CHICAGO — Back in 1997, journalist Jonathan Kwitny published a biography of Pope John Paul II called “Man of the Century.” The idea was that the biography of John Paul cut across all the great dramas of the 20th century, from Nazism and Communism to the upheaval in the Catholic Church caused by the Second Vatican Council.

By the same logic, one could argue that Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was the American churchman of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, because there’s almost no story in which he wasn’t a lead actor.

George played a key role in pushing through a reform of Catholic worship in the English language, adopting translations closer to the Latin originals and, in general, a more reverent and traditional style. He was the architect of the US bishops’ battles with the Obama administration over health care reform, and more broadly in defense of religious freedom, during his three-year term as president of the bishops’ conference.

George was also the lead advocate for the American bishops when their new zero tolerance policy on sex abuse seemed dead on arrival in Rome, eventually making it stick over significant Vatican resistance. To boot, George voted in the conclaves that gave the Catholic Church both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Now 77, George will formally step aside in Chicago tomorrow when his successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich, is installed. At the moment he’s fighting for his life, undergoing an experimental cancer treatment thought to have around a 50-50 chance of success.

Long seen as one of the most accomplished cultural critics among the American bishops, George isn’t pulling any punches in winter. In an exclusive interview with Crux Friday, he rejected suggestions that the change in Chicago is a “course correction” or a “repudiation” of what are conventionally seen as his more conservative views.

He spurns the entire left/right dichotomy, calling it “destructive of the Church’s mission and her life.”

“For us, the category that matters is true/false,” he said. “I reject the whole liberal/conservative deformation of the character of our lives. If you’re limited to that … then somehow or other you’ve betrayed your vocation as a bishop and a priest.”

Other highlights of the interview:

  • George denies being a culture warrior, and says he “deeply resents” suggestions he’s not as passionate about social justice and the poor as his successor.
  • He unpacks a celebrated 2010 remark about his successor dying in prison, saying it was not a straight-line prediction, but a worst-case scenario.
  • George reveals that it was then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, later Pope Benedict’s Secretary of State, who rescued the US bishops’ zero tolerance policy under instructions from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
  • He stops short of taking a position on Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, the lone American bishop convicted of failure to report an accusation of child abuse, but says “it’s important that there be a means to hold bishops accountable.”
  • George ticks off a series of things he’d like to ask Pope Francis, including whether the pontiff fully understands the way some of his statements “leave people wondering if he still holds the doctrine.”
  • Finally, George voices regret that he didn’t get more advice at the beginning in Chicago about what to do, and praises Cupich for asking the right questions of the right people: “Obviously he’s better prepared coming in than I was,” he said.

The following are excerpts from the interview. It’s divided into four sections: The transition in Chicago, George’s life and legacy, the Church’s sexual abuse scandals, and Pope Francis, including what George would like to ask the pope if he gets the chance.

The transition in Chicago

Crux: We’re speaking four days before your 17-year run as the Archbishop of Chicago comes to an end. What are your emotions?

George: First of all, there’s a sense of gratitude and relief that is really authentic. I’m grateful for my time as Archbishop. I’m truly grateful to God for the calling, and grateful to the people and the priests for their cooperation. I’m also relieved, because this is a full-time job and now I have to spend too much time attending to my health.

There’s also a sense of remorse over mistakes made and people who have been injured at times, wittingly or unwittingly. There’s regret over opportunities not seized or not seen quickly enough, both administratively and pastorally. Honestly, there’s also some questioning. What will it be like? I’ve been in religious administration since I was 35 years old.

Just like Pope Francis …

Yes, which is one of the reasons why he was elected. We needed somebody who could govern. I don’t know what it will be like to come home at night and not have to face two hours of mail.

You must be looking forward to it?

I am, but others have said, ‘You’ll miss being involved in so many things.’ I don’t know; right now, all I can think about is that I’ll have the chance to rest. I may find that I really do miss being involved in so many people’s lives in the way that I have been.

If I have the time, I’d like to take some relationships that have been limited by the administrative concerns and develop them into deeper friendships. You meet a lot of very good people, and you think to yourself that under different circumstances it would be nice to be friends, but I can’t afford that, or I don’t have the time for it, or there’s a reason why you shouldn’t do that because it would look like you’re choosing sides. So the end of the game is, you’re somewhat isolated. I think the opportunity to deepen some friendships is there, and I’d like to take it.

You mentioned gratitude, relief and some regret. What about pride?

I guess there is some, or there should be, but that’s the old Catholic guilt thing! I always made fun of it, but there is something to it … you know, if you boast about something, it’ll come back to bite you.

What I’m most grateful for is when I get reports, and now there are many of them, from people who say, ‘You don’t know me, but you touched me by something you said.’ You can see that despite yourself, you were the instrument of the Holy Spirit unifying his people, the agent of God’s grace for somebody at a particularly difficult moment in their lives. Archbishops don’t hear that very often, because you’re not with people like parish priests are. You don’t know the spiritual impact, but that’s what lasts.

As I keep telling people, buildings eventually will decay but people are eternal, and if you help somebody or change their life, that lasts forever. That’s the glory of priestly ministry, that what you do has eternal consequences. It’s also our shame if we don’t do it right. That’s not really something to take pride in, because you take pride in the action of the Holy Spirit. But do I take pride that I could be, most often, an unwitting instrument? Sure, I’m very grateful for that.

What’s the best piece of advice you got when you took over in Chicago?

Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin had died and people were still mourning his death, which was certainly appropriate. I was very careful when I came not to look like a course correction. Everybody stayed in place. Gradually you learn who’s competent and who isn’t, who’s trustworthy and who isn’t … that’s the big question, especially in a very politicized situation. I didn’t get a lot of advice that would have helped me sort things out, the way I think [Archbishop Cupich] right now is very skillfully sorting things out. He’s asking very good questions. He’s got an analytical mind, and I’m amazed at the way he’s asking the right questions. Plus, he knows a lot of the people to question, so obviously he’s better prepared coming in than I was.

Looking back, what advice did I get? The truth is that you don’t get a lot of advice even if you ask for it. That’s always been my problem here. I’d say to people, ‘Tell me what I should know,’ but they weren’t too used to telling [the Archbishop] anything. You had to pull it out of people sometimes. They would give you advice in their own field, so the lawyers would tell you what you have to do there, the economists would tell you what you had to do in finance, and so on. But there wasn’t much broad advice in governing the Church.

As you look back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I wish I had asked more questions. I thought the answers would come without my necessarily pursuing them, and that was a mistake. I should have been more aggressive in asking questions, of everyone. Why are we doing this, why are we doing that?

The George legacy

Lots of people are trying to define your legacy. How would you frame it?

I’ve always said that the only thing I’d like people to remember about me is that he tried to be a good bishop. I think I have been a good bishop, in many ways, and I take some pride in at least having tried my best. That’s enough.

On the liturgical stuff, I knew it had to be done and that I was in a particularly key spot to see to that what’s most important in handing on the traditions of the Church, namely our way of prayer and our liturgy, was going to be more faithfully presented to the people. That meant a lot to me, because the worship of God is the most important thing we do.

In terms of changes in the [bishops’] conference, I was involved in the decision to move us towards a mission-driven group. To some extent, the conference before had been driven by the committees and their agenda. Now the bishops have taken possession of it because it’s our purposes [that run things]. We restructured [so that] the conference is our instrument, rather than as a separate entity out there sometimes in tension with the bishops themselves. That’s extraordinarily important, but there were so many others involved that I can’t take all the credit for it.

Your term as president of the bishops’ conference coincided with the first Obama term and the fight over the contraception mandates, and some observers have put you into the category of a ‘culture warrior.’ Why do you bristle at it?

I don’t see myself as a warrior. There were times when bishops went to war, but those times are in the past. What we have to do is to preach the truth, in season and out, and do it in such a way that it has a chance to be heard rather than beating people over the head with an idea, even if the idea is true. We’re supposed to preach the truth and I believe we have to do that.

If you lead people along, string then along, so they think that somehow you’re playing with the truth, you’ve betrayed your vocation. If speaking clearly means that you’ve got a weapon in your hand, that you’re at war, then I guess so, but I don’t see it that way at all. What I see is the bishops being actively involved in engaging the culture, but it’s not a war. It’s a question of transformation of conversion. We all have to change and the culture has to change, too; it always will. Does that mean you’re at war? No, it means you’re doing what a bishop is supposed to do and will always do.

From my perspective, I’ve seen myself for a long time as engaging culture. Engagement is not warfare. I know that’s less dramatic to say, and people like to have drama, but calling it ‘war’ deforms what I’m about. It really denigrates my motivation, and I resent that. I’m not trying to beat anybody up at all; I’m trying to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, which I have an obligation to do. Maybe there are times I could it more skillfully, or in a way that seems less abrasive. Of course, there are some people who think it’s abrasive as soon as you say, ‘I disagree with you.’ There’s not much I can do about that.

In some journalistic commentary, the transition from you to Cupich here in Chicago has been seen as a course correction.

I know that ….

Popularly, you’re seen as more conservative and he’s seen as more liberal. Is there anything wrong with seeing it that way?

First of all, I don’t know that it is a course correction. [Cupich] hasn’t put it that way. Of course there will be things that will be changed, and there should be. That’s the advantage of having a new archbishop. He’ll see it differently and he’ll bring a different tone. That will certainly happen, and it should. Is that a course correction? Unless there’s something fundamentally wrong with the course, no. When you talk about a course that has the Church engaged with the culture, that has the Church engaged with its own teaching and history, I’m not sure that has to be corrected. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

You see Cupich as in continuity with what you’ve tried to accomplish?

I hope so, because what I’ve been trying to accomplish is what every bishop has to accomplish. There will be differences, but that’s the advantage of a change. I don’t know whether I’ll think all those changes are good or not, but it’s not my responsibility.

You don’t feel like the appointment here is a repudiation of your legacy?

I didn’t feel that way until I read it somewhere! Some people have written that, but they should know better. I don’t know what game they’re playing.

First of all, they make me into something that isn’t true … for instance, as if I was never interested in social justice. I helped Mexican farm workers form a union in Yakima years ago. I’ve always been involved. I had the justice and peace portfolio for my congregation. I’ve been involved with refugees, I worked on immigration, I’ve been involved in housing for the poor because I recognized the connection between human dignity and decent housing. Look at Catholic Charities … it’s big here, and I have really pushed a lot of projects with the help of Father [Michael] Boland who is the very able director. To say that somehow I’m not interested in the poor, I resent that. I resent that deeply. The whole purpose of my congregation is to preach the Gospel to the poor.

If I can’t live like a poor man, as I did at one time, it’s because I’m talking to people who give money to help the poor. When I was first came [to Chicago], I was in the soup kitchens. No one noticed that. I couldn’t continue that and do all the other stuff I wanted to do. I took time every week to visit a poor family. Boland directed me, ‘go here and go there.’ I couldn’t keep that up either, and after less than a year I changed that schedule. I regret that sometimes, but you can only do so much, the day is as long as it is. I resent that deeply, to be told that somehow I wasn’t interested in the poor nor in matters of social justice.

You don’t see yourself as a ‘conservative’?

The liberal/conservative thing, I think, is destructive of the Church’s mission and her life. I’ve said that publicly a lot at times. You’re taking a definition that comes out of nowhere, as far as we’re concerned, it’s a modern distinction, and making it the judgment of the Church’s life. It’s because we’re lazy. You put a label on people, you put a label on something, and it saves you the trouble of thinking.

I find that we are not self-critical as a people of our own thinking. We’re critical of authority, because we’re trained to be that. That’s the liberal/conservative thing … conservatives give authority a pass, liberals don’t. But for both, everything has to do with authority. What’s that got to do with truth? For us, the category that matters is true/false. I just reject that whole liberal/conservative deformation of the character of our lives. If you’re limited to that, as the press has to be because it can’t talk about the faith in its own terms, then somehow or other you’ve betrayed your vocation as a bishop and a priest.

How would you apply that to your role on health care reform and the contraception mandates?

We were for that project when it was announced, because we’ve been arguing for universal health care in America since 1917 or something like that. It’s like universal food and clothing and all the rest, jobs. The problem was that we insisted that when the bills were brought forward, they should respect the exceptions for conscience, including institutional conscience, which had been part of federal legislation for decades, especially the Hyde Amendment. It wasn’t enough to say, as the president did, that we have the Hyde Amendment and therefore we can’t use federal money to fund abortion. This was a new funding source and it had to be passed again, if you’re going to make the Hyde Amendment operative.

We welcomed the goal but criticized the means, and in fact everything the bishops said then has come true. We said that the exchanges would be used as vehicles to get federal money into the direct funding of abortion, and they are used in that way. The federal government itself is saying that now. Go down the line … every criticism that we raised has turned out to be entirely true.

The fact is that they were trying to appease the insurance companies, which we know they had to do to get anything passed. What you get is the Rube Goldberg invention that is the Affordable Care Act. It’s legislation that has to be amended as you go along. It was an irresponsible act to vote for that piece of legislation. Legislators betrayed their own vocation, because they did not act for the common good. It was simply a political decision. It has some good qualities, and those I hope will remain, but it has so many flaws that at some point they’re going to have to rethink the whole thing. We don’t know who’s covered for what, so you have a whole new industry to help people figure out the maze the insurance companies have invented along with President Obama.

It’s not just a piece of bad legislation; it’s also morally flawed. It’s not our job to write good legislation, that’s a political responsibility, but it is our job to point out the legislation that’s morally flawed. All we wanted was the compromise that had already been struck with the Hyde Amendment. It was a compromise, but in Evangelium Vitae [a 1995 encyclical on human life] John Paul II said that as long as the compromise goes in the right direction, you can have flawed legislation. But this was going in the wrong direction. We said that, and I think what we said was entirely true.

One reason people may be tempted to see you as a culture warrior is your famous line from 2010 about expecting to die in bed, while your successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr. It came off as a fairly harsh view of where things stand. Once and for all, can you clarify what you meant?

First of all, I didn’t think there was any press there when I said it. I was talking to a couple of troubled priests who are worried about the secularization of our culture. I was telling them they should take the long view, step back, and renew their confidence in the providence of God. I was saying that even if the worst possible case scenario happens, we’ll be okay. It was a mental game in the Kantian sense … let’s imagine the worst thing that could happen. Instead of wringing your hands, let’s imagine the worst possible scenario and then figure out what our role might be. What’s never reported is the last bishop I mentioned, the fourth one, who will pick up the shards of a shattered culture as the Church has always done and become a former of culture. The Church forms culture.

This was not a straight-line prediction?

Of course it wasn’t. How could you predict something like that? Give me a break. You’d have to be an utter fool to say something like that as a statement about what’s going to happen next. How the heck would I know? I was just saying, ‘This is the worst possible scenario, Father, so we go through it and in the end God’s providence will prevail. You have to have trust in the mercy of God for his people, and life goes on.’ These priests were seriously troubled.

Was it also a wake-up call?

Not really. These priests were already woken up. I was trying to do the opposite, to soothe them. My point was that even if it’s worse than you think, how do we go on as priests and bishops?

The sex abuse scandals

A defining issue you’ve had to face are the Church’s sexual abuse scandals. Are you satisfied with where you’re leaving things?

Yes, I think we’ve got the instruments for protecting children by instituting zero tolerance. That was quite difficult, because there were a lot of very influential people in Rome who thought this was an American invention and that we were imposing it on the Church. When we found out that the essential norms had to be revised the first time, we were afraid to go back and ask them to approve our revisions because we though they would refuse the whole thing and it would be sent back to us null and void.

[Note: When the US bishops adopted their zero tolerance policy at a meeting in Dallas in June 2002, a new set of implementing norms was sent to Rome for approval. The Vatican refused to sign off, instead creating a mixed commission of Vatican officials and US bishops to make changes. The US side was led by George.]

This is an aspect of your legacy that people sometimes forget. It’s fair to say, isn’t it, that you played a key role in saving zero tolerance?

I think that’s true. I don’t like to say that as if I’m blowing my own horn, but it’s correct. I was the head of that commission, and I remember the arguments. It was three days of very careful arguing back and forth in Italian and English. To his credit, it was Bertone who, despite a number of other folks, at a certain moment said, ‘possiamo farlo.’ [Italian for “We can do it.”]

[Note: Then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s top deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He would later go on to become a cardinal and Secretary of State when Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.]

Bertone was acting on Ratzinger’s instructions, yes?

Yes, he was representing Cardinal Ratzinger in the discussions. Possiamo farlo … I’ll never forget that phrase. As soon as he said it, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, thank God!’

There’s still a perception that despite all the progress, something is still missing, and that’s holding bishops accountable. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has given an interview to ’60 Minutes” in which he comments on the case of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City, saying it’s “urgent” the Holy See do something. Do you agree?

Perhaps he knows more about it than I do. I imagine he does. The Holy See has done something in sending an apostolic visitor. What the conclusions should be I don’t know, because I don’t know the situation in Kansas City. You have to take a number of things into account. First of all, did he obey the civil law?

He was convicted of not doing that.

Correct. As a consequence of that, has he lost the moral authority a bishop needs to govern? That’s the question. You’re ordained to govern the Church, to represent Christ as the head of his body. If you can’t govern, fairly or unfairly, because people have lost confidence in your ability to govern, then obviously there has to be a change. I don’t know whether that’s true, because I’m not in Kansas City. But that’s the issue … is he able any longer to pastor his people? I imagine there’s a mixed response to that, and it’s a prudential judgment.

It’s another question whether there was deliberate negligence in not protecting children. It’s one thing to say looking back, had this been done then children would not have been abused. It’s another to say that somebody deliberately put children at risk. I don’t know Bishop Finn, who’s a priest of St. Louis, but I would be surprised. I doubt he’s some kind of moral monster who deliberately neglected to protect children.

Standing back from the Finn case, is it important in general that the Holy See make a statement about holding bishops accountable?

I think it’s important that there be a means to hold bishops accountable, a public means, and that people understand how it works. I think we’re going towards that with apostolic visitations and the publication, as they’re doing, of what they expect of bishops in this area. It’s very different from what they expected 20 years ago!

Bottom line: It’s not only important that bishops be held accountable, but that they be seen to be held accountable?

Yes, certainly. The people need to understand that. It has to be the Holy See, given the way it’s set up. We hold each other accountable informally. I know that in this province, every time the provincial bishops meet we go down the line … What have you done? What’s going on? That’s not legal, and everything has to be legal in this country in order to be real, but it’s still a form of accountability. It doesn’t make up for the past, but it does matter.

Pope Francis

Let’s talk about Pope Francis. Recently veteran Italian writer Sandro Magister said many American bishops seem “uncomfortable” with Francis, and hinted that the American bishops may have to become the defenders of tradition rather than the Vatican under this pope. What do you make of that?

I hope he’s wrong! It’s not because I don’t trust the American bishops, I do, but that’s a very broad statement about the pope and the Vatican.

Are you concerned that there’s a wholesale abandonment of tradition?

I don’t think there’s a wholesale abandonment of tradition. The pope has said he wants every question to be raised and it has been, so he’s gotten what he wants, and now he has to sort it out. He himself has said that the pope has the charism of unity, and he knows very well that it’s unity around Christ, not around him. Therefore, the tradition that unites us to Christ has to be the norm. How he interprets that, and how somebody else might interpret that, is where you get into conversations that shape a government.

I can see why some people might be anxious. If you don’t push it, he does seem to bring into question well-received doctrinal teaching. But when you look at it again, especially when you listen to his homilies in particular, you see that’s not it. Very often when he says those things, he’s putting it into a pastoral context of someone who’s caught in a kind of trap. Maybe the sympathy is expressed in a way that leaves people wondering if he still holds the doctrine. I have no reason to believe that he doesn’t.

Until the Synod of Bishops in October, most mainstream folks in what we might loosely call the ‘conservative’ camp seemed inclined to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. Afterwards that seems less the case, with some people now seeing the pope in a more critical light. Is that your sense as well?

I think that’s probably true. The question is raised, why doesn’t he himself clarify these things? Why is it necessary that apologists have to bear that burden of trying to put the best possible face on it? Does he not realize the consequences of some of his statements, or even some of his actions? Does he not realize the repercussions? Perhaps he doesn’t. I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise these doubts in people’s minds.

That’s one of the things I’d like to have the chance to ask him, if I ever get over there. Do you realize what has happened, just by that very phrase ‘Who am I to judge?’ How it’s been used and misused? It’s very misused, because he was talking about someone who has already asked for mercy and been given absolution whom he knows well. That’s entirely different than talking to somebody who demands acceptance rather than asking for forgiveness. It’s constantly misused.

It’s created expectations around him that he can’t possibly meet. That’s what worries me. At a certain moment, people who have painted him as a bit player in their scenarios about changes in the Church will discover that’s not who he is. He’s not going in that direction. Then he’ll perhaps get not only disillusionment, but opposition that could be harmful to the effectiveness of his magisterium.

Is there a role for American bishops to provide that feedback, to help him understand how these things are playing out?

I think there is a role for bishops to do it. I don’t think it would be good to do it as a national thing. We’re never a national Church, not in this country or anywhere else. It wouldn’t be good to say, ‘American bishops versus the Vatican.’ Individual bishops should take their responsibility and do what they have to do. If it’s something that affects us collectively, then perhaps we should talk collectively. But on something like this, namely the impressions left because of the unexplained statements of the pope, I don’t think a conference as whole should take it on itself to ‘correct’ the pope or to decide what they’re going to do about it. We can talk, and people do, and then decide individually whether we should find some means of getting to the pope.

I think a number of bishops have tried to do just that. Whether they’ve been successful, I don’t know, nor how he himself receives that news. That’s the great unknown, isn’t it? I’m told that sometimes when you went to Pope Benedict with news he didn’t like to hear, he didn’t always hear it very well.

There was the famous interview with Cardinal [Joachim] Meisner, who said that in 2009 he went to Benedict on behalf of a number of cardinals to suggest some personnel moves in the Vatican, and Benedict didn’t want to hear it.

Yes … Der mensch bleibt. [Note: A German phrase loosely meaning that an office doesn’t take away someone’s human personality.] I don’t know how this pope reacts to that. Before one would go and try to do that, it would be wise to talk to people very close to him who would have some sense of whether this would be helpful or harmful.

You don’t want to encourage any tendency to see the American bishops as a counterweight to the Vatican under Francis?

We have no mandate from Jesus to be a counterweight to the Holy See!

Right now your focus is on your health. If things turn around and you get some additional time, do you have a next act in mind?

I have a book coming out on the Catholic intellectual tradition, from Catholic University Press. … You know, there were a lot of big topics I was very interested in at one time or another. Some of them have to do with epistemology, because I’ve always been fascinated by what we can know and what we can’t know, and why we think we can. In theology, I’ve always been interested in eschatology.

It’s interesting to me that this pope talks about that novel, “Lord of the World.” That’s one thing I want to ask him. How do you put together what you’re doing with what you say is the hermeneutical interpretation of your ministry, which is this eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us? Do you believe that? I would love to ask the Holy Father. What does that mean? In a sense, maybe it explains why he seems to be in a hurry. Nobody seems interested in that but I find it fascinating, because I found the book fascinating.

[Note: Written by Robert Hugh Benson, a converted Catholic priest and son of a former Anglican Archbishop of Canter