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Synod: Interview with Cardinal Francis George

Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago

National Catholic Reporter Conversation Cafe

By John L Allen Jr Daily

Oct 15 2008

If the typical American bishop once upon a time was a “bricks and mortar” man, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is anything but typical. He’s a scholar-prelate who loves to chew over ideas (George holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Tulane), and he also has a deeply cosmopolitan view of the world – a fruit, in part, of having lived for more than a decade in Rome as the Vicar General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

George is held in high regard around the Catholic world, one small sign of which is that he was elected moderator, or chair, of one of the English-language discussion groups at the current Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” He sat down for an interview on Wednesday at the North American College, which covered not only the synod, but also the debate over abortion and politics in the United States, the current economic crisis, the legacy of John Paul II, Benedict XVI’s trip to the United States, and how the church might put its money where its mouth is with regard to supporting laity who want to become Bible scholars.

The following is a complete transcript.

When I bumped into you the other day, you said that you’ve found it a good synod so far. What did you have in mind?

I think the quality of the interventions has been very good. Overall, each intervention had something to say that was worth saying. In other synods, that hasn’t always been the case!

Can you tick off what you would regard as the essential points of the discussion so far?

I purposely have tried not to do my own relatio post disputationem [Note: A speech given by the relator, in this case Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, drawing together the points made during the opening round of speeches.] I’m interested in hearing what Cardinal Ouellet has to say, because he’s always very synthetic and original in the way he puts things together. That’s what I have to use in my small group, so if I come to a personal sense of what’s important before I hear what he has to say, I won’t be able to guide the discussions very well. I haven’t tried to say what’s going to be more important than something else. You have to let the process take its own way, particularly since now, as a moderator, I’m somewhat responsible for it.

In general, however, the topic of the Word of God means you have to ask questions about how God speaks, through the written witness to his actions in Holy Scripture. So, all the questions about the relationship between exegesis and systematic theology, the distinction between truth and inerrancy, those questions about how God uses the Holy Scriptures to speak to us, are one side of the issue. The other side is how we listen. I was trying to talk about the personal context that makes it possible to hear, or not to hear, the Word. Many of the fathers brought out the social context in their own areas, and that was very interesting to hear, as it always is when you get so many people together from around the world. These would be the two poles: How does God speak, and how do we listen? Then, we have the question of how we transmit what he speaks. There were a lot of interventions around the media and social communications.

There was one prayer that was very important, I think: What happens when God is silent? That’s another whole area. I don’t know that it will be developed, but from a spiritual perspective, from the perspective of the church, trying to be God’s voice … that’s something that probably deserves more attention than it’s going to get. This is perhaps not the milieu to explore that.

So, those would be the parameters of the discussion, as I see it.

Yesterday, the pope spoke to the synod for the first time. What struck you about his remarks?

He wanted to clarify something to which the Pontifical Biblical Commission, when he was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had already spoken. Basically, he used those notes for his intervention. It was the question of the relationship between exegesis and systematic theology. You can’t limit the significance of scripture, and the meaning of the text itself, to simply what the human author, in his own time, in his own context, wanted to write. If God is equally an author, then God wants to write something, and it’s only the reflection of the church upon the Word and upon the events of history that enables the development of doctrine to come out of scripture, and to be a commentary upon scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does that very well. It’s really an extended commentary on scripture. It shows how the doctrines of the church, and our systematic thinking that comes to us from the tradition itself, is rooted in scripture. To put a break between what historical-critical methods can do in exegesis, and what theologians can do, is to consign us to one of two extremes. On one side is fideism – meaning that we believe the faith even though we can’t find it in scripture, supposedly. On the other is losing scripture to archeological science, to ancient literature. Then the question arises of its importance – why should we be worried about it at all?

So his point was holding these two things together?

Not just holding them together, but that they’re inextricably linked one to the other. It’s what makes exegesis a theological science, because otherwise it’s not theology at all.

You weren’t here for the Synod on the Eucharist in 2005, but I remember that, like this time, the Holy Father spoke at the end of the first round of speeches. Like this time, he argued for transcending an apparent opposition – in that case, the tension between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the Mass, between the Mass as meal and the Mass as sacrifice. Does it seem to you that he has a gift for synthesis?

I’d heard about that intervention from Bishop Arthur Roche, who made some comment about it himself. He was quite pleased that the Holy Father had come into the discussion. [Note: Roche is the bishop of Leeds, England, and chair of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.]

I think it’s true that [the pope] has a personal gift of synthesis. He sees things whole. It’s also, however, another reflection of him as a man of faith, because the faith sees things whole.

The pope also took a gentle swipe at exegesis in Germany, something like, ‘If you read some exegetes, it would seem Jesus is still in the tomb.’ What do you think the situation is in the United States in terms of the relationship between exegesis and theology?

I don’t know that I can generalize. The fact that a distinction exists, which sometimes becomes a chasm, is quite clear. I’ve heard a professor at a Catholic university say that she just does exegesis. Sometimes it supports Protestant doctrine, sometimes it supports Catholic doctrine. For her, it’s a totally independent discipline, without any relationship to what any particular church does. That means that the churches are all, in some sense, not scriptural. That completely abstracts from the fact that these are all books written by people of faith, for a community of faith, and meant to be read within a community of faith. In a sense, it’s bad scripture study. But that does pass for professional scripture study in some circles.

It’s going to be very hard for us to move beyond that immediately, because we do it very well. The Germans have gone beyond that now, and the French were never into it in the same way. We’re the last outpost of that kind of thinking. We’ll just have to wait a while, I suppose, to catch up with the rest of the church.

You mentioned a moment ago the discussion within the synod about inerrancy. Some have suggested that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ought to prepare a document on inerrancy. What’s the issue there?

The question, finally, is what kind of confidence can those who hear the Word of God proclaimed from scripture have that it’s the truth? Fundamentalists would say that it’s all literally true, so we have every reason to be confident. But that ignores what exegesis has done for us in the last 200 years, identifying the different forms of literature in the Bible, the contexts of the communities in which it was written, and all the rest.

You’ve still got the problem, however, of the affirmation in faith that inspiration and inerrancy go together, so that what is inspired is also inerrant. At the same time, you have to discover what inerrancy means when you’re not reading a newspaper, but you’re reading poetry, or a myth of some sort, or a fable or a parable. We can make that distinction more easily in the New Testament, when Jesus is speaking in parables. It’s harder sometimes for us to make those distinctions in the Old Testament.

One way of solving it came out of the Second Vatican Council. It wasn’t Cardinal Bea’s way of solving it, but that of some commentators. [Note: Cardinal Augustin Bea was a German Biblical scholar and influential figure at Vatican II. Bea, who died in 1968, also headed the Vatican’s office for Christian unity.] It holds that what God intended for our salvation is what’s inerrant. It didn’t say that the rest wasn’t inspired, but nonetheless scripture’s inerrancy is more or less limited to what God intended to teach for our salvation. The other school is a little bit broader, and I think it’s more where we’re at now. It says no, inerrancy applies also to what the human author intended to teach, under God’s inspiration. However, what the human author did not intend to teach, but rather brought in to his writings because it was part of the zeitgeist, the understanding of the world at the time, is not necessarily factually inerrant. So there are all kinds of places where you can split it, but you’ve got to determine what those places are and how you should go at it. In that sense, a document might be helpful.

So you’re supportive of a document on inerrancy?

I would be, but you have to allow the scholars time to continue those discussions and to make the distinctions necessary. There’s been forty years of discussing it, and I think we might be ready to have some kind of more definitive document now. I think the study would be good. Whether or not it’s the time to do the document, I don’t know. We have to consult with a lot of the scholarly community and see where we are.

We’ve heard a number of bishops talk about the importance of connecting the Bible to the issues of the day, so I want to ask you about a couple of those issues. First of all, the looming election in the United States: What should preachers be saying from the pulpit?

We’ve already published “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” That’s what preachers should draw upon.

The bishops’ conference has placed abortion and politics on the agenda for the November meeting. What can you tell me about that discussion?

The discussion came about because the teaching of the church on the morality of killing unborn children was brought into doubt. Some public figures, very highly placed, brought it into doubt.

You’re talking about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Joseph Biden?

Yes, particularly them. There was a response to that by the conference, as well as many individuals, including myself, because the teaching was misrepresented. That, finally, is the bottom line. Because it was around that issue, however, the whole question of what happens to people who are consistently in public opposition to the church’s teaching naturally comes up. It remains a pastoral problem that troubles us. So, we said we want to talk about it again, even though we’ve already talked about it twice.

Is it the same conversation as 2004, just seeing where you are today, or is there some new wrinkle?

I don’t know if there are new wrinkles. I hope the conversation will tell us whether there are or there aren’t. I do think there’s a new sense of urgency.

Are you going to vote on something at the November meeting, or will this be purely for discussion?

Well, we’ll see what happens. The conversation will show that.

There’s no specific proposal that the Administrative Committee, for example, is bringing to the bishops?


Speaking of new wrinkles, some Catholics argue that being pro-life is not the same thing as seeking the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Is that going to be part of your discussion?

I suppose it is, inasmuch as there are many ways of being pro-life, but none of them has the same priority as the question of abortion or euthanasia.

I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear. What I meant is that some Catholics believe it is possible to be anti-abortion without seeking the overturn of Roe v. Wade. People such as Doug Kmiec argue that seeking to address the root causes of abortion – poverty, inadequate health care, a lack of support for women and children – might be more effective than criminalizing abortion. Will that be part of your discussion?

It could very well be. That would make sense, but I’m not sure that it will be.

I’ve asked other bishops this question, and my sense of what most of you seem to feel is this: While the doctrine of the church doesn’t speak to specific pieces of legislation or court decisions, nevertheless the moral gravity of abortion is so enormous that the church has to work toward making Roe v. Wade no longer the law of the land. In other words, it may not be an article of the faith, but you see it as a clear extension of the faith. Am I reading you right?

Of course.

Therefore, in your eyes it’s not purely a matter of prudential judgment whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned?

It can’t be. If you’ve got an immoral law, you’ve got to work to change that. You’ve got children being killed every day. It goes on forever. That’s the great scandal, and that’s why there’s such a sense of urgency now. There’s no recognition of the fact that children continue to be killed, and we live, therefore, in a country drenched in blood. This can’t be something that you start playing off pragmatically against other issues.

Therefore, while you would presumably support better health care and anti-poverty measures, in your mind that’s not an alternative to efforts to outlaw abortion?

Absolutely right.

Another issue that’s very much on people’s minds is the economy. I know bishops are not economists, and therefore you’re not going to issue a white paper on the economic situation.

We did once. [Note: The reference is to a 1986 pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops titled “Economic Justice for All.”] Actually, some of the criticisms of the economic system that are in that letter are now being proven correct [1].

People are hurting and scared. What can the church say about the situation?

The Word of God, in our doctrinal language, is translated as saying that the economy exists for people, not people for the economy. We’re not just units of production or units of consumption, but everything has to be looked at in terms of how it affects human beings, particularly the poor. That remains the principle. It was the principle that John Paul II used to criticize communism, and it was the same principle he used to criticize capitalism. He was of the opinion that communism certainly had to fall, but that capitalism also had to change. Today we can perceive some indications that it’s changing – in fact, it’s changed already. The markets are now far less free than they ever were before. Does that mean going towards a managed economy? I don’t think anybody wants that, in the socialist sense, but it’s different than what we had before. That change has already taken place, and we’ll see what it means for the future.

Are you optimistic that a more human economy will be the result when the dust settles?

We can hope for that, but I don’t know.

Speaking of John Paul, the day after tomorrow will be the 30th anniversary of his election to the papacy. Do you hope he will soon be made a saint?

I’m hoping that he will be beatified and canonized, because I believe he was a saint. I believe that strongly. How soon depends upon the process. But if you’re asking if I hope it’s soon enough for me to pray to him publicly as a saint, yes.

More than three years after his death, how would you describe the permanent impulse John Paul II left the church?

Oh, there are so many things. I think he was part of the Second Vatican Council, and he wanted above all to see that the council’s effects were part of the ordinary life of the church. Primarily, I think, for him that meant we should understand how the church is global. It’s always been universal, but it’s now also global – a “world church,” as Karl Rahner called it at the time of the council. For John Paul, that was a lived reality. He organized his papacy around that, he helped bring us into it with the World Youth Days, the synods dedicated to the continents, the celebration of the Great Jubilee. He brought all the mysteries of our faith – forgiveness, God’s mercy, reconciliation, our dialogue with everyone – into the structures of the church, and into his own way of pastoring the whole church. It would be very, very difficult now for Catholics to retreat into a kind of nationalist religion. That was the temptation at the time of the collapse of monarchies and through the 19th century. I think we’re past that, and we’ve moved past it before most of the world is past it.

But the temptation of nationalism isn’t just fueled by European nostalgia for the ancien regime, a sentiment that’s now largely passé, is it? Isn’t there a streak of nationalism in American Catholicism too, which has to do partly with geography, a congregationalist ethos, and a strong sense of American patriotism?

You also find it in Latin America, in Asia … you have the same temptation to nationalism around the world. They haven’t conceived of the church nationally the same way they did in some European nations, but it’s always there. Whom do you adore, the people or God? What’s more important, the nation or the church?

In reality, it’s more ‘sectarian’ to be American or French than it is to be Catholic …

Of course that’s true, but …

Don’t say ‘of course.’ A lot of people don’t think that’s true at all, including in our own country. Take a look at the way they use the word ‘sectarian.’

Who’s ‘they’?

In the public conversation in the United States. If you say something’s ‘sectarian,’ people automatically think you mean it’s religious. They never assume that it means ‘nationalist.’

I wonder if there’s something uniquely insular, to use that word, about the United States, and therefore about Catholicism in the United States, that cuts a bit deeper than some other places. After all, we’re the world’s exporter of culture. We produce the books and movies and TV shows and music that everyone else consumes, but it doesn’t come as naturally to us to import culture.

What you’re saying is that the insularity of the United States affects Catholics in the United States, who become insular because they’re Americans.

Do you think that’s true?


What do we do about it?

(Laughs). That’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer. I don’t believe that I do. The answer to that question would be how we should shape our ministry.

You haven’t just been sitting on an answer?

No, I’m sorry, I haven’t been. Of course, there is no single answer. You have to keep the total vision in mind. You have to understand that salvation history goes back many, many centuries, and it also goes out around the whole world. You try to teach and to preach in that way. The pope is himself a great symbol of that universality, and he was very well received in the United States when he came. We’re all very proud of that. I think we did a good job in receiving him. Of course, he did a good job too, and that helped make everybody’s job easier.

I think if the vision is there, it will come up in small ways and new ways, where it’s appropriate. Naturally, people live where they are. They’re concerned about their family, and their parish, sometimes their diocese. The point of Catholicism is to extend that concern universally.

I think, for example, the way that Catholics in the United States respond to CRS and other appeals outside our country show that a fundamental generosity of heart is still alive. They are concerned about the victims of a tsunami somewhere else, and they’ll use the charities of the church to help those people out, because the church was there, already, before the disaster came, and they can connect with its structures. So in some ways, we’re perhaps not as insular as we might tend to think we are, but culturally we can be. I think you’re right in what you say there. We export our popular culture, and we tend to think that other people either are like us, or want to be like us, when in fact they might not.

I don’t think there’s a magic solution. It’s just a question of being Catholic at all times … for example, praying as a Catholic. We start the intercessory prayers with the pope and the needs of the world, and then we work down. Every Mass does that now, and I think that has an effect. There are small ways and big ways in which we say that we’re different, and we are. That’s perhaps our role in our country, to be different enough, ‘other’ enough, to allow a criticism of who we are as a nation to surface … a criticism based on love, of course, because you can’t criticize if you don’t love. It won’t be listened to.

Close enough to love, far enough away to be critical?


In that sense, this is part of a broader conversation we’ve had before, about restoring a ‘thick’ sense of Catholic identity?

Yes, exactly.

We haven’t spoken at any length since the pope’s trip to the United States. You probably saw the survey the Knights of Columbus commissioned about American reactions to the trip. I was struck by the finding that the two moments Americans identified as ‘most important’ were the pope’s meeting with victims of sexual abuse and the visit to Ground Zero. Amid all the pageantry and oratory of the trip, these were the two smallest events, neither of which even had a papal speech. Why do you think they were the two moments people remember?

I think it’s because they’re the two moments that most interested the media which reported the events. The story about the Catholic church in these years has been entirely a story about sexual abuse. You can’t get very many other stories out there, so that’s of great interest. Certainly the terrorist attacks on our country continue to reverberate. Some of the economic consequences we’re living out now are probably connected to that. That’s something burned into the American psyche, so anything connected to that is going to be of major importance. At least, that’s how I see it.

Let me offer a slight challenge. I was on CNN during the papal trip, and I can tell you that we covered far more than just those two stories. For example, we took three papal Masses in one week live from bell to bell: Nationals’ Park, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Yankee Stadium. That’s probably more Catholic liturgy on commercial television than in any previous week in American history. So, I think this may be one instance in which an absence of media attention to the rest of the agenda doesn’t quite cut it as an explanation.

I didn’t say that. I just said that in recent years, when you think of the church, you think of sex abuse.

Granted, but let me float my hypothesis by you. I think those two moments loomed large because they, more than anything else, showed the pope being a pastor. He was reaching out directly to suffering and hurt people, and offering healing to them. When people see that, it still resonates.

Oh, I quite agree with you. But there were other moments similar to that. For example, his meeting with disabled children, and their parents and guardians, was very touching. But, disabled children and parents and guardians are not, to use your word, quite as ‘sexy’ as Ground Zero and child abuse.

Maybe these two things came together. People paid attention to what the pope was doing on sex abuse and terrorism, and once he had their attention, the pastoral dimension could register.

There was also a lot of response after the fact [to the meeting with victims], talking to victims again. I wasn’t able to see the TV commentary, which was the disadvantage of my being with [the pope]. That was very enjoyable for me, because it gave me an insight into how security is arranged and so on. It’s a different world, an alternative universe, which I was very pleased to be in for a couple of days. But it meant that I didn’t see any TV coverage at all. I read the papers, but I heard the TV coverage was very, very fine.

Perhaps part of it, too, was that it gave victims a chance to talk not just about the hurt but also about healing, which is a dimension of the story that isn’t often told.

Yes, it was wonderful, it was graceful. The other thing that television did very well was shaping images so that somehow the personality of the Holy Father came though, in a way that the print media wouldn’t be able, perhaps, to do. Those images, of course, didn’t correspond to a lot of the impressions of him that had been given before.

This will be the last question, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask it. You’re at the synod talking about how to promote the Bible in the life of the church. I recently spoke with Terrence Tilley, who you know is the President of the Catholic Theological Society of America as well as the chair of the Theology Department at Fordham. I asked him about the relationship between theology and exegesis, and he made a very interesting practical point. He said that at Fordham, they’ve recently done searches for an Old Testament person and a New Testament person, and in both cases it was hard to find Catholic candidates. One reason, he said, is that given the language demands to get a Ph.D. in scripture, it requires an unusually long period of study, and many lay Catholic grad students simply can’t afford it. In the old days, dioceses and religious orders would keep people in the pipeline, but laity don’t have that means of support. If you want to do something to promote the Bible in the church, wouldn’t this a place to start?

That’s a very good question, and I think we should give it a lot more thought. I think there are priests and others studying scripture, but they’re destined to be part of seminary faculties. That’s a part of the Catholic intelligentsia that’s pretty much dropped out of the CTSA. I think they’re trying to remedy that, on both sides, but that is the unfortunate fact in recent years. So there are Catholics doing scripture studies, but they’re doing it in the way that you said … they’re being supported by their diocese or by a religious order. They’re not teaching in the universities, because they’re usually sent off to go back to the seminaries.

What you’re saying seems an evident fact, although it wasn’t so evident to me before you brought it out. I would say that we should try to organize something to be sure that lay people in particular have an opportunity to study scripture, without worrying about how their livelihood will be taken care of. Of course, there will be other questions. If you can get a pool of money around that, and it might be possible, you would have to think about who these people would be, how they would be chosen, whether they’d be preparing for a specific university the way others are preparing now for seminaries. All that would have to be talked about, but it’s worth talking about. It’s a good idea.

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