Looking Like a Theological Grossman in Chicago

Cardinal George has long been regarded as an intellectual heavyweight among the American hierarchy. I’m not sure I’ve seen enough in the public sphere to back it up. His criticism of Catholic liberalism, blogged about on this site in the past, was weak. In starting up the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein, he put a gag order on LTP, effectively banning any criticism from the publishers or its authors. That struck me as a pretty cowardly path. One might think a strong intellect would relish going toe to toe over prudential matters of theology. Assuming one could enjoy a fine Chicago meal and a beer afterward.

His latest column in the Catholic New World takes a needless swipe at Protestants. And if he believes the words in print attributed to him, I’d say there’s some serious theological and historical deficiencies in the cardinal’s education. Go to the link, read the whole piece, and let me know what you think.

The cardinal begins by describing a process by which lay people asked the Chicago priests to deepen understanding on “some contested mysteries of faith.” The priests and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council agreed on this list: the Eucharist, ordained priesthood, penance or reconciliation, marriage, the Blessed Virgin Mary and immigration.

I’m not sure how much of this is actually “contested.” One might certainly say that changes in the procedures at the Mass are a contested item. Does that mean doctrine, faith, or the actual act of worship is in question? The laxity or difficulty with annulments, divorce, and remarriage are discussed all over the Catholic spectrum. Are Catholics in some way “contesting” the base values and virtues of marriage as a theological reality? If Mary is the point of contention, it would more likely be on the finer points of which visitations one might accept. I remember a very strong strain of Medjugorje when I was there. Some such devoted Catholics were quite orthodox or mainstream. Others were getting excited about all sorts of appearances reportedly happening in Birmingham and other more isolated locations. Were Chicago lay people concerned about criticism that some Catholics weren’t Catholic enough? Not being present at these consultations, I couldn’t tell you any of those things. Cardinal George seems to indicate he wasn’t there either.

But if the lay people in my diocese were interested enough in homily input to suggest four sacraments, the Blessed Mother, and an important issue for politics and justice, I’d be pleased.

But he’s not.

The first impression this list, minus the sixth concern about immigration, leaves with me is that we’re back to the Protestant Reformation. At the time of the Reformation, when the visible unity of the Church was broken for doctrinal reasons, the Mass became a memorial service for most Reformers, its unity with Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary became purely “spiritual” and the objective, sacramental, substantial re-presentation of that sacrifice was denied.

Where the heck is this coming from? Any literate person, much less a Catholic, can quote the Catechism. But if people are concerned about belief in the Real Presence (not a real issue, in my opinion) or who gets to go to Communion, I’m afraid those are not issues of the Reformation. They are very much issues of today.

The foot goes deeper into the mouth:

There are many good people whose path to holiness is shaped by religious individualism and private interpretation of what God has revealed. They are, however, called Protestants.

When I want to know what Protestants stand for, I’ll ask them, not a Catholic prelate. This kind of talk is symptomatic of the American tendency to “call it as I see it,” and base one’s guiding philosophies on painting the world to suit one’s views or needs, and insisting others conform the facts to fit the view. We see it in Iraq. We see it in the bishops’ blind spots to sex predators in the clergy. We’re starting to see it in the mismanagement of church finances.

And I’m not meaning to imply that liberals are immune from this. Dogmatizing old approaches of the 60’s and 70’s will not work in the 21st century. Some liberal methods have never been successful, and we need to open our pragmatic eye, call failure for what it is, and find a new method.

When an informed and committed group of Catholics, such as the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, comes up with an agenda for discussion that is, historically, Protestant, an important point is being made. Catholics assimilated to American culture, which is historically Protestant, are now living with great tension between how their culture shapes them and what their Catholic faith tells them to hold.

Who is Cardinal George talking about? He’s the one disconnected from the active consultations going on in his diocese. Like many American CEO’s, he jet sets around the world with his pet issues, but can’t make the connection that his laity and priests have a clearly different notion of “contention” in the sacraments than he does.

There is a dysfunction in addictive systems that when one cannot force the facts to fit the addict’s paradigm, one begins to accuse others of the sin which is actually rooted in the self. Alcoholics claim everyone else is making too much of a fuss about a little drinking. Drug addicts say if people would only leave them alone, they wouldn’t have to use. Bishops blame the permissive culture, or bad advice, or not being in the loop. Sorry, your eminence, but it’s your job. And if you can’t handle it, request a co-adjutor or split up the archdiocese to a more manageable situation.

The cardinal doesn’t seem to be able to keep tabs on his clergy when they misbehave. He resisted calls for his resignation–and rightly so, I think. But I wonder about the man when I read a piece like this. But don’t take my word for it. Go to the link, read the whole thing. Come back and tell us what you think.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Looking Like a Theological Grossman in Chicago

  1. Liam says:


    I think you failed to convey the tightness of the argument being presented in favor of being flip about the Cardinal’s being flip. Or call it as you see it, as you prefer….

    There is an important set-up in the first paragraph of his column, connecting somewhat arbitrary (if not capricious) external change with internal confusion. Now, I would argue that I think he over-assumes how much the external actually protected against internal confusion, and that instead it tended to prevent metastisis of confusion in the name of the Church. That said, it appears that is the real point the council is aiming at and to which the column then turns.

    As for the litany of Reformation-era changes, they are generalizations that many historians and Protestants and secularists trumpet as if they were general truths yet. I don’t expect Cdl George to play scholar here in a column; it would have been better if he had made clearer qualification than he did (his language is sprinkled with slight qualifiers, it should be noted – but he was not writing as a lawyer would…).

    Then you note: “But if people are concerned about belief in the Real Presence (not a real issue, in my opinion) or who gets to go to Communion, I’m afraid those are not issues of the Reformation. They are very much issues of today.

    Well they are both, seems to think the Cardinal, and his focus is on the todayness of them, about which you state agreement him. Or did you mis-write that reaction?

    It seems to me that his real point is the following:

    “If we are to propose to the world our faith, we need to be better grounded in it. Proposing, as Pope John Paul II often said, is not imposing. Any proposition should be respected because of the person proclaiming it; but it should also be contested when it is false. In matters of faith, truth and falsity depend on theological warrants from history. Since history, for many Americans, is bunk and, for some academics, is only a field to be reworked at will, we’ll see how far we get this year.”

    And on that score I think he hit a bullseye.

    He then goes on to make clear that obedience and discernment go together, rather than being either/or. So he’s not applauding the mere obedience of the self-style orthodox nor individually-focused discernment. It’s hard to gainsay his approach on that, then, as Catholics, you would think….

  2. Todd says:


    I can accept your observation my argument was a flip. I’m not a believer in fisking; at least I’m not convinced of its effectiveness as a productive tool. So I didn’t really try to skewer his argument too much.

    I think his comments on the Reformation are embarassing. Protestants did not self-define as individualists. They objected to the disconnect between the moral lives of the hierarchy and what that hierarchy “governed” as a means of grace in the sacraments. Can immoral persons be trusted as God’s agents in dealing with the sacraments? I can see that you are right in saying that is very much an issue today. I’m not sure, however, that Catholics or Protestants would necessarily see the connection between Kerry or Pelosi being allowed to go to Communion or priest-predators celebrating the sacraments and the Reformation. Except in the sense we’re dealing with fallible sinners: lay people, pope, and hierarchy all. Perhaps we’re talking about leaders sowing doubts in their flock. It’s not for no reason they are expected to be exemplary in the Christian life.

    I agree with your bullseye. But on the question of obedience to the Magisterium, which seems to be hanging in the air over this, perhaps the cardinal would be better served to address the actual issues with his APC, rather than stay above the fray until he gets a distasteful result, and only then, enters it with some sweeping and inaccurate commentary.

  3. Mike says:

    In matters of faith, truth and falsity depend on theological warrants from history.

    Don’t they also depend on examination? Or is thinking passe?

  4. Liam says:


    It depends on your epistemology and metaphysics. Not all are univalent in that regard.


    I think you understate the strong theological battles that were waged by many of the leading Reformers. Your argument as a stand-alone is more true of the reformers who stayed within the Church (which was actually the majority of the reforming elements, lest we forget). But it is less true as a stand-alone observation of those who left; rather, issues like those the Cardinal litanizes were very much companionate to that issue of integrity of preaching and praxis. And many of those latter Reformers had their own integrity problems, as it turned out…

    I also think you are underestimating the identification with individualism. That word may not have been used in the ideological sense, but the “Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders” trope as a defiant triumph of the individual conscience against corporate conscience of the Church widely permeated Evangelical and Reformed propaganda, and eventually even some Anglican propaganda.

  5. Liam says:

    Also, when I read the column carefully, my initial impression that the Cardinal was criticising the APC’s choices was allayed; instead, I left with the impression that he was offering a critical analysis of why the APC would have found itself coming up with such a list from its observations of the flock. In that sense, the Cardinal is more critical of elements of the flock, not the APC. That’s how I read it on reflection; that reading seemed more in keeping with the flow.

    Which is why my reaction to this column is that it was so tightly argued that people who didn’t carefully pause to think through it might well think the Cardinal said things he didn’t and that he didn’t say things he did.

    Which, btw, would not only be a failure on the part of the readers but also the Cardinal, as you know from my repeated rants about the importance of rhetorical choices.

  6. Todd says:

    The touches on individualism in this discussion are interesting, given the strong strain in Catholic liberalism against the notion of “me and Jesus” in the post-conciliar Church.

    Cardinal George remains a puzzle to me. Maybe that’s a good thing in a way. But if he’s trying to lead a diocese, maybe he needs to strive for more clarity.

  7. Liam says:


    I guess I was surprised you didn’t lead with that perspective first, as it is indeed one of the things progressives champion. Instead, perhaps because many of your contacts in Chicago have had a difficult time with Cdl Bernadin’s successor, it seems you led with a perspective filtered through those difficulties. Understandable, but it’s limited like anything else, and helps deepen the sense of division.

  8. Pingback: Cardinal George On Liturgy « Catholic Sensibility

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