CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE
by George Weigel
In the spring of 1997, a routine meeting of the finance council of a venerable archdiocese (best left unnamed) was interrupted by the startling news that Pope John Paul II had just appointed Francis George, archbishop of Portland, Oregon, for less than a year, as archbishop of Chicago. “Oh, no,” groaned the local auxiliary bishop (also best left in anonymity); “he’s the one who gets up at meetings and uses all those words the bishops can’t understand.”
Well, whatever His Anonymous Excellency didn’t get, others did. Indeed, a lot of the American episcopate not only understood what Francis George was saying over the years but were in sufficient agreement with what they heard that they elected the cardinal archbishop of Chicago their president. In doing so, they affirmed the potent combination of dynamic orthodoxy and robust engagement with a threatening cultural environment that now defines the U.S. bishops’ ecclesial self-understanding and public profile—and that will continue to characterize the vital, vibrant centers of the Church in the United States in the future. Still, that theologically challenged auxiliary was on to something: Francis Eugene George, O.M.I., who will be archbishop emeritus of Chicago as of November 18, was not cut from the typical cloth out of which American bishops have traditionally been fashioned.
There have been a few scholar-bishops in U.S. Catholic history; in antebellum America, Francis Patrick Kenrick, sixth archbishop of Baltimore, translated the entire Bible by himself (his cantankerous brother, Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis, argued that the U.S. bishops shouldn’t pay for the publication of his brother’s work). But as a general rule, university-based scholars and men of notable intellectual accomplishment have not been regularly chosen for episcopal leadership in the United States, as has often been the case in Europe. Francis George was the outstanding exception to this rule in the entire history of the American episcopate: a first-class intellectual who became both a successful local bishop and a major figure in the national conference of bishops.
Francis George brought to his episcopal ministry, in both its local and national expressions, a sophisticated appreciation of the distinctiveness of the Catholic experience in the United States and a finely honed critique of the underpinnings of the American experiment in ordered liberty. Knowing exactly what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was talking about when he spoke before the conclave of 2005 of a “dictatorship of relativism,” Cardinal George’s keen mind and his pastoral experience led him to the conclusion that twenty-first-century American democracy was in trouble—to the point where he famously observed that, while he would die in his bed, his own successor would die in prison and his successor’s successor would be martyred in the public square. It was a deliberately provocative formulation, intended to shake his audience out of their complacency, but it would be foolish to deny that there was a large kernel of truth in what he said.