During an era under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when Catholicism was trying to swim against an increasingly secular tide in the Western world, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was the American prelate trusted by those two popes, almost above all others, to spearhead that project in the United States.

George, who stepped down in November 2014, died at 10:45 a.m. Friday at his residence in Chicago of a cancer that originated in his bladder but spread to other parts of his body, rendering treatment ineffective. He was 78.

He had been on home care since April 3 after being hospitalized for hydration and pain management issues, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Statement by Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich
Tributes to Cardinal George
Special Archdiocese of Chicago webpage

Widely acknowledged as the most intellectually gifted senior US prelate of his generation, George was once dubbed the “American Ratzinger.”

Like German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, George’s clear and strongly stated positions on issues such as abortion, contraception, and the Catholic liturgy could be either celebrated or reviled — and he drew both reactions, repeatedly — but they could never be ignored.

George’s abiding passion was the relationship between faith and culture, and especially the urgency of a “New Evangelization,” meaning a new missionary zeal in Catholicism.

After his appointment as archbishop of Chicago in 1997, and especially during his three-year term as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010, George was the Vatican’s go-to figure in the United States and one of just a handful of American prelates whose reputation and influence reached around the Catholic world.

Among other aspects of his résumé, George will be remembered as the architect of the US bishops’ battles with the Obama administration over contraception and health care reform, and the leader who made religious freedom a signature concern for the bishops.

His legacy also will be tied to the child sexual abuse scandals in the American Church, both his championing of a “zero tolerance” policy and allegations that he failed to apply that policy himself in a high-profile Chicago case.

A rapid rise

Francis George was born in Chicago in 1937 and attended parochial school on the city’s Northwest Side. At age 13, he came down with polio, which left him with a limp and constant pain in his legs that would never go away.

Because of the ailment, he was rejected as a seminarian by the Archdiocese of Chicago and instead joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious order founded in France in the early 19th century. He studied theology in Ottawa and Washington, DC, and earned a doctorate in philosophy from Tulane University.

In the 1970s and 1980s, George held a series of leadership positions in his order, culminating in a 12-year run in Rome as the vicar general — the No. 2 official worldwide.

In that role, George came to know the inner workings of the Vatican and also developed a wide network of contacts in the global Church, both of which would serve him well in later assignments.

One of those friendships early in his career was with Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, a friendship forged at a time before Law would be swept up in the Church’s sexual abuse scandals, when he was still at the height of his power and influence.

Many observers believe Law’s sponsorship explains how George was named bishop of Yakima, Washington, in 1990 at the young age of 53, shortly after his return to the United States when he was not yet well known on the American stage.

George would remain in Yakima for five and a half years, becoming involved on the national level as chair of a committee for bishops and scholars, and on the global level as a delegate to a 1994 Synod of Bishops in the Vatican on consecrated life.

George also was active in social justice issues, among other things helping Mexican farm workers organize a union in Yakima. He would later point to that aspect of his record, along with efforts on behalf of migrants, refugees, and the working poor, to rebut charges that he was indifferent to the Church’s social justice tradition.

In April 1996, George was appointed archbishop of Portland, Oregon. Although he wouldn’t hold the post long, he flashed an early signal of his resolve on Catholic identity by strenuously objecting to the tape recording of an inmate’s sacramental confession in a local jail.

A federal court later ruled the recording was unconstitutional.

In a sign of just how much George’s star was on the rise, he was named the eighth archbishop of Chicago on April 7, 1997, after serving in Portland for just one year.

George was fated to follow Chicago’s beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose leadership on social issues such as economic justice and anti-nuclear advocacy made him popular both at the Catholic grassroots and in the media, and whose candor about his spiritual preparation for death significantly increased his moral standing.

Bernardin had come into office in 1982 describing himself to Chicagoans as “Joseph, your brother.” In a sign that George wouldn’t be quite the same heart-on-his-sleeve personality, he introduced himself in 1997 as “Francis, your neighbor.”

A lead actor in every drama

What George may have lacked in terms of a popular touch, he more than compensated for in brainpower. During the 1990s and 2000s, it was impossible to name a drama in American Catholic life in which George wasn’t a lead actor, often providing the intellectual basis for instincts other bishops might feel, but be unable to articulate.

He was a force in what were known as the “liturgy wars” in the 1990s, an effort to steer Catholic worship in a more traditional, reverent, and sober direction that was celebrated by many conservatives, but seen by liberals as a rollback of the reforming vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

George was a member of a special Vatican commission called “Vox Clara” that oversaw a new English translation of the Mass, featuring changes such as having the congregation respond “And with your Spirit” rather than “And also with you” when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.”

While seen as a cultural conservative, George took a moderate position throughout the 2000s on the vexed issue of whether Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights ought to be denied Communion.

In 2004, he said there’s a difference between moral teaching and political strategies, a comment that many American bishops cited at the time to defend staying out of the controversy.

When the sexual abuse scandals blew up in the US Church starting in 2002, George played a central role in framing the American response.

At a high-profile gathering of the US bishops in Dallas in 2002, George supported a “zero tolerance” policy, meaning that a priest would be removed from ministry for life following one credible accusation of abuse of a minor.

Because that policy implied a change to Church law, it had to be sent to Rome for approval. The initial response was negative, so George was tapped to lead an American delegation to meetings with Vatican officials to work out a compromise. Other American prelates looked to George for leadership because of his deep Rome experience and command of Italian.

In the end, the Vatican signed off on the policy for an experimental period, and under Benedict XVI, it became permanent.

George acknowledged in a November 2014 interview with Crux that in effect, he was the one who saved the zero tolerance policy.

“I don’t like to say that as if I’m blowing my own horn, but it’s correct,” he said.

George would later come under criticism for allegedly failing to follow the zero tolerance standard in the case of a former priest named Daniel McCormack, who was arrested on multiple accounts of abuse in 2006.

According to reports, George knew about the rumors in 2005, but did not remove McCormack from ministry.

George would later visit McCormack’s parish to apologize, but also insisted that what he had at the time was a notice from the police that they were questioning McCormack, not an actual allegation, and canonical procedures didn’t allow him to remove the cleric on that basis alone.

In Chicago, George emerged as a leader in interfaith relations, building especially close ties to the city’s Jewish community. He played a similar role internationally, in part because when he became a cardinal in 1998, he was assigned Rome’s Church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola, which is entrusted to the Community of Sant’Egidio and used by the group as a platform for ecumenical and inter-religious outreach. (Cardinals are assigned “titular” churches in Rome and environs, with which they maintain a loose patronal relationship.)

George authored two books as a cardinal, “The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture” in 2009 and “God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World” in 2011. He also wrote a regular column for the archdiocesan newspaper in Chicago, the Catholic New World.

George and Obama

Perhaps the highest-profile moment in George’s career on the national stage began in 2007 when he was elected to lead the US bishops’ conference. It was something of a surprise, since in the past, the informal practice within the conference was not to elect cardinals as officers on the grounds they already had enough influence.

The outcome was read as a sign of the respect George enjoyed among his brother bishops, and also gratitude for the role he had played in representing them over the years in Rome.

As it happened, his term overlapped with the rise of another Chicagoan to high office — US President Barack Obama, who was elected to his first term in 2008.

Obama began gearing up to deliver on a campaign promise of health care reform almost immediately, and at first, George and the US bishops were supportive.

The bishops had been on record supporting universal access to health care since 1917, and were credited by American historians with helping to lay the foundation for an expanded social safety net launched under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal.

As it became clear, however, that Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would cover contraception, including some drugs the US bishops regard as abortion-inducing, George led the bishops into increasingly vocal opposition.

He framed the issue as one of religious freedom, insisting that faith-based groups should not be compelled to offer or pay for procedures that violate their religious beliefs.

Although the bishops’ stance has been criticized in some quarters for fueling America’s culture wars, George insisted in November 2014 that their concerns during his tenure as president have been vindicated.

“Everything the bishops said then has come true,” he claimed. “We said that the exchanges would be used as vehicles to get federal money into the direct funding of abortion, and they are. Go down the line … every criticism that we raised has turned out to be entirely true.”

“Legislators betrayed their own vocation, because they did not act for the common good,” George said.

As the battles over the contraception mandates wore on, some observers perceived that George became steadily more pessimistic about the broader drift of American society, almost seeming to prophesy a Church of the catacombs in the not-too-distant future — that is, one driven underground by increasing secularism.

That perception was set in cement in 2010, when during a talk to a group of priests that George believed was private, he took a question about the impact of mounting secularization.

Part of his response was captured on a smartphone and quickly went viral: “I expect to die in bed,” George said, “my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

George would point out that the more upbeat conclusion of his response was omitted in most reports. After referring to the martyred bishop, he had immediately added: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

He insisted his answer was intended as a consolation to some deeply worried priests, not a straight-line prediction of the future.

“You’d have to be an utter fool to say something like that as a statement about what’s going to happen next,” he said. “How the heck would I know?”

George also said that he never saw himself as a cultural warrior, pointing to, among other things, his defense of immigrant rights and his frequent insistence that “no Catholic can view the operation of our economy uncritically.”

Fundamentally, George saw himself as a friend of the culture rather than its enemy.

“I’ve seen myself for a long time as engaging culture,” he said. “Engagement is not warfare. 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.”

George’s legacy

When the more center-left Archbishop Blase Cupich was appointed to succeed George in September 2014, many commentators took it as a course correction under Pope Francis, to some extent reflecting a desire to reposition the Church in the political center.

While rejecting that interpretation, George acknowledged there were some aspects of Francis’ emerging direction that left him puzzled.

For instance, George said he’d like to ask Francis if he fully grasped that in some quarters, he’d created the impression that Catholic doctrine is up for grabs. He specifically cited the pontiff’s famous line about gays, “Who am I to judge?”

That soundbite, 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.”

Yet George insisted that his outlook was not shaped by the politics of left v. right.

“The liberal/conservative thing is destructive of the Church’s mission and her life,” he said in his November 2014 conversation with Crux, the last extended interview he gave before his death.

“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.”

“For us,” he said, “the category that matters is true/false.”

Like the two popes for whom he was a confidante and American interpreter, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, George will be remembered for an unflinching defense of truths he saw as rooted in Catholic teaching and tradition, which he felt needed to be heard by a culture increasingly inclined to spiritual deafness.

His views were not always shared by others, even at times disputed by members of his own flock, but few would question the cogency and resolve with which Cardinal Francis George expressed them.