Comment Comment and Features

Always the smartest man in the room

Cardinal George (Photo: CNS)

The death of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was marked by headlines calling him both the “American Wojtyła” and the “American Ratzinger”. The former because he was a diocesan bishop with St John Paul’s combination of scholarly achievement and pastoral courage; and the latter for his priority on liturgical reform, and because in the American Church he was always the smartest man in the room. Indeed, like both Wojtyła and Ratzinger, he was a man of the university – he earned two doctorates – who knew that the critique of culture and its evangelisation was the great task the Church set for herself at the Second Vatican Council.

George, Archbishop of Chicago from 1997, was massively influential. At a time of intense public scandal, he was one of the architects of the “zero tolerance” policy on priestly sexual abuse that is now being implemented as the norm for the Church universal. Along with Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, George steered through the new English translation of the Holy Mass, improving the daily worship of Catholics around the globe. As one of the clearest thinkers – and most direct speakers – in the American hierarchy, he identified the rising intolerance of secular fundamentalism as a clear and present danger to the Church’s mission.

Being the American Wojtyła or American Ratzinger was a compliment to be sure, but it may have been the adjective more than the proper noun that captured the man. George was the great American bishop, even if America does not have a tradition of scholar bishops. He fully appreciated the distinctive American value of freedom, yet remained always the Christian disciple who realised that even the great good of freedom, if made absolute and separated from the truth, could be an obstacle to the greatest gift God offers us, communion with Himself.

Fourteen years ago, Cardinal George preached the Lent retreat for John Paul and the Roman Curia. I interviewed him the day that it finished, and he spoke about how his retreat explored the principal American and Catholic themes of freedom and communion.

“I wanted to spend a lot of time on freedom, because it is very important to the interior life, the spiritual life, but also because it is an American value,” Cardinal George told me. “I wanted, as an American, to speak about freedom in this retreat. I tried to draw on some of the sources that have shaped the spiritual life in our country. Certainly freedom is our primary cultural value, but it is a religious value, too. Freedom, as we understand it, is often autonomy, so it is a false freedom and so we are in trouble with freedom in the United States.

“Freedom trumps everything else. Freedom trumps life – for the sake of freedom one can kill a child. All the more reason why we have to insist in America on what freedom really is. And as someone who does that in the United States, I thought I could do so here, too. Pope John Paul has said an awful lot on freedom, so it was easy to talk about it. But it is there in the Gospel.”

Cardinal George celebrated liberty but saw the danger of freedom-as-absolute-autonomy in the same way that John Paul did, who said 10 years before George’s retreat that “democracy without values becomes thinly disguised totalitarianism”. Cardinal Ratzinger, on the eve of his election to the papacy in 2005, would pithily characterise the same danger as the “dictatorship of relativism”.

Whether in his books or his parish visits, in sharp answers to questions or highly nuanced lectures, Cardinal George made the argument that only the Gospel provided a worthy end for so great a capacity as human freedom.

“Freedom as autonomy may or may not teach you how to give, but it will not teach you how to receive – autonomy resists influences from the outside,” he said in our 2001 conversation.

“Autonomy emphasises that ‘I am who I am’ and ‘I will do what I want to do’ – that’s freedom. But that is only freedom to give – and maybe it is not even that. It certainly is not freedom to receive. For a disciple of Jesus Christ – and a disciple is by definition someone who follows someone else – you have to be free to receive. That’s the fundamental freedom.”

To that freedom, the freedom to receive all that God wishes to give us, Cardinal George devoted a remarkably American, and a remarkably Catholic, life.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (1/5/15).

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