I was reading National Catholic Reporter Online last Thursday when I winced in pain. My hometown cardinal, Francis George of Chicago, had made yet another boo-boo.
Jamie L. Manson, writing in “Young Voices,” quoted one of George’s recent columns in the Chicago archdiocesan Catholic New World. George thinks women who proclaim their “right” to ordination are confused. Priesthood is not a question of “the order of rights,” something in the civic realm to which one is legally due. Rather, the sacrament of holy orders is a matter of “the reality of gift,” something that “comes from love” and “is freely offered”…to men only.
But Manson, who knows how to connect dots, caught the cardinal with an almost audible “aha.” If this distinction between “rites and rights” is so important, why is Cardinal George so prominent in the anti-gay marriage movement? He is using “his religious and sacramental status to prevent individuals from receiving their rights in the civic order.” This is self-contradictory, if not hypocritical.
Cardinal George is like that. He sometimes says…things.
Jason Berry reports that in 2003, Chicago Sun Times reporter Cathleen Falsani asked the cardinal about a certain Delaware priest, Fr. Kenneth Martin, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault in 2001. Even after copping to the charge, he stayed at the cardinal’s residence and did liturgical consulting for the Chicago archdiocese. Why?
George turned it around on Falsani: “Are we saying that people with any kind of question in their past are not employable? Unless we want to say these people are simply permanent pariahs, is it appropriate to put his [Martin’s] life under scrutiny that way?”
He made it sound as if Martin got caught with a bag of pot and really needed a job at McDonald’s to get back on his feet.
Cardinal George was equally jarring when he spoke at my alma mater, Loyola University Chicago, in 2005. His topics were discipleship and social justice issues for young adults. One of my friends asked the cardinal how he could speak credibly, given the Church’s treatment of women and the LGBT community.
George’s breathtaking response was this: “Women, homosexuals, thieves, males, whomever you want to say, should be equally respected. That doesn’t mean that everything everyone does is okay.”
Women, homosexuals, thieves. As Everybody Loves Raymond character Ray Barone once informed his brother Robert, “It’s like your mouth is falling down the stairs.”
It boggles my mind to recount all this because I like the cardinal. Really, I do. He was kind to me when it mattered.
In 1999, I was news editor for the paper at my Catholic high school, and Cardinal George presided at our all-school Mass. I asked our principal if the cardinal would let me interview him. She didn’t see why not.
After Mass, George toured the school and ended up in the library, where I waited with a mini-tape recorder. I shook his hand and asked if we could talk. He said of course. We sat down, and the cardinal waited with seemingly infinite patience while I tried to get the recorder to work (I’d never used one before).
I finally got it going. By now, George had acquired a plate of refreshments. We talked through his impressions of the school, the vocation crisis, and the upcoming Jubilee Year 2000 as he ate crab salad and bruschetta and drank diet Coke from a plastic cup.
The cardinal nodded sagely at every question and gave long, thoughtful answers, apparently in no hurry. He didn’t look over my head to see who else he should be talking to, even though by now the library was filling up with VIPs. They had to wait their turn, because I mattered.
When we finished, he nodded again and said he liked my questions. This was not disingenuousness or mere politeness. One of our exchanges, about whether society has a crisis of religion or a crisis of love, appeared in his column in the Catholic New World about a week later.
I was a student who had sprung upon George from nowhere in the middle of a public reception. But he treated me as though I had called in advance from CBS or NBC.
Still, I have come to realize that many bishops, including George, have the capacity to be disarmingly agreeable in some contexts and icily inconsiderate in others, especially if they feel at all challenged. This is not the mark of a pastor.
I do not ask of bishops that they be all things to all, but I do ask that they be the same person to all, with sensitivity as their keynote. I respect Francis George for how he interacted with me. I wish I could also respect him for consistently dealing the same way with others.