Home The Washington Diplomat June 2011 Cardinal Still Preaches to Faithful, And to Choir of Religious Skeptics

Cardinal Still Preaches to Faithful, And to Choir of Religious Skeptics

Cardinal Still Preaches to Faithful, And to Choir of Religious Skeptics

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most prominent figures in the American Catholic Church, officially retired as archbishop of the Washington Diocese in 2006 after an international career that took him from Harlem to Latin America to the Middle East and beyond. 

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

God himself might concede that the 80-year-old priest deserves a little rest and relaxation after faithfully serving the church for five decades. But a life of leisure doesn’t seem to be part of God’s plan for the New York City-born theologian. In January, after a five-year respite from the rigors of running an archdiocese, McCarrick went back to work — this time at the Library of Congress, where he was recruited to serve as a distinguished visiting scholar in the library’s renowned John W. Kluge Center. According to the library’s website, the Kluge Center “fosters a mutually enriching relationship between scholars and political leaders.” 

“At 80, it’s interesting to start a new job,” McCarrick said with a chuckle during an interview in his small, tidy and sun-splashed office tucked into a hard-to-find place in the library’s oldest and most impressive building, the Jefferson. “They are lovely people here. They’ve been so nice to me.”

With a long and distinguished career behind him, McCarrick represents the old guard in Catholicism, but as usual, he’s still working at the vanguard. After launching his career as assistant chaplain and then dean of student services at Catholic University in Washington in the early 1960s, McCarrick took an assignment in Puerto Rico and served as president of the Catholic University there. The job piqued a lifelong interest in language; McCarrick speaks Spanish, French, German and Italian, as well as English.

After his formative stint in Puerto Rico in the 1960s, McCarrick was summoned back to the United States, where he was made vicar of East Manhattan and Harlem and worked to develop the church’s then-burgeoning African American mission during the 1970s.

The tireless priest went on to become archbishop of a newly created diocese in Newark, New Jersey, one of the Catholic Church’s largest, before landing in Washington, one of the Church’s most prestigious, from 2001 until 2006.

While in Washington, McCarrick launched the “Forward in Faith” campaign, which raised $185 million in pledges to support education, vocation, parish and social needs, especially for new immigrants in the growing Latino community. Forward in Faith was one of the most successful capital campaigns in U.S. diocesan history.

He also oversaw the creation of various education and social services endeavors, including the DC Opportunity Scholarship program for low-income families; a Lay Leadership Institute in Silver Spring, Md., geared toward the Hispanic community; and the reorganization of four of the archdiocese’s social service agencies into one organization, Catholic Community Services, which helps more than 120,000 people each year.

In addition, McCarrick has traveled the world to press for human rights and humanitarian relief, including trips to China, Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Rwanda, as well as to areas hit by major natural disasters such as Central America, Sri Lanka and the American Gulf after Hurricane Katrina.

A founding member of the Papal Foundation, McCarrick has served as its president since 1997, and he continues to travel on behalf of Catholic Relief Services as a board member. The congenial cardinal has also served on the secretary of state’s advisory committee on religious freedom abroad and from 1999 to 2001, he was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Today, as a Kluge scholar, McCarrick is studying the intersection of religion and diplomacy, a trend in global affairs perhaps most evident in the United States in the myriad “faith-based” initiatives and, particularly in Washington, the “interfaith dialogues” that blossomed after 9/11 and have become a cottage industry in their own right. For his part, however, McCarrick is working to understand and write about an obscure (at least in the secular world) but he says potentially transformative Jordanian document called the Amman Message.

Conceived by King Abdullah II during the 2004 observance of Ramadan, the Amman Message aims to define what Islam is and isn’t, as well as which actions are representative of the religion and which are not. The document’s stated goal is “to clarify to the modern world the true nature of Islam.”

Seeking to imbue the Amman Message with unimpeachable religious authority, King Abdullah II sent three questions to two dozen of the world’s most senior religious scholars, who represented all the branches and schools of Islam. The questions were: Who is a Muslim? Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate? And who has the right to issue fatwas, or legal rulings under Islamic law?”

McCarrick said he hopes to illuminate the Amman Message in a way that fosters better understanding between followers of Islam and the skeptics who cast a wary eye not only on the religion, but on Muslims themselves. He said the message is unusually credible because it has the weight of diverse Islamic scholars and authorities behind it.

“It is almost like an effort to get a common teaching or magisterial for Islam,” McCarrick said, explaining the intent of the Amman Message. “Islam has had a common teaching from the day of the prophet, of course, but after the Shiites and Sunnis sort of divided, they have never had a common teaching.”

The cardinal, a seasoned veteran of the oft-divided Catholic clergy, is especially impressed that the Amman Message is a collaborative effort among all eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

“The Amman Message speaks to a moderate Islam that I think the world is looking for right now,” McCarrick said. “In Islam today there are voices that are teaching and reading the sacred books and they are saying maybe there is a way these can be understood in the background of human rights. This is key — we all believe in the dignity of the universal. All of the family of Abraham — Christians, Jews and Muslims — seems to be content with understanding that there is a real dignity in every person. We are neighbors not just with the family across the street but with the family across the world.”

McCarrick, who has written for some of the world’s most prestigious journals and sermonized all over the world, noted that these days he isn’t as interested in talking as he is in listening.

“I’m not coming to teach [Muslims],” he said. “I’m coming to really learn what they are teaching and what are their movements now, and how can this document [the Amman Message] that finds a moderate element in the teachings and writings of Islam — how can we help make sure that all of our brothers and sisters in the Muslim world see this and accept the leadership of moderate voices.”

The cardinal paused for a moment, then seemed compelled to declare his credentials for this particular line of study. “I’ve learned a lot about Islam because I’ve had to,” the soft-spoken McCarrick explained. “I’ve been involved in the Middle East for a long time.”

McCarrick — who in 2000 was named by the president of Lebanon an Officer of the Order of the Cedars of Lebanon — cited Islam as the religion that seems most in need of some effective diplomacy (although Catholicism has certainly had high-profile PR crises of its own). Islam is a faith followed by roughly 1.3 billion people around the globe, the vast majority of whom aren’t radical anti-American or even anti-Christian, McCarrick pointed out.

“When you talk about religion and diplomacy, Islam comes right up,” he said matter-of-factly. “But there is a lot common ground between Islam and Catholicism and other world religions.”

McCarrick says the world’s burgeoning interest in the intersection of religion and diplomacy is a natural result of failed attempts at traditional diplomacy.

“You cannot understand a country with a major Muslim population unless you understand Islam,” he said. “You can’t understand a country with a major Catholic population unless you try to understand Catholicism. This is true for a country of Shinto or Confucianism or whatever — religion is a part of our lives.

“We’re supposed to love our neighbor but we have to understand our neighbor first,” McCarrick added. “I traveled a great deal over the world and it’s all basically to understand and try to make sure that they understand the American Catholic and the Catholic generally. The more we understand each other the better for peace, harmony and cooperation.”

But the intermingling of religion and diplomacy has experienced some blowback. In April, U.S. Ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec, a prominent Roman Catholic academic who supported President Obama in his election bid, resigned after a State Department inspector general report criticized him for spending too much time writing about his religious beliefs.

“The ambassador’s outside activities have detracted from his attention to core mission goals,” the report charged. “Based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama’s interfaith initiatives, he has devoted considerable time to writing articles for publication in the United States as well as in Malta, and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio.”

Kmiec defended his actions in his resignation letter to Obama (which incidentally came at the same time that the Senate finally voted to fill the long-vacant post of U.S. ambassador of international religious freedom). “I doubt very much whether one could ever spend too much time on this subject,” Kmiec wrote, noting that “too much of politics had been used to divide us, sometimes by excluding people of faith.”

But others have leveled the exact opposite charge at the many faith-based initiatives pushed by former President George W. Bush, arguing that religion was dominating American politics and breaching the sacred line between church and state upon which the country was founded.

McCarrick, whose bearing is remarkably low-key for a theologian of his vaunted status, becomes more animated when asked how the American commitment to a separation of church and state jibes with the notion of a diplomatic policy informed by religion.

“The separation of church and state has been very valuable for us, except when secularism becomes the established religion,” McCarrick told The Diplomat. “That happens even in the U.S. — the notion that secularism, you can’t touch it. You can put aside all of the religious part and say no it’s just this secular thing. What you do is create a secular religion and that becomes the established religion. But this is a religious nation, and there has to be a place for religion in our society. We have to respect atheism, but we also have to respect religion.”

And what about those who contend that organized religion — extreme adherence to any faith — is responsible for far more harm than good? The skeptics point to the Christian crusades or to more contemporary violence at abortion clinics in the name of God, or radical Islamic-inspired terrorism in the name of Allah — or the perpetual fighting over Jerusalem, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Whether it’s Muslims and Christians clashing in Nigeria or American taxpayer money going to scientifically dubious abstinence-only pregnancy-prevention programs, many critics contend that infusing U.S. policy with religion is a recipe for failure, or even strife.

“To them I say two things: Religion is injected into the life of all who we deal with,” McCarrick argued. “The values of religion are values we get because we are human beings and we believe we are created by God and saved by God and loved by God. With all due respect to atheists and agnostics, for me the world doesn’t make sense unless there is a God. Ninety percent of our people believe there is a God.”

The cardinal also pointed out that atheistic countries don’t have great track records. “I don’t know of any countries that are atheist,” he said. “We had them — they were the communist countries. But they blew up.”

While McCarrick emphasized that religion has a place in diplomacy, he said that doesn’t equate with trying to convert people of other faiths.

“I think there is a difference between evangelizing and proselytizing,” he cautioned. “Evangelizing is saying, ‘Hey, I want to know about Moses, I want to know about Mohammed, let me tell you about Jesus too.’ Jesus says get the message out to all the world and we should do that, but conversion is always the grace given by God. You can’t impose conversion on someone else. You can’t make them a Catholic, a Christian, a Jew or Muslim. When we proclaim Jesus Christ and his crucifixion with all of our hearts and all our love to other people, nothing will happen unless the lord gives them the grace — faith is the grace.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.