wuerl is the Pope’s man, and in his resigning is now a martyr. He isn’t impotent anymore.

Francis Wuerl 1

Normally, a bishop’s resignation regardless of the circumstances would not elevate him to greater influence. Why so with Wuerl? In his acceptance-not-acceptance of Wuerl’s resignation, Pope Francis in one fell swoop made clear that he had his back. So let’s talk about what the Pope did in accepting not accepting Wuerl’s resignation.

Francis made public a personal letter to Wuerl accepting his resignation. It is profuse in its warmth, generosity, and affirmation. It does not express a sadness of wrong done, but rather betrays the thought of an injustice being committed against Wuerl. It is clear in the letter that the resignation is prompted by the revelations of the Grand Jury report, not due to his atrocious response to the McCarrick affair and lies in pleading ignorance. (To be clear: it is for that and not the Grand Jury report that I thought Wuerl should resign.) Francis’s perceived injustice against Card. Wuerl is that he thinks he merely made mistakes, rather than covering up crimes or not dealing with problems. The Pope goes so far as to say, “You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions,” and that his not doing so was a sign of his “nobility.” Bullshit. As is completely clear from his words and actions prior to the report he did try to dodge the bullet rather than come forward in contrition, and he did try to give some defense of himself. There was nothing noble about it. It is one thing to support someone in making the right decision after making wrong decisions. For instance, I affirmed Card. Wuerl in making public his decision to request resignation before celebrating a Mass to begin a “season of healing.” He did it in hoping (rightly) to put the attention where it needed to be – on healing – rather than on himself. Publicly announcing that he would ask to resign was a needed step in that direction. It is another thing, however, to affirm a decision as an act of selflessness in the face of undue pressure and unrest that could cause division in the Church. In writing what he did, Pope Francis has once again thrown victims of abuse under the bus. Or are victims being unreasonable if they do not see Wuerl’s actions as mere mistakes or “errors in judgment” as Wuerl put it?

The theme of present division in the Church is one that Pope Francis has spoken of before. Speaking recently to bishops in September, Francis said: “In these times, it seems the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.” He returns to this in his letter referring to “sterile divisions sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd [Wuerl], wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed.” For Francis, Wuerl’s request is an act in opposition to the division the Evil One attempts to sow. Of course, Satan attacks bishops and seeks to divide the Lord’s flock. This doesn’t change the fact that people are scandalized because of the crimes, sins, and cover up of bishops. It’s not as if the bishops are innocent in this matter. Division is not by Satan alone, but by those working with the Devil. Those bishops who have covered up crimes, who have abused seminarians and priests, who have manipulated others through the power of their office (a sacrilege, considering the authority given is divine and not of the world), who have enabled a culture of homosexual abuse, and who have emboldened abusers through their silence have caused division in the Church and scandalized the faithful. It is first and foremost those acts past and present that caused division, not the bringing of those acts into the light. In fact, when such an insidious disease has so throughly infected the Church, the only way to excise it is precisely by bringing it into the light – opening the body, cutting out the cancer it is, and leaving a scar. One could reasonably argue that the bringing to light of these horrors is an act of God, or is being permitted by God to achieve the good of purifying and restoring.

Unfortunately, I do not think we will see real resolution to this crisis now because I do not think we will see real action taken against it now. I predict that this crisis will continue and will reach the level of the great Protestation 500 years ago before this filth of the Church is incinerated  as the refuse it is. (Stop and think about that for a moment: It took the splintering of Western Christendom to bring an end to the abuses in the Church – and even then it did not come quickly. When the Church was renewed it was a fractured broken Church and has remained so to this day. It has always been less than what it had been. History repeats itself and I sit here wishing I could break the wheel.) Francis’s letter, among other things, serves as proof that action will not be taken or that it will be too little action too late.** While Wuerl’s resignation has been officially accepted, Francis has seen fit to keep him in place as Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington. His authority as Apostolic Administrator will be less, but for all practical purposes nothing has changed. This also means Wuerl will be at the November USCCB meeting as the representative of the Archdiocese of Washington, and he will play a part in the formulating and promulgating of policies for the Church in the United States that will address episcopal abuse.

However long Card. Wuerl stays in D.C., he has become and will remain after quite vigorous and influential. Francis’s acceptance non-acceptance of his resignation is already showing that. What bishop upon resigning under such circumstances is made Apostolic Administrator? What bishop upon resigning under such circumstances is lauded so much by his auxiliaries in addition to their own individual gushing responses, the chancellor, and prominently displayed smiling on the archdiocesan homepage? And so the narrative begins: the narrative of a great cleric who, as John Allen of Crux put it, began and ended his career by “taking a hit for the team.” With the disgraced McCarrick having fallen from his seat on high, Francis will be needing another behind the scenes retired American cardinal to whom he may lend his ear. Wuerl may very well be that next “retired” American cardinal. John Allen says it best:

If Francis’s letter today makes anything clear, it’s that he hasn’t lost any respect or esteem for Wuerl – if anything, he appears to hold him in even higher regard for the “nobility” of his exit.

That could mean Wuerl’s role as a “chief conduit” between the U.S. Church and Francis will stay in place, and his influence with the pope is unlikely to be diminished – if anything, since his retirement may afford him more time in Rome, it might even grow.

As a result, there may yet be even more chapters to add to the Donald Wuerl story.


*Ouellet’s letter, what it confirms, doesn’t confirm, and what all of that means will be addressed in another post.

**Francis’s record on sex abuse will also be addressed in another post.


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