Waiting In the Wings
They might not have been dead-on, but give 'em credit -- thirty-five years in advance, the undergrads ended up foreseeing Francis George's future more accurately than anyone else.
Not long after leaving Creighton, the Chicago-born member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate spent over a decade in Rome as his community's vicar general. The assignment served as the launching pad for one of the most unlikely rises American Catholicism has ever known, a trajectory that reaches its zenith next month when the philosopher-theologian who casually cited the founder of social psychology George Herbert Mead in his installation homily as archbishop of Chicago will become the first cardinal elected to head the US hierarchy since 1971. (George is shown above guest-conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during a July appearance at the Windy City's Ravinia festival.)
Now 70, George's episcopal experience comprised all of six and a half years -- almost six as bishop of Yakima and just over ten months as archbishop of Portland in Oregon -- when he got the call to return to his native diocese, the nation's second-largest, in 1997. While his decade in Chicago -- where he's said to be "wildly popular" -- has witnessed his transition into the role of the bishops' intellect-in-chief and Rome's designated point-man on a number of its top causes (most prominently the liturgy), the years have also had their share of difficulties, including the cardinal's battle with bladder cancer last year and a local sex-abuse case that found George accepting responsibility for, as he put it, "the tragedy of allowing children to be in the presence of a priest against whom a current allegation of sexual abuse had been made."
In the midst of the sex-abuse crisis that's plagued the church in the United States since 2002, the cardinal reportedly expressed his wish to sell 1555 N. State Parkway -- Chicago's grandiose Archbishop's Residence, famous for its 19 chimneys. However, in an atypical response given similar circumstances elsewhere, an outcry led by the descendants of the immigrant faithful for whom the residence was, in its earlier days, a status symbol of their burgeoning influence in the city insisted that Illinois' largest landowner (by virtue of the Catholic bishop of Chicago's ironclad designation as "corporation sole") stay put.
Believed to have been Candidate Ratzinger's chief American supporter in the 2005 conclave, George's Roman cred had previously been burnished by Pope John Paul II's naming of the cardinal to serve as preacher of the Roman Curia's annual Lenten retreat in 2001.
In preparation for next month's Fall Plenary in Baltimore that'll mark his transition into its top post, recent months have seen the current vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops returning to the expansive public profile that was his before last year's cancer scare. Most recently, George sat for an extensive interview with the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen in which he offered his impressions of the state of the church in the United States, politics, the liturgy, and more.
Cardinal Avery Dulles once wrote that “the greatest danger facing the Church in our country today is that of an excessive and indiscreet accommodation.” In similar fashion, in a forthcoming book another American bishop warns of an “erosion of Catholic identity” and what he calls the “wholesale assimilation — absorption might be a better word — of Catholics by American culture.” Do you agree with that assessment?-30-
I think it depends on which generation you’re talking about, and which ethnic group. The third, fourth, fifth, sixth generation of Irish, German, and Italian Catholics are far more prone to that because they’re here. This is their only home, and they’ve done very well in many ways. They’ve established the church very well. The boundaries that would protect people from some of the cultural proclivities that aren’t helpful to the faith — and some are helpful — aren’t there anymore. They used to be kept up artificially by institutions, but the institutions are porous now in ways they haven’t ever been.
What do you mean?
Those immigrant groups came and looked around at a country shaped by the Protestant faith, not the Catholic faith, where the Catholic faith was suspect very often — not just suspect, but even persecuted in many ways. To defend themselves, they not only had their families, but their parishes, their schools, their hospitals, their universities, and their papers. They never had separate Catholic labor unions like you had in parts of Europe, because the laboring class was so strongly Catholic that they just simply took over the unions.
They became de facto Catholic unions.
Yes, many of them. Other than that, we created alternatives to the mainstream institutions. They were never, I think, ghetto institutions, because they prepared people to take their place in mainstream society. They didn’t try to cut them off from it, but to prepare people to take their place in the mainstream precisely as Catholics. Once they succeeded, then the value of those very institutions seemed to be lessened, and the institutions themselves said it’s important for us to be mainstream, and to no longer be so identifiably Catholic. So they’re porous in ways that they weren’t before.
Would you say excessively so?
It depends. You have to take it one by one. Some are, some aren’t. The generations coming now, the second generation of the Vietnamese, the second and third generation of Hispanics, are not assimilated in the same way. This is sometimes for linguistic reasons, or because the family is still far more able to protect them from some of the influences towards individualism that the older generations of Catholics who are here longer don’t find necessary, or don’t have any longer. So it all depends. To talk about Catholics in general is difficult. You have to ask which groups, how long have they been here, what are they doing. I suppose what the bishop you mention is talking about is more those third, fourth, fifth, sixth generation Irish, Germans, Italians, some Poles, whose only culture is that of this country. The Catholic subculture that was developed by those institutions isn’t very strong in their lives. We’ve reduced the tension between faith and culture, and there’s always tension. There has to be.
Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge talk about the distinction between “high tension” and “low tension” religion, arguing that over time low tension groups tend to dissolve into secularism.
That’s right. In the 60s, it was very important to show you could be American and Catholic. Whole magazines were devoted to that. There was a collective sigh of relief at the Second Vatican Council, with human freedom being so much in the forefront of the conciliar concerns, that the tension wasn’t there anymore. I think some of the moves of the church in that period now seem sociologically naive, in their long-term consequences.
What do you have in mind?
Catholicism as a distinctive way of life was defined by eating habits and fasting, and by days especially set aside that weren’t part of the general secular calendar. They were reminders that the church is our mediator in our relationship to God, and can enter into the horarium [calendar] that we keep, into the foods that we eat, into all the aspects of daily life, into sexual life. Once you say that all those things can be done individually, as you choose to do penance, for example, you reduce the collective presence of the church in somebody’s consciousness. At that point, the church as mediator becomes more an idea for many people. Even if they accept it, it’s not a practice. So then when the church turns around and says ‘You have to do this,’ then resistance is there to say, ‘How can you tell me that? I’m deciding on my life for myself, and you even told me I could!’
So what’s the answer? Is it rebuilding a subculture?
I suppose it is, though not in a way that’s divorced from the culture that we have now, which is ours — what else are we? It doesn’t have to be so intentional and deliberate, except in the case of religious congregations, of course. For ordinary lay people, they are to consecrate the world within the world, as their world, not to be separate from it. If there is a subculture, it would have to be developed naturally in relationship to today’s crisis, as those earlier institutions were at one point. You can’t go back, I think, and imagine that we’re back in the 19th century, just taking those solutions, good though they were then, to be ours now. What it would look like, I don’t know.
Can you point to something that offers an example of a viable contemporary Catholic subculture not excessively cut off from the broader society?
Do I see evidence of life in the church? Yes, and I think it’s primarily in the parishes. In Protestant ecclesiology, the church is what we would call a parish — this is my church. The church in Catholic ecclesiology is a diocese which has parishes, and then the universal church. Parishes are very strong in this kind of culture, and without being Protestants, we organize ourselves more or less along those lines. A lot of effort goes into the parishes, and some of the parishes are extremely good. They create a world, a subculture, as people get involved in their
parish, which is sufficient very often for people to pursue in the world. Maybe there are other things too, but the parish is very important.
So in the main, our parishes are not excessively porous, to use your language?
Again it depends, you have to take it one by one. But I think we have a lot of very good parishes, very vibrant parishes, which do form people in the Catholic faith so they can live it in the world.
I ask because some people believe that many parishes have become so porous that there’s almost a need to construct parallel institutions.
That’s always been the case, hasn’t it? You have religious life, for one thing, which is a constant tug to say this world isn’t enough, that there’s a radical Catholicism that says I give up everything — as Jesus said we all must in the end, but we do it now, as if we’re already dead. Vows are a way of saying I’m dead to the world. Beyond that, there are also the movements. There have always been movements, very fine movements, such as the Jocist movements before the council, that revitalize the parishes and the parishes gave them stability. They formed people in their catechesis and gave them to the movements, and the movements made them missionary in their outlook, more evangelical, and they went back and revitalized the parishes. The post- conciliar church has those lay movements that are very strong in some places. Where the parishes are weak, the movements take on more importance. Somebody told me that one out of every four people practicing their faith in Europe belongs to one of these movements. That tells me that perhaps the parishes are weak in Europe, so the movements have to pick up the intentionality of Catholicism that is taken up in this country, where the parishes are stronger, by the parishes themselves. The movements haven’t for that reason become strong here as elsewhere.
Are you saying that in this country, the primary forum in which efforts to restore what Robert Louis Wilken has called “thickness” and “density” to Catholic life, meaning a stronger sense of Catholic distinctiveness, should be the parish?
You asked me where I see it, and I see it in the parish. I’m not sure it’s primary, but that’s an obvious place to start. The parish is an American institution as well as a Catholic institution. People understand a congregation. We don’t use quite the same terminology, but people understand it sociologically, so it doesn’t create the tension. Yet it does draw people into a Catholic ethos that does convert them at its best. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes our parishes are social clubs, spiritual clubs, like any other, in which case they’re too porous, giving you grounds for spirituality but not for conversion to the faith. That can happen. But a lot of parishes are still quite healthy, I think, and good Catholic places. That doesn’t mean they’re the only place it happens. There are the movements, there are new communities that start up in different ways. There’s a world of music, very often, which I’m not really into. My music is classical or old hymns, something like that. But you listen to young people, and a lot of times music creates a world. Some of the music they’re into is very Catholic, it’s very good, even some of the stuff that isn’t explicitly Catholic but it carries Catholic values. So you’d have to step back and ask where are the seeds of life, because there are semina Verbi, in the conciliar terms, in this culture the same as any other culture. But that doesn’t take away from the central thesis, which is that we’re in some trouble in terms of Catholic identity. Catholic identity, basically, is there if someone holds the Catholic faith in its integrity, understands it well enough according to age and disposition. It’s somebody who holds the faith in a sufficiently catechized way and can say, ‘I accept all of it.’ At the same time, he or she does that in Catholic communion, someone who has a pastor and who knows what a bishop is and who understands the relationship to the universal church, because that’s the network of visible communion established by the Lord when he asked the apostles to take up the mission. So the relationship part of it, to Christ through the apostolic church, along with the profession of the apostolic faith in the network of communion ... those are the two poles. Depending upon whether you’re left or right, as we define those terms in the culture today, you have trouble with one or the other. The right would say, ‘I accept all the faith, but I can’t stand the bishop,’ while on the other hand the left says, ‘The faith is goofy, but my bishop’s not a bad guy.’
I’d like to shift to some of the particular arenas in which these identity tensions work themselves out. The first is liturgy. You serve on Vox Clara [the advisory body to the Congregation for Divine Worship on English-language translations]. Where do we stand on the Sacramentary? I’ve interviewed Cardinal Pell about this for over five years, and every time I talk to him he says we’re 18 months away.
We’re maybe 18 months away! They’re hoping for 2009.
Do you believe it?
Well, ICEL has done almost all its work. Now it has to go to the conferences and to the congregation. The Congregation for Worship will use Vox Clara to help make the decisions about it. Much of the translation is complete.
Complete at a high level of quality?
I think so. I think ICEL does its work very seriously now, but of course the rules of the game have changed. With Liturgiam Authenticam [a March 2001 Vatican document requiring a more close translation of the Latin originals], you have different rules. If the rules are different, then the translation will look different. It isn’t a banal translation. It tries to make use of the riches of English vocabulary. It also tries to be syntactically closer to the Latin, so that people will know that it is Latinate, it’s not original, but it still is good English. There are many styles in English, and that’s one of them. It will therefore be a language that is not everyday language, but it is still readily comprehensible to anyone who is an English speaker and who has studied English literature. It’s a higher kind of translation, but I think it’s very clear, and most of all I think it’s more faithful in the sense, not that it’s more literal, but that it has picked up a lot of things that simply are not in the present translation. When you have a ‘Gloria’ translated that simply forgets about seven lines of the original hymn, that’s not exactly a faithful translation. There was a lot of that, for good purposes then. Remember, that was a different time ... we were going to adapt, we were foreign for too long and we’re going to change. The trouble is, as somebody said, if you marry the Zeitgeist, you’re a widow very quickly. ICEL itself was extremely critical of its own first translation. It isn’t as if you had ICEL fighting for what we’ve got now. They created a new translation for the second edition of the Roman Missal that is very different, and I think very good in many ways. It has influenced the third edition, which is being translated now.
Bishop Donald Trautman and others worry that when that Sunday comes and you have to explain to people that from now on they will be saying “and with your Spirit” rather than “and also with you,” there will be a negative reaction. Do you share those concerns?
Hopefully, there will be a lot of good catechesis, which is already being prepared in all the English-speaking countries. That [a negative reaction] will happen if it’s not well prepared. It will be a lot harder, as we all know, to go from English to English than from Latin to English. The Latin was foreign anyway, and this was our language. Now we’ve got something that is our language, and we’ve got something new that is also our language with a slightly different cast. That’s going to be hard. Beyond that, we’ve memorized. I can say the canons by heart. We can enter into them and pray them. Even if they’re not great translations, they’re not bad, and in
many ways they’re quite beautiful. I’ve made them my own. It’s good when you say “We believe,” and people go down the line through the Creed. We’re changing four lines in that thing. It’s going to be difficult. People will go back again to reading it, whereas for 20 years now we’ve just been able to remember it. That’s not going to easy, and nobody’s looking forward to it.
Is it worth it?
Oh yes. I think the translations are superior. There’s a lot of the richness of the Roman rite, and therefore our faith, because our liturgy reflects our faith, that we will have present in our hearts again. But it will take 20 years, maybe, before we have it memorized. I mean, I’ll probably go to my death fighting not to say, “and also with you,” because it’s so second nature by now. People know immediately what to do. That’s great, that’s a sign of unity. So we’re introducing a discordant note in our unity, for a good purpose. I think the reason is very adequate, but it’s going to be work.
Speaking of discordant notes in our unity, the Holy Father’s recent motu proprio broadening permission for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass has generated some controversy. In Chicago, do you anticipate widespread use of the old Mass?
Since you have over half the presbyterate who really can’t handle Latin, I don’t see huge numbers. Among the others who could handle it, they made a decision after the council that they’re not going to use Latin again. For them, it’s a matter of principle that they wouldn’t use it. Therefore, ‘widespread’ isn’t going to happen, I don’t think, at least for the next several years. We have it now, it’s built up over the years, where people have asked for it in five different places in five different parts of the city. Every Sunday, maybe 3,000 people worship God using the old missal.
That was prior to the motu proprio?
Any increase after the motu proprio?
I had one priest say that maybe I’d like to start it in my parish, and we’re talking about that. It depends on how many people want it, it depends on whether when he goes away we can find somebody who can continue it or not. We’re discussing whether this is a good thing to do. He’s not too far from other places where it’s celebrated, but he says my parishioners want it in my parish. We’re talking about that now. Maybe in a couple of places in the diocese where it’s not really accessible, such as the southwestern corner and a few other places, we might look at that. But I haven’t seen wide demand. Nobody’s written me letters saying, ‘Ah, now at last we can do this.’ So far, there is no such reaction. We are going to be sure that the seminarians, when they do their practicum on the new Mass, also receive some instruction about what the Tridentine rite looks like, so it’s not foreign to them. It’s the extraordinary expression of the Roman rite, so they should know it. Many of them, I suspect, won’t really be prepared to celebrate it. We demand more Latin of them now. They must have at least two years, and that’s been the case for some years. But that’s perhaps not enough to actually celebrate it, and the bishop has to be sure that the priest-celebrant can actually celebrate.
Even if they don’t do it publicly, do you see more of your priests celebrating the old Mass privately?
I have no indication that they’re doing that, or that they would want to do that. There might be a few. I could think of several, but you could count them, I think, on two hands ... maybe one hand.
Prior to the release of the motu proprio, I wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times in which I argued that this would be one of those classic Vatican documents which, because of its symbolic importance, generates a lot of debate, but practically changes little on the ground. Does that seem right to you?
We’ll see, but it made sense to me when I read it, and it still makes sense to me now. Symbolically, it is important, mostly because the pope wants to insist that there was no rupture [between the pre- and post-Vatican II periods], and it shouldn’t have been treated as a rupture. The old Mass is there now, extraordinary but nonetheless present, as a kind of template to draw people into perhaps a more reverential celebration of the Eucharist. It’s there, and that’s helpful. On the other hand, most of the practicing Catholics I know, including those in my own family, who have always been good Mass-goers and who have nothing against the Tridentine rite, remember it and appreciate it, but they say, ‘We’re somewhere else now.’
In other words, they wouldn’t want to do it every Sunday.
Yes, yes. It’s available, and it’s readily available in Chicago, and might be more available, but it’s always going to be what the pope called it: ‘extraordinary.’...
Another arena in which these identity tensions play themselves out is the question of Catholics in public life. Are we going to see a replay in 2008 of the tensions that surrounded the issue of communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians in 2004?
It depends what the media wants to play up. The bishops are not of one mind in approaching this question, and so that division can be played upon, in which case it will be with us. There are some who would say it’s a moral theology question about the conscience of the individual. He or she has to be properly instructed, then come to communion in that perspective.
Meaning that it’s their business to make the proper decision?
Yes, [this view holds] that it’s our business to instruct them, it’s their business to make the decision. Others would say that it’s not entirely that, because there’s also public scandal, and therefore the public law of the church comes in. You have a canon that says the minister of communion, not the bishop, is to determine if it’s a case of public scandal, then someone is to be refused communion. But that’s the minister giving communion on the spot. The bishop can either encourage that or discourage that, I suppose, but in the canon itself it is first of all the minister giving communion at the time who makes that decision ... the celebrant, or the extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, or the deacon, or whoever’s giving communion.
Do you have a policy on that in Chicago?
A policy that would say what?
One that would specify under what circumstances someone should or should not be refused communion.
Our policy is the policy of the church, so if somebody is in a marriage that’s not recognized by the church, and the one who gives communion knows, then he or she has no right to give communion because it’s a matter of public scandal, assuming that it is public.
What about a legislator who has voted in favor of a pro-abortion ordinance?
I don’t think you should have a policy on that. I think you should talk first, determine what the state of the person’s conscience is, what is in fact going on there. We’ve done some of that. Of course, when all that is said and done, you have some people whose voting records are scandalous. Of course, in most cases they themselves continue to say, ‘I personally accept the church’s teaching,’ which is the usual criterion for communion. That’s the moral theology part of it. The other part is, whether you accept it or not, what you’ve done is so scandalous that you’re not worthy to receive the sacrament. That too is a prudential judgment, on the part of the minister. I don’t see how you could have a policy about that.
So we should not expect a unified position from the conference in terms of a national position?
We’re going to talk about it. I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not.
But if it’s a prudential judgment made by the individual minister, it’s difficult to see how you could have a national standard.
That’s what the Code of Canon Law calls it.
Have you seen Archbishop Raymond Burke’s essay in De Re Canonica, in which he argues that we’ve emphasized canon 916, which talks about the duty of the individual communicant, at the expense of canon 915, about the duty of the minister of the sacrament?
Yes, I think he argues very persuasively. I think it’s a good canonical argument. But pastorally, you still have to decide what this means in the concrete cases we’re talking about, so decisions still have to be made. You can point out that this is what the canons say, but what the canon says is that’s the minister who does it. It’s not first of all a bishop’s problem. It has become a bishop’s problem, because bishops are arguing about it.
To take a specific example, if Rudy Giuliani is the Republican nominee and he shows up for Mass in the Archdiocese of Chicago, would you give him communion?
I don’t think he’s married in the church, so that’s an easy one. We wouldn’t even get to the question of his position on abortion.
Would you agree that both the debates over liturgy and over Catholics in public life are rooted in a push for greater clarity about what makes Catholicism distinct — in other words, Catholic identity?
Yes, and that’s why this argument on the part of Archbishop Burke is persuasive, because there is scandal. It is scandalous that after so many years of the church’s constant teaching that you have so many Catholic politicians for whom this is a non-issue. They made up their mind that public policy is one thing and religion is private, and never the twain shall meet. Well, that’s a scandal. The question is, do you use a sacramental moment to address that, and risk politicizing the sacrament? That’s my biggest concern. The very sacrament that speaks about our unity becomes the occasion for this kind of fracas and disunity. I think we should think long and hard before we allow the Eucharist to become that. There are other ways, even a public declaration that Mr. So-and-So or Mrs. So-and-So is unworthy of receiving communion. After that, you don’t put the onus on the minister, it’s just out there. If they come to communion, they know. That would be far better than to take that moment of sacramental communion itself, and, you know, the flashbulbs go off. The minister may not even recognize someone coming up. It’s a tremendous onus on the minister.
Though I suspect that if the Republican presidential nominee shows up, people would know who he is.
I suspect he probably wouldn’t bother, this being Chicago!
But you believe the underlying desire here, to reinforce the borders of proper Catholic identity, is legitimate.
It’s certainly legitimate, of course. It’s necessary. The problem is when you get down to a particular instance. The problem is also instrumentalizing the Eucharist and the church, even for a good cause. Worship should never be manipulated by anybody, even for a good cause. Worship is worship, even for a good cause. I feel strongly about that....
[A]ssuming that your brother bishops elect you as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is it your intention to accept?
I think that if you put your name forward, obviously you have to accept if you’re elected. The time to make that decision is when they ask if you’ll be put on the list.
So if elected, you’ll serve?
I put my name forward, so of course.
Did you either ask for or receive any counsel from the Vatican as to whether you should stand for the office of president?
No, the Holy See in my experience never enters into those discussions. ... But you know, the person who runs the conference administratively is the General Secretary. The president runs the meeting, and is the president of the bishops’ conference, which means you can speak for it at times when it’s not assembled. It’s more a symbolic role than an administrative role. The people who are hired, for example, are chosen by the General Secretary, not the bishops.
But from a PR point of view, you become the face of the church in the United States.
Yes, and that’s scary in a way, because symbol becomes more important than function very often. It is a symbolic post. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and you can make mistakes, and that’s something to be considered. But you can also shape a conversation sometimes, and say something that would be helpful.
Any particular conversation you’re looking forward to shaping?
Catholic identity is a good place to start.