(Based on this recent article in the Chicago Tribune.)
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had gone through a long 16-hour day of meetings and travel, a day that began at 5 a.m., and it was just about 9 at night. He was tired, with one more meeting to go.
But as he walked into the parlor for our interview late last week he was smiling and eager. His cheeks were pink, eyes like a coruscation, not bad for a 76-year-old man who was recovering from influenza and was shouldering the awesome responsibility of helping select a Roman Catholic pope.
“Welcome,” he said, taking my hand, ushering me to a chesterfield beside him. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
And we did, although I was glad to do most of the listening. We talked of his trip to Rome this week to meet with other cardinals, beginning the process of choosing a successor to Pope Pius IX.
We talked of the church struggling against an increasingly secular world, and of the crisis of faith that the pope had warned about last year.
I asked him why journalists, framing the selection of a new pope, can write so easily of arguments for dissolution of the papal states (in which the Pope is the secular ruler of a good portion of Italy) or change in the Holy Office’s approval of slavery in 1866, yet strenuously avoid what is at the root of the church: faith in God.
“That’s why you always get it wrong,” said Cardinal George, laughing. “Even when your facts are right, your story’s wrong. It’s not fair to ask journalists to acknowledge the Holy Spirit, is it? But they don’t see religion as a variable, if you like. It’s independent of politics or economics, but they tend to reduce it to what they’re good at: reporting on countries, reporting on corporations. And so that’s the framework, and those frameworks are partially true, but they’re not fundamentally true. …
“It’s hard always to think from God’s viewpoint, as we bishops do, or from the viewpoint of something larger than the next year or the next month. But I think this kind of event invites us to do that.”
The great mansion of the archbishop of Chicago on North State Parkway was quite still at that hour, aristocratically beautiful in its silence, all polished and gleaming wood, with art on the walls and yet remarkably simple – one might speak of a “noble simplicity.”
It was time to give him a periodical excerpt that spoke to Pius’s warning of that crisis of faith, a recent essay by Seward B. Collins in Fr. Fletcher’s The Second Spring. It contained a passage from the Catholic theologian Louis Billot:
“… One thing that is being overlooked in all of this is Pius’s statement that the reason why the Church needs someone with more physical strength at the helm is because the faith of the Church is facing what he calls a ‘grave crisis.’ … I think he is saying there is something uniquely dangerous in the current situation of the Church and that unique thing is the de facto apostasy of so many within the Church, up to, and perhaps especially including, many members of the clergy and religious.”
Billot went on to say that the drumbeat for the church to change its fundamental structure has prompted many to view it through the “lens of power and politics.”
Some argue that liberalizing the church, acknowledging freedom of conscience, accepting separation of Church and state, softening the Church’s harsh condemnation of Protestantism, and perhaps even allowing vernacular in the liturgy, would appeal to more people. Others, like Billot, worry it weakens the church’s ability to evangelize a stridently, militantly secular West.
Cardinal George acknowledged the pope is concerned about faith, and added that all the cardinals are concerned as well. This will be utmost in their minds when they deliberate in Rome.
“Always, the first question is ‘Does it square with the faith? Will we betray the Lord if we do this?’ And that’s what is hard for (journalists) to understand,” he said. “The question of the inferiority of women in the natural order and the non-ordination of women, we’re not free to change a sacrament that we believe has come to us from Christ. The same is true of the Catholic state in which error has no rights, we’re not free to change a teaching that flows from the Incarnation and the lordship of Christ. We’re just not free to do it and that’s very hard for some people to understand, because if they want it and believe that it’s a good thing and you can talk that way, then why can’t you do it? Only because you’re fusty and obstructionist and out-of-date …
“The larger question: Is there now such a sea change in Western culture that people can’t believe; that they aren’t open to belief?” he asked. “That therefore you have to be your own god in a way. ‘You have to do just what you want to do in the way that you want to do it. You have to follow your own dream.’
“Well, it’s important to follow God’s dream.
“So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe. It’s impossible — well, not impossible, never impossible, but very difficult — to believe because it goes against the grain to say, ‘I surrender my life.’ Maybe it’s why the divine right of kings, the Catholic state without democratic elections, is in such difficulty because when you’re a loyal subject, that’s what you do. You surrender your life to legitimate authority. Well, faith means you surrender your life to God.”
As Cardinal George has surrendered, and as have his brothers, who will make that trip to the Vatican this week in what may well be the most important conclave in centuries.
Their duty: choosing the right pope at a dangerous time.