Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cardinal George Has A Dream We All Become "Simply Catholic"

Cardinal George dreams of less contentious days when American Catholics will once again be simply Catholic.

The following is an excerpt from a much longer interview John Allen conducted with Cardinal George. In it Cardinal George speaks to the philosophical (political) divisions with in the Church.
This part deals with Cardinal George's notions of liberals, conservatives, and their attitudes and perspectives towards Church governance and some of the solutions as he sees them.

You wade back into a debate you set off in 1998, when you defined liberal Catholicism as an “exhausted project.” Among other things, you write that while liberals and conservatives often see themselves as opposites, both share an implied ecclesiology that comes from St. Robert Bellarmine, defining the church as a visible society. Can you explain that?

For both of them, bishops take on an importance that’s disproportionate. Liberals and conservatives both define themselves vis-à-vis authority.
Broadly speaking, liberals want you to have less of it, and conservatives want you to use it more.
Liberals are critical of [authority], although they’ll use it when they’re in power. Conservatives would tend to be less critical, but equally dependent upon it.

Consequently, when you get into the church, you get the conservatives unhappy because bishops aren’t using power the way they’re supposed to, the way they want them to. You get liberals who are unhappy because [the bishops] have any power at all. Both of them are defining themselves vis-à-vis the bishops rather than vis-à-vis Christ, who uses the bishops to govern the church. It’s not a Christ-centered church, as it’s supposed to be, it’s a bishop-centered church. (How else is the defining going to happen when all governance resides in a set apart clerical class who control access to sacrament and ceremony? It stopped being a Christ centered church 1700 years ago.)

Do the bishops bear part of the responsibility for that?

Sure, yes! That’s what we’re trying to work through now in the conference, I think. What is the bishop’s role, particularly in governance? Of course, to some extent the bishops are central to Catholic communion, in the sense that Ignatius of Antioch says – that nothing is done apart from the bishop. But, they don’t control the whole thing. They don’t in the Code of Canon Law, they don’t in Ignatius of Antioch.
How can [the bishops] be related without controlling everything? This is what Americans don’t see, that you can be related even if you don’t control. Liberals say you have to be independent, because to be related is to be controlled. Conservatives say that because you are related, you must be in control, and if you’re not in control there’s something wrong. No, it’s a relationship, and not every relationship is a controlling one. The relationship is a real one, and there are different ways of influencing it without controlling it.
(This is a good sound bite, but pretty simplistic in that it is totally based in notions of control. Real relationships are based in respect, honor, and love. Where's the love?)

Is there an example of what a relational model of leadership would look like?

It shifts as you go through different eras. Bishops take on the aura of leadership that is proper to the societies of their time. As the Roman empire was collapsing, they stepped into the role of diocesan leaders, since the empire was organized into dioceses. They later stepped into the feudal lords’ roles, since those were the roles that were visible at that point in time. They stepped into business roles when business leaders became the paradigm for leaders in civil society. We take on the trappings of the era. Paul VI trimmed away a lot of those trappings to bring bishops back to their role as successors of the apostles, and he did it in a very visible way, changing the insignia and all the rest. The church periodically has done that. It takes a while for bishops sometime to rethink their role. (Whatever happened to the leadership model presented by Christ? Is that model somehow out of date?)
You asked if bishops are responsible for the kind of disdain, or contempt, in which bishops are sometimes held by both left and right, for different reasons. The Second Vatican Council said we have to present the church to the world, and the truth of the gospel, and it said that you don’t have to worry about people who don’t believe. [The idea was that] this is so beautiful that they will come along and accept it, but that’s not true. You have people who weren’t catechized – not because they weren’t told the truth, but because they weren’t told ‘this is not the truth, and here’s why.’ That’s why I write about putting apologetics back into catechesis.

The bishops did that same thing for a while. They explained the documents of the council, they talked about the beautiful vision of a united world coming out of the council. They didn’t pay attention to the fact that a lot of people, in order to understand, have to know not only the truth, but they have to know what’s false. Now, the catechetical problem has been attended to, at least in theory, at our level … whether or not it’s the same at the level of teaching, I don’t know.

There’s something comparable that’s happened on the governmental level. The council was the time for mercy, not justice, the time for persuasion and not coercion. When they redid the Code of Canon Law, it was assumed that if you just show the good, it will be so beautiful that everybody will follow. They didn’t worry very much about what happens with people who don’t, who are still caught in original sin. You not only have to say ‘this is good,’ you also have to say, ‘this is bad, and if you do it here are the consequences.’ Well, the consequences are minimal in the new Code. That’s why it’s a difficult document to use to govern, which became clear in the sex abuse crisis. We had to change the Code. Now they’re looking at that, looking precisely at the penal sections of the Code, to see if they’re adequate instruments of government. We have to do the same thing: We have to say that here’s the good and here’s the bad, and Catholics don’t do the bad. When they do, of course, they’re forgiven, but nonetheless they’re told it’s bad. (I think the Cardinal might be mixing up the notions of adult governance with parental punishment.)


The entire interview is well worth reading as there is a great deal in it. I chose to focus on this particular set of questions because they serve as the lead in to Cardinal George's notions that what American Catholicism needs is for the laity to just be 'simply Catholic'. In my mind I saw this as something along the lines of the old 'pray, pay, and obey.' He has fond and wistful memories of the Catholic church in Chicago before Vatican II when that pretty much described the average 'simple' Catholic. Apparently a truly simple Catholic doesn't question the bishop from either the progressive or conservative point of view and that's exactly how the bishops got away with hiding sexual abusers for decades. The simple faithful didn't question.

I hate to tell Cardinal George this, but the simple faithful are not going back to those good old days. I think he knows this because he actually finds the attitude he is promoting embodied in the Community of St. Egidio and the early origins of the Catholic Worker movement. These groups have a serious social justice motivation coupled with a strong streak of personal piety. Governance issues in the Church are only issues when bishops interfere with their stated missions. Both are essentially self supporting communities or receive funding for their specific missions from NGO's and government agencies. They don't interfere much with bishops and the curia and better yet, they don't cost bishops any money and best of all they don't question clericalism.

This to me is the under lying point Cardinal George was really making in this interview.
Simply being Catholic means not questioning clericalism, or it's prerogatives with in the Church. It doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum the criticism comes from, real Catholics don't critique the leadership and prerogatives of the ordained clergy. Dream on Cardinal George.


  1. Cardinal George is dreaming, Colleen, that Dorothy will not see what is behind the curtain. A bit late for that. Long live Dorothy!

  2. I've heard that Cardinal George is regarded as the brains of the American episcopate. I have to say that I'm disappointed when reading this interview.

    He claims that liberals who don't want the bishop to exercise great powers are bishop-centric, not Christ-centric??

    Also, his theory that the style of episcopal governance changes to fit the times is false - and coming from George, someone who's regarded as an intellectual, I have to conclude that this is either a fabrication or a willful neglect of history.
    Once ensconced in their feudal role, the bishops have done everything to remain princes. They have always, always, supported and granted legitimacy to the most authoritarian and inhumane regimes up to the point that a country becomes ungovernable and collapses. Afterwards, they are always championing the forces of reaction that would return them to their feudal privilege. Consider France, Russia, and the rest of Europe in turn as well as South America, especially Chile.

    Or in other words, the world of episcopal ecclesiology.

    The Cardinal claims that today's paradigm of leadership is the business leader, so bishops lead like that. Ha! He sounds like Ross Perot. The Church is, however, governed in the style of America's first MBA president: George W Bush (MBA, Harvard). Maybe the bishops are trying to lead like business leaders (or political pollsters). There's a great emphasis on demographic targets in the Church today, especially "the youth". It's almost as dark as WWI era posters encouraging women to have more children - you know, so we don't run out of KIA's.

    Another thing: the last few decades have been ones of Vatican Thermidor, conservative reaction against the Council. Cardinal George basically declares the Age of the Council over by revealing that what he's interested in pointing out heterodoxy. He also seems to submit that the code of canon law that was inspired by the Council is somewhat to blame for the sex abuse crisis.

    Add the 1983 Code of Canon Law to the list of scapegoats.

  3. Is it just me or anyone else has noticed that Cardinal George repeatedly talked about the chief task of the Bishops in the Church as being "to govern", not "to serve"??? So the hierarchy will do all the thinking necessary for progress in the whole Church...?
    As for being "simply Catholic" -- I get the impression that the laity is supposed to be a bunch of sleepwalking clones without a speck of distinctiveness about them at all!
    If this is how the Cardinals & the Curia really think about adult Catholics who aren't ordained, then no wonder everything is a mess that doesn't improve at all.

    He reminds me of parents who think that children best learn to communicate by deliberately teaching them a nonsensical baby talk for the first few years & then expecting the kids to automatically switch over into the regular speech used by society later. Sure it prevents a lot of sassy backtalk the first few years, but it also permanently infantilizes and confuses the speech centers in the brain, thus handicapping children to an unknown extent for the rest of their lives and deliberately diminishing their God-given talents.

    KMC – 07 Oct 2009

  4. Cardinal George, I just want to say that I “sort of knew” your predecessor Cardinal Bernardin. One of the best descriptions I heard of Cardinal Bernardin was that when he stood up to speak and then when everyone else sat down there was always more room in the pew for everybody. Well, Cardinal George, you are no Cardinal Bernardin.

  5. Is “simple Catholicity” the same as memorizing and parroting (understanding was optional) the Baltimore Catechism? Does it mean accepting without doubt the commendments of the church, the clergy, the rules, the laws, the mythology of obscure saints, etc?

    Does it mean not using the education that you received, oft-times from the church, to investigate, question and debate things that “simple Catholics” might be expected to accept without questioning, i.e., the who, what, where, why and when of the Catholic Christ?

    If so, count me out.

    Jim the Geezer

  6. Hmm, somehow he overlooks the "minor issue" of the clerical coverup of sexual abuse among the clergy, and somehow we are supposed to ignore it? Sorry, Cardinal, there is no going back to an idealized past.

  7. "Simply being Catholic means not questioning clericalism, or it's prerogatives with in the Church. It doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum the criticism comes from, real Catholics don't critique the leadership and prerogatives of the ordained clergy."

    Very well-stated and very insightful, Colleen. Cardinal George has made remarks previously that equate the church with the hierarchy. He wants to turn being a good lay Catholic into being an obedient Catholic--as if obeying an authority figure is what our faith is all about.

    This is a reduction of the Catholic faith that makes being Catholic equivalent to following a dictator, no matter what the dictator does or says.

  8. There are vocation posters up in Catholic Schools in Chicago that say, "From Ordinary to.....Ordained." I guess that says it all as to what Cardinal George REALLY thinks about being 'simply Catholic.'

  9. "simply Catholic"???--the priests in our parish say, "If you are not sure if what you did is a sin, come to confession and we can tell you." Or "God cannot forgive your sins if the priest has not given you absolution." I believe that is "simply" wrong and I will NOT give up the power to think, study, listen, and make up my own mind.

  10. Great comments. I too was struck by the lack of any notion of bishop as servant and wrote more on this today.

    Orlando, you have a cogent point about our 'servant leaders':

    "They have always, always, supported and granted legitimacy to the most authoritarian and inhumane regimes up to the point that a country becomes ungovernable and collapses. Afterwards, they are always championing the forces of reaction that would return them to their feudal privilege."

    Latin America, the Phillipines, Haiti, and on and on. These are all he sad legacy of our 'princes'.

    "From ordinary to ordained," That about says it all.