Readings: The Hierarchy's Top Intellectual?

I have read both of Cardinal George’s recentinterviews 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.

Advertisement

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jack Barry
6 years 3 months ago
''…one of the hierarchy’s 'leading intellectuals'...''
This is judgment on the same relativistic scale that credits Benedict XVI with having done more than anyone else in the Vatican to clean up the clerical sex abuse mess.  It is similar to being the fastest sprinter in the Over-Age-70 Olympics.   Presumably George's intellectual adequacy was one of the criteria that led his peers to select him president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2008 to 2011.  In hindsight, that honor may tell us more about his peers than about him.  
6 years 3 months ago
This piece really is very close to committing slander against a good man.  It's always amazing to me that progressives chirp endlessly about diversity of opinion, yet are so willing to reduce people to whether or not they agree with them - and of course dismiss those tha fail to measure up. 

First, Fr. Schroth is willing to write George off as an "intellectual" on the basis of his rather subjective definition of the term.  This primarily seems to revolve his role as a boundary drawer and his willingness to cross the boundary.  What's missing from this "analysis" is the question of what role George is called to play in the Church; he is a bishop, a shepherd: shepherds are boundary policers, it's what they're called to do.  But this is precisely what Fr. Scroth seems to object to regarding George.  Moreover, Fr. Schroth's emphasis on crossing boundaries strikes a discordant note with the prevailing philosophical schools that emphasize mining the depths of tradition and eschewing the notion that "the grass is always greener on the other side" (I think of great Catholic thinkers like Macintyre).  But tradition is defined, it is bounded; it seems to me, therefore, that one who seeks to define the boundaries of the tradition is doing us a service.  But not in Fr. Schroth's book; because George isn't pulling from the resouces of some nebulous reality "outside" the boundary, he is not to be taken seriously as an intellectual.

Presumably to flesh this hypothesis out, Schroth gives us a laundry list of cribbed quotes from the article with some pithy critiques.  Ergo:

1. On taxes, the good Cardinal is insufficient in dealing with the (complex) issue of rising inequality (and presumably the good Father's desire to hike tax rates up to far north of where they presently stand).  But what is objectionable about the way George has articulated the debate?  Indebtedness IS an economic concern that impacts inequality; there IS economic evidence about the impact of large state-directed wealth transfers and economic mobility.  But nevermind.

2. Re; Notre Dame, the good Father objects to the notion that a Catholic university such as Notre Dame submit to the meddling of (those presumably inferiorly educated) diocesan officials.  All I would say to that is that if Schroth thinks Notre Dame has been well-served by whomever it is seeking for advice lately, I have some waterfront property in Arizona he may be interested in.   Moreover, the description of the choice Catholic universities face as described by Schroth is a textbook example of reductio ad absurdum. 

3. Finally, re: Obamacare, Schroth calls a "canard" the criticism George levels against the ACA bill.  But has he been paying attention to the hubub the HHS released pursuant to its authority under the ACA???  Seems to me the concerns so many religious leaders have with the so-called conscience protections justifies to an extent the concerns many had over the strength of the administration's word re: public funding for abortions.  I wonder if Fr. Schroth is more outraged that George dares disagree with Commonweal (and presumably America).

I have generally enjoyed Fr. Schroth's pieces, but this is argument is flimsy at best, and in my view does America no favors.
6 years 3 months ago
I think Cardinal George is probably one of the most widely read and hence able to speak his views philosophically of the american Hietarchy.In that sense, David Gibson is right to call him the leading intellectual of the US Bishops.
But i fully agree with Fr. Schroth - his pastoral practical sense leaves much to be desired - a reaon why many (even with his putative intellectual gravitas) find little credible in his work, except his true believers.
It should also be remembered that he is one of Bernard Law's friends and  proteges -and hence he continues to be a cause of division, not the unity he says he wants.
6 years 3 months ago
The Church does not make intellectuals into bishops, at least not in the United States. If one gets through the net, it is as a result of no one's intention. So the honorific is relative. On the other hand, there has been a trend in this country recently or not knowing intellectuals from circus barkers. Bill O'Reilly writes books, ergo...?
 I agree with Fr. Schroth, as usual, but right now I'd be happy if I could just get our president to pronounce ''default'' correctly. Deepening the hierarchy's store of wisdom seems way beyond possibility of this day and age.
6 years 3 months ago
This is a very nasty article.  It says more about the author than the subject of this piece.
RUTH ANN PILNEY
6 years 3 months ago
I read that February 27th article with utter dismay.  I had always figured that God, being who God is, loves infinitely, and so his love for each and all is, therefore, infinite.  How can something be more or less infinite?  When I brought this quandry to the attention of some of my religious friends, all but one sided with Cardinal George's view.  But I'm sticking with a God who loves everyone equally.  The human response to that love is another story.
Barry Hudock
6 years 3 months ago
Like Ruth Ann, I'm dismayed by George's column, too.  I've been reading Catholic theology and spirituality for 25 years (much of it self-consciously orthodox in nature) and never come across such an idea as God loves the saints more than other people, and the big saints more than the little ones.  Ugh.   

For some reason, Cardinal John O'Connor came to mind.  He too often spoke, de facto, for the American bishops, he too was known for his orthodoxy of course.  Many saw a strong pastoral sense in him as well (though others would scoff at that latter idea, I know).  At any rate, though O'Connor would certainly have written reams about the beatification of John Paul II, I cannot imagine him uttering such words as George did in that column. 

In fact, I *can* imagine O'Connor criticizing such an idea in strong words from his St Patrick's pulpit on a Sunday morning, insisting with his characteristic stridency that God's passionate love for every single person, from the most miserable sinner and to holiest saint, knows no bounds.
6 years 3 months ago
I hate to post more than once, but
I thought many (to use a George Weigel phrase) "usual suspects" -viz. defenderas of the hierachy of they think they are being criticized, would respond.
I've disagreed with Fr. Schrotyh at times, bu this post is thoughtful and disseving of respect, not being charged with "near slander": a slander in itself.
Of course the responses to this post marks different views within the Church and I stress within!
But the biliousness of several post here underscore the divideness that is easily transmitted into non-Christian attack.
I guess that's the way of politics, religion and blogdom today: what a pity!

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago speaks Nov. 13 during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life could be helpful as the church grapples with issues like migration, health care and even taxes, some bishops say.
Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 17, 2017
Giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler in front of a power plant near the city of Grevenbroich in western Germany in April 2014. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
“What we need to do is just continue to live out the challenge of ‘Laudato Si’,’ which is to examine our relationship with the earth, with God and with each other to see how we can become better stewards of this gift of the earth.”
Kevin ClarkeNovember 17, 2017
Hipsters love the authentic, the craft and the obscure—which is exactly why Catholicism, in its practices and its aesthetic, is perfectly suited for them.
Zac DavisNovember 17, 2017
In response to a query from America, Steve Bannon said, “The daily examen has become a tool for me to lead a better, more fulfilled life.”
James T. KeaneNovember 17, 2017