At 75, a cardinal's duties grow ever more delicate
Jan 07, 2006
He says he is old and exhausted and wants more time to read and to fish at the Jersey Shore, but Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington and the former head of both the Metuchen and Newark dioceses, just keeps working.
(The Star Ledger, December 19, 2005) "Most people my age are dead," he says. "I'm 75. Sometimes I feel like the portrait of Dorian Gray" -- a reference to the Oscar Wilde story of a man who remained young-looking while his face on a portrait drastically aged.
And, he said earlier this year, he is ready to retire. But the Vatican exempted him from the mandatory retirement age so he could continue, not only his work in Washington, but also in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast and in China, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Things like that happen to the cardinal. He serves, for example, on the national board of Catholic Relief Services. Completed the maximum permitted four terms.
"But then they changed their bylaws so I could keep working with them," he said. "I guess they think I am useful."
McCarrick is a very useful man, a very useful theologian, a very useful antidote to a Washington often bitterly divided. He is soft-spoken, rational, and modest, even when he becomes a lightning rod for conservatives inside and outside his church.
"We need civility in our public life," he said in a telephone interview marking the upcoming fifth anniversary of his appointment as the leader of Catholics in the nation's capital. "We do ourselves great damage if we cannot speak to each other."
He somehow manages to take positions that, while grounded in mainstream Catholic doctrine, reflect an understanding of more liberal views. McCarrick says it is essential to be "understanding and compassionate as well as strong."
The cardinal provoked the anger of some in the Catholic hierarchy when he met during the 2004 campaign with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights. Unlike other prelates, including his replacement in Newark, Archbishop John Myers, he refused to say such politicians should be denied communion, saying he was not going to have a "political confrontation at the altar railing."
"Of course, I talked with him and others," he said. "How do you change minds without talking to them?"
McCarrick condemns abortion as "judicial murder" and calls the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision "bad law." Yet, when asked directly whether the Supreme Court should overturn it, he said, "I certainly hope they give a good look at it."
He is, after all, now in an extraordinary position. The chief Catholic prelate in Washington at a time, a historic first, when a majority of the Supreme Court would, if Samuel Alito is confirmed, be Catholic.
"It certainly would put us in the limelight, whether that's a good or a bad thing, I'm not sure."
Although McCarrick called Chief Justice John Roberts "a great man" -- and although Alito is from New Jersey -- the cardinal said he didn't know Alito personally and didn't know his positions well enough to endorse his confirmation. He said he just wanted to see "civil" confirmation hearings.
McCarrick said he was hopeful a court with a Catholic majority would be "faithful to the values that made the republic strong."
When some Catholic leaders questioned the church's long-standing support of the study of evolution, McCarrick said Catholics could believe in evolution as long as they recognize "the guiding hand of God."
"If the Lord wished to develop the human race through evolution, He has the power to do that," said McCarrick.
He pointedly, however, refused to say he supported "intelligent design," often thought to be a cover for the reintroduction of creationism. "I'm not sure what intelligent design means," he said. "I'll just say I support Catholic doctrine."
McCarrick managed to keep a potentially explosive issue at Georgetown University, a Catholic school, from becoming a major controversy. A pro-life group charged researchers at the university's medical school were conducting studies using stem cells from aborted fetuses. It was true.
Once himself the president of a Catholic university in Puerto Rico, McCarrick asked the Jesuit school to look into the issue but did not directly intervene, even after the school decided to continue using the cells in order to avoid disrupting the research.
"We followed the advice of theologians who know far more about such things than I do," McCarrick said. There might be criticism, he admitted, "but it was a time to be strong."
He has spoken out against the death penalty, asking Congress not to expand crimes for which capital punishment would be used. He cited Pope John Paul II's views on the issue as support for his position.
McCarrick also cited the late Pope's opposition to the war in Iraq to say he believed the 2003 invasion "was not justified." The cardinal also refuses to give what amounts to an informal imprimatur to the war by saying he is not sure it could be considered "a just war."
Despite a more pacifist view of all wars developed by the church over the past few decades, it still clings to the doctrine of "just" war. McCarrick said he believed that, once the invasion occurred, "We face a different set of values and we have to take care of our kids there, of the people there, we just can't walk on."
McCarrick's position as the head of the church in the center of American power and politics has made him a far more visible prelate than he was in Newark, a much larger diocese. He travels frequently -- saying Mass to the faithful in China, meeting with Islamic religious leaders in Tehran -- travels "too frequently," he says.
Yet, when asked -- the first question he was asked -- what was the highlight of his nearly five years as Washington's cardinal, he didn't mention all his national duties or his ability to vote for the new Pope or his meetings with the President of the United States.
He spoke about how happy he was to be about to ordain 12 new priests.
"That's the largest ordination class we have had in 37 years," he said.
Because, he is, he says, in the end, a bishop, a pastor, a shepherd for his flock.
"To be in Washington," he says, "just makes it more complicated."