US Catholicism On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

The Pope really needs to answer Cardinal George’s questions

Cardinal Francis George gives a final blessing during a rite of welcome ceremony for his successor as Archbishop of Chicago (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Francis George would ‘really, really like to have a heart-to-heart with Francis’: so too would many of the rest of us

At the end of September, Sandro Magister commented that the more conservative and traditional Catholics of the United States, “while still reeling from the news of the … removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke … [have] been dealt another blow with the appointment of the new archbishop of Chicago”.

Pope Francis’s selection of Archbishop Blase Cupich as the new pastor of the third-ranking diocese in the US, comments Magister, “has plunged this particularly dynamic component of American Catholicism into a profound depression, almost to the edge of a nervous breakdown… the more progressive segment of American Catholicism, historically hypercritical of the recent pontificates, has celebrated with enthusiasm the arrival of Cupich…”

One would in any case have surmised that Cupich’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Francis George (who is described by the commentator John Allen Jr as “America’s Ratzinger”) must be wondering what on earth Pope Francis is up to. Magister comments that “Cupich seems to be bringing Chicago back to the heyday of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, George’s predecessor, a champion of ‘liberal’ Catholicism in the United States and the creator of the mountainous bureaucratic machine of the episcopal conference”.

Everything in the American Church, in other words, that Cardinal George fought (with considerable success) during his entire episcopal career to reverse. John Allen worked out that there was an interesting story here; and he hit journalistic paydirt: just before he handed over his diocese to the new man, Cardinal George gave Allen a fascinating interview (more next Monday) on the Crux website about his attitude, not to his successor but to the Pope who appointed him.

Cardinal George is currently undergoing experimental treatment intended to stimulate his immune system to fight off the cancer spreading from his bladder, liver, and kidneys through the rest of his body. But even now, says Allen, as the cardinal fights for his life, his mind remains remarkably nimble. And one thing occupying his mind these days is Pope Francis. He’s puzzled: and what he had to say exactly mirrors, I suspect, what many of us too, have also wondered about. If time and health allow, says Allen, Cardinal George would really, really like to have a heart-to-heart with Francis.

“Aside from the sheer fun of knowing what one of America’s best Catholic minds wants to ask the Pope,” comments Allen, “George’s dream Q&A has political relevance because he remains a point of reference to the Church’s conservative wing. These aren’t just his questions, in other words, but what a large and influential Catholic constituency would like to know.”

He began the interview by telling Allen that he’d like to ask Pope Francis if he fully grasps that in some quarters, he’s created the impression that Catholic doctrine is up for grabs:

Does Francis realise, for example, “what has happened just by that phrase, ‘Who am I to judge?’”

Francis’s signature sound-bite, George said, “has been very misused … because he was talking about someone who has already asked for mercy and been given absolution, whom he knows well,” George said.

(Francis uttered the line in 2013, in response to a question about a Vatican cleric accused of gay relationships earlier in his career.)
“That’s entirely different than talking to somebody who demands acceptance rather than asking for forgiveness,” George said.

“Does he not realise the repercussions? Perhaps he doesn’t,” George said. “I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds.”

“The question is why he doesn’t he clarify” these ambiguous statements, George said. “Why is it necessary that apologists have to bear the burden of trying to put the best possible face on it?”

He said he also wonders if Francis realises how his rhetoric has created expectations “he can’t possibly meet. I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds.”

“That’s what worries me,” Cardinal George said. “At a certain moment, people who have painted him as a player in their own scenarios about changes in the Church will discover that’s not who he is.”  At that stage, the cardinal warned, “he’ll get not only disillusionment, but opposition, which could be harmful to his effectiveness.”

Second, he said he’d like to ask Francis who is providing him advice – which, he said, has become the “big question” about this Pope. “Obviously he’s getting input from somewhere,” Cardinal George said. “Much of it he collects himself, but I’d love to know who’s truly shaping his thinking.”

Third, Cardinal George noted that Pope Francis often makes references to the Devil and the biblical notion of the end-times, but said it’s not clear how that shapes his vision and agenda.

Among other things, he pointed out that one of Pope Francis’s favourite books is “The Lord of the World” (1907) by Robert Hugh Benson, a convert from Anglicanism and son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a Catholic priest. The novel is an apocalyptic vision whose climax is a confrontation between the Church and a charismatic anti-Christ figure. If you’ve read it, you’ll also know that it’s hardly an accurate prediction of the way the 20th century actually unfolded, either in the Church or the world: it seemed to me so remote from reality, in fact, that I personally couldn’t finish it. But many people I respect admire it. One thing is clear: Robert Hugh Benson was hardly a theological liberal, so it’s interesting that Pope Francis should be so fascinated and attracted by his way of thinking.

Cardinal George said he’d like to ask Pope Francis a simple question about the book’s apocalyptic vision: “Do you really believe that?”

“I hope before I die,” he said, “I’ll have the chance to ask him how you want us to understand what you’re doing, when you put [the end-times] before us as a key to it all.

Perhaps, he went on, the sense that the end is near explains why Francis “seems to be in a hurry.”

So far, George said, he hasn’t been able to talk these things out with the Church’s new ruler: “I didn’t know him well before he was elected, and since then I haven’t had a chance to go over [to Rome] for any meetings because I’ve been in treatment.

“You’re supposed to govern in communion with the successor of Peter, so it’s important to have some meeting of minds,” he said. “I certainly respect [Francis] as Pope, but I don’t yet really have an understanding of ‘What are we doing here?’”

Cardinal George repudiates the idea that he is “America’s Ratzinger”, and insists he’s not of Pope Benedict’s intellectual calibre. All the same, says Allen, he is the closest thing to it on these shores. To that one can add that he is of a very similar caste of mind to Pope Benedict. This leads one to a question: if “America’s Ratzinger” doesn’t really have an understanding of “what are we doing here?” what is going through the mind of Pope Benedict himself?

Those questions of Cardinal George’s, “why… doesn’t he clarify these ambiguous statements?” and “why is it necessary that apologists have to bear the burden of trying to put the best possible face on it?” really do need answering. I feel this dilemma very personally, having tried for what seems like years (but it can’t be, he’s not been Pope anything like as long as it seems) precisely to “put the best face on” some of the things he has said and done. But it seems a long time now since it was always possible to “read Francis through Benedict”.

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