First person -- Cardinal George's busy day
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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

Monday in Chicago with George


The many sides of Chicago Cardinal Francis George were on exhibit July 25 when he spent much of the day in presentations and discussions along with leaders of other faiths. In the morning George represented Catholicism at a Symposium on Religion and the Press at the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University. In the evening the cardinal and W. Deen Mohammed, a leader of the black American Muslim community, engaged in a dialogue before an overflow crowd of nearly 600 at the auditorium of Holy Name Cathedral.

I was on a panel of respondents during the morning event, and I attended the evening session, completing a long day following Chicago’s archbishop.

At Medill George was first of all the educator, quoting from statements by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, extolling the media’s unique opportunity to shape public opinion, influence culture and even unify humanity. He then easily changed hats, becoming George the critic. He quoted with approval the words of religion writer Gal Beckerman, who wrote in the May/June 2004 Columbia Journalism Review, “Journalism tends to see the world through a political prism in which there are often only two sides, conservative and liberal, and religion is seen as function of these two categories. We only care whether Catholics are for or against abortion, but not why they are. The internal theological debate or the religious logic that leads a group to support or oppose a particular issue is often ignored.”

Indeed, said George, the media and the church seek to define the world in opposing terms -- the media representing a so-called “rational, objective and scientific” approach, while the church speaks with “authority from God.” Thus, he said, the media try to “undermine” religious authority, presenting themselves as a kind of counter-magisterium or “ersatz church.” If anyone doubts that charge, he added in a momentary show of lightheartedness, “take a look at Tribune Tower” -- the lofty, cathedral-like headquarters of the Chicago Tribune. The audience laughed heartily.

When my opportunity came to comment, I suggested that the cardinal’s indictment of the media seemed too sweeping and accusatory, but he yielded not an inch, donning here the more comfortable hat of the enigmatic theologian. The clash between media and religion is entirely understandable, he said, since “most media, like most Americans, believe in the myth of human progress. The church doesn’t. That’s a huge difference. We don’t see a clear line for instant progress.” The tension, he explained, will not and cannot be overcome, since the church is obliged to remain in opposition to the media, which functions as a tool of modern American culture.

He spent some time as George, the down-to-earth corrector, when he weighed in on the media’s failure to provide context and get facts right. When the archdiocese announced that 40 Catholic schools were under investigation, he noted by way of example, the press immediately announced that 40 schools were about to close. “Reporters were told the number was wrong,” he said, but when it was announced that the final number of closures would be 18 schools, reporters “never said they were wrong.” He chided a reporter’s indifference when he told her the archdiocese’s priest abuse settlement was $30 million. It was considered by the reporter not a high enough number, he said, and was not published.

The cardinal said he has read every story on the priest abuse scandal published in the Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times, and though many were “well reported,” he has not “found one free of factual error.” The Tribune religion reporter sitting next to me winced. George assumed a more genial persona soon thereafter, saying he finds most media people “lovable” in person and acknowledging that “I sometimes shoot my mouth off and live to regret it.”

The other speakers echoed George’s critique but with different emphases. Edith Blumhofer, a history professor at Wheaton College, said evangelicals are consistently and unfairly portrayed in the media as “a new army on the march,” “a crusade for political ends,” clustered around TV superstars like Pat Robertson, with an agenda centered on evolution, abortion and stem cells. In fact, she explained, evangelicals have been around for centuries, have broad social concerns, and are not all conservative Republicans.

Michael Kotzin, an executive with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, lamented that stories on Judaism, regardless of subject matter, are too often linked with political issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kotzin also deplored a tendency to always present Jews as victims with some relationship to the Holocaust gratuitously thrown in. “If our press release [on an event] mentions the Holocaust, it will be covered by the press,” he said. “If it’s on another subject, it’s ignored.”

Safaa Zarzour, chair of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, said Muslims have the same complaints as the leaders of other faiths, but they are compounded by the rampant use of stereotypes. “There is almost a fanatic obsession with putting Islamic and terrorism in the same sentence” in news stories, he said.

In the evening at Holy Name Cathedral, George was mainly the bridge builder. The audience, a mixture of blacks and whites, was responsive to every word from George and Imam W.D. Mohammed, with standing ovations erupting almost every five minutes.

Mohammed is the son of Elijah Mohammed, the fiery leader of the Nation of Islam. But during the past 30 years the son has distanced himself and his followers (estimated by some at 3 million to 4 million black Americans) from his late father’s extremism. W.D. Mohammed, who preaches openness and toleration both socially and religiously, had a cordial audience with Pope John Paul II and has met with George several times. Scores of his followers have been meeting informally in Chicago during the past six years with members of the Focolare movement, an international Catholic association advocating interfaith exchange.

Here, too, George began as the educator, with a lengthy commentary on the meaning of “the common good,” the theme of the evening. But having dispatched that duty, he was the earnest interfaith advocate. To Mohammed, he said, “I believe you are a man of faith concerned with the common good of your community and the entire community of Chicago.” Both Catholics and Muslims, he said, “can fulfill their full potential for happiness in this life and the next only in relationship with others from their communities and only when they submit humbly to the will of God.”

He urged Catholic groups, parishes and individuals to initiate more dialogues with Muslims in their communities. Such dialogues, said George, could prove to be more basic for achieving the common good than dialogues between religions and governments, since “it is the major faiths that carry the foundations of culture.”

He noted with appreciation that both faiths are “communitarian” in nature but, he explained, their members must struggle to follow their faiths “in a postmodern and to some extent post-religious world and in an individualistic culture that speaks only the language of personal and individual rights, a culture where everything is encouraged and nothing is forgiven.”

On a more practical level, George suggested that interfaith cooperation in Chicago might center on two areas: fighting racism, especially its manifestation in unequal housing opportunities, and strengthening marriages and family life.

Speaking without text or notes, Mohammed warmly agreed with George’s sentiments. The fifth pillar of Islam (the call to make a pilgrimage to Mecca) is actually an implicit recognition of the unity of the whole human family, he said. “I don’t care what religion or race you are,” he said. “Allah created us all as good … and we all have that core within us that is pure and beautiful. … Differences among us will not cause harm as long as we recognize that inner core.” Mohammed said he has read the Bible from “Genesis to Revelation,” and found within it “an unbroken thread of purity.” He urged Muslims to read the Bible. Implying that his followers also ought to curtail efforts to convert Christians, he said, “Wouldn’t you much rather see a Christian remain holy and a good person [within his own faith] than to disturb them?”

During an all-too-brief question-and-answer session with the audience, some differences became apparent. Asked for their respective views on religious terrorism (a subject never mentioned in their talks), Mohammed replied, “We should not be too quick to condemn unacceptable behavior. We need to seek the cause. Muslims in Palestine and other places are in great pain, and we have to ask, ‘What has happened to these people that drives them to this madness?’ ”

George seemed to be answering a different question. “We should not assume that there are some religions that work for peace and others that foster violence,” he said. “Secularists are wrong in saying that a religion that teaches with authority is going to be socially abusive.” On the contrary, he insisted, “moral absolutes can prevent violence and foster peace.”

I could only dimly perceive where this line of argument might be headed, but there was no time for a follow-up and the audience was getting tired and hot. Soon people were heading for the exits, leaving a little throng around George and Mohammad, who were both smiling broadly and shaking hands.

Robert McClory of Chicago is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

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