A Provocative Pope: Q&A With Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., has a distinctive perspective on Pope Francis. Known as one of the most progressive U.S. bishops, McCarrick has been a strong advocate for social justice and the poor. He's become a peripatetic church ambassador since Francis became pope in 2013 and began criticizing aspects of capitalism for degrading the environment and aggravating inequality. McCarrick believes that some in the hierarchy that elected Pope Francis have "gotten more than what they expected," and that some conservatives "possibly" have regrets. He responded last week to questions sent by e-mail. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Question: As a retiree you weren't eligible to vote in the conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis, but you were part of the 2005 session that selected Pope Benedict XVI. You know almost all the cardinals. What do you think were their considerations in selecting Pope Francis, and have they gotten what they expected?
Answer: I think they were seriously considering a Latin American because of the huge Catholic population there. Secondly, they wanted someone who would work with the poor. Thirdly, they were looking for reform in Rome. They wanted someone who would be looking to work on the periphery of society, and he did that and he does that. The cardinals have gotten more than what they expected.
Q: Do you think some, particularly conservatives, have buyer's remorse with Pope Francis? What form does resistance take to an infallible leader?
A: Possibly. Citing past pontiffs' positions.
Q: You know the Holy Father. What's distinctive about him in contrast to other bishops and cardinals you've known?
A: John Paul II was a prophet. Benedict was a great theologian. This man is essentially a pastor of souls, and his whole work ethic proceeds from that.
Q: Describe the time you went to Buenos Aires to visit him. I believe he picked you up. Where did he take you?
A: He took me to where I was staying and on the way he showed me the most important sites of the poor and those on the periphery, with whom he was working.
Q: In two and a half years, has Pope Francis changed the perception of the church and the way it functions?
A: Yes he has, both by the reform of the curia and his daily preaching.
Q: We'll get to some specifics, but first, this is Pope Francis' first visit to the United States. What do you think he expects, and have you told him anything about what to expect?
A: I have never spoken to His Holiness about this, since I am a retired bishop. I think he is looking forward to sizing up the church in America, to determining how much of it is in the center, and challenging it with the whole conspectus of human rights.
Q: The pope is coming for the World Meeting of Families. A Pew survey of American Catholics this month found nine in 10 say a household headed by a married mom and dad is the ideal situation for raising children. But large majorities believe other types of families -- headed by a single parent, divorced, unmarried or gay -- are all right, too. Is this just an inevitable reflection of modernity, or has the flock gone dangerously off course?
A: No, it's a reflection of modernity. They speak from what they see, not necessarily from what they are taught, which is God's holy will.
Q: He will meet with the president, address a joint session of Congress, meet with the homeless. He's visiting a prison in Philadelphia. Aren't these remarkable contrasts?
A: They certainly are, but they are a reflection of this man and his personality, who truly believes, and a reflection of the world in which he serves. He knows man is a creation with great human dignity.
Q: Cardinal McCarrick, two of the characteristics that you and Pope Francis share are you're both bridge builders, and you both bring a special emphasis on immigrants, specifically Latinos. This presidential campaign has generated some hostile observations about immigration in America and about Hispanics. In his address to Congress, do you think the pope will address this issue? If so, how?
A: I hope he will, because he has often spoken to this point in his homilies and meditations. I would hope that he would do it from the point of view of the innate dignity of the human person, which many Catholics, including myself, frequently profess.
Q: Pope Francis hasn't changed any church doctrine and remains strongly pro-life and opposed to gay marriage, yet somehow he conveys that he doesn't have an obsession with these issues, and is more tolerant than the American church has appeared to be in recent years. What is your take on this?
A: As bishop of Rome, he is not authorized to change church doctrines, but to defend them. His gift is in not what he does, but the way he does it.
Q: Pope Francis also has spoken passionately about inequality and the flaws of capitalism in tending to the poor. Some conservatives say he's a spiritual leader and doesn't know much about economics. What do you say to that?
A: They're wrong. He's a man of his times and a student of the actualities of the world. I have no doubt that he can hold his own on a discussion of these themes.
A: If it is going to affect human beings and their future, it has to be a moral issue, because it involves right and wrong.
A: For many reasons, most of all because he saw Cuba entering new possibilities and wanted to have a place in the discussions in the growth of human rights and the care of the poor.
Q: Is there a danger that the pope's visit could add to the polarization? What specific steps might he take to avoid that?
A: There is always a danger when people are challenged by new ideas. He has to move the local churches to explain positively what he is teaching. For instance, this he will do positively in Washington because of the support of Cardinal [Donald] Wuerl and others within this particular church environment.
Q: As an observer these days of bishop appointments, what do you think of his appointments in general? To take a specific example, what signal did he send in choosing Bishop Blase Cupich to be the archbishop of Chicago, the third largest Catholic diocese in America?
A: I think his appointments have been excellent. He chose a pastor who has a great sense for the poor and for the people on the periphery. It was a splendid choice.
Q: When we spoke a couple years ago, you expressed confidence that Pope Francis had the will and the mandate to shake up a discredited Vatican bureaucracy. How would you rate his success now?
A: He has done as well as could be expected, given the shortness of his reign so far and the deep complications of our modern world.
Q: You were in Rome in 2013, spoke with your friend, and got a surprise call. Tell us about that.
A: I was taken ill during those days and had to be rushed to the hospital. On the very day of his accession to the Chair of Peter, he took the time to call me and see how I was. Since then, he has shown the world his great gifts as a remarkable friend and especially as a man who cares for the needs and concerns, as well as the joys and sorrows, of other people.
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