By John L. Allen Jr.
November 16, 2014
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago will turn over the reins to his successor, Archbishop Blase Cupich, on Tuesday. George has long been seen as a leading intellectual light among America’s Catholic bishops, and even now, as he fights for his life, his mind remains remarkably nimble.
As it turns out, one thing occupying his mind these days is Pope Francis.
Now 77, George is currently undergoing experimentaltreatment intended to stimulate his immune system to fight off the cancer spreading from his bladder, liver, and kidneys through the rest of his body. If it fails, he’ll likely be looking at palliative care ahead of the inevitable.
I’ve described George before as the “American Ratzinger” for his blend of intellectual chops and tenacious commitment to Catholic tradition, in the spirit of the former Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI. (For the record, George shuns the label, insisting he’s not of Benedict’s intellectual caliber. He is, in any event, the closest thing to it on these shores.)
George sat down for an exclusive interview on Friday. A fuller account will appear Monday on Crux, but for now, one fascinating element is this: If time and health allow, George would really, really like to have a heart-to-heart with Francis.
Aside from the sheer fun of knowing what one of America’s best Catholic minds wants to ask the pope, George’s dream Q&A has political relevance because he remains a point of reference to the Church’s conservative wing. These aren’t just his questions, in other words, but what a large and influential Catholic constituency would like to know.
So, what’s on his mind?
To begin, George said he’d like to ask Francis if he fully grasps that in some quarters, he’s created the impression Catholic doctrine is up for grabs.
Does Francis realize, for example, “what has happened just by that phrase, ‘Who am I to judge?’ ”
Francis’ signature sound-bite, George said, “has been very misused … because he was talking about someone who has already asked for mercy and been given absolution, whom he knows well,” George said.
(Francis uttered the line in 2013, in response to a question about a Vatican cleric accused of gay relationships earlier in his career.)
“That’s entirely different than talking to somebody who demands acceptance rather than asking for forgiveness,” George said.
“Does he not realize the repercussions? Perhaps he doesn’t,” George said. “I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds.”
“The question is why he doesn’t he clarify” these ambiguous statements, George said. “Why is it necessary that apologists have to bear the burden of trying to put the best possible face on it?”
He said he also wonders if Francis realizes how his rhetoric has created expectations “he can’t possibly meet.”
I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds.”
“That’s what worries me,” George said. “At a certain moment, people who have painted him as a player in their own scenarios about changes in the Church will discover that’s not who he is.”
At that stage, George warned, “He’ll get not only disillusionment, but opposition, which could be harmful to his effectiveness.”
Second, George said he’d like to ask Francis who is providing him advice — which, he said, has become the “big question” about this pope.
“Obviously he’s getting input from somewhere,” George said. “Much of it he collects himself, but I’d love to know who’s truly shaping his thinking.”
Third, George noted that Francis often makes references to the Devil and the biblical notion of the end-times, but said it’s not clear how that shapes his vision and agenda.
Among other things, George recalled that one of Francis’ favorite books is “” by , a converted Catholic priest and son of a former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an apocalyptic fantasy, written in 1907, culminating in a showdown between the Church and a charismatic anti-Christ figure.
George said he’d like to ask Francis a simple question: “Do you really believe that?”
“I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask him how you want us to understand what you’re doing, when you put [the end-times] before us as a key to it all,” he said.
Perhaps, George said, the sense that the end is near explains why Francis “seems to be in a hurry.”
So far, George said, he hasn’t been able to talk these things out with the new boss.
“I didn’t know him well before he was elected, and since then I haven’t had a chance to go over [to Rome] for any meetings because I’ve been in treatment,” he said.
Getting some quality time, as George describes it, wouldn’t be just about indulging his personal curiosity, but also being a good bishop.
“You’re supposed to govern in communion with the successor of Peter, so it’s important to have some meeting of minds,” he said. “I certainly respect [Francis] as pope, but I don’t yet really have an understanding of, ‘What are we doing here?’ ”
Enter Blogger: Suggestion: Francis is about the business of raising Church and world consciousness to an experience of Christ as the Revelation of God in the flesh. Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II) said it in the most straightforward terms philosophical terms: In his opening sentence to “The Acting Person,” Wojtyla wrote: “The inspiration to embark upon this study came from the need to objectivize [conceptualize, putting into words] that great cognitive process which at its origin may be defined as the experience of man: this experience, which man has of himself, is the richest and apparently the most complex of all experiences accessible to him. Man’s experience of anything outside of himself is always associated with the experience of himself, and he never experiences anything external without having at the same time the experience of himself.” The burden of Wojtyla’s “The Acting Person” is to show phenomenologically how the human person as subject, as “I,” is the Being that is the prius of the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. And although the “I” is the only subject experienced by man, it is cognized by the human intellect and handled as an object without losing its subjectivity.
This philosophy of Wojtyla is present in the theological epistemology of Joseph Ratzinger when it is activated in prayer as “I-gift” in relation to the Father with Jesus Christ. Since Christ’s “I” is pure Self-gift to the Father, when Simon in Lk 9, 18 prays with Christ, he experiences in himself what Christ experiences in Himself as Son. He becomes “another Christ;” and since “like is known by like,” Simon is able to say, because he experiences the Christ that he is becoming: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16, 16). That is, one “knows” God by experiencing self becoming God, or as it was quoted in Aparecida by the pope to be: “Only God knows God” (cf. Mt. 11, 27). This is all Augustine, Bonaventure, Benedict XVI and Francis. It is knowing God on the level of experience, and as “I.” It is “narrative” not doctrine.
Robert Barron says it so well: “…(T)he first of the Gospels commences with this simple declaration: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ [Mk. 1, 1]. The first telling of the evangelion is a presentation in narrative form of Jesus as the Christ,…’” It is a story in the first person singular. It is the most profound communication of Christ. It is Kerygma. Barron goes on to give an anecdote: “Ludwig von Beethoven once played one of his piano concertos to a small audience. After the performance, one of the listeners said, ‘But what does it mean?” Indignant, Beethoven sat down and played it through again. It meant precisely wht it was, nothing more or less.” Ratzinger explains in depth: “As faith understood the position, Jesus did not perform a work that could b distinguished form his ‘I’ and depicted separately. On the contrary, to understand him as the Christ means to be convinced that he has put himself into his word. Here there is no ‘I’ (…) which utters words: He has identified himself so closely with his word that ‘I’ and word are indistinguishable: he is word. In the same way, to faith, his work is nothing else than the unreserved way in which he merges himself into this very work; he performs himself and gives himself; his work is the giving of himself.”
The meaning of man is Jesus Christ, the Prototype. Hence, the work and word of man must be moving always in the direction of the attitude of self gift. The adviser of Francis is Benedict XVI.