Chicago Catholic

A profile of Cardinal Francis George

He’s decidedly not charismatic. His style is cerebral, low-key, and unlike other prominent church leaders, he is a bit awkward at obligatory small talk. When Cardinal Francis George, OMI, walked through a television studio in Chicago last summer, he was barely noticed, eliciting little buzz. When he greeted a group of visiting Northwestern journalism students, few of them knew who he is. He is far from being a celebrity, even in that most Catholic of cities where he was born and is now archbishop.

Yet George may be emerging, albeit in a quiet way, as the central figure in the American church hierarchy. He is “the most respected and sought-after American cardinal in Rome these days,” says John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. And, while it is considered almost impossible that the next pope will emerge from the world’s sole superpower, George would be a serious candidate if the College of Cardinals were to look to American leadership.

The crisis of the past five years has diminished the competition. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law-a mentor to George-was forced to resign because of the sexual-abuse scandal. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles was at the center of a public squabble with Frank Keating, the then leader of the U.S. bishops’ committee on sexual abuse. The other American cardinals either are new to the scene or maintain much lower profiles. When it comes to the unofficial leadership of the church in the United States, observers regularly point to Chicago, where Cardinal George has held the reins for nearly seven years.

In that time, George has focused on trying to recruit more qualified candidates to the priesthood and strengthening social programs for the poor. He has been commended for his willingness to speak out against what he sees as corrosive cultural trends, both inside and outside the church. He is intent on restoring reverence to the liturgy and is an outspoken defender of the all-male priesthood and the need for authority within the church. His vision of the church hasn’t always played well in Chicago, a city known for its progressive brand of Catholicism. After he eliminated a popular communal penance service that had flourished under his predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, forty-three priests complained publicly: “We do not want to bully you nor do we want you to bully us.”

George explained his vision of the church in a written response to my requests for an interview: “When some people disagree with the ‘church,’ it is the church which should change, not the individual,” he wrote. “But the church is given to change us, to be the place where Christ will change us. If this is lost, then the church has no reason for being except as a place to celebrate significant moments with poetic texts and to gather people for social projects....One should never speak of the church without speaking of Christ.”

Among the American hierarchy, George may be in many ways the closest in approach to Pope John Paul II. He is fluent in four languages and holds a doctorate in philosophy. As a leader of his religious community, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, George lived in Rome from 1974 to 1986 and traveled frequently throughout cold-war Eastern Europe, as well as Africa, South America, and India. Like the pope, he is a fan of the arts, particularly science fiction-a genre that he says raises the question of who is part of the human community during a time of rapid technological growth. And he has been a steadfast supporter of human rights: while bishop of Yakima, Washington, a rural diocese where most Catholics are Hispanic, George stood up for the rights of immigrant farm workers.

In Chicago, George has been a visible defender of church teaching. While many of his colleagues are content to simply quote the pope, George is willing to engage the church’s critics intellectually. He is soft-spoken, yet his pointed words have both alienated and inspired. And while his barbs have been directed at a variety of groups, it is liberals within the church who have felt his rhetorical sting the most.

“Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project,” he said in a homily at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago soon before being named a cardinal in 1998. “Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.” In a pointed explanation of that talk published in the November 19, 1999, issue of Commonweal, George elaborated, “the burden of proof for changing established doctrinal and moral teaching rests on those who ask for change.”

To the cardinal, those who want doctrinal change in the church have not met that standard. In his view, American Catholic liberalism is too inclined to accept contemporary social norms, instead of the more exacting demands of church teaching. These days, however, George is particularly careful to direct his critique against particular ideas, and not against Catholic liberals themselves. In our correspondence, the cardinal was hesitant to criticize his opponents on the record. And in a recent column in the Catholic New World, the archdiocesan newspaper, he called for a renewed civility in debates in the church and in the wider culture.

Still, if most U.S. bishops-dating back to Archbishop John Ireland in the nineteenth century-have tended to act as cheerleaders for the American experience, George has been one of its fiercest critics. In a 2001 address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, the cardinal said that a nation shaped by the Protestant ethic is in danger of degenerating into a kind of unbridled secular individualism. “Our liberty is for the sake of the gospel, and that happiness lies in surrender to the divine will,” George said, decrying the culture’s emphasis on subjectivity and experience.

The cardinal’s criticism of America is not limited to abstract talk about values. Like the pope, he has been a critic of U.S. presence in Iraq, which he sees as hubristic. In our corrrespondence, he described himself as impatient with the view that “this country is a messianic people and doesn’t have to listen and learn from the vast majority of the human race.” At least on foreign policy, the cardinal’s rhetoric echoes Howard Dean more than George W. Bush.

George’s style is best illustrated by his record in Chicago. Taking over from Bernardin, who by the end of his life enjoyed the kind of media and public acclaim unheard of among church leaders today, was undoubtedly a challenge. Soon after his installation in Chicago, George was dubbed “Francis the Corrector” for missives he sent to pastors on various liturgical issues. After attending a festive celebration at one suburban parish, he sent a note to the pastor, telling him to place a corpus on the processional cross and to reconfigure the tilt of the altar to conform to church rubrics.

Part of the problem may be that George is not the gregarious sort. Greg Pierce, president of ACTA Publications, a Chicago Catholic publishing firm, says the cardinal is a private person, unused to the nitty-gritty of administering a complex archdiocese. Pierce credits the cardinal with raising a number of challenging questions about his own ministry, including whether he should continue to reside in a mansion in a wealthy city neighborhood. Still, Pierce says the cardinal is not the type who is quick to change his mind. “He takes the Roman position. I wouldn’t expect him to do anything else,” says Pierce, who has argued with the cardinal about ordaining women. “He loves intellectual sparring. But that doesn’t mean he’s open to changing his mind.”

Yet even the cardinal’s most vehement detractors concede that he will pull back when confronted with overwhelming opposition, and he is credited with exercising power in a nonvindictive manner. (His critics in the archdiocesan clergy appear unafraid, in most cases, to speak on the record.) Nonetheless, George’s manner, especially when contrasted with that of Bernardin-a comparison that makes his friends uneasy-is sometimes perceived as aloof.

Some see George’s generally cerebral approach to matters as a sign of his lack of personal warmth. It’s simply a public image, insists Bill Yacullo, a Chicago executive recruiter and active Catholic layman. In small groups, the cardinal is quick to learn names and mix with parishioners for hours at a time during church visits. “He’ll say exactly what’s on his mind,” says Yacullo, who thinks that the cardinal is frequently surprised at the impact his words can have.

One Chicago journalist-who prefers to be anonymous-says that George is far less politic than his predecessor, Bernardin, who was known for a smooth, pastoral manner. The current cardinal is more direct. “He has always struck me as honest and straightforward, almost to a fault,” says the journalist. When asked if the reassignment of a popular pastor could prompt some to leave the church, George responded simply that Catholics should stay because the faith reflects their belief in Jesus, not because they like the manner of a charismatic pastor.

George is known to spar with reporters and others who question traditional Catholic positions, and he often answers a question with a pointed rhetorical query. Asked why the church will not ordain women, he once responded, “Have you ever seen a male prima ballerina?” It’s a reflection of his belief in appropriate gender roles: just as women are uniquely suited to be ballerinas, men are uniquely suited to be priests. This kind of reasoning frequently leaves supporters of women’s ordination shaking their heads. They speak the post-Enlightenment language focused on rights; George speaks of anthropological and scriptural metaphors.

When asked about his role as archbishop, he will respond pensively. “You’re captured by the paper,” he told me, describing the bureaucratic nature of the job. Chicago, with its 1.2 million Catholics, the country’s second largest archdiocese, is a place where getting to know names is impossible, especially when compared to smaller dioceses such as Yakima and Portland, Oregon, where he previously served as bishop.

One of the cardinal’s regrets is that, in Chicago, he does not have enough time to spend with the poor. “The Yakima diocese is a materially poor place, and I felt very much at home there. But there is worse poverty in Chicago, only I don’t have the kind of hands-on contact that I would like to have,” he told me, noting that his focus as archbishop is to tap Chicago’s wealthy to support projects that benefit the poor.

One of George’s favorite themes is that the church has spent enough time focusing on itself and now must spend more time on the work of conversion. He sees evangelization as the solution to perennial problems such as the looming priest shortage.

Martin Marty, University of Chicago professor, historian of American religion, and Lutheran minister, says George is quite aware of what Rome expects from church leadership today but doesn’t revel in cracking the whip on innovation. “It’s rare to hear of clergy and parishioners feeling squelched [by George]. His boundaries for experimenting may be narrower, but so are the ambitions of the experimenters today,” says Marty, citing a Chicago Sun-Times poll of archdiocesan clergy in which the cardinal got high marks. William Kenneally, a Chicago pastor and frequent George critic, notes that while the cardinal enjoys theological debates, he rarely intervenes in the day-to-day operations of parishes.

Still, George’s detractors-and they are largely on the left side of church politics-continue to see him as a micro-manager out to put the toothpaste of innovative Catholic thought in Chicago back in its tube. One area where George has taken on liberal thought is the liturgy. He has played a major role in the efforts to change English-language translations to better reflect what he describes as the intent of the original Latin. Some supporters of post-Vatican II English translations see this as evidence that George wants to return to a more triumphal style of liturgy. Nathan Mitchell, a liturgist and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, points out that the cardinal has been critical of the liturgical translations developed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). That long-running feud has pitted reform-minded liturgists, such as Mitchell, against those, like George, who argue that much of the modern English translation has failed to capture the transcendent quality of the original Latin liturgical texts.

These disputes may seem minor, but they are telling. The cardinal is reacting, Mitchell says, to what he sees as the anti-authority bias of modern cultural life. The cardinal, he says, believes that the importance of the priesthood should not be downplayed by liturgical reformers focused on lay participation and gender-inclusive language. In the cardinal’s eyes, respect for authority within the church begins with respect for the priesthood.

To better reflect his views on liturgy, the cardinal fired Gabe Huck, former director of Liturgy Training Publications, a renowned liturgical publishing firm run by the archdiocese. Huck is not shy when it comes to chastising the man who terminated his twenty-five years of service to the archdiocese. The cardinal’s priority, says Huck, is “to rein in the winds of Vatican II in Chicago.” While George’s intellectual abilities and calm demeanor communicate self-confidence to some, Huck sees something entirely different. “George is not a cautious person,” he says. “He is self-assured, self-righteous. He doesn’t appear to have any doubts.”

Huck says the cardinal is overly concerned with maintaining the distinction between laity and clergy, particularly in liturgical matters. The distinction is clear to most Catholics, says Huck, who sees the cardinal’s efforts as part of a clerical power grab.

But George can act in ways that belie his conservative reputation. He has met with representatives of Voice of the Faithful, a reform group shunned by many of his episcopal colleagues. He has supported outreach to gay Catholics, within the confines of church teaching, sometimes to the chagrin of those who would like to see such outreach banned. When several church basketball coaches refused to let their teams play black children at a South Side church, alleging safety concerns, George issued a pointed statement on the evils of racism. Known usually for somewhat opaque public statements, he ended his comment on the incident with a simple declarative: “Let the kids play.”

Despite some rough spots, George has generally earned high marks for his handling of the priest sexual-abuse crisis. He has followed a policy established by Bernardin designed to remove guilty priests from ministry while protecting the rights of the unjustly accused. The archdiocese has not been spared, however, having paid out more than $20 million in settlements since 1993. It will be forced to sell archdiocesan property to bear those costs. Furthermore, George has enforced the U.S. bishops’ policy banning priests from active ministry who have proven sexual-abuse offenses in their past, even though he was a vocal critic of the policy when it was originally proposed at the bishops’ 2002 meeting in Dallas.

The Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) contends that George’s policies have nonetheless fallen short. Barbara Blaine, a Chicagoan and president of the group, says George has yet to formally release the names of all priest abusers. George responds that he doesn’t need to do so because the newspapers have already done that job.

Criticism generates little public response from the cardinal. In the age of Oprah, when public personalities are expected to offer up their anguish and struggles for public scrutiny, George remains largely reticent. He has, for example, referred only obliquely to his battle with polio. Afflicted with a disease eradicated from the American scene generations ago, he is part of an unlucky cohort-he was born in 1937-that faced years of terror from the crippling infection. It is an experience largely forgotten, except for those in a quiet generation who faced the fear of public swimming pools and other phobias inspired by the mysterious disease.

As it happens, both George’s strong opponent, Huck, and one of his steadfast supporters, Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, also had polio. The two provide different explanations for the cardinal’s reticence. For Huck, who had the disease as a child, it explains George’s aloofness. For Elshtain, who, like George, continues to struggle daily with the effects of the disease, the cardinal’s demeanor is admirable. She told me he is graced with “a prayerful determination to not focus solely on his own problems and to face the world.”

In the larger sense, facing the world is what George wants the church to do. He’s willing, for example, to respond to reporters’ questions about the sexual-abuse crisis, yet believes that behind many legitimate concerns there is a lingering anti-Catholic bias. Some may argue that the church’s first priority should be to get its own house in order. George offers a contrary view. His argument: the church has been concerned with itself for too long; the world awaits the gospel, and it’s the church that can provide the goods. 

Published in the 2004-01-16 issue: 

Peter Feuerherd is a freelance writer in New York.

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