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Conciliator takes main stage in Chicago

NCR Staff

"A mind packed with ideas" is what a colleague enjoyed most about Francis E. George, Chicago's new archbishop, when the two taught in the philosophy department at Creighton University.

After informal conversations with Fr. George, Eugene E. Selk said he would rush to grab paper and pencil and "jot down some of the things he said. He would have so many interesting angles. He's a fascinating man."

"I never thought of him as a conservative in those days," added Selk, who has maintained a friendship with George through correspondence and visits.

Selk still teaches at Creighton, in Omaha, Neb. On April 8, George, 60, was named to succeed Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who died in November. George was in his mid-30s when he headed the philosophy department at Creighton from 1969 to 1973.

George left the Jesuit-run university to become Midwest provincial of his religious order, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. After just one year in that post he was named vicar general of the Oblates -- second in command -- and spent 12 years at the order's headquarters in Rome.

Now he faces what many say is by far the most daunting task in his career to date (with the possible exception of teaching philosophy to undergraduates, a job his former colleagues say he executed well). He has moved from relative obscurity on the American Catholic scene to main stage, where the shadow of Bernardin still falls.

His friends say his complexity, self-assurance and broad experience in the church -- as missionary, academic, administrator in Rome and U.S. bishop -- will serve him well here as he searches for a voice with which to speak to the national church.

George traveled widely from Rome, according to Sr. Mary Alice Haley, who knows George from Creighton, where she is a philosophy professor.

Haley also served in Rome, from 1981 to 1992, as superior general of her order, Servants of Mary, her term overlapping George's. "He was often with the missioners" in Africa and Asia, she said. "If they would go down the river to villages, he would go. He slept in huts and cottages of the people, he ate what was eaten there. This gave him a firsthand experience of people and church in many parts of the globe."

That experience also gave him an unusual perspective on U.S. culture, an interest dating at least to his doctoral program at Tulane University in New Orleans. George holds two doctorates: in American philosophy from Tulane in 1970 and in ecclesiology from Pontifical University in Rome in 1988. He also holds two master's degrees, in theology from the University of Ottawa, where he examined the eschatology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and in philosophy from Catholic University, where he wrote his thesis on St. Thomas Aquinas' De Potentia Dei.

In his first doctoral dissertation, George analyzed the work of idealist Josiah Royce, pragmatist George Herbert Mead and realist Roy Wood Sellars. NCR was unable to obtain an interview with George last week, but Professor Andrew Reck of Tulane theorized that George was attracted by the university's strong reputation in American philosophy at that time.

From 1986 to 1990, George coordinated a think tank, the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture, established by Cardinal Bernard Law in Cambridge, Mass. Law and George, who was ordained in 1963, served as priests in Mississippi during the 1960s. George reports being impressed by Law's application of Catholic social teachings to the fight against racism.

Law is believed to have been instrumental in George's recent episcopal appointments, which followed his work at the center. Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, author of books on the Catholic hierarchy, said the number of religious order priests appointed U.S. bishops has risen dramatically during the papacy of John Paul II. Twenty-five percent of new bishops appointed between 1980 and 1990, when Reese's study ended, were religious order priests, Reese said.

Unusual angles

As an example of George's "interesting angles," Selk read from a letter George wrote to him from Rome. Responding to Selk's complaints about American consumerism, George gave a surprising reply. "I find the United States one of the least consumer-oriented societies, despite all the palaver to the contrary," he wrote. "If you're worried about your next meal, you become very consumption conscious, and if there's little religious faith, even in a superficial way, then that affects the society's understanding of what it means to be human."

George continued, "The most materialistic societies I've ever seen are those in which nomadic or peasant people are realizing that things could be different and that with money they can have a type of life that frees them from the tribe. Then the race is on. We, on the other hand, are more than a little blasé. I can't imagine an African hippie."

Selk said George became more conservative through his time in Rome, and more so when he became a bishop. Yet Selk said he never detected ambition or a taste for power in his friend. "When he had been bishop of Yakima for a month or so, he told me, 'I think I'm getting the hang of being a bishop but I hope I never get used to it," Selk said.

Selk said George hates the labels "liberal" and "conservative." "He's told me that he's trying to change the rhetoric. I told him to give it up."

Former Oblate Leonard Baenen, a management consultant in Topsail, N.C., agrees that George has an impressive mind. From his earliest school days, George has been a leader, not only topping class academically but also being chosen by other students for leadership posts.

Baenen attended the University of Chicago after leaving the Oblates and found himself often "thinking of Francis" and how well "he would have fit" into that environment of "fierce intellectuals," Baenen said.

Perhaps because of his intellect, many find that George isn't neatly predictable. He repeatedly stresses his orthodoxy in public statements, and, in recent academic articles, he often quotes Pope John Paul II. Still, some of his writings, according to Dominican Fr. Charles Bouchard of St. Louis, reflect a "moderately progressive" outlook.

Personally, George is widely reported to be pastoral, prayerful, likable, quick on his feet and one who listens -- really listens, many said -- to what others have to say. Many also remark on his sense of humor and his voracious appetite for the printed word.

"Our mail doubled when he came because of all the periodicals he wanted to read," said Gayle Miller, a laywoman and the previous bishop's secretary whom George appointed vice chancellor of the Yakima diocese. Academic journals flowed in, she said, as well as such news-oriented publications as NCR, Commonweal, America, L'Osservatore Romano and Our Sunday Visitor.

Faith revealed

Since 1996, George has done his second stint as a member of the U.S. Catholic bishops' committee on doctrine, one of nine committees on which he presently serves. Dominican Fr. Gus DiNoia, U.S. bishops' staff theologian for that committee, knows George as one who "really thinks through his positions." DiNoia said he finds George to be orthodox but not rigidly doctrinaire.

On becoming archbishop of Portland, Ore., last year, George said, "The faith is not political; it's revealed. I accept, totally, the teachings of the church." He indicated his openness to other points of view by adding, "The Spirit works through everyone."

Bouchard, the St. Louis Dominican who is president of Aquinas Institute of Theology, said an article by George on priestly ministry, published in The Priest in 1989 under the title "Priestly Identity and the Mission of Christ," does not offer a typically conservative line. George stresses the priest's role "in the context of community ... from above, but for below -- a relationship," Bouchard said.

George wrote that too much focus on the holiness of the ordained obscures the role of the non-ordained baptized, who are also called to holiness. Bouchard said, "That is what most sacramental theology is stressing today," as corrective to a formerly excessive focus on a priest's identification with Christ.

In a 1995 article published by the Pope John Center, George described the ideal bishop: "a center of unity, a man of contacts, around whom all can gather who want to gather in Christ, a man of dialogue who rejects no one and is respectful of all opinions."

George's friends report that one can disagree with him and still retain his respect, a quality that may derive as much from his sensitivity to culture as from personal warmth.

"A program for evangelizing American culture ... begins, continues and ends with love for the people and their culture," he wrote in The New Catholic Evangelization, edited by Paulist Fr. Kenneth Boyack (Paulist Press, 1993). "As grace builds on nature, so faith builds on culture, which is second nature." He followed with an analysis of the Puritan roots of U.S. culture.

"It is unfair to reduce American culture to consumerism and hedonism, selfish individualism and the history of oppression of minority groups," he said, arguing that ultimately the main question is more fundamental: Does the culture provide "a sound context for human life or does it stifle the human spirit?"

In an address to the 1995 Synod of Bishops on Religious Life, he echoed the pope's description of the West as "the culture of death." There, George warned against uncritical cultural assimilation and becoming too trusting of personal experience as a norm for life.

In another address, to the American Catholic Philosophical Association, of which George is a member, he urged philosophers to help church and world "rediscover the nature of things" and learn to "see things whole." The address was published in the society's proceedings in 1992.

In the 1995 article titled "The Splendor of Truth and Health Care," George gave theologians a bit of a knock, cautioning against a too-narrow methodology in scholarship -- meaning that, in his view, theology and biblical scholarship are too important to be left to specialists just as "war is too important to be left to generals."

"Any argument must be appropriately criticized, including those put forth by the pope, but genuine intellectual sophistication does not stop with a single scholarly critique of the faith," he said. "It continues with a critique of the critique."

Feminism a blessing

George opposes women priests on the official doctrinal ground that women cannot model Jesus as "bridegroom" vis-a-vis the church as "bride." But he is sympathetic to those who disagree. He wrote in a column in the Portland diocese's Catholic Sentinel on March 21, "Since Americans ... are a practical people in a functional society, this argument from symbol isn't persuasive, but the fact that we can't hear it doesn't make it any the less true."

He encouraged those unable to support the teaching to "pray for an openness to the mind and will of Christ" and those who do support it to "look for ways to develop church governance so that, in this culture at least, the influence of women leaders becomes ever more evident in the church's non-sacramental practice."

He has done so himself, placing women in administrative roles often reserved for clergy. Besides making Gayle Miller his vice chancellor, he appointed a woman chief finance officer in Yakima, Miller said.

In Portland, George reappointed archdiocesan chancellor Mary Jo Tully, also a laywoman. Even before she could tender her resignation, as is customary when a new archbishop arrives, George told her he wanted her to continue in the post, she said. Tully said he also hired a woman to be archdiocesan director of business operations.

George told reporters at a recent news conference, "Feminism is a blessing from God in that it tells us we can't take women for granted."

George's years as bishop offer strong hints of how he might function after May 7 when he is installed as archbishop of Chicago, his boyhood home.

A majority of the 64,000 Catholics in the Yakima diocese are Hispanic, so his first move was to head for Mexico for a three-week immersion in Mexican culture and language. George, who speaks four languages in addition to English, drew cheers from Chicago Hispanics when he gave part of his first news conference in their native tongue. Hispanics make up one-third of Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics.

George insisted that Hispanics and Anglos merge into blended parishes in Yakima rather than worshiping separately. He invited Sr. Maria de Jesus Ybarra, Hispanic ministry director, to fill up to eight pages of the diocesan newspaper, Central Washington Catholic, with articles in Spanish.

George was reputedly a bridge-builder in conflicts involving workers and owners of a local winery in Yakima. At first he disappointed migrant workers by declining to march in protest against the winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, as his predecessor, Bishop William Skylstad, had done, according to a profile by Mark O'Keefe, religion writer for the Oregonian. The workers were seeking higher wages and better working conditions. Proposing a less visible role for himself, George worked behind the scenes, affirming the workers' right to unionize while successfully nudging the two groups toward a contract.

When George left for Portland last year, one Yakima pastor, Fr. Phil Chioppa, described him as an example of "pastoral de conjunto ... people of the church working together to bring about the presence of Christ."

Although adept as low-profile mediator, George is also aware of the importance of a higher profile in certain symbolic actions.

He celebrated Easter Mass this year with inmates at the Oregon State Correctional Institution, and on his arrival in Chicago he made two symbolic stops. He prayed at Bernardin's tomb and visited two patients at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. George, who wears a leg brace and walks with a limp, the result of a bout with polio at age 13, harbors strong sympathies for the vulnerable and disabled. The patients he visited had been in the news: beating victim Leonard Clark and Chicago police officer Jim Mullen, who had been shot.

In a controversial move on the national level, George helped Cardinal John O'Connor of New York forge an agreement in 1995 with the religious right, including religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. Their document, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," affirmed common theological and social aims. George has also praised Promise Keepers, a popular men's movement sponsored by evangelical Christians, as "a work of the Holy Spirit," even though, he said, its leaders sometimes misrepresent Catholicism.

Although George is an admirer of Bernardin -- he wrote of his predecessor in the Catholic Sentinel last November that "there was scarcely an event or a statement that did not benefit from his contribution" -- George has been noncommittal about whether he will play a role in one of Bernardin's projects, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. The fledgling effort attempts to sponsor dialogue among Catholics of diverse opinions.

"I like anything that keeps us talking," he told reporters for the Chicago Tribune, noting that paralyzing divisions divert focus from the church's mission. "Everything can be discussed. Not everything is negotiable."

Common ground question

When it comes to Common Ground, George may choose, as he did in Yakima, to play a different role. Two ideologically-divided Chicago-based groups seeking reform have already suggested in statements that they will be watching his moves. They are the national Call to Action, eager for changes in a liberal vein, and Catholic Citizens of Illinois, who want to stamp out dissent.

"Conservatives are excited," said Fr. Richard McBrien, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "They want him to come in and clean up the mess" that, in their view, Bernardin created by his tolerance. "I want to give the man the benefit of the doubt. ... Will he be pastoral, so that even people more progressive than he can feel included in his agenda? I hope he lets his pastoral side remain dominant and doesn't try to go in and change Chicago."

Those who know him say he may well continue Bernardin's tradition as peacemaker. "Cardinal Bernardin has been criticized from the right for leaning over backward to try to keep peace," said Dominican Fr. Benedict Ashley of St. Louis, who got to know George while serving as consultant to the U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine for seven years. "I think this man will be more definite in his positions. But I do think he'll be tactful. He isn't going to carry on some kind of witch hunt."

Russell Shaw, former spokesman for Catholic bishops and a prominent Catholic conservative, said, "As orthodox as he is, I don't think he's going to prove to be an inquisitor or a crackdown sort of guy. He's going to act on his own convictions and try to bring people along rather than shove them along." Shaw added, "I always thought of Cardinal Bernardin as committed to orthodoxy, though he certainly manifested a great deal of tolerance. He tried to bring people along in his own way, through dialogue."

Confronting controversy

As with the workers and growers in Yakima, George has managed to keep peace where he has confronted internal church issues. In Yakima, he abolished general absolution -- penance services where absolution is given without individual confession. But before issuing the ban, he spent months in listening sessions with priests, according to Miller, the vice chancellor. She recalled no acrimony.

Fr. Donald Durand, a Portland priest, was impressed with the way George handled another delicate decision -- Durand's plans to discuss in an open parish meeting the controversial We Are Church referendum, which calls for liberalizing church doctrine and practice.

Durand said George phoned to ask him to cancel the meeting on the referendum, but said he'd be happy to attend another meeting to discuss the issues involved.

"His words were gentle and kind, and he was very clear that he wasn't trying to avoid controversy and that he wasn't forbidding me to take stands," Durand said.

Jim Magmer, head of an Oregon support group for inactive priests in Portland, said George took giant steps toward easing bitterness and indifference -- without giving an inch on canonical status of inactive priests -- by receiving them warmly at a cathedral reception. Beforehand, George told Magmer in a letter, "I am glad to know of the presence of inactive Catholic priests in the diocese and would be interested in being in contact with them and seeing if we could come to some kind of mutual support and understanding. ... Thank you for your letter and your life of faith."

In the public arena, George has been outspoken against abortion and capital punishment. He opposed a move in Washington state to limit gay rights and another in Oregon to legalize physician-assisted suicide. He went to court to fight policies that allowed a prisoner's sacramental confession to be recorded. He was successful on appeal.

As for McBrien's concern that George not try to change Chicago, Sr. Kathleen Ross offers reassurance. "He had a lot of adjustments to make," said Ross, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary and president of Heritage College in Toppenish, Ore. "It was evident from his first day here he was throwing himself into this with his whole heart. He said he wanted to become part of the Yakima Valley -- not to 'do something nice for us,' but to become part of us. He did that very well."

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997