Cardinal Francis George of Chicago will turn over the reins to his successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich, on Tuesday. George has long been seen as a leading intellectual light among America’s Catholic bishops, and even now, as he fights for his life, his mind remains remarkably nimble.
As it turns out, one thing occupying his mind these days is Pope Francis.
Now 77, 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. If it fails, he’ll likely be looking at palliative care ahead of the inevitable.
I’ve described George before as the “American Ratzinger” for his blend of intellectual chops and tenacious commitment to Catholic tradition, in the spirit of the former Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI. (For the record, George shuns the label, insisting he’s not of Benedict’s intellectual caliber. He is, in any event, the closest thing to it on these shores.)
George sat down for an exclusive interview on Friday. A fuller account will appear Monday on Crux, but for now, one fascinating element is this: If time and health allow, 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, 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.
So, what’s on his mind?
To begin, George said he’d like to ask Francis if he fully grasps that in some quarters, he’s created the impression Catholic doctrine is up for grabs.
Does Francis realize, for example, “what has happened just by that phrase, ‘Who am I to judge?’ ”
Francis’ 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 realize 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 realizes how his rhetoric has created expectations “he can’t possibly meet.”
“That’s what worries me,” 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, George warned, “He’ll get not only disillusionment, but opposition, which could be harmful to his effectiveness.”
Second, George 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,” George said. “Much of it he collects himself, but I’d love to know who’s truly shaping his thinking.”
Third, George noted that 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, George recalled that one of Francis’ favorite books is “The Lord of the World” by Robert Hugh Benson, a converted Catholic priest and son of a former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an apocalyptic fantasy, written in 1907, culminating in a showdown between the Church and a charismatic anti-Christ figure.
George said he’d like to ask Francis a simple question: “Do you really believe that?”
“I hope before I die 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,” he said.
Perhaps, George said, 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 new boss.
“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,” he said.
Getting some quality time, as George describes it, wouldn’t be just about indulging his personal curiosity, but also being a good bishop.
“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?’ ”
Here’s hoping America’s Ratzinger eventually gets that heart-to-heart with Pope Francis … and, for the record, I’d pay serious money to be a fly on the wall if he does.
Ireland returns to the Vatican
Three years ago, amid arguably the worst child sexual abuse scandal to rock the Catholic Church anywhere in the world, Prime Minister Edna Kenny of Ireland scored significant political points by delivering a speech strongly critical of the Vatican on the floor of his country’s parliament.
Kenny denounced what he called the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism — the narcissism — that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.” In the wake of a government inquiry that exposed systematic abuse of children in Church-run institutions, along with the cover-up of that abuse by Church officials, the speech drew wide applause.
One problem with politicians, however, is the tendency to think that if a little of something is good, then a lot of it must be great. In that spirit, Kenny went on to decide that Ireland would close its embassy to the Vatican, bundling it with a couple of other closures in order to provide political cover.
The decision didn’t mean the end of diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Holy See, only that the Irish ambassador wouldn’t be physically present in Rome. Ireland converted the historic residence of its Vatican ambassador, the Villa Spada on Rome’s Janiculum Hill, into a residence for its ambassador to Italy. Still, it was widely seen as a deliberate snub.
What Kenny hadn’t anticipated, however, is that such a move would prove to be both bad diplomacy and bad politics.
Diplomatically, it meant that Ireland downgraded its representation to one of the few sovereign states on earth inclined to take the Irish truly seriously, because of its unique Catholic history and its missionary contributions to the global Church.
The Vatican is also a unique diplomatic listening post, able to call on pastors and members of religious orders in every nook and cranny of the planet for first-hand intelligence, and the Irish found themselves hamstrung without regular entrée to its network.
Politically, even many Irish Catholics angry at the Church for its mishandling of the abuse scandals found the closing of the embassy to be unnecessarily punitive, and Kenny faced constant pressure in parliament to defend the move.
In other words, Kenny’s calculation was that the Vatican would emerge the big loser in the embassy closing, but it actually turned out to be his own government.
Thus it was that in January, Ireland announced that it was appointing a new residential ambassador, Emma Madigan, a veteran of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who presented her credentials to the pope last Tuesday.
In effect, the decision marks the end of what one Vatican official called a “painful chapter” in Vatican/Irish relations. Ireland joins both Ghana and Nigeria as nations that recently decided to appoint a new ambassador to the Vatican who will physically reside in Rome.
The moral of the story would seem to be this: If you’re a head of state with a bone to pick with the Vatican, try to find a way to express it other than downgrading your diplomatic representation. Almost inevitably, that move will come back to haunt you.
A rift in Iraq’s Church
Large-scale disasters tend to breed scores of smaller related calamities, and that dynamic is currently playing out in the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the rise of the Islamic State and the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Christian presence.
A rift has emerged between the head of Iraq’s Catholic community, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, and the leadership of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter in the United States, which is based in the San Diego area and ministers to the roughly 140,000 Chaldeans who have taken refuge across the Western United States.
In a nutshell, Sako has decided the time has come for priests who have fled Iraq to return, on the grounds that he needs all hands on deck. He recently suspended nine Chaldean priests currently serving in the Eparchy of St. Peter unless and until they go back.
Sako defended the order in an interview during the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome.
“The priests who fled without any canonical permission encourage others to leave, including their families,” Sako said. “If we don’t put a stop to this, others will go and the Church and the country won’t have any Christians left.”
The American eparchy has appealed the edict to Pope Francis, arguing that they’d be decimated if the priests leave. They currently have 14 clergy, meaning they’d be left with just five to serve 140,000 people spread all over the Western United States, at a time when they’re ramping up to serve an additional influx of Iraqi refugees seeking to settle in the country.
Understandably, the priests in question don’t seem eager to go back. The Rev. Noel Gourgis told a local ABC affiliate in San Diego in late October that returning to Iraq right now as a Catholic priest would be “suicide.”
Gourgis said that if Pope Francis orders him to do so he’ll comply, but “I don’t believe he’ll say go kill yourself.”
As is often the case with ecclesiastical disputes, some suspect a hidden agenda. Members of the Chaldean community in the States have accused Sako of exploiting Iraq’s tragedy to execute a fairly naked power grab.
“The antics of Patriarch Sako show that some even within our own Church opt to politicize the cruelty of a genocide occurring in our midst,” said Mark Arabo, a national spokesman for the Iraqi Christian community.
That case has been laid out in detail by Lincoln Malik, a prominent California engineer and a member of the Chaldean Catholic community who’s circulating an essay against Sako’s order.
The Eastern code of Church law, Malik argues, gives Eastern patriarchs authority only over liturgical matters outside their territorial boundaries, while everything else is under the local bishop and ultimately the pope. His suggestion is that Sako is unilaterally rewriting Church law and usurping power that belongs only to the pope.
Aside from voicing skepticism that Church leaders in the Middle East have the infrastructure to effectively govern diaspora communities, Malik also offers a political basis for caution about giving Sako what he wants. Since Catholic prelates in the Middle East often feel compelled to prove their Arab credentials by backing Muslim leaders and causes, Malik asks if expanding their reach would mean allowing them to muzzle other voices.
Malik offers this hypothetical: “Will Patriarch Sako be able to defend US bishops under his control if such bishops support their government in a possible conflict with Iran? Or, will he be obliged to instruct his bishops in the US to show solidarity with ‘our Muslim brothers in Iran’?”
His bottom line is that greater powers for Eastern patriarchs over communities in other parts of the world would be “an absolute disaster” and a “dangerous gamble that the Church cannot afford.”
In the short term, Pope Francis probably will have to make a decision about whether to uphold or overturn Sako’s ruling. (I say “probably” because under Church law, an appeal means that the order is temporarily suspended, so in theory the pope could simply do nothing and thus allow the priests to remain where they are without delivering any formal rebuke to Sako.)
Going forward, Francis may want to bring together Sako and the leadership of the Chaldean Catholic Church around the world to try to iron out their differences. If ever there were a moment in which solidarity is a matter of life or death for Iraq’s Christian community, no matter where they presently find themselves, this would seem to be it.