Cardinal Wuerl goes off

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 08, 2017

A very small number of people, whose voices have been amplified by some of the Catholic media, have challenged the integrity of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

Thus does Cardinal Donald Wuerl begin an essay defending the papal document—and, far more pointedly, attacking its critics. Let’s take a look.

Right from the outset, Cardinal Wuerl belittles those who disagree with him, claiming that they constitute “a very small number of people.” That is inaccurate, of course; many thousands of people have been disconcerted by Amoris Laetitia. But even if it were true, wouldn’t a good shepherd show more concern for the few who were troubled? I suspect that the number of Catholics who are divorced, remarried, and clamoring to receive the Eucharist could be more accurately described as “very small,” yet the papal document rightly urges clerics to reach out to provide them with pastoral help. Why not also “accompany” the Catholics who are scandalized?

Then Cardinal Wuerl claims that the criticism of Amoris Laetitia has been “amplified by some of the Catholic media.” In reality something close to the opposite is true. The vast majority of Catholic media outlets—those controlled directly or indirectly by the hierarchy—have actively squelched debate on the papal document. (Show me an editorial in a diocesan newspaper raising serious questions about Amoris Laetitia, and I’ll give you the name of an editor who should make sure his resumé is up to date.) Only the few independent Catholic outlets—like the Catholic Culture site—have sustained the debate.

We’re now halfway through the first sentence of Cardinal Wuerl’s column, and already we have uncovered two gross inaccuracies. It doesn’t get better.

The overall thrust of the cardinal’s argument is familiar. He contends that Pope Francis has not challenged or even ignored Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but has gone beyond it to encourage greater generosity and compassion. What the cardinal does not tell us—nor does the Pope—is what generous and compassionate pastors should do with the Church’s teaching. Should they enforce it, explain it, or set it aside? Yes, definitely they should reach out to divorced Catholics. But what should they tell them? How should they guide them? Those questions remain unanswered—precisely because the defenders of Amoris Laetitia, like Cardinal Wuerl, choose to mock those who ask the questions rather than answering them.

Am I being too rough, in saying that the cardinal mocks the critics of the papal document? I think not. Consider this sentence from his colum:

Perhaps it might be very hard to let go of the symbols, medieval ornaments, and the ecclesial style and privileges that are marks of the Church of another era.

What do “symbols” and “medieval ornaments” or even “ecclesial style and privileges” have to do with the argument over Amoris Laetitia? This sentence is a gratuitous swipe at traditionalist Catholics; it is hard not to see it as a reference to the favorite whipping-boy of Amoris Laetitia enthusiasts, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is noted for his traditionalist sympathies.

One other paragraph in Cardinal Wuerl’s essay deserves notice:

At a recent meeting with a number of priests, when the topic of the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia and its pastoral application came up, most were explicit that they recognized an affirmation of their own pastoral concern and accompaniment in the apostolic exhortation.

We don’t know how many priests were involved in this conversation, nor do we know how they were selected. We have seen above that the cardinal is not exactly precise in his use of “statistics.” But let’s assume that this time his report is accurate, and “most” of the priests with whom he spoke saw the papal document as “an affirmation of their own pastoral concern and accompaniment.” What does that mean?

If the discussion was centered on the most controversial aspect of Amoris Laetitia, then this response could be interpreted as meaning that the priests with whom the cardinal was speaking had already been admitting divorced/remarried Catholics to Communion, and they were delighted that the papal document confirmed their practice. (Come to think of it, is there any other way to read that sentence?) But maybe the priests were not focused on that neuralgic issue. Maybe the cardinal had steered the conversation toward the safer, more general topics of generosity and compassion, again leaving the tough questions unanswered.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Mar. 11, 2017 8:11 PM ET USA

    Wuerl of all the American cardinals has become the master at what is now the new definition of casuistry - what we used to call sophistry or double speak.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 09, 2017 5:10 AM ET USA

    The eloquent Cardinal need only concern himself with one "medieval ornament". "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a GREAT MILLSTONE fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea...woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!" (Mt 18:6-7)

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 08, 2017 2:36 PM ET USA

    The lack of courage and the fear that they are not seen as PC among many in the hierarchy is very troubling. I have to say that I began to dislike Cardinal Wuerl when he made a statement praising Nancy Pelosi for her great work in favor of the poor and the disadvantaged. I could not believe that he could have this praise for a Catholic who is also an abortion supporter, as if the unborn are not among the poorest of the poor.

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Mar. 08, 2017 1:25 PM ET USA

    I'd be far more willing to listen to those who claim that AL isn't a change in teaching, if they admitted there were people on their side of the divide who were clearly treating it as such at leat in praxis. When they deny the existence of abuses, it is an endorsement of that praxis, and evidence that they clearly do endorse a change in teaching, and empty rhetoric to the contrary is just that: empty rhetoric

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 08, 2017 1:10 PM ET USA

    "A very small number of people have challenged the integrity of Pope Francis' AL." My three-point reply: 1. Numbers never decide about the Faith, 2. Sinceall Popes are expected to "confirm their brethren in Faith," and not to undermine it, Catholics are not used to "challenge" their teachings, 3. The weakness of Amoris Laetitia is in its lack of clarity. Once the document is clarified, we can proceed on to estimate its integrity: whether it breaks away from the Magisterium of the Church or not.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 08, 2017 11:20 AM ET USA

    "Very small number of people." This is obviously a question of scale. In physics, for example, we deal with the "very small" in quantum mechanics, the "common dimension" in Newtonian mechanics, and the "very large" in relativistic mechanics. For comparison, the number of cardinals in the Church is "very small" compared with the total number of Catholics. So too for the number of bishops, priests, et al. If only a "very small" number are equipped to deal with the issue, then these are significant