By John L. Allen Jr.
Associate editor November 17, 2014
Originally published in Crux Now by John Allen
CHICAGO — Back in 1997, journalist Jonathan Kwitny published a biography of Pope John Paul II called “Man of the Century.” The idea was that the biography of John Paul cut across all the great dramas of the 20th century, from Nazism and Communism to the upheaval in the Catholic Church caused by the Second Vatican Council.
By the same logic, one could argue that Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was the American churchman of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, because there’s almost no story in which he wasn’t a lead actor.
George played a key role in pushing through a reform of Catholic worship in the English language, adopting translations closer to the Latin originals and, in general, a more reverent and traditional style. He was the architect of the US bishops’ battles with the Obama administration over health care reform, and more broadly in defense of religious freedom, during his three-year term as president of the bishops’ conference.
George was also the lead advocate for the American bishops when their new zero tolerance policy on sex abuse seemed dead on arrival in Rome, eventually making it stick over significant Vatican resistance. To boot, George voted in the conclaves that gave the Catholic Church both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Now 77, George will formally step aside in Chicago tomorrow (Editor’s Note: George retired in Nov 18, 2014) when his successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich, is installed. At the moment he’s fighting for his life, undergoing an experimental cancer treatment thought to have around a 50-50 chance of success.
Long seen as one of the most accomplished cultural critics among the American bishops, George isn’t pulling any punches in winter. In an exclusive interview with Crux Friday, he rejected suggestions that the change in Chicago is a “course correction” or a “repudiation” of what are conventionally seen as his more conservative views.
He spurns the entire left/right dichotomy, calling it “destructive of the Church’s mission and her life.”
“For us, the category that matters is true/false,” he said. “I reject the whole liberal/conservative deformation of the character of our lives. If you’re limited to that … then somehow or other you’ve betrayed your vocation as a bishop and a priest.”
…The following are excerpts from the interview… including what George would like to ask the pope if he gets the chance.
Let’s talk about Pope Francis. Recently veteran Italian writer Sandro Magister said many American bishops seem “uncomfortable” with Francis, and hinted that the American bishops may have to become the defenders of tradition rather than the Vatican under this pope. What do you make of that?
I hope he’s wrong! It’s not because I don’t trust the American bishops, I do, but that’s a very broad statement about the pope and the Vatican.
Are you concerned that there’s a wholesale abandonment of tradition?
I don’t think there’s a wholesale abandonment of tradition. The pope has said he wants every question to be raised and it has been, so he’s gotten what he wants, and now he has to sort it out. He himself has said that the pope has the charism of unity, and he knows very well that it’s unity around Christ, not around him. Therefore, the tradition that unites us to Christ has to be the norm. How he interprets that, and how somebody else might interpret that, is where you get into conversations that shape a government.
I can see why some people might be anxious. If you don’t push it, he does seem to bring into question well-received doctrinal teaching. But when you look at it again, especially when you listen to his homilies in particular, you see that’s not it. Very often when he says those things, he’s putting it into a pastoral context of someone who’s caught in a kind of trap. Maybe the sympathy is expressed in a way that leaves people wondering if he still holds the doctrine. I have no reason to believe that he doesn’t.
Until the Synod of Bishops in October, most mainstream folks in what we might loosely call the ‘conservative’ camp seemed inclined to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. Afterwards that seems less the case, with some people now seeing the pope in a more critical light. Is that your sense as well?
I think that’s probably true. The question is raised, why doesn’t he himself clarify these things? Why is it necessary that apologists have to bear that burden of trying to put the best possible face on it? Does he not realize the consequences of some of his statements, or even some of his actions? Does he not realize the repercussions? Perhaps he doesn’t. I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise these doubts in people’s minds.
That’s one of the things I’d like to have the chance to ask him, if I ever get over there. Do you realize what has happened, just by that very phrase ‘Who am I to judge?’ How it’s been used and misused? It’s very misused, because he was talking about someone who has already asked for mercy and been given absolution whom he knows well. That’s entirely different than talking to somebody who demands acceptance rather than asking for forgiveness. It’s constantly misused.
It’s created expectations around him that he can’t possibly meet. That’s what worries me. At a certain moment, people who have painted him as a bit player in their scenarios about changes in the Church will discover that’s not who he is. He’s not going in that direction. Then he’ll perhaps get not only disillusionment, but opposition that could be harmful to the effectiveness of his magisterium.
Is there a role for American bishops to provide that feedback, to help him understand how these things are playing out?
I think there is a role for bishops to do it. I don’t think it would be good to do it as a national thing. We’re never a national Church, not in this country or anywhere else. It wouldn’t be good to say, ‘American bishops versus the Vatican.’ Individual bishops should take their responsibility and do what they have to do. If it’s something that affects us collectively, then perhaps we should talk collectively. But on something like this, namely the impressions left because of the unexplained statements of the pope, I don’t think a conference as whole should take it on itself to ‘correct’ the pope or to decide what they’re going to do about it. We can talk, and people do, and then decide individually whether we should find some means of getting to the pope.
I think a number of bishops have tried to do just that. Whether they’ve been successful, I don’t know, nor how he himself receives that news. That’s the great unknown, isn’t it? I’m told that sometimes when you went to Pope Benedict with news he didn’t like to hear, he didn’t always hear it very well.
There was the famous interview with Cardinal [Joachim] Meisner, who said that in 2009 he went to Benedict on behalf of a number of cardinals to suggest some personnel moves in the Vatican, and Benedict didn’t want to hear it.
Yes … Der mensch bleibt. [Note: A German phrase loosely meaning that an office doesn’t take away someone’s human personality.] I don’t know how this pope reacts to that. Before one would go and try to do that, it would be wise to talk to people very close to him who would have some sense of whether this would be helpful or harmful.
You don’t want to encourage any tendency to see the American bishops as a counterweight to the Vatican under Francis?
We have no mandate from Jesus to be a counterweight to the Holy See!
Right now your focus is on your health. If things turn around and you get some additional time, do you have a next act in mind?
I have a book coming out on the Catholic intellectual tradition, from Catholic University Press. … You know, there were a lot of big topics I was very interested in at one time or another. Some of them have to do with epistemology, because I’ve always been fascinated by what we can know and what we can’t know, and why we think we can. In theology, I’ve always been interested in eschatology.
It’s interesting to me that this pope talks about that novel, “Lord of the World.” That’s one thing I want to ask him. How do you put together what you’re doing with what you say is the hermeneutical interpretation of your ministry, which is this eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us? Do you believe that? I would love to ask the Holy Father. What does that mean? In a sense, maybe it explains why he seems to be in a hurry.
Nobody seems interested in that but I find it fascinating, because I found the book fascinating.
[Note: Written by Robert Hugh Benson, a converted Catholic priest and son of a former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the novel is an apocalyptic fantasy culminating in a showdown between the Church and a charismatic anti-Christ figure.]
I read it quite by chance when I was in high school. It was written in 1907, and he has air travel, he has everything modern. It’s really eerie because it seems as if he was looking at our time, meaning right now. Does the pope believe that? Now, that’s much more interesting than my thing about my successor will die in prison. What does the pope believe about the end-times?
Eschatology might be one project I’d like to continue. Ratzinger, as you know, wrote a book on eschatology and probably would have pursued that if he hadn’t been elected pope. I’ve read his book, and like all things it’s helpful and it’s not depending on what your own interests are.
In relationship to the pope, I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask him: How do you want us to understand your ministry, when you put that before us as a key?
You’ve now mentioned twice things you’d like to ask the pope. It sounds to me as if you’d really like to have some face time with him.
I would. First of all, I didn’t know him well before he was elected. I knew him through the Brazilian bishops, who knew him well, and I asked them a lot of questions. Since the election, I haven’t had a chance to go over for any of the meetings or the consistories because I’ve been in treatment and they don’t want you to travel. I haven’t been to see him since he was elected.
I’d just like to talk to him. It’s less important now, because I won’t be in governance, but you’re supposed to govern in communion with and under the successor of Peter, so it’s important to have some meeting of minds, some understanding. Obviously, I think we’re very different people. I always felt a natural sympathy with Cardinal Wojtyla, with John Paul II … a very deep sympathy, on my part anyway. He had that capacity to do that with thousands of people. With Cardinal Ratzinger, there was a distance but also a deep respect. I don’t know Pope Francis well enough. I certainly respect him as pope, but there isn’t yet an understanding of, ‘What are you doing here?’
Archbishop [Joseph] Kurtz recently posted a blog about calling you back in Chicago after he saw the pope recently and Francis asked about your health.
I was very touched by that. As I said, I’ve never had a chance to talk to him and I didn’t know he was aware of my situation.
That’s actually the big question, isn’t it? Who’s advising the Holy Father? I haven’t asked him yet … that’s another thing I would ask him if I got the chance.