Setting Boundaries

A Conversation with Cardinal George (Part Two)

Cardinal Francis George, OMI, archbishop of Chicago, was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2008 to 2011. He spoke with David Gibson May 19, on the occasion of the publication of George's book God in Action (see William L. Portier's review). This is the second part of the interview (read the first part here).

David Gibson: What do you make of the new study of the causes and context of the sexual-abuse crisis [pdf]. Have you read the study?

Cardinal Francis George: I’ve read the executive summary; I’ve looked at the study. I haven’t read it all yet. [This interview took place one day after the study was released.]

Gibson: Do you think it rings true?

George: Yes, I think it rings true. It’s not a whitewash. It shows where the bishops were derelict in attending to the full scope of the tragedy. I think what it points to is in the beginning years of this—I wasn’t a bishop when it began, I became a bishop in 1990 and there was already a sub-committee [of the USCCB] dedicated to this. They did begin the discussions in the 80s.

But what was missing, often, was the voice of the victim. They [the bishops] talked to the priests. They tried to come to terms with what had happened, more or less in the therapeutic era, treating it not just as a moral failing—they knew that—but as a psychological sickness, forgetting that there is a justice issue here, vis-à-vis the victim, who was often crushed. The longstanding consequences of this are things we are still trying to come to terms with as we try to speak to victims and help victims.

I have found that is the voice that has to be brought forward. Because when I listen to it I am always grateful and always pray for the grace of conversion to stay with that voice as the primary voice in this whole conversation. That’s new, and I think the bishops do attend to it now. I hope so. But the analysis of the years when this was most prevalent rings true to me. I was gone from this country during those years. I lived in Rome [1974-1987] and when I came back I had a sense that something had happened but I didn’t understand very well—not about this but about a lot of things.

The report hasn’t received a lot of attention, and in some ways that is surprising, unless it doesn’t say what people want it to say. Because there’s a meta-narrative in all this. It’s the usual meta-narrative: individuals harmed by institutions and authority, particularly religious authority, that is a priori oppressive. That’s a media mandate, sort of, for every story. And while there are elements of truth to that story, that’s not the whole story. Facts that don’t enforce that story, don’t corroborate it, tend not to be reported.

Gibson: I thought it was a very interesting report, I thought a lot of it rang true, that there was plenty in the report to discomfit left, right and center.

George: The point is it was not the bishops’ report. It was a report from a reputable research organization. So if people don’t like it they should go to the John Jay people and say, “Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?” We [the bishops] didn’t. I read it for the first time last week. 

Gibson: And you think it rang true?

George: I think so, yes, sure. It opened up a certain number of areas that I wasn’t aware of.

Gibson: What areas?

George: I hadn’t given much thought to what is a central thesis, as I understand it, that is, the changes in the society and their repercussion on priestly discipline—the relaxation of protections for celibate living that had been taken for granted as part of priestly life for so many generations. That struck me as something I should have given more thought to. I’m grateful for that.

Gibson: The researchers do talk about the bishops’ record over these past decades in terms of patterns in institutional change—comparing the church to police departments dealing with brutality, for example—which can be an explanatory thing but also a very damning thing in the sense that the church all too often acted like any other organization.

George: That’s right, that’s the sorry part of that kind of conclusion—we were the same as everybody else, and we shouldn’t have been. But it also points to the problem of authority in the church. When the church is a voluntary organization sociologically, as it is here, we don’t have police powers, as bishops. Charles Borromeo did when he reformed the church in Milan [laughs]. So perhaps it was a little easier! Not that we would want that. But it [the church] is a voluntary organization.

Furthermore, the new code [of canon law] was designed to protect priests against oppressive bishops because John Paul II distrusted administrative law as an instrument for punishing people. He saw how it was misused in communist regimes where things were done legally but the law didn’t respect individuals. And so there were a lot of canonical difficulties in disciplining priests that now, in the case of this particular sin and crime, we can address more easily with the zero tolerance policy.

It took a long time, in the discussions over there [in the Vatican], to accept the principle of zero tolerance in a code that said there are reasons why this penalty shouldn’t be imposed on people even for this kind of crime because you had to look at culpability in terms of moral intention and things like that. Our laws now are very behavioral. If you did it, you’re out. We have to prove that you did it. But if you did it, you’re out, no matter what excuse or what culpability you think there might be.

Gibson: The John Jay report does talk about how much has been done, about the gains made by the church in this area. But it also talks about the importance of bishops’ developing uniform policies with accountability and transparency. Do you think there are next steps that can be taken by the bishops?

George: There always are, aren’t there? But before I would want to say what they should be I’d want to consult with a lot more bishops and see what the consensus might be. Because it’s important that there be greater uniformity, obviously. We’ve learned, I suppose, that review boards are very different, sometimes, from place to place. So we should look at that, certainly, and I think we are.

But beyond that we’ll have to talk, I think. Because it’d be good to act together. This is a national problem and the more we can act together and find consensus, the stronger the church will be.

Gibson: You also have the issue of the autonomy of bishops—you have a couple of bishops who opt out of audits, for example. Are these two things that are increasingly going to butt heads?

George: They do now. Whether increasingly, I don’t know. For example, the matter of the eparchies [territories of the Eastern Catholic Churches]. The eparchies sometimes extend across the whole nation. They go from state to state to state to state, with different laws. To put together a lot of the infrastructure that the charter does call for in that kind of situation would be extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily expensive. And the eparchies are poor. So a lot of it is just simply administrative. So they simply piggyback—I think this is something the report doesn’t recognize—they’ll piggyback on the Latin diocese, depending on where they are.

So while they’re not the primary agent, I think it’s being attended to, in some cases anyway.

Gibson: One last point on church matters. Catholic identity is something you’ve often emphasized, particularly when you were the head of the USCCB—

George: Well, that’s John Allen’s phrase.  He looked at what I did and said, “Aha!”  I say, “Catholic faith.”

Gibson: In the last year as USCCB president, you talked to the bishops about raising the question of who’s Catholic? Who’s in this faith, what media outlets are in the faith, which are not? How can those kinds of questions be answered?

George: It’s not a question of asking “Who’s Catholic?” It’s a question of starting with the bishop as the center of ecclesial communion. How can we establish the relationships of ecclesial communion before there is a crisis? Before we have to say “you are Catholic” or “you aren’t”? That’s an atomic bomb in ecclesial before you get there—and obviously there are problems that are more acute, as you’ve pointed out, than in the past. So my question was—and I think the conference is following up on it—What can we do as bishops to take the initiative to reach out so there are relationships within which we’ll talk about who’s Catholic and who’s not, how are they Catholic, and what do they understand by “Catholic.” But you can’t do that unless there’s some kind of relationship. So the initiative was: why don’t we establish relationships even in an informal way, but at the national level. Not just rely upon individual bishops talking to their universities, etc. That’s all necessary, but because a lot of the universities are national now, we need to find another locus for the conversation that establishes communion. The central concern is always communion.  That’s my understanding of the ecclesiology of Vatican II, and that means relationship. 

It’s not a question of bishops going in—as it’s too often been the case—and saying, “This is what it is, and now you have to conform.” That’s not necessary. It’s far better to go in first of all and say, “How do you conceive your mission and identity as Catholic?” and “Let’s talk about it.” Or start by asking, “What are you doing?” Bishops are consumed by a lot of tasks, so it’s good to talk to people first. Maybe some problems will come up that demand hard decisions, but let’s do that within the context of communion that presupposes conversation.

Gibson: So you see this less as a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but a relational—

George: Right, it’s not a “seal of approval” at all, at this point. That’s not what’s conceived in this initiative. It’s to establish relations of communion, and within those, to talk about problems that will inevitably arise, always have and always will.

Gibson: Do you think that’s going forward within the bishops conference? 

George: Yes, I think it will. It is hard to institutionalize. But even to say, “Here’s the group of bishops that want to talk to you if you want to talk”—that’s something! We’re not just sitting there on a perch throwing down thunderbolts. We’re saying let’s talk before it’s a problem so that we understand where you’re coming from. Now, we may have to say that we believe where you’re coming from isn’t exactly consistent with what we believe the Catholic faith says. Even that conversation may be difficult, but it’ll be easier if there’s some relationship established beforehand.

Gibson: Are you thinking about retirement? Are you looking forward to it?

George: Yes, basically. There are things I’d like to be able to move along before I retire, but that’ll always be the case. I’m sure there will be regrets in that I’ll have less direct interaction with people in the parishes than I have now, in ways that can be of help to them to live their faith. I’ll be a little bit removed from that, depending on whoever my successor might be.

Gibson: Do you see yourself staying in Chicago?

George: Yes, I was born in Chicago. Most of my relatives are here, and most of my friends. So there’s also a sense of anticipation to be able to do some of the work of the bishop—confirmations—but to do it on a different schedule that will permit me to prepare myself to meet the Lord and to be of help to people in ways that aren’t possible now because the schedule was so all-consuming. There’s not so much spontaneity in the life of a bishop when so many days are scheduled months ahead of time. It’ll be nice to have enough time to pray more, and to say, today, I can do this because I’m not booked eighteen hours of the day. So we’ll see, but if God gives me ten more years of life, it will be nice to spend a couple of them in transition. And it’s good for the diocese, too. I’ll have been there fifteen, sixteen years, and it’s good to have a change.

Gibson: You’re known as the intellectual of the bishops conference. You have an analytic mind, but it would be interesting to read something autobiographical from you.

George: I’m not very good at that. Ever since JFK’s presidency, we judge leaders according to their charisma. He was the first really charismatic president. Before that, it was the office that defined the man, and the office was respected—and sometimes the man did well and maybe he didn’t—but nonetheless, it was the office that was important. With Kennedy, it became star power to some extent. [He was] a good man and all the rest, but charisma came to be spoken of for the first time.

It’s interesting that at that very time, in Lumen gentium, the church’s self-definition in the Second Vatican Council, introduced in a council document the charismatic church along with the church of office, saying that charisms are carried by religious orders, by charismatic figures like St. Francis of Assisi, prophetic figures. They’re given a moment when they’re necessary for the reform of the church and for the renewal of the mission, but they’re not permanent.

What’s permanent is the office, but it doesn’t lend itself very easily to charismatic figures. A bishop, a priest, isn’t a guru. He should disappear behind the office because he comes and goes, and someone else comes and goes. The office is what counts. And so from that perspective I am less concerned about personal memoirs than I am about the preservation of the office, as given to us from the Apostles…the faith and the office, because the office is part of the faith. This is a so called institutional church that somehow rides apart from the church as the body of the faithful. So, from that perspective, what I personally may have experienced in the midst of trying to fulfill the office is not all that important.

John Paul II was very conscious of the office, but he fulfilled it in a very personal way that didn’t detract from the office. The danger is that if you become a guru, you’ll fulfill it in a way that does detract from the office, in which case you’ve failed.

Related: Part one of David Gibson's interview with Cardinal George
William L. Portier's review of God in Action, by Cardinal Francis George
Chicago Catholic: A Profile of Cardinal Francis George, by Peter Feuerherd



Commenting Guidelines

Why didn't Gibson ask Cardinal George about the way he ignored the recommendations of his own review board?

My comments on the first part of Gibson's interview haven't changed so I'll repeat them here:

Why would anyone be interested in anything that Cardinal George says? 

 He was elected president of the USCCB after failing to follow the recommendations of his own review board in the case of Father Daniel McCormack who abused boys in George's diocese.

Two dioceses refused to implement the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and the bishops in both dioceses, Baker, Oregon and Lincoln, Nebraska, are still in positions of power and honor.

Until bishops are held responsible for aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of children, nothing they say or do or write is of interest to me.  Only Cardinal Law was forced to resign and he is now in the Vatican, influencing the promotion of other bishops. 

God help the Catholic Church.  It's not the sheep who went astray; it was the shepherds.

why didn't Gibson ask the Cardinal if he considers  what the priest's and bishop's did, were criminal and that they should be held accountable?

Eileen Ford has a good point. Cardinal George is a slippery interviewee. When forced to deal with the question of the Bishops' failures to respond appropriately to clerical sexual abuse he references the development of policies he himself did not bother to follow when they were later  clearly codified, and seems to think mention of his years in Rome will effectively distance him from his  involvement in the Mc Cormack case back home in Chicago. 

On the other hand, no interviewer wants to blast his target out of the water in an opening gambit, thus cutting off the possibility that something interesting that has not yet surfaced might be let drop. I was intrigued by George's response to the " Who's Catholic" topic Gibson raised toward the end of the interview. When this question comes up, George's immediate instinct is to say "it's a question of starting with the bishop as the center of ecclesial communion."  And then he speaks of having to establish relationships with Christians involving dialogue before "we" have to say you are a Catholic or not, which he repards as "an atomic bomb in ecclesial communion."

My questions for David Gibson-- or anyone else who has given this some thought-- would be: What does it mean to say that the bishop is the "center of ecclesial communion"? and how exactly does the Cardinal propose using this starting point  to develop relationships with non-bishops that will make it less likely the bishops will have to obliterate them?




Unless it was out-of-bounds from the get-go, Mr. Gibson could have used the opportunity to ask when the so called "audits" would become meaningful by asking not just if the diocese had a plan to protect kids, as has been the case since adoption of the Dallas Charter, but whether the diocese was actually following its plan, including the supposedly mandatory continuing education of priests, which, if we could get the information, I believe is being ignored in many dioceses, and I know was in my own diocese, Grand Rapids, MI, when I had to resign from administering its plan because I could not support its lack of integrity. If he was really gutsy, he could have asked if Fr. McCormick did the "mandatory" continuing education required of him.


Very satisfying interview.  Thanks very much.

Interesting, again, to compare George and Chaput, especially in light of George's remarks at the end:

"A bishop, a priest, isn’t a guru. He should disappear behind the office because he comes and goes, and someone else comes and goes. The office is what counts."

Chaput, perhaps ironically, may be better at that than George.  George is so interesting, so challenging a thinker that he's inevitably going to stand out as an individual.  Chaput, I would guess, can easily slip into the office and disappear.

Why in the world would anybody be willing to give an ear to any member of the American Catholic episcoatpate (save one)?  Considering his record on the matter, I wouldn't trust or believe anything Cardinal George has to say on the matter of the seuxal abuse of children and vulnerable adults.  As far as I am concerned there are only three bishops world-wide (including the Pope) whom I'd be willing to listen to: Martin of Ireland, Robinson of Australia and Gumbleton of the U.S.  The rest of them have lost all crediblity with me.  Editors of Commweal - you wasted valuable space in your journal giving this Cardinal a platform from which to forment even more lies and deceptions than he arleady has. Shame on you!

If you ask why they don't get it all you have to do is hear C. George's answer why one strike was seen by the Vatican as harsh.  

"for this kind of crime because you had to look at culpability in terms of moral intention and things like that.'

He thinks that child rape is akin to stealing while hungry. 'and things like that!' 


About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.