A Discussion with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C.

With: Theodore McCarrick Berkley Center Profile

August 25, 2009

Background: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C. In this interview with Katherine Marshall, Cardinal McCarrick discusses his history of involvement with humanitarian, development, and peacemaking initiatives, including Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD). He also offers thoughts on the importance of dialogue for peace in the Middle East and the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church.

You have long been a vocal leader within the Catholic Church, and among religious leaders more broadly, on humanitarian and development issues. How did you come to those concerns?

It's hard to know where to start. I think perhaps there were two things that in a very special way brought me to this kind of a life. The first was the vocation that I found in the priesthood, because the priesthood is a life that hopefully demands that you look out for the poor, the handicapped, the stranger, and those who are the “least of our brethren,” as the Lord says in our Gospel. I guess every priest has in his heart that he needs to look out for the poor. That was the primordial beginning for me.

And then there were the accidental happenings. The first was that I went to study in Switzerland after high school and learned some French and German. Because I had those languages, when I came back to go to Fordham, I developed my interest in languages further. After I was ordained in 1958, probably because of the languages that I already had, Cardinal Spellman sent me to study in Puerto Rico, and there I learned Spanish.

When you go to Puerto Rico, you learn Spanish, but you also learn about real poverty. The first lesson was the Fanguito. The Fanguito was this terrible settlement, built right in the sewage water outside of San Juan, and people were living there. I'll never forget the Fanguito. I lived in a parish in Puerto Rico on the peninsula of San Juan, and right below the wall of the city there was another area called La Perla, where very poor people lived who could not afford to have a house in the city. There were a lot of drugs there, and sometimes sailors would wander looking for things they shouldn't look for and would never come out. And you would find their bodies that had washed out to sea and then been crushed against the rocks. All of these things gave me the desire to look for solutions and to worry about the poor.

Partly because of that, when I was finishing my time in Puerto Rico, the archdiocese asked me to come back and pursue a degree in sociology at Catholic University. I was pleased at that, because it gave me a chance to develop these interests, or these anxieties, that I had, by the chance of life, already met.

Nobody knew quite where studying sociology would take me. The famous philosopher, Monsignor Ivan Illich, had urged me to focus on sociology. He was a great scholar, a genius. He was like “a river without banks,” as someone once described him to me. He later left the ministry, and yet he had an influence on Latin American thought in a very special way. Some said, “Go and study sociology as an academic discipline so you can go teach in the seminary.” And others said, “Go and look at it as a research tool, so you can work in the chancery.” And others said, “You can build on sociology as a means of working with the poor, and then you can come and work with Catholic Charities.” And ultimately, I tried to do all three.

After a couple of years, the university asked me to come onto the staff as chaplain, and then as dean of students, and then as the director of development. And then, having had all of those experiences at Catholic University, I was suddenly removed from there and sent to be president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where I had five years of working at close range with all of these problems. I never forgot those years.

I was called back to New York when Cardinal [Terence] Cooke succeeded Cardinal [Francis] Spellman. Cardinal Cooke had known me in seminary, and he called me to work in education and to live in a rectory on the West Side, where I saw some serious urban problems, the disparities of urban living, and some of the problems that migrants have. Then I was called to become secretary to the archbishop. I traveled with him, both on missions, where again my interest was sparked by what I found and also, since he was the United States military bishop, to some of the war areas, Vietnam especially. It all worked together. The people most hurt by war are the poor, so this experience was concomitant with everything that I had done before.

Then I myself was made a bishop, partly because working with Cardinal Cooke had given me much experience, and partly because I had languages. As an auxiliary bishop, I was sent to Harlem. There again I had the chance to work with the poor, to work with neighborhoods that were not readily at ease with each other. Then, four or five years later, I was sent to New Jersey to begin a new diocese in Metuchen. I served there for four years. They were wonderful to me, but I missed the poor while I was there. I had not realized before how that would be something in my life. It was a working and middle class diocese, an agricultural diocese with very few inner cities. There were some urban areas in Perth Amboy and around New Brunswick. And there was a small Hispanic population.

Then, in 1985, I was sent to Newark, which was almost like being sent back home. Those were tough days for Newark. The riots had taken place 15 years before, and things had not settled down. Newark was a city two-thirds African-American. So I was home again.

After 15 years in Newark, I was sent to Washington, D.C., another African-American area. Newark never had many African-American Catholics, but Washington did, going back to when the Jesuits were evangelizing in Maryland. Many of the slaves, among others, had become Catholic, so the role of the Church was especially important.

During this whole period, because of these interests that I had developed I took a special interest in issues of poverty in the bishops' conference. I was invited to serve on the committees on migration or social development or world peace. By that time I had five to six languages, which made me useful.

I became chairman of several committees over the many years that I served as a bishop in the conference. I traveled a great deal because of migration, justice, and peace.

One of my assignments was to serve the Committee on the Church in Eastern Europe, after the Iron Curtain fell. At that time, I got to see the post-Communist world, from Tallin to Tirana [Estonia to Albania]. There, you could see the problems of the people, the violence and anger inside of them because of the oppression they had suffered. We tried to find ways of bringing peace to them.

When did you become involved in the Middle East?

Because I had this background in war and peace, my language background, and my interest in migration, the Church began to ask me if I would help in the matter of the Holy Land. I became the convener of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative, or NILI. That became very important in my life. NILI now includes the major Protestant denominations, some major Muslim-American leaders, and also many prominent Jewish leaders, apart from the Orthodox Jews. Much of the Christian Orthodox and Christian evangelical leadership is also involved.

NILI came into being when President [George W.] Bush instituted the road map in the early years of his presidency. We wanted to provide him cover because we knew he would be attacked by certain lobby groups. Unfortunately, he walked away from it because of that same pressure, but we kept going.

We found a mirror image of NILI in the Holy Land, a group called the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. It included prominent rabbis, including the two chief rabbis of Israel, sheikhs like Sheikh [Tayseer] Tamimi, other Muslim leaders, and all three of the patriarchs. It was begun in a remarkable way by a canon of the Norwegian Church, Dr. Trond Bakkevig; he was an extraordinary man. He began organizing the council. The U.S. State Department became very interested; after that, they gave us a grant that lasted three years. With that, I would travel to the Holy Land three to five times a year to try to help keep them together and to find ways for them to work together for peace and understanding in the Holy Land. The grant is over, but I am still committed to that cause.

From then on, I have been involved in interreligious dialogue and cooperation. I guess there must be about 100 groups working on religious dialogue in the world, and I think I belong to most of them! That's an exaggeration, of course, but it does sometimes feel that way.

It is important to understand that the great difference between Islam and the other faiths is that, in most faiths, when you leave another faith to join something else, it causes sorrow or disappointment. When you leave Islam, it is considered treason and quite possibly warrants the penalty of death. Yesterday, I received some friends from the Muslim community. We began to approach the topic of conversion versus apostasy, but gingerly. Maybe we haven't yet reached the point where we can truly discuss it, and maybe such discussions are a temporary excursion into a minefield. But at a certain point in time, this is what we have to discuss, because it causes so much hardship.

You “retired” as archbishop of Washington in 2006. Where has that taken you?

In my retirement, I have become more involved with development. This is especially because, along the way, I was elected to the board of CRS. Usually, you serve on their board for six years, or two terms, but at this point I think I'm in my eighteenth year. They have graciously changed the by-laws to allow me to be reelected. It's useful to have a cardinal on the board, because it helps open doors in some countries.

Then there are people like the remarkable Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. I've been associated with him for a long time, and with him I traveled to a number of areas of conflict, such as Russia, to meet people like Andrei Sakharov, who always talked about the problem of the Jewish refusniks but never left the conversation without asking what we were doing about the problems of the Catholics in Lithuania. This consistent focus was remarkable and demonstrated the universal character of his deep charity.

All this work and these events are the notches that I have marked in my life.

I remember when the World Faiths Development Dialogue began, when I got the call from the Holy See, responding to a request from Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury. They asked me to work with the group. As you know, I've tried to get off of it for a few years, but I've failed—mainly because of people like you, Katherine. That keeps me involved, as does CRS, and so many other groups.

At 79 and a half years old, I'm doing more than I can do. But that's just been my life. I just returned from West Africa, where I was at the World Bank/WFDD meeting in Ghana. I found myself spending extra, unplanned time in Ghana and in Benin. Because of my interests, I was able to work together with Bishop John Ricard to partner in developing a program in which the Catholic Church works with the churches in Africa. This week I am about to leave to visit South Africa and Swaziland. So, I'm still doing these things.

I guess I had a reputation of being one of the Catholic bishops who was open to doing interreligious and development work. I remember another important milestone there. In 1998, I was one of the three clerics President [Bill] Clinton sent to China to discuss religious freedom. Rabbi Schneier was part of our delegation, and the other was Rev. Don Argue, then head of the National Association of Evangelicals. The rabbi was extraordinary. He insisted that we be able to get into the prison in Lhasa and simply refused to leave until we could see religious prisoners. The government had promised that we would be able to see these people. And so finally they brought out two young girls who were Tibetan nuns. I remember asking the one, “What was your crime?” She, with typical oriental reticence, would not answer. And so the guard demanded that she “Tell him!” And she answered, very quietly, that she had been imprisoned for “conspiring against the security of the state.” She was maybe 18 years old. This was a very important experience. I've seen, because of these opportunities, many sad things, unjust things, in my life.

Rabbi David Saperstein told me once a story about a visit you and he made to Saudi Arabia some years ago, as part of the Commission on Interreligious Freedom.

We have many stories from that trip! But I think I know what you are referring to. When we visited Saudi Arabia, the U.S. ambassador, who was a very cautious man, said, “Please tell the cardinal that he can't come in dressed as a priest.” And so I said, “I don't have any other clothes.” David and I and the other leaders had a meeting, and said, “If they don't let Cardinal McCarrick come, nobody goes.” And so I went dressed as I always am, and in so doing was the first Catholic religious figure to dress this way and pass through customs.

How much have you been involved in peace negotiations?

Most of my involvement with peace work has been on the local level, where CRS has been involved. This has not been anything where I've played a very central role. The little I've done has been in the background in these areas. I was privileged to be supportive of [the Community of] Sant'Egidio towards the end of the process they facilitated in Mozambique, but that was after the fighting had already basically been stopped.

I traveled to Sri Lanka following the tsunami, trying to work with the bishops there during the civil war. Everyone had suffered so much, from all faiths. So, I was also involved with that at the time. I've never negotiated in the firing line; it's always been in the safe areas where you could never be shot. Or, where you are cleaning up the mess afterwards.

When did you meet Jim Wolfensohn?

I met Jim for the first time in Rome, when he came to talk to the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. We hit it off, because he “attacked” me when I claimed that the Church had to be always worrying about the poor. He said his now famous line, “You don't own the poor. We have to take care of them, too. The poor are our responsibility, not just yours.” I still see him from time to time. We became great friends; he truly is an extraordinary man. I was with him in Jerusalem the day he turned in his badge as the Middle East envoy. He was so terribly frustrated.

I came to know Archbishop George Carey later, through the WFDD. We also became close friends. The last time I was in London we had tea at the House of Lords. I had a good visit with him, also, in Ghana. And then, I got to know many of the Muslim leaders, like King Hussein and Prince Ghazi of Jordan. I also made good friends with the grand muftis, particularly Mustafa Ceric, in the Balkans. I consider many of them to be close friends. That's one of the only ways you're going to get to the stage where you can talk about difficult things, if there is a spirit of friendship.

Over the years, how do you think the CRS has changed?

In the old days, it used to be an emergency agency, and that was all it did. After a while, we all realized that it could do more than take care of emergencies: it could prepare for or even prevent emergencies. This is true especially if the man-made ones, or those that come because of problems in the economy, or because women are put down and don't have opportunities to have influence in their communities. Those that come because you're using the wrong food or the wrong wells. Those are the emergencies you can deal with by planning and development. CRS has become a development agency but always with the capability of responding to emergencies.

You're seeing the emergence of different strands of Christianity in many parts of the world where CRS is working. Catholics have a culture of social service provision, and that's how CRS frequently operates—through the structures of local churches. So, what's your experience of the changing dynamic in some of these places around service delivery?

These changes do more than challenge us, they give us new partners. This emergence of growing local Catholic agencies like Caritas [Internationalis] means that, in areas where our community is not strong enough, we have partners. This partnership is very important, with both religious and nonreligious groups. There are of course some dogmatic and moral definitions which we profess that can limit these partnerships because we feel strongly about certain principles, such as the primacy of human life. But, we certainly deal well with other groups. Sometimes, there are some very rigid groups who create problems for everybody, by making it impossible for people to work with them or because they only have one way of doing things. But, we are always open to good people who basically share our own moral traditions and want to take care of the poor and raise them up through family and through community.

Do you find, in your work with people of other faiths, that there are limits to interreligious understanding?

I think you have to accept others' limits and be respectful of their positions. But, as I've taught, you have to know and understand the levels of dialogue. First, you talk to people, then you talk with people, then you try to understand people, then you try to appreciate people, and then you accept people. Finally, from that comes the ability to love people and the ability to work with them and for them. Those are the levels that we work on. In each of our relationships, we are on different levels.

What do you see happening in the Middle East next?

I'm a firm believer that President [Barack] Obama is correct—there must be a dialogue. But, it has to be one that comes into effect when everybody, including those in positions of strength, is willing to compromise. I think that if Israel continues its settlement growth, especially in East Jerusalem, there will never be peace. The Arab community also is going to have to realize that there must be compromises in the matter of a universal right of return. And the Israeli leadership will have to realize that some part of Jerusalem can become the capital of Palestine. A distinguished rabbi friend of mine often says: "What we do not know is how many innocent people will die before we reach that point." That's the tragedy.

Going far back into your past, how did you happen to go to Switzerland?

I went after high school. My best friend in high school was from a Swiss family, and his parents were determined to have him spend two years at a Swiss university. They also offered me the opportunity, as well as somewhere to stay. The tuition in the Swiss universities was much less than anything I would be paying in the United States, and I had my boarding taken care of, so I had very few expenses. One year later, we found out, to our chagrin, that there was not yet any articulation between European and American universities. After learning both French and German, we realized that our work there would be counted as nothing. We returned and entered Fordham University.

Do you think the Catholic Church will change its position on women?

I would hope that over time we would find more and more opportunities for women to use their talents and their gifts in the work of the Church. In the archdiocese of Washington, women held major positions during my service as archbishop, including that of chancellor, director of finance, director of communications, superintendent of schools, administrator of the pastoral center—and no one understood the workings of the Church of Washington half as well as the extraordinary lady who serves as my secretary. However, as far as sacred orders and priesthood are concerned, I believe it is now a matter of faith that women may not serve in those ordained ministries. I can appreciate that it is very hard for people outside the faith to understand.

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