Francis Cardinal George Speaks with a Reporter on the Eve of the 1878 Conclave

(Based on this recent article in the Chicago Tribune.)

Chicago, 1878.

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.


  1. Am I reading this correctly, that Cardinal George believes that women are inferior in the natural order? Please clarify before I comment further!!!

    1. @Louise Grant – comment #1:
      No, I’m sure he doesn’t believe that! Did you see the first link to the article giving us what he did say?

      The point is that the way Cardinal George argues about today’s issues – that the hierarchy speaks for God, that those calling for change are sullied by a secular world and don’t understand God’s revelation, that media mostly distort the issues, and that he happens not to mention theologians and clergy who think otherwise – this is the method that Catholic officials used 150 years ago, diastrously so. Church officials were wrong on one issue after another.

      Catholic officials argued in the 19th century that women are inferior, slavery is in accord with natural law, separation of church and state and democratic elections are not God’s will, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are contrary to Christianity, and so forth. They rejected every challenge (from their own clergy, from theologians, from the media) and claimed that they alone spoke for God.

      Cardinal George doesn’ hold any of those absurd positions of 19th century Catholic officials. But the language he uses for 21st century issues is uncannily like theirs.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #3:
        Thanks, Fr. Ruff – you highlight a significant comparison in language, style, and approach.

        To add to your explanation – defending his 1998 talk that *catholic liberalism is an exhausted project*:

        Money Quote:

        “We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.”

        – outlines three premises going back to the 19th century (expands on your insights)
        – to quote one section:

        “Instead of understanding Vatican II as a limited accommodation to modernity for the sake of evangelizing the modern world, the liberal project seems often to interpret the council as a mandate to change whatever in the church clashes with modern society. To caricature somewhat, the project both for ecclesial renewal and for mission in the world takes its cues from the editorial page of the New York Times or, even worse, USA Today.”

        Where to start with sad Cdl George and his conclusion – we have a crisis of truth:
        – *exhausted* or *truth* – would suggest that since 1998 exhausted/lack of truth is what we have been living through from unresolved sexual abuse denials; ROTR imagined movements; finanical shenanigans; VatiLeaks; appointment of litmus tested bishops; campaign against theologians we don’t agree with; failed accomodations from SSPX to Anglican Ordinariate; plunging catholic participation in the West; sad efforts called New Evangelism; promoting papal prelatures at the expense of the whole church, in the US church the FOF efforts, anti-HHS mandate, anti-PPACA efforts; Republican catholic bishops; his quote that the next cardinal of Chicago will die in prison, etc. His conclusion is a lack of truth in the liberal and visible church authority. We haven’t had a liberal church authority for 25 years – his approach has led to where we are today; an exhausted and failed conservative movement that cries out for resolution.

      2. @Bill deHaas – comment #7:

        Hello Bill,

        failed accomodations from SSPX to Anglican Ordinariate;

        Perhaps I’m misreading you here, but are you suggesting that the Ordinariate is failed, or just the approach to the SSPX?

    2. @Louise Grant – comment #1:
      Fr Ruff is having a little fun at Cardinal George’s expense: the Cardinal does not make the argument that Fr Ruff mischievously attributes to him.

      1. @Louise Grant – comment #5:
        Ms. Grant,
        Then you’ve missed the point. You didn’t find that quote because it’s not what Cardinal George said now. It’s what people like him were saying in 1878. It shows the similarity bewteen their argumentation style then and his now.

  2. Who needs to rely unduly on straining a metaphor of bridegroom-bride ikonography when one can exhume the older notion of the inferiority of women in the natural order?

  3. Hello Fr. Ruff,

    I get the satire here, but I don’t think this is a fair list of moral issues on which the Church “got it wrong.”

    I don’t have time to unpack them all today. But I would suggest that this is a misreading of Instructio Number 1293 of the Holy Office on slavery in 1866, which was concerned with three specific kinds of servitude: (1) penal servitude; (2) indentured servitude; and (3) the servitude of prisoners captured in just wars. And this being the case, it is hard to argue with Avery Dulles’s point (as opposed to that of John Noonan) there has not been a contradiction in the Church’s teaching on slavery.

    1. @Richard Malcolm – comment #6:
      As an aside, there were some in the Church who taught and actually believed that Pope Paul VI abrogated the Roman Missal of 1962! Of course no one here today would hold the absurd position that it really actually was abrogated. That would truly be considered satire, a favorite form of comedy of mine.

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #8:
        Really – and your favorite form of comedy is encapsulated here:

        Low points; if not simplistic, unnuanced, and incorrect understandings:

        – “The popular understanding of Vatican II is that it “committeefied” the Church. Committees became more important than Christ, what we were doing, how were we during it and no matter what, if a committee decided it, the process had to be good even if the results led to the deconstruction of the a parish or whatever”
        -“Liturgy had to symbolize the ecclesiology of committees, how people function in the Church and the differing roles that each have. The liturgy, rather than being sacrifice and thus worship, became what these people at this parish were doing at this time to build community. It makes me what to puke!”
        – “We don’t construct the liturgy to fit our needs we celebrate the liturgy as it is given to us. And on top of that, the personality of the congregation and their so-called greatness as well as the personality of the priest and his looks, ability to do this, that and the other are not to be the focus of the Mass.”
        – “The greatest threat to the Church is the left, not the right. Certainly the “right” can be rigid and appear to be uncaring and unforgiving. They can appear to be militant and strident at times. But they don’t abandon the ultimate truths of the Church although they are sinners like the rest of humanity. They do not participate in “practical apostasy” when it comes to the faith and morals of the Church. The left, however, is a different story. What began first as a theology of “renewal” has devolved into practical apostasy and heresy, the logical conclusion of a flawed hermeneutic and doctrine”

        Opinionated kerfuffles – yep, satire and comedy.

      2. @Bill deHaas – comment #12:
        I am glad you love the humor of my blog and revealing truth through it as you aptly report it in an ironic and witty sort of twilight zoneish kind of way.

    2. This is a famous debate between Dulles and Noonan which I think Noonan won decisively, but apparently you follow Dulles.

      I think the historical facts are very clear on a whole set of issues, not just slavery: the church has made mistakes in its teaching. From past experience on the blog, though, I am sure that some people will resist that conclusion with everything in them. So I guess there’s not much more to say.


  4. Is it possible that the cardinals were wrong in 1878, but right in 2013?

    Is it possible that the cardinals were on the wrong side of history in 1878, but history is on the wrong side of truth in 2013?

    Is it possible?

    Bertrand Russell on induction:

    “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken. “

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #13:
      Jim – some historical perspective….you are making generalizations in terms of all cardinals think one way in 1878 and another way in 2013.

      Historical fact – when Vatican I was making decisions, you could roughly put them into three groups: a) all papal activity is infallible; b) those who wanted to support papal authority (e.g. papal states issue) but did not agree with the extreme position of group (a); and a group that rejected any position on infallibility which included most German, Austrian, half the US, 1/3rd of French, and other rites present at the council. Final vote – 451 for; 88 against; 62 for but w/revisions. Subsequently, before the council announced this, 60 bishops left. Because of the Franco-Prussian War, the council was suspended indefinitely.
      (note – not exactly an overwhelming story for this approach to liberalism, rationalism, enlightenment thought)
      Keep in mind that these same US bishops were also living through the Roman Catholic Americanism struggle in the US as articulated by Archbishop Ireland in 1884:
      “There is no conflict between America and the Catholic Church.”

      In reality, the US bishops understanding of *modernism*, religious liberty, democracy, individual rights, etc. were right and eventually adopted and incorporated in VII documents. (Roman ultramontanism was wrong)

      Thus, see my list of issues above in #6 – you will have a hard time trying to convince me that history is on the wrong side of truth in 2013. Wrong side of history – the current curia; clericalism; and desire for authority and power while ignoring the rest of the catholic church in the world.

    2. Jim, you ask an important question. I would say, “Yes.” It is possible that the Cathlic Church’s response to modernity in the 19th century (suspicious, hostile, defensive) was wrong, but with a new set of issues now, that response is now the correct one. It’s possible. But it’s also possible that the response is wrong both times. That the Church got it so wrong last time says to me that it’s at least possible (but not inevitable) that the Church (i.e., “official Church”) is wrong now.

      On this blog (or anywhere else) I’ve never said that the Catholic Church is now wrong, nor have I dissented from any official positions. What I have said many, many times, is that it is possible that the Catholic Church is wrong on today’s hot issues – as history shows – and we should all be open to dialogue and not condemn dissenting theologians out of hand. Some folks have sometimes assumed it’s because I agree with the dissenting theologians (though I never said that). In fact, it’s because I don’t know if the dissenting theologians are correct, but maybe they are. As history abundantly shows.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #16:

        We will only find out if they are or not by arguing a side. Sitting on the fence will not get us anywhere!

        I know all the disputation that goes on can feel slightly off, but if we not going to just accept authority, it is all we have to make progress.

  5. The modernization process of socio-economic institutional and values changes consists of two dimensions: 1)the change from traditional values to secular-rational values that was brought about by industrialization, and 2) the change from survival values to self-expressive values during the post industrial period.

    While post-industrialization began later (in the sixties in the US and Europe) than industrialization they are both taking place now around the world as depicted in these two dimensional maps from the World Values Study.

    The maps are very interesting because they indicate that countries are influenced by these changes depending on their prior history and values.

    For example the USA unlike most of Europe was influenced very little by secularization. However beginning in the sixties we have been very influenced by self expressive values.

    As far as I can tell George, Dolan, Wuerl etc. are clueless about the key differences between the two processes of modernization, the effects of prior cultures and therefore that necessity of having very different “New Evangelizations” in different parts of the world.

    All of this is explained in greater detail than you would ever want to know in the publications indicated on this website.

    In a few months when my website is in place, I will provide a guide to its application to the New Evangelization(s).

    Incidentally the primary interest of these political scientists is politics not religion. They are interested in the conditions that create and maintain democracy.

  6. Bill and Fr. Allan: Let’s leave Allan’s blog off of this Pray Tell website, please. If you want to talk about anything there, do it there and not here.
    Also, I’d invite you not to repeat the same arguments so many times here. If you’ve already been around the block a few times on a given topic, just leave it alone.

    1. I thought about doing that but decided not to. I don’t mean it primarily as humor, but as making a very serious point about Cardinal George’s theological style and method, and how similar his language is to church officials in the 19th century. But thanks for the suggestion.

  7. I pray that these guys are able to do their best to read the signs of the times and harness their collective judgment in such a way as to pick the man for the moment.

    I’m reminded of the old “pastor want ad” that made the rounds of email about fifteen years ago:

    “Wanted: Pastor for small, country church. Must be 28 years old with at least 30 years preaching experience. Sermons are to be life-transforming, enjoyable to all and no more than 20 minutes long. Must have a heart for the youth, work well with the elderly, participate in all church sports, visit every hospitalized member, run board meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Needs successful negotiating skills, quality singing voice and spouse who play’s piano or guitar. Skills needed for repairing all computer and sound equipment, church van and bathroom plumbing. Office hours 6a.m. to 12 p.m. Salary $100 per week after all church bills have first been paid. Will preferably tithe $50 per week not including fellowship offerings, wear Armani or Brookes Brothers suits, bring along a large loaning library and drive a Kia. Regular ministries will include evangelistic outreaches, 30 house calls per day on church members, continuous availability in the church office whenever parishioners phone. Raising the dead on Sunday mornings a plus.”

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