The Case of the ‘Disappearing’ Cardinals


National Catholic Register, 23 January 2019

COMMENTARY: When some observers charge that nothing has changed in how the Church deals with sexual abuse, consider how quickly and smoothly Cardinal Wuerl ceased to be seen in public.

That it happened so quickly and so smoothly does not make it any less remarkable.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of Washington, was not the main celebrant at the largest Mass on the calendar of the archdiocese, the “Mass for Life,” held on the morning of the March for Life at an arena where some 20,000 young people gathered. Cardinal Wuerl had been the main celebrant of the Mass for years.

But on the Tuesday before Friday’s Mass, Cardinal Wuerl wrote to the priests of Washington explaining that when he had repeatedly denied that he had even “heard rumors” about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, he had not “intended to be imprecise,” but had simply forgotten that he had reported allegations against the cardinal to the apostolic nunciature in 2004.

On Wednesday, it was announced that, on Friday, Cardinal Wuerl would not be at the Mass. When a Catholic cardinal can’t appear before as friendly a congregation as the Mass for Life, it is astonishing. When some observers charge that nothing has changed in how the Church deals with sexual abuse, consider how quickly and smoothly Cardinal Wuerl disappeared.

Remember how difficult it used to be to make a cardinal cease public duties when it would be awkward to have him present?

Despite public pleas to Cardinal Bernard Law that he should absent himself from celebrating one of the novemdiales Masses for the repose of St. John Paul II after his funeral in 2005, Cardinal Law insisted, and no one could stop him. It generated the unpleasant reaction expected.

In 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States, it would have been customary for those American cardinals resident in Rome to accompany him on the visit. But Cardinal Law, emeritus of Boston and archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, would be in that number, and the Holy Father did not want him to go marching in.

So meetings were held in Rome to discuss the matter.

It was, in 2008, simply thought impossible to tell Cardinal Law that his presence at that moment was toxic and that he should stay away. So a novel measure was announced instead, namely that only those Americans in Rome who were current heads of “dicasteries” would accompany the Holy Father. That rule kept Cardinal Law out. It also kept out Cardinal Edmund Szoka, emeritus governor of the Vatican City State, but the former archbishop of Detroit had to take one for the team. If the rule had applied only to Cardinal Law, it would have looked like what it was, namely an effort to keep him away.

The ad hoc rule also meant that Archbishop James Harvey, then prefect of the papal household, had to go, as he was head of a (small) dicastery. He did not usually accompany the Pope on foreign trips.

Today, no elaborate rule need be thought out. A cardinal in bad odor just knows — or is told — that he should bow out. That is not a happy state of affairs, as part of the purpose of having cardinals is that they lend an air of solemnity to important occasions. But it is the new reality, and Americans are getting quite a bit of practice.

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