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Watch out for George’s broadsides

Less than eight months after being named Archbishop of Chicago in 1997, Francis George received a letter signed by 43 Chicago pastors warning him that he was acquiring a reputation as an abrasive micromanager whom pastors were increasingly tuning out.

Cardinal George took the criticism good-naturedly, telling reporters, “Part of this is style. I tend to talk and get into conversations before I make decisions ... If I have to become a little more reserved, I’ll give it my best shot.”

If only now there were some group on the national scene with the equivalent clout of those Chicago priests. George has developed a pattern of gaining a forum, taking roundhouse whacks at a target and moving on.

When he showed up for his first meeting as U.S. representative to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy last summer, he raised considerable ire among other bishops when he announced that Rome expected dramatic changes in the way the commission does its work and that there was significant opposition within the American bishops to the commission.

George is by most accounts an intriguing thinker. He got high marks, for example, for his comments at the 1997 Synod for America. It is his tendency at times to think out loud, applying a broad brush to groups or issues that gets him into trouble.

Several times he has taken that approach to “liberal” Catholicism, the latest last month when he told an audience at the University of Chicago that liberal Catholicism was “an exhausted project.”

He characterized liberal Catholicism as being preoccupied with attacking “the church of the 1950s,” a church that no longer exists. He charged, further, that liberal Catholics “quite often” reject central doctrines.

George’s most recent appearance was at the meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in early February (see story page 3).

While one could take considerable time to pick through the particulars of the cardinal’s presumptions and assertions at that meeting, it is enough here to deal with the latest broadside.

The problem -- presumably with the educators present as well as U.S. Catholics in general -- is that they are U.S. Catholics. Their inability to accept the teachings of Vatican II results from “a poverty of imagination” because they were formed in a society that sees things only in terms of conflict and control. They are thus unable to view church “in light of an ecclesiology of communion.”

The hierarchy really is benign, with no interest in control. Law is only meant to enhance relationships and the church as community.


Has George spoken recently with any of the theologians whose reputations have been smeared and careers ruined under this papal administration to get their take on how this “ecclesiology of communion” works?

The notion that some flaw in the American character makes it impossible for Catholics in this country to hear or understand Rome’s interventions is a canard increasingly trotted out by those who would like to reconstruct the Second Vatican Council to their liking.

American Catholics are not lacking in imagination. Indeed, American theologians were among those whose contributions shaped the final council documents. It is that imagination, not any lack of it, that continues to inspire American Catholics today.

Similarly, we’re not quite sure who George’s liberal Catholics are -- but if they are the educated Catholics we know, those who take the mandates of Vatican II seriously, who provide most of the education occurring in parishes, who perform most of the ministries and seriously believe in their place among the people of God, he might do well to take a moment to consider what Chicago would be like without them.

It is not the church of the ’50s they are attacking but those who would like to force us all back to some idealized notion of church in the ’50s. That church, indeed, no longer exists and never did exist as it does in romantic imaginings of the extreme right.

Finally, Americans have not cornered the market on discontent. If there is a locus of discontent today, it is in Austria, where the kind of high-handed abuse by the hierarchy that George suggests does not exist has galvanized moderate Catholics into a formidable force for reform.

Those Chicago priests reported getting some quick results. George, they said, visited numerous deaneries and apologized for his aggressive style.

Maybe it’s time for George to stop and listen in the national arena as well before blithely dusting off large segments of the Catholic population.

Does he really think that those Catholic college and university presidents don’t have the intellectual capacity and sufficient imagination to understand what Rome is saying?

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999