Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday named Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and 23 other Catholic leaders from around the world to join the elite College of Cardinals.
The highest-ranking officials in the Catholic Church after the pope, cardinals advise the pope and elect new pontiffs. The only other American on the list is Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, who currently works in a top position at the Vatican.
Wuerl, 69, is a cautious educator who shares the pope’s top priority: eliminating ambiguity in an era of debate about Catholicism’s position on everything from health care to human sexuality. He is considered a leading catechist, or teacher of Catholic doctrine, and a diplomat on explosive social issues.
“I am humbled by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI’s trust in me as shepherd of this flock and pledge to him my renewed fidelity, affection and loyalty,” Wuerl said in a statement released just after the announcement.
A staid, formal man who prefers to resolve issues out of the public eye, Wuerl drew headlines last year when he told Washington, D.C., officials that he might end spousal health benefits for employees of Catholic Charities if the city legalized same-sex marriage.
When the law passed, Wuerl kept his promise, saying the church had no choice to avoid recognizing same-sex couples as married. Many Catholics were outraged at seeing one of the region’s largest non-profits deny spousal health coverage.
Wuerl has led committees of U.S. bishops on education and on doctrine and has been seen as headed for cardinalhood ever since he was moved to Washington from his hometown of Pittsburgh in 2006.
Traditionally, however, popes don’t name two cardinals from one diocese–and Washington already is home to Wuerl’s predecessor, the popular and charismatic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Cardinals lose their right to vote for pope when they turn 80, however, and McCarrick turned 80 a few months ago.
Wednesday’s announcement came during Benedict’s weekly public appearance at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The formal elevation of the cardinal-designees, called a consistory, will take place Nov. 20 at the Vatican before hundreds of guests. A Mass with the pope will be held the following day, church officials said.
“Once they get hit with that red, they go global,” Philadelphia-based Vatican-watcher Rocco Palmo said of becoming a cardinal and receiving the traditional red biretta, the square cap with three ridges or peaks worn by cardinals and other clerics. “You can be archbishop of a major city, but being made cardinal is your coming-out globally.”
Benedict has called two previous consistories since he became pope in 2005. He has picked nearly half of the current cardinals. Four of those chosen Wednesday are already 80 or older, meaning they cannot vote on papal matters but are accorded the title as a special honor.