I have read both of Cardinal George’s recent interviews twice, plus the handful of comments which followed, with high hopes, and I must confess that I am puzzled by his reputation, as David Gibson and others describe him, as one of the hierarchy’s “leading intellectuals.”
For me an intellectual is not just a scholar, the author of some books and lots of articles, but someone who is creative, mining the past for new insights, who is open to new ideas and ready to change. Whose imagination occasionally takes him or her beyond the evidence to try out an insight. In the church, especially today, it’s important for the intellectual to be, in Camus’s phrase, “engage,” committed to a variety of social causes, so the public—especially those vulnerable to the abuses of an unjust society—might be protected.
Cardinal George, however, defines the role of the bishop as a border cop, a line drawer. Don’t step over that line. Yes, criticism of the church is welcome, he says, “provided it is within the boundaries of the faith itself.” The bishops say, “Here are the boundaries” and others say, “No, we can go beyond that.” “And they could be right, but they could be wrong.” The trouble is that all of this is very abstract. To say some can be right and some can be wrong is to talk in generalities, in clichés.
David Gibson, who is the author of the best book on Cardinal Ratzinger, asks George about the budget and the tax debate, questions which “raise questions about who we are as a country.” What should the rich pay?
George says there are two ways of looking at this. One is I want to have my money for myself; the other sees taxes as the indebtedness we pass along to future generations. George’s answer has nothing to do with the real problem: the scandal of inequality, in today’s rich-get-richer America, which many intellectuals, including Catholics, have spelled out.
Pressed on some bishops’ opposition to President Obama being honored by Notre Dame, George responds that “the university had violated the sense of the Catholic communion by not consulting the local bishop.” Notre Dame, he says, “violated the ecclesial communion.” The what? Every college president I have known goes out of his way to respect the local bishop. At the same time, if he or she has to check with the chancery on whether to allow “The Vagina Monologues” or who may speak or receive an honorary degree, some monsignor might as well replace him as president.
On health care reform George sticks to the canard that Commonweal and other Catholic publications have refuted again and again, that Obamacare facilitates abortions.
Since it was hard to see George through the fog, I googled him on some social issues. On the subject of Iraq I found the story of six activists who, to protest his 2008 meeting with George W. Bush and his silence on the morality of the Iraq war, staged a “die-in” at the Holy Name Cathedral parish center where they stood up during the cardinal’s homily, talked about the deaths of both Iraqis and Americans, then lay down and spilled fake blood. Then awaited arrest. As they left George “thanked them for what they had to say.”
One George elocution, which I’m told by a Chicago friend caused a buzz, was his February 27, 2011 column on the beatification of Pope John Paul II, where he stresses his belief that “God does not love everyone equally.” The saints love God because God loved them first and they love him back. There are big saints and little saints. God loves the big ones more. This “challenges the assertion that everyone is equal.” That’s OK, George says; differences make life rich. If we ignore this, “We become ideologues of ‘equality.’”
The hierarchy’s top intellectual?
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.