A web event honoring a past president of the U.S. bishops’ conference looked at how the Church-State relationship has developed in America and its effect on the current COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

“Cardinal Francis George, the American Catholic Contribution to Catholic Social Thought, and Our Current Moment,” a web event hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute, was held on April 17 to honor the fifth anniversary of the Chicago cardinal’s death.

George, a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, served as the Archbishop of Chicago from 1997-2014, and was named a cardinal by St. John Paul II in 1998.

The cardinal, who died from cancer in 2015, also served as the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference from 2007 to 2010.

George was often considered the intellectual heavyweight of the American hierarchy, and often wrote about the tensions between the Protestant ethos of the United States and the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

Russell Hittinger, Senior Fellow of the Lumen Christi Institute and Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago Law School set the stage for the discussion by comparing and contrasting George with another midwestern prelate, Archbishop John Ireland, who was born 101 years before George.

Ireland was a key figure during the “Americanism” controversy, when Pope Leo XIII condemned as heretical certain tendencies he said were found in the U.S. Church, including the idea that the American Church is “particular” and different than the Church in Europe.

Both men believed that America’s founders “built better than they knew” with “brilliantly devised” institutions, said Hittinger. At the same time, both held that the “philosophy and theology that animates these institutions are far from the mark” and “inferior to the Catholic tradition.”

A major difference between the two emerged, however, soon after George’s appointment as Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago in 1997, when he began to question publicly not just the underlying philosophy and theology of America, but also the health of the institutions built upon those foundations.

By taking this position, George separated himself, in many respects, from a long line of “Catholic Americanizers,” said Dr. Stephen Schneck, Emeritus Professor at the Catholic University of America and Executive Director of the Franciscan Action Network.

Whereas “Catholic Americanizers” like John Ireland and John Courtney Murray tried to find ways for the Catholic Church to be at home in America, “George was always suspicious of an easy fit between principles of American thought and, especially, the practices of American thought with what we understand to be the bases of Catholic moral and social thought,” said Schneck.

George pinpointed key obstacles that prevent a good fit between Catholicism and the American way, explained Schneck. These include incompatible conceptions of freedom and sharp tensions between Catholicism’s “social and corporate anthropology which corresponds to ideas of solidarity and the common good” and the American emphasis on the independent individual.

The cardinal’s break with a different form Americanizing was much less clean, argued Schneck. Whereas the Americanizers of previous eras were concerned with individual rights, the “Americanizers of today are primarily about economic affairs, focusing on property rights and the freedom to buy and sell as we please, and emphasizing a deference, even in moral regards, frankly, to market forces,” he added.

“George did not publicly engage in criticism of such Americanism,” continued Schneck, naming George Weigel, Michael Novak, and Father Robert Sirico as “prominent American Catholics who have taken up this kind of Americanism.”

“I think that fundamentally he understood its incompatibility with his own thinking, and you can see that in several chapters in God in Action,” added Schneck. “He had an opportunity to speak about Americanization as it relates to the Church, about this Americanism as an -ism, and he addressed it in terms of culture, but was a little bit quieter about it in terms of economics.”

Theresa Smart, Assistant Professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought at Arizona State University, explained why George may have been so focused on culture. Culture, she argued, was the “medium through which the church interacts with the state” for George, a view that reflects both a famous strain of American thought from the republic’s early days and papal teachings.

Regarding the former, Smart pointed to figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and George Washington, who famously voiced forms of the view that limited government depends for longevity on moral virtues that the religious and moral practices of its people provide. This setup grants religion the ability to bear indirectly on government by shaping the minds and hearts of its people.

She says this view of religion also aligns with Saint John Paul II’s views in Centesimus Annus, where the Church takes up “indirect means of interacting with the state” as the Church “infuses the secular sphere with divine life through culture, through reforming her members in the image of Christ, such that they can then reform the world.”

The webinar was moderated by Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of America magazine, who asked the three panelists to weigh in on how George’s theological perspective might speak to today’s “twin crises of a pandemic and economic collapse.”

Smart questioned “what it says about our current order that all the doors of our churches have been locked at a time like this” and wondered whether George “might have been more publicly vocal about the fact that the sacraments are essential and that we aren’t taking our marching orders from the state, that we at least have our own prudential reasons to stop Masses or take certain prudential precautions.”

Clarifying that she was not doubting the magnitude of the virus, Smart said that she believes there has been a “failure of imagination on the Church’s part during this time, and it hasn’t taken to the streets to find ways to bring the sacraments to people, or at least stay in touch with parishioners during this time.”

“I’ve been kind of disappointed by some of the decisions that I’ve seen,” Smart added. “I don’t know how those decisions were come to, but to me it does signal a kind of abandonment of the spiritual sphere for the physical, and I think that’s something that, at least in his work, Cardinal George wouldn’t agree with.”

Schneck disagreed, appealing to George’s “powerful conception of the incarnate nature of human existence” and arguing that “the body really mattered to him… the body had a gravitas in his thinking, so I don’t think he takes the body lightly.”

Furthermore, Schneck said, there has been an impressive “fluorescence of spirituality” in this moment. While he has been seeing it everywhere, he said that it was uniquely on display in Pope Francis’s dramatic moment with the monstrance in an empty St. Peter’s Square during an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27.

“That does something to our souls, and while it’s not a sacrament, of course, there’s something there that I think Cardinal George would have applauded as well,” he concluded.

Smart responded that her concerns have arisen from witnessing the “way that other sectors of society have mobilized to serve people in imaginative ways” and the comparative lack of imaginative response from the priests in her diocese, which she said she knows is a direct result of an order from their bishop.

“I’m just not sure how I feel about these prohibitions handed down from above that don’t allow creative ways to stay in touch with people and continue forming them spiritually while at the same time maintaining the necessary precautions for bodily health,” Smart said.

Hittinger also weighed in, saying that while he has no problems with the policies themselves, he does agree with Smart that “there was something missing.” Acknowledging that the policies are reasonable for the sake of thousands upon thousands of lives, he added that “for many Catholics, including me, it did seem that the policy was stated too quickly and without some regret.”

“Maybe that would have been enough,” Smart replied, “to see more communication from priests and bishops, a rhetoric that says the sacraments are essential even though we can’t offer them.”

“I utterly agree with that,” Schneck said.

Wrapping up the spirited exchanged, Malone noted that while it was unclear to him how George would have responded, he certainly would have loved to see how George would have balanced “his deep suspicion of the state and his fear of their encroachment on the freedom of the church” with “this very basic human reality and need.”