Remembering Cardinal Francis George, OMI

by Michael Sean Winters

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Cardinal Francis George died on Friday after a long battle with cancer. His seventeen-year tenure as the Archbishop of Chicago was consequential, to say the least. From internal Church concerns like liturgical reform to the place of the Church in the wider culture, his keen intellect and devotion to the Church made their mark.

Regular readers will recall that I have written before about the impact his second doctoral dissertation had on me. It treated the subject of inculturation of the faith in light of the theological anthropology of Pope John Paul II. It is one of the books that never makes it off my desk back on to the bookshelf. One quote, in particular, I have referred to before but it is worth citing again:

Americans, especially missionaries, who break out of this cultural conditioning and begin to see their native country through the eyes of a truly different people sometimes turn American moralism on America itself. If the United States is not to be a beacon, the universally inclusive ‘city on hill,’ then it must be a sinkhole, the evil source of global exploitation. Sometimes this judgment is religiously justified as a prophetic stance. Sometimes, in more sociological terms, disillusion calls itself countercultural. Criticisms of institutions and social structures is not, however, countercultural in an anti-authoritarian society such as that of the United States, a country where the mass media lionize dissent. Nor is every social criticism prophetic. The Hebrew prophets, critical though they were, never told their people that they should renounce their past and cease to be Israelites. Rather, the prophets pointed to God and called their people back to their original covenant, to the best in themselves and their history. Modern alienation is not a biblical virtue.  

I had long been leery of those who claimed for themselves the mantle of prophecy in the post-conciliar Church, but until I read those words, my suspicions were formless. He gave them form.

Cardinal George possessed a somewhat difficult personality. He could be prickly and he succeeded a man, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose southern charm was legion, both because it made him unflappable and because it served him well in the rough waters of the Church in Chicago. But, Cardinal George dedicated himself to being out amongst the people of his archdiocese. His face was known in all the neighborhoods and parishes. When he ran into difficulties, as he did every so often with Father Pfeger, but they always seemed to work it out. Monsignor James Moroney, rector of St. John’s Seminary, tells a story about Cardinal George’s pastoral solicitude that illustrates the warmth of which he was capable. I am not sure he ever escaped the shadow of his predecessor in his own mind, but the people of God know that bishops differ in personality and in pastoral emphasis. He was loved differently from the way Cardinal Bernardin was loved, but Cardinal George was loved nonetheless.

Cardinal George’s tenure as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a less happy part of his legacy. He led the bishops to conclude that they could not support the Affordable Care Act, which was his most singular failing, and a failing that set the stage for further difficulties as that law was implemented. When the Obama administration was debating its controversial contraception mandate, the bishops could scarcely demand a seat at the table after they had neglected to support the bill. It was the kind of political misjudgment that has stalked the conference for some years and George’s time as president did nothing to arrest the drift of the conference towards a more or less open identification with the GOP. Relatedly, I recall a conversation with Cardinal George about the Church’s relations with politically active evangelicals. I had recently finished my biography of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and expressed my worry that the Church would suffer from too close alignment with evangelicals in the public square. Cardinal George replied that without the evangelicals, American culture would have long since lost any familiarity with biblical language. It was a fine point, but it did not address the concern I had raised. Similarly, his push for a new translation of the Roman Missal, while understandable given the often pedestrian quality of the previous translation, nonetheless resulted in a very uneven result. I normally attend a Novus Ordo Mass, but when I can’t get downtown on Sundays, I walk to a neighboring parish and attend Mass in English. Many of the prayers are clunky. There is a syntax proper to Latin and a different syntax proper to English. The slavishness of the translation sometimes yields exquisitely beautiful prayers and other times it is difficult to understand. As a pastoral matter, at a time when English is not the first language of many priests serving in our parishes, I think the new translation could have used a more subtle touch.  

Even though Catholic neo-cons claimed Cardinal George as one of their own, he never fit comfortably into the mold. He was too smart. Yes, he had what I think was an unnecessarily dour appreciation for the dynamics of contemporary American culture, a dourness that is at odds with the confidence we Christians should possess always if we really believe that our Lord is the Lord of history. But, he was more balanced - and more balanced because more learned - than the more volatile culture warriors in the episcopacy. One of his finest moments came a couple of years ago during the USCCB plenary when the body of bishops was discussing their fight for religious liberty. He went to the microphone and warned them against making St. Thomas More some kind of champion of the rights of conscience, pointing out that More had sent many souls to the flames for heresy.

That same USCCB meeting, I ran into the cardinal coming out of the CCHD reception. He came up to me and said, “That was a great review of Lou Cameli’s book. You really captured how important his argument is. I called him that morning and told him, ‘Winters is writing about your book at NCR this morning.’” Fr. Cameli is a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago. I was flattered beyond belief. To have someone so smart, and someone with whom I did not always agree, commend something I had written was deeply gratifying.

We spoke briefly at the last meeting of the USCCB in November, but the last real conversation we had was last summer when I interviewed him by phone for an article I was writing about the succession in Chicago. We completed the questions I had quickly and then he lingered on the phone for near to an hour, talking about the history of Chicago’s archdiocese, about a recording the archivist had unearthed of Cardinal Mundelein’s voice – “He sounded like FDR!” the cardinal laughed – and about the challenges facing the Church. It was clear he was suffering from depression as well as cancer, which was understandable, but it was also clear that nothing came out of his mouth that was not considered and thoughtful.

Soon after his arrival in Chicago, detractors took to calling him “Francis the Corrector,” but there was much to correct in the Church in the mid-1990s. Cardinal George, like the pope who appointed him, was not afraid to draw lines of demarcation, identifying what was and was not truly Catholic. It is a thankless task but one which we ignore at our peril. We are also called to build bridges and Cardinal George succeeded in that task too at the local level even if he failed to do so nationally. Nonetheless, the Church was well served by his ministry and leadership. Smarts isn’t everything in the Church, but it gets you pretty far, and its absence can be crushing. Cardinal George was not the only intellectual light in the U.S. Church leadership, but he brought intellectual sophistication to the issues the conference faced. And, in Chicago, many, many people came to know him and to love him. His was a consequential life and most of the consequences were happy ones, especially those far from the spotlight, the acts of kindness and pastoral care. He was tough, and no one survives as Archbishop of Chicago who isn’t tough. But, his love for the One whose burden is light shone through.


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