Cardinal George passes on a rich legacy

The essence of the man was a humble, missionary spirit devoted to truth and the shared identity of humanity.

That’s about it, in a sentence. But volumes can be written about Francis Cardinal George and his life, leadership and legacy of steadfast devotion to God and the people of God, even those who oppose religion and the tenets of faith. No one was beyond reach, and he reached for everyone. By the time “the Lord took him home” last Friday, in the words of his successor, Cardinal George had left a huge impact on much of the world, beyond the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Popular evangelist Fr. Robert Barron called him ‘A Lion of the American Church‘, and then went on to explain how he engaged the universal Church and people across the globe.

As the vicar general of his order, he undertook travels to six continents, dozens of countries, visiting with thousands of OMI evangelist priests. I was continually amazed at his detailed knowledge of the politics, culture, and history of almost any country or region you could name. It was born of lots of direct experience.

This missionary consciousness is precisely what informed the intellectual and pastoral project that was closest to his heart, namely, the evangelization of the contemporary culture.

Internationally renowned Catholic scholar George Weigel paid tribute to ‘the man who reshaped U.S. Catholicism.’

In the first place, he refused to think of the Church as something that could be defined in terms of “liberal” or “conservative.” As he said at his first Chicago press conference in 1997, the Church is about true and false, not left and right.

Cardinal George never wavered – couldn’t waver – from that incisive vision of truth and falsehood, which was clear in every address he gave, every column he wrote, every letter to members of government he sent. His engagement of hot button issues was crystal clear and irrefutable, so politicians and activists tended to avoid confronting the truth statements by attacking the man and putting him into a box with labels, though neither fit.

Vatican watcher and correspondent John Allen encountered that in this conversation with Cardinal George.

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.”

His vocation as a priest was essential to his whole life, even as he became the preeminent American prelate, elector of popes, consultor to popes, head of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Last November, at the press conference introducing his successor to take over the Archdiocese of Chicago, allowing him to become the first Archbishop of Chicago to actually retire, reporters asked how he would spend his retirement. Battling cancer and its effects, he did note that his health would determine that to some extent, but allowed the opportunity, he wanted to read more, write more, continue to be present to attend all sorts of events, and hear confessions. At core, he was a priest who wanted to continue to hear confessions, to be close to the people.

So I have a confession to make. I have over-thought this. I’ve gone over so much material I have saved over the years written by and about him, and the many tributes written since his passing, and devoted radio show hours to his thought and teaching and witness for the past week, that in whatever time I could emerge from the work bunker I’m still in, I couldn’t assemble it into a personal account of the man I’ll forever be grateful to have known.

My family has not only known, but encountered and engaged in services, events and conversations with him since just about the time he arrived in Chicago, over 17 years ago. That grew into friendships, with me and my priest son especially, but he always asked about other family members. We had some very special, memorable, profound conversations. My son’s appreciation for Cardinal’s great philosophical mind led to great conversations between the two of them, which led to long conversations between my son and me about the philosophy of relationship and identity, the basic theme of Cardinal’s book The Difference God Makes. I’ve given talks on that book, it’s so fundamentally true. And challenging.

Like this snip about being ‘counter-cultural’, even though talking about faith in a secular culture that grows increasingly hostile to Christianity sure seems counter-cultural.

A faith that demands that culture change is sometimes called “countercultural.” The adjective is unfortunate if it leads believers to see themselves on one side and their culture on another. Our culture is as much in us as we are in it. Religious critics of a culture can imagine a bad system opposed by good people, but the distinction is too facile. If our social system and culture are, at least in part, evangelically deficient or even corrupt, so are we all. The evangelizer begins by taking responsibility for the culture to be evangelized.

This is another reminder, as was his whole public life, that Francis Cardinal George did not fit labels or boxes.

The above links to tributes and article on Cardinal George were written by friends, and ‘friends of the show’, somewhat regular guests on my program. Here’s another, by good friend Mary Hallan FioRito, his longtime executive assistant. She wrote it when he retired. It’s good to recall now.

Many have already offered comment on the Cardinal’s legacy: his brilliance as an intellectual and scholar (he holds two Ph.D.’s, one in American Philosophy from Tulane University and an S.T.D. in Ecclesiology from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome), a man of languages (he speaks five) and culture (his weekly columns in the Archdiocesan news media often tackled issues of the day) and a popular author (“The Difference God Makes” and “God in Action”), a sought-after lecturer and public speaker. He loves to engage in debate and discussion, and his Q & A sessions on college campuses always received rave reviews from students, even when they disagreed with him.

I never understood how anyone intellectually honest could refute his arguments. But as well know as he is and was for his intellect and clarity, relatively few knew how humble he was, and devoted, and deeply committed to serving human dignity and the common good.

Over the years, he attended countless wakes and presided at hundreds of funerals, comforting those who were grieving. Speaking on behalf of those who had no voice in the public square, he prayed in front of both an abortion clinic and in front of a government deportation center. As the member of a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he had traveled to many of the places where the poorest of the poor call home…

And in the past 17 ½ years, the Cardinal has truly shown himself a neighbor, offering help in times of need, advice when asked, a friendly smile when greeting you, an encouraging word if you appeared down. At his final Mass at Holy Name Cathedral last (November), Francis our Archbishop, our pastor, and yes, our neighbor, remarked that many have asked him what his legacy here would be. He noted in his homily that God has given us, the people of the Archdiocese, to him as a gift and he in turn has tried – like the good and faithful servants in last Sunday’s Gospel – to use those gifts wisely, to teach us, to help us to be holier, more generous, and more responsive to the Lord’s call in each of our lives. “YOU are my legacy,” he concluded.

May each of us live up to it. Thank you, Cardinal George, good and faithful servant.

‘God In Action’

That’s the title of a new book out by Francis Cardinal George. It’s also a recurring theme turning up in news and human interest stories, whether overtly or not…

Here are just a few, which happened in short order.

Listening to a BBC World Service interview on satellite radio in my car, I’m following the plight of European farmers at this time of intense drought. Their personal accounts are both serious and moving, and one French farmer revealed the depth of despair over their dwindling options by saying he had even thought of ‘the final option’, of ending his life to end his dire plight. But, he quickly added, one shouldn’t think that way, so he was still hanging on.

I thought of things I’d read recently or people I’ve interviewed, speaking of the vacuum left in a life that has no recourse to God…

Soon I turned the dial to look for any other news channel with an interesting dialogue, and hit upon one about a Christian Hollywood producer whose strong faith and personal appeal catapulted him in the filmmaking business. DeVon Franklin was saying that he prayed to hear God’s will in his life, and he was sure that ‘whatever I’m doing, that is the Big Thing I’m meant to do.’ He left listeners, especially young people he said, with the message ‘Don’t look at faith or church as an obstacle to your dreams because it’s not.’ Faith is what keeps you strong and keeps you going when you don’t feel strong and helps you find your way.

So within that hour, I wound up opening Cardinal George’s book to at least begin reading, and what he says in the Introduction alone is compelling, and timely.

God’s activity has faded from popular consciousness in societies organized publicly as if God did not exist…God, even in some theological reflection, becomes a force or an inspiration in the deep background of life rather than an agent who shapes human affairs.

How true.

What God is prevented from doing in this philosophic scenario is truly acting, for action by God would interfere with human freedom. Individuals can freely choose to relate to God in a personal way, but such “religion” is private and can have no normative value for another or for public life. It is a matter of our choice, not God’s, how wemight rlate to a hypothetical “Supreme Being.” Eventually, since nature does not disclose who God is in himself, he becomes an unnecessary factor in public intellectual life, and the result is practical atheism; we live together as if God did not exist.

Understanding the problem is the beginning of finding the solution.

Build a culture of life. Be a martyr if necessary.

“If we’re uncomfortable being Christians in a public debate, then we’ve already lost the war.”

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said that recently, speaking to a gathering in Fargo, North Dakota.

The aim of the pro-life movement, the archbishop stressed, is nothing less than ending abortion.  “If we really believe that abortion is an intimate act of violence, then we can’t aim at anything less than ending abortion.  It doesn’t matter that some abortions have always occurred, or that some abortions will always occur.  If we really believe that abortion kills a developing, unborn human life, then we can never be satisfied with mere ‘reductions’ in the body count.”

In order to succeed in the goal, pro-lifers must be willing to become martyrs, he said.  “In the America of our lifetimes, we may never be asked to shed our blood in witnessing for our faith. But we do see character assassinations, mud-slinging and lies used against good people every day in the public media. And we should be ready to pay the same price.  Nothing, not even our good name, should stop us from doing what we know to be right,” emphasized Chaput.

And don’t worry about how much money the pro-life movement doesn’t have, he said. Use whatever you’ve got to renew the culture.

“Culture is everything. Culture is our ‘human ecology.’ Getting political influence has obvious and important short-term value.  But it’s not what pro-lifers are finally about.”…

“Your character, your faith and your dedication to the sanctity of the human person matter. Your commitment to human life matters eternally.”

He assembled a list of “do’s and don’ts”, and delivered it with strong encouragement to get out there and stay busy.

It reminds me of a remark Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George made to pro-life citizens about this very thing, and he urged them to encourage members of elected government. “Pray for them, and tell them you’ve got their back.” Struck me as a good reminder for people on the frontlines of a very big battle.

Illinois lame duckers

They’re trying to get out of town or at least the General Assembly by Thursday, so state reps returned to the floor Wednesday night to race through remaining business. One of those bills was the controversial civil unions legislation. Apparently, all the fervor expressed in an outpouring of citizen appeals to legislators didn’t match the force exerted by party heavyweights on those legislators once it came time to vote.

Some lobbyists working the halls in Springfield through the final hours and minutes before the session reconvened were already seeing this as a done deal, reporting  that party leaders were ramping up the pressure to vote ‘yes.’ They were right. Within minutes after it passed, HuffPo touted this victory for backers of the bill with an interesting name:

SB1716, the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act,” was co-sponsored by openly gay Rep. Greg Harris, who worked tirelessly on the legislation.

“We have a chance today to make Illinois a more fair state, a more just state, and a state which treats all of its citizens equally under the law,” Harris said on the House floor. “We have a chance here, as leaders have had in previous generations, to correct injustice and to move us down the path toward liberty.”

And that’s how it has been posed, as an issue of injustice and denial of liberty.

Civil unions would provide legal recognition of gay couples and give them some of the same benefits automatically available to married couples, including the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital, disposition of a deceased loved one’s remains and the right to make decisions about a loved one’s medical care.

But Cardinal Francis George parsed and clarified the issues of rights involved in a recent letter to the Illinois General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1716 seeks to afford all the “legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits” of marriage to individuals in a civil union. There are literally hundreds of references to married “spouses” throughout Illinois’ law to which parties to a civil union will now be included. These references are not limited to hospital visitation rights (which are already afforded same sex couples via Presidential Executive Order) or property rights (which can be provided for through legal arrangements). They include benefits from the state Pension Code, the legal guardianship of children and other provisions that govern married life in Illinois.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Accordingly, we stand ready to work with the legislature and other agencies of state government to prevent unjust discrimination and to provide benefits to people judged by the civic authority as deserving – as long as such provision does not include the attempted redefinition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman for the sake of family.

Cardinal George pointed to “an inherent conflict between this legislation and religious liberty,” and named a few key concerns. The Catholic Conference of Illinois did the same, earlier (click on talking points).

While the bill states that nothing in the Act should interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body, such language may offer little protection in the context of litigation that religious institutions could face under the bill if adopted.  Among the questions that could emerge include:

-Will Catholic Charities be required to place foster children or adoptive children with couples in same sex marriages / civil unions?
-Will faith-based institutions, such as schools, be compelled to hire a partner in a same sex marriage / civil union even if it interferes with a core aspect of the institution’s ministry?
-Will faith-based institutions be compelled to pay for benefits for same sex couples even if this conflicts with core tenets of the beliefs of that institution?
-Applications for permits and licenses with various levels of government require compliance with all laws.  How will those applications be affected if the state recognizes same sex marriages / civil unions while the applicants that are faith-based institutions do not?

Which gets back to the interesting name of the bill. HuffPo reports:

The Illinois Religious Freedom and Civil Union Act will also protect the rights of religious institutions to define marriage as they choose, and will be available to any couple, same-sex or opposite-sex, in a committed relationship who are: 18 years of age or older, not in an existing marriage or civil union, and are not related. It would take effect July 2011.

It doesn’t explain how the second point flows seamlessly from the first, or how the two can co-exist with equal protection under law. But surely, the Huffington Post will be on that, soon.

Dear Illinois legislators

You’ve got mail.

And probably a lot of phone calls in recent times. From some concerned citizens of the state and through them, a message from Cardinal Francis George. No doubt you’ll see it, but for the sake of citizens who elected you and hear nothing about this, or hear confusing claims and counter-arguments and don’t know what to make of it all….Here is the letter in full:

The Catholic Conference of Illinois (CCI), on behalf of Cardinal Francis George, OMI, and all the Bishops of Illinois, call upon the Illinois General Assembly to reject Senate Bill 1716, the civil union legislation.

“Everyone has a right to marry, but no one has the right to change the nature of marriage. Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a legislature decides to do; however, the public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by passage of a bill that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the core of marriage,” said Cardinal George. “Moreover, the impact of this legislation on the Church’s social service ministries remains an important and thus far unanswered concern. This important legislation is being put before a lame-duck General Assembly and more should be done to engage the people in public debate.”

Marriage was not invented by either the state or the Church, and neither can change its nature. However, laws structure society, and they influence patterns of behavior and thought. In our country, as in most others, marriage is granted unique protections and benefits under the law because marriage is the foundation of family and society. The proposed legislation would further weaken an already fragile institution.

There is an inherent conflict between this legislation and religious liberty. Language in the bill offers little protection in the context of litigation that religious institutions and individuals will face if this bill is adopted. With no explicit protections for religious liberties, it will not take long before the General Assembly or the courts:

-Mandate that faith-based institutions providing adoption or foster care services be required to place adoptive or foster children with couples who have entered into a same-sex civil union.

-Require that Catholic parishes or Catholic agencies providing social services (including retreats, religious camps, homeless shelters, senior care centers and community centers) be compelled to provide these services to individuals who are in a same-sex civil union.

-Refuse to protect small employers who do not wish to extend family benefits to employees in a same sex civil union.

The enactment of marriage-like benefits in civil union legislation will intensify the legal attack on marriage. It will not appease those who wish to redefine the institution of marriage. We need only look to California, Connecticut and other states where nearly identical legislation was passed. In every state where citizens have had the right to vote on marriage, they consistently express their support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

In all 31 out of 31 times it was put to the citizens in a vote.

Senate Bill 1716 seeks to afford all the “legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits” of marriage to individuals in a civil union. There are literally hundreds of references to married “spouses” throughout Illinois’ law to which parties to a civil union will now be included. These references are not limited to hospital visitation rights (which are already afforded same sex couples via Presidential Executive Order) or property rights (which can be provided for through legal arrangements). They include benefits from the state Pension Code, the legal guardianship of children and other provisions that govern married life in Illinois.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Accordingly, we stand ready to work with the legislature and other agencies of state government to prevent unjust discrimination and to provide benefits to people judged by the civic authority as deserving – as long as such provision does not include the attempted redefinition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman for the sake of family.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.

Social justice with love

There’s been plenty of controversy around the issue of ‘social justice’ in political news lately, which is only catching up with the longstanding controversy surrounding it in the Church world. I’ve written and spoken many times about the false dichotomy between the ‘peace and social justice crowd’ and the ‘pro-life crowd’ in the Church, as if there’s an either/or distinction instead of both/and.

Cardinal Francis George seems to be in the thick of it with controversies as one of the (if not ‘the’) pre-eminent American prelates. He’s president of the US bishops conference, a job laden with responsibilities like engaging politicians and presidents over social policies and their adherence to the moral law on which this country was founded, the one that recognizes the sanctity and dignity of all human life as the foundation for all other rights. He’s the Archbishop of Chicago and has taken heat from all sides at different times for a decision (or lack of one) groups of Catholics and even the press have criticized. Sometimes those controversies involved Rev. Michael Pfleger, and that was the case again this week, when the Cardinal honored him at a peace and social justice award ceremony.

The next day Cardinal Francis George’s address was posted on the Archdiocese of Chicago’s website. Here is Cardinal George’s reflection delivered at the’ Dr. King Prayer Service and Racial Justice Awards.’

“For it was by hope that we were saved; but if we see what we hope for, then it is not really hope.  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

How can we see something not yet here?  We must look with eyes filled with love.  “Because we know that in all things, God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

If we look with eyes filled with God’s love, then we see all those whom he loves, for God’s love is universal.  Those who give themselves to working for racial justice in the Church and the world dedicate themselves to seeing that the reach of God’s love is reflected in the way we treat each other across racial and cultural divides.  The temptation can be to work for justice apart from love, but then justice becomes itself a formula for oppression.  Justice without love is destructive, as Marxist societies, founded on equality and social justice alone, teach the world.

The awardees this evening are here because they love beyond racial and cultural divides.  This is true for all—for Bishop Perry, Michael Rabbitt, Elena Segura, Sr. Kathleen Tait, Phyllis Winter—and also for Fr. Michael Pfleger.  If the list did not include Fr. Pfleger, I would hazard to guess that the media interest tonight would be much reduced.  Fr. Pfleger has been a controversialist; and controversy is easier to report on than is love.  Fr. Plfeger has spoken in anger, sometimes unjustly or uncharitably; and anger is easier to capture on the camera than is love.  But Fr. Pfleger is a Catholic priest and a pastor, and in that capacity, like all good priests and pastors, he acts out of love.  Ask his people.  Ask the sick he has visited and the dying he has attended.  Ask the troubled he has consoled.  Ask the young people he has counseled and the school children he has supported.

As part of his ministry for racial justice, Fr. Pfleger has addressed killing, for killing is not an act of love.  We are surrounded by killing on the streets and in the schools, by violence in homes and by abortion that kills a child in its mother’s womb.  The killing of the unborn is obviously a racial justice issue when disproportionately those killed before birth come from families of racial minorities.  Abortion kills.  It kills an unborn child, and it often kills a mother’s spirit.  It kills a society that embraces it as a personal right.  Abortion kills social and racial justice.

Because they love God and all God’s people, those honored tonight are signs of hope for all of us.  I congratulate them and thank them.

For some reason, one of my favorite quotes of Dr. Martin Luther King’s just came to mind. “The end of life is not to achieve pleasure or avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”

Bishops: Fix the bill

Well-intended and necessary as health care reform is, just expanding government programs to make more Americans insured to access a government controlled industry is not enough to affirm human dignity and serve the common good. At least not as mandated in the newly passed legislation, say the U.S. bishops.

Cardinal Francis George looked at it carefully, along with thorough analyses, and issued this statement.

Christian discipleship means, “working to ensure that all people have access to what makes them fully human and fosters their human dignity”… We are bishops, and therefore pastors and teachers. In that role, we applaud the effort to expand health care to all.

Nevertheless, for whatever good this law achieves or intends, we as Catholic bishops have opposed its passage because there is compelling evidence that it would expand the role of the federal government in funding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion. The statute appropriates billions of dollars in new funding without explicitly prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion, and it provides federal subsidies for health plans covering elective abortions. Its failure to preserve the legal status quo that has regulated the government’s relation to abortion, as did the original bill adopted by the House of Representatives last November, could undermine what has been the law of our land for decades and threatens the consensus of the majority of Americans: that federal funds not be used for abortions or plans that cover abortions. Stranger still, the statute forces all those who choose federally subsidized plans that cover abortion to pay for other peoples’ abortions with their own funds. If this new law is intended to prevent people from being complicit in the abortions of others, it is at war with itself.

This is where George the philosopher applies his reasoning skills clearly.

We share fully the admirable intention of President Obama expressed in his pending Executive Order, where he states, “it is necessary to establish an adequate enforcement mechanism to ensure that Federal funds are not used for abortion services.” However, the fact that an Executive Order is necessary to clarify the legislation points to deficiencies in the statute itself. We do not understand how an Executive Order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions.

The statute is also profoundly flawed because it has failed to include necessary language to provide essential conscience protections (both within and beyond the abortion context).

Now note this part, and the bishops’ veiled reference to the ‘polish and shine’ put on the face of the bill to get it passed.

We share fully the admirable intention of President Obama expressed in his pending Executive Order, where he states, “it is necessary to establish an adequate enforcement mechanism to ensure that Federal funds are not used for abortion services.” However, the fact that an Executive Order is necessary to clarify the legislation points to deficiencies in the statute itself. [emphasis added] We do not understand how an Executive Order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions.

The statute is also profoundly flawed because it has failed to include necessary language to provide essential conscience protections (both within and beyond the abortion context).

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, actively engaged in public debate on social policy, calls this “a bad bill.” And he counts the ways;

First, the bill passed by the House on March 21 is a failure of decent lawmaking.  It has not been “fixed.”  It remains unethical and defective on all of the issues pressed by the U.S. bishops and prolife groups for the past seven months.

Second, the Executive Order promised by the White House to ban the use of federal funds for abortion does not solve the many problems with the bill, which is why the bishops did not — and still do not – see it as a real solution. Executive Orders can be rescinded or reinterpreted at any time.  Some current congressional leaders have already shown a pattern of evasion, ill will and obstinacy on the moral issues involved in this legislation, and the track record of the White House in keeping its promises regarding abortion-related issues does not inspire confidence. [emphasis added]

Third, the combination of pressure and disinformation used to break the prolife witness on this bill among Democratic members of Congress – despite the strong resistance to this legislation that continues among American voters – should put an end to any talk by Washington leaders about serving the common good or seeking common ground.  Words need actions to give them flesh.  At many points over the past seven months, congressional leaders could have resolved the serious moral issues inherent in this legislation.  They did not.  No shower of reassuring words now can wash away that fact.

Fourth, self-described “Catholic” groups have done a serious disservice to justice, to the Church, and to the ethical needs of the American people by undercutting the leadership and witness of their own bishops.

Now that one deserves its own treatment. Thoughts on that later…