Archbishop Theodore McCarrick
The U.S. bishops hope Pope John Paul II's upcoming visit to Cuba will lead to changes in the United States' three-decades-old trade embargo against the communist-ruled island. Washington's policy toward Cuba must be “rethought” says Newark, N.J. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, head of the bishops' committee on foreign policy. The prelate believes John Paul II's trip to the impoverished island nation will bring about a new springtime for the Church there. At the conclusion of the recent Synod of Bishops for America, Archbishop McCarrick spoke with Register correspondent Stephen Banyra about the Synod, Cuba, and other concerns.
Banyra: The Special Synod of Bishops for America has been a landmark gathering. Yet some participants have described it as a “no surprises synod.” What's your assessment?
Archbishop McCarrick: I think it was a “no surprises synod” because we all had seen the Instrumentum Laboris [working document] and the Line-amenta [preparatory document] and we had been talking to each other for a while. And, we think we know many problems—certainly not all—but many problems that are facing the Church in the new world. Therefore, it was no surprise that all of these were presented by the Synod Fathers and by those who were helping us to get a total picture.
It was an important synod. Maybe the most important thing of it was that we have become ever more conscious that there is one America and that we are not going to solve the problems of one part of America without involving the other parts. I think our brothers and sisters from the south have learned that, and we in the United States and Canada are learning that, too. All the Synod participants rejoice that Pope John Paul II called us together as one America.
Your brother bishops have elected you to the post-synod council that will assist the Pope in preparing his post-synodal apostolic exhortation. What impact might that document have on the Church throughout the western hemisphere?
Of course, we will approach helping the Holy Father prepare the document with great hope and with great confidence. We will be trying to assist him in suggesting themes, in taking the propositions that were voted on and presenting them as building blocks of the exhortation that he will write.
Yet we come to it with the understanding that this is not just the Holy Father's document; this is a document that the Lord is looking to create. This is something where the Holy Spirit is going to be involved and will guide Pope John Paul II and will be speaking to him, and whispering to him, and shouting loudly to him.
I believe this document will be a call: a call to holiness, a call to unity, a call to service for the Church in the new world. So I approach the document, with whatever small part I may have in helping it, with great enthusiasm. I really think we have a chance here to make this a Magna Carta for the Church in the third millennium.
We're at the crossroads of the third Christian millennium. Taking stock of the Church in the United States, how would you assess her “health” and what is the greatest challenge facing her for the new century?
I think basically the Church in the United States is healthy. It is alive. It is well. There are areas where it is stronger than others. There are areas where we must work harder to make sure we are reaching the poor, where we must work harder to make sure we are reaching young people, where we must work harder to make sure that we're taking care of those who need help. There are many things that we have to do.
However, more than anything else, the Church in the United States has to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus and that is the greatest challenge. The commercials of the television are the Gospel of today, unfortunately, and they are not the Good News of Jesus Christ. They are often the words of selfishness—often of a search for the material things that have no real meaning in our lives.
So the Church has to call forth its people to a holiness of life, to the cross and resurrection, to the fact that the world has been saved—it's been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We're living in a world that is already the kingdom. The kingdom has come. The kingdom is with us. Our people don't recognize that. We bishops don't always live that way.
That's what we have to do. That's the message. I think we must find how to respond to the loud voice of the world and make even more intelligible and more audible in our society the voice of the Lord Jesus which comes to us through the Gospel, through the Church, and through all the wonderful things that the Lord is challenging us to do.
As head of the U.S. bishops' committee on foreign policy, do you think the bishops' voice has much impact on Washington politics?
That depends on the subject. If it is something where our government is indecisive or is trying to form a policy, then our voice can be very strong. If it is something where our government has unfortunately taken a stand that is very opposed to what we stand for, then it is more difficult—then you have to work with the Congress, and you have to try forming a coalition with those who are like-minded. This happens often in questions that involve morality, that involve ethics, that involve justice for our people.
In some areas, we have been very successful: in working to change migration legislation, in working to get our government to take a second look at the anti-personnel land mine situation.
We're not always totally successful—we don't always make the outcome be the one we would like. Nevertheless, the fact that there are 60 million Catholics in the United States does make us heard as does the fact that we have positions that make sense because they are based on solid moral and evangelical values. Therefore, it's not just us but it's also many like-minded people looking to these principles we try to foster in the positions that we take.
Pope John Paul II travels to Cuba Jan. 21. What impact might he have on the communist-ruled island? Might the Pope's trip also have an impact on U.S. policy toward Cuba?
What I think will happen in Cuba is that the Church will find its persona again. The Church in Cuba has suffered over the years. Recently, there has been some change, and I think that the Church today is less harassed—not totally without harassment, absolutely—but certainly less harassed than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.
I think the presence of the Holy Father will give vitality, strength, confidence, and hope to our Catholic people and to the bishops who have really been heroes and men of great courage in trying to serve and lead the Church.
I think that the Church will benefit from the visit of the Holy Father, and when the Church benefits, everybody benefits. I pray that this will be a good moment for all the people of Cuba.
With regard to our own government, of course, the Catholic Church in the United States has been very critical of the U.S. embargo because we feel it ends up only hurting the poor people. That is a terrible thing because there's already so much suffering, there's so much sickness, there's a lack of medicine, there's a lack of important foodstuffs—many children are sick because of it.
We feel that the embargo has to be looked at again and has to be rethought and reconfigured to allow humanitarian assistance to get into Cuba. I'm hoping after the Holy Father's visit to Cuba, our government will take another look at what is happening there and will make some major changes in the United States' policy toward Cuba.
The Chinese government has invited you to travel to China as a religious representative, together with a Protestant and Jewish delegate. What can you tell us about the trip and what are your hopes for it?
The three of us whom they have invited have not made any public statement. The Chinese government has made this very historic gesture: it's the first time since 1950 that they have officially invited religious leaders.
I'm looking forward to the visit, to understanding the reality of China, and to visiting as many of the Chinese people—especially Christians and other believers—as I can. Hopefully, because of the visit, there will be a greater understanding on all parts of the value and the great gifts that religion gives to every country.
Do the United States bishops agree that the Clinton Administration's policy of “engagement” with China is better for promoting religious freedom and human rights than a policy of “isolationism?”
You ask about the position of the U.S. bishops; there are some 300 of us and we each have our own opinion. Yet—as the one who has some responsibility for our international policy—I always believe it's better to talk. I believe you gain nothing by putting up a wall between people. There is always a value in conversation and in dialogue and I'm committed to that always.
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick
Personal: Age 67; native of New York City; ordained for the Archdiocese of New York at age 27; formerly president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, auxiliary bishop of New York, and bishop of Metuchen, N.J.; appointed fourth archbishop of Newark by Pope John Paul in 1977.
Background: Chairman of NCCB's International Policy Committee; former chairman of bishops' Committee on Migration; member of the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral care of Migrants and Tourists; represented the U.S. State Department as an official observer for the Helsinki Accords; has visited Cuba, Poland, Romania, Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, the former Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Rwanda, and Burundi.