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Posted Wednesday, May 26, 2004 at 1:35 p.m. CDT

Interview with Cardinal Francis George

May 25, 2004

By John L. Allen, Jr.
Rome

NCR: How did you find the Holy Father?
George: It's always a pleasure to talk to the Holy Father. He is of course a victim, a captive, of his illness, but he listened carefully when I spoke. He was attentive. When the auxiliaries came in, he really perked up. He asked a number of questions about Chicago. He talked about my predecessors, [Joseph] Bernardin and [John] Cody, whom he had known in different capacities. He kind of reminisced, then he asked questions about the state of the church. Obviously, he's not a well man.

When's the last time you saw him?
The last time I saw him was January, the last time I talked to him was October.

In comparison, how do you find him?
In October, as everyone said, he wasn't doing well. Whether he changed medicines or whether it's just that the medicines are more effective, he's more limber now.

Part of it too is that they've pared his schedule back to the bare minimum.
It used to be 20 minutes or more for the ad limina visit, now it's 15, 10 sometimes, depending on circumstances.

I know you've threatened to deny communion to reporters who ask you John Kerry questions, and I don't want to risk interdict.
Only in Chicago!

You're waiting for the McCarrick Commission to report.
Something as important as this, yes. The big complaint about the bishops around the sexual abuse scandal was, "You guys don't have your act together. Act as one." This is something where we should try to act as one.

As a practical matter, however, we have a campaign. Have you given your pastors any guidance as to how to respond if pro-choice candidates come up the communion line?
I have talked to all the priests in the vicariate meetings and also in the presbyteral council about that, to get their feedback on it, to see where they are. There's been no instruction from me to them on that, and it would be premature. We should try to stay together on this as bishops.

So the issues are sufficiently complex that it's not immediately obvious what the right course of action is?
No, there are a lot of variables that have to be considered. The doctrinal issue is clear, there's no question about abortion being an "abominable crime" as the Second Vatican Council describes it, and there are no exceptions. It's unlike other pro-life issues. There can be a just war. It is still morally possibly for a state to execute someone. But in this case, the teaching is absolute, it's in the tradition from the first century and even before it comes from the Jewish understanding of life. It's a paramount issue, but how to translate it into pastoral policy You have to take account of the context, of what will happen if. The teaching is clear, but so far we have not been clear about sanctions. All of a sudden, for the first time we have this question. The documents don't talk about sanctions. Even the Roman document about the role of Catholics in public life doesn't mention sanctions. Therefore, if we have to apply sanctions, we ought to be clear about what we're doing. That's not to say we shouldn't, but it means that all the variables have to be considered. It's also somewhat ironic that the conversation is complicated politically in the United States because it's been defined as a constitutional right. Unlike elsewhere where legislators decided, it was the judges who decided for us. It's somewhat strange that we're talking about candidates for political office, when we should be talking about judges, it seems to me. There are just all kinds of variables that still have to be thought through before we come to what I hope will be a common policy.

Do you regret that some of your brother bishops didn't wait for a common policy?
That has the advantage of advancing the conversation. Bishops have to take account of their own pastoral responsibilities, diocese by diocese. Perhaps the conversation wouldn't be where it is if they hadn't done that.

I understand your reluctance to answer this question, but I feel obligated to ask it: Would you give communion to John Kerry?
I'm not going to answer that, because I haven't thought it through thoroughly with the help of my brother bishops. You're asking me to impose a sanction, and I just got done saying that we should be careful about imposing sanctions and try to do so together.

Let's move away from John Kerry, and let me put a hypothetical situation to you. Suppose there's a Catholic politician who clearly upholds the teaching of the church on the immorality of abortion. He or she may give money to help pregnant women, may be involved personally in counseling women on alternatives. Yet, on the basis of a prudential political judgment, this politician believes that in the present historical moment, a law abolishing abortion would not reduce the incidence of abortion, but would drive it underground and produce negative consequences. Hence, the politician concludes that the cultural ground must first be prepared, and in the meantime he or she will vote against measures to outlaw or restrict abortion - not out of any sympathy for abortion, but out of a prudential judgment that such measures will only make the situation worse. Is that a coherent Catholic position?
Well, it's not an American position. The only people who can change the legislation on abortion to abolish it are the justices on the Supreme Court. This is now a constitutional right, it's not something enacted by law, which makes the rhetoric strange. The language of rights means that normally you try to advance rights, rather than to diminish them. That's a situation that can't arise in the United States because we can't abolish this by legislative action. Even the attempts by legislators to limit it run into the constitutional provisions that the courts have given us. I really don't feel that's a real situation for us pastorally.

What I'm trying to get at is the distinction between moral analysis and legislative strategy.
Evangelium Vitae speaks about that situation. It says that people who are elected are expected to observe the law, but if the law is unjust as the abortion situation is -- it's against the common good, not just against Catholic doctrine -- they are expected to work to try to limit those laws in the context in which we live. The profession that they are personally opposed to abortion takes care of the fact that someone's personal faith is intact, so we're not talking about that, which is what much of the Code [of Canon Law] is talking about. Are their public actions designed to limit abortion as much as possible within the context of the constitutional structure that they can't change? Yes, I think you could look at that, and then you would draw your conclusions. Again, the peculiar situation of abortion and its place in the American legal system derives from the fact that it's not the action of the legislature that has given us this, it's the action of the courts.

But is there room for a diversity of opinion on political strategy -- whether it's legislative, judicial or cultural -- as long as the moral point is clear that no just society can tolerate the practice of abortion?
That's right. The question is, how do we limit it most effectively? Those are questions of prudential judgment around which there can be many discussions. The church has not taken a position on which of those strategies is to be preferred, and I don't think we should.

So it is not as simple as saying, this politician voted against a particular piece of legislation, therefore he has broken communion with the church?
I don't think anybody's saying that. They're saying, you've got politicians whose whole record is defensive of the constitutional right to abortion.

But there is a danger of conflating moral witness with political strategy?
The fact is, you can't separate them, but they're not the same. In that sense, your point is accurate. What that leads you to as a conclusion for pastoral practice is another matter. You're not able to talk about that, I don't believe, without talking about particular situations.

Let me bring some international perspective to this. It is striking that in Italy, in France, in Austria, in Holland, and many other parts of the world, there are Catholic politicians who attend Mass and who take positions on various issues that are not consistent with church teaching. I'm not aware of any other country in which bishops are talking about imposing sanctions on these people. Why do you think this question is coming up in the United States and not anywhere else?
That's a very good question, and we've raised it ourselves, even with the Roman Curia. They of course are not willing to talk for any particular conference, even if they come from that country. Some of it is, I think, our particular political situation. First of all, we're the only country that has said there is a constitutional right. Other countries have passed it as a matter of legislative procedure, and therefore they can work with it more easily. Thus the political rhetoric is at a certain level. [Attempts to limit abortion are seen as] against the freedom of women, and freedom is our most important value. We'll kill for freedom, we do it all the time. That's a peculiar cultural situation in our country. We also have a political situation that changes culture and laws by crusades. So, I think you have ideological movements that are much more single-minded in some ways in our country than perhaps you would have in the political process in other countries. Given that situation, you also have groups eager to capture whatever authority they can from the church, and so you have a politicization of the internal conversation in the church herself that you wouldn't have elsewhere. Not about doctrine, but about pastoral practice. For all those reasons, I think we have a unique situation in America, for good or for ill, and you can't easily make the comparison to other places. But your comparison is fair in the sense of, where is the discussion in these other places?

I wonder if there's a European dimension that helps explain this too, which is the experience of anti-clericalism, fueled in part by a sense that the church for too long exercised political and secular power. Hence perhaps there's an extra sensitivity about anything that appears to hearken back to that, which is not part of our cultural experience in the United States.
Well, that's an interesting idea. I'd have to think about that, but it makes sense listening to you say it. Of course, the analogue to anti-clericalism in Catholic Europe is anti-Catholicism in secularized America. So I'm not sure the pastoral dynamics for making a decision are totally different, even if what you say is correct. I'm somewhat aware of the history of anti-clericalism in France, in Italy, and in Spain, and while I'm not sure what you say is true, it might well be.

You said you discussed this with officials in the Holy See what did you hear?
They're not going to comment on other conferences before our conference. We just brought it forward to ask, if we're having this conversation, and it's an important one, why don't we hear echoes of it elsewhere where the situation is similar? Not totally similar, because the three points I mentioned are special to us. Of course they're not going to talk about another conference, that's not their job, anymore than they would talk about our conference to the Belgians or the Spaniards. But they listened, and they noted the fact.

What vibe do you get about what they see happening the United States?
Their concern is always the clarity of teaching of the faith, and the moral discipline that flows from it. They don't get into pastoral practice. That's really not their responsibility.

You're not picking up a sense that Vatican officials are encouraged by what's happening, or alarmed by it?
They listened to the conversation. Where there is something they have competence to speak to, which isn't pastoral practice but rather what does canon law enjoin, what does the faith teach, there they'll speak. They're very concerned about that, and rightly so. This is the see that gives witness from the time of Peter to the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and everything else flows from that. They're very aware of that. They're also aware of their own limitations. They're not going to come in and define pastoral practice in any country of the world.

But you're not going back with the sense that they want you to go forward, or go in any particular direction.
They won't tell us that. They shouldn't do that, it's not their competence.

In general, what concerns are you picking up in the dicasteries about the United States?
Each one asks about its own concerns. With the Congregation for Consecrated Life, they asked about the health of monasteries and communities of women, contemplative vocations, the alienation of property on the past of religious institutes that are no longer able to sustain a ministry. The Congregation for Bishops is very concerned about the morale of priests and the unity between bishops and priests, as you would expect them to be, particularly in light of the scandal. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is in charge of cases, so they talk about how they're handling cases, what is our experience, things they don't like about what we're doing in light of the reports they get from unhappy priests or an unhappy victims' group.

These are procedural questions?
Yes, around that issue it's procedural. We have the particular law, the law is settled, for the moment.

Speaking of the particular law, the American norms expire in March 2005. Is it your expectation that the bishops will ask for an extension of the recognitio?
We haven't discussed that. I really couldn't talk for others. I think that it's important to keep these structures in place, which have enabled us to respond, as long as they're needed. The structures for protecting children are in place, particularly with the VIRTUS program that's now in almost every diocese that I'm aware of. The structures for reaching out to victims will be with us permanently. We have victims' assistance ministries in every diocese, and we should have. The treatment of priests who have been accused of this can be revised, to be sure that everyone's rights are amply protected, and also to keep the promise of Dallas that those who would be a danger to children, and that's defined as anyone who has this in his background, would be permanently out of public ministry. That is going to have to be discussed again and again, because people in the United States and here are raising the question, is that true? But the victims' groups are very forceful in their statements on this, and that has great credibility. Every single victim that you talk to, no matter what else they might say or what they're really about, always says, "Be sure that no one goes through what I went though." That has to be taken extraordinarily seriously. With a recidivism rate of 15 to 20 percent, you can't chance it. The way in which you keep people away from public ministry might vary a bit as we go forward. Almost everybody we know of who has this in his background is now out of ministry, at least when you talk to the bishops, [they say] we took them all out. That's one of the reasons there's such a delay in adjudicating these cases here, because they've been simply swamped. We have kept the promise of Dallas. We will continue with the second audit, we all know that. The only question was, what kind of audit are we talking about? When the compliance audit is finished, now you want to do a progress audit what is a progress audit? Now they finally have the instrument for the audit together, and that will go on. The annual reports will go on. Whether or not an audit has to be the basis of those reports is an open question, that's not promised.

You're not taking for granted that the bishops will ask the Holy See to extend the norms?
I can't because we haven't discussed it. I think there's a good case for saying that, until we're sure that the structures in place that have enabled us to address it are not going to be in jeopardy.

Just to clarify: You are in favor of maintaining the zero tolerance stance?
I am in favor of protecting children at all costs, and that means that people who have this in their past - even one act, though it's not clear how many cases there are of that - are not to be in public ministry for the sake of the protection of children. That's our policy, and at this point I would argue for it. But you have to treat every priest fairly, and you have to ask, are there ways for a man to somehow remain in priesthood without public ministry where there would be no children involved? On that, there may be more latitude than we have now. But basically, the bottom line is the protection of children and ensuring that there are no more victims to the best that we can assure that.

What would it mean to remain in priesthood without public ministry?
Clerical work, canonical work. Perhaps in a chancery, though even there it depends upon where in the chancery.

Do you believe the National Review Board has lost the confidence of the bishops?
No, I don't at all. I'm not speaking for all bishops, but I think the vast majority are grateful. The report they did is, I think, very helpful, not that I would have to agree with every sentence in it. We owe a debt of gratitude to them. At the same time as that moves forward its nature will change, because the problems that are to be addressed are going to keep evolving. I understand, for example, that [former Oklahoma] Governor [Frank] Keating was not operating within the Review Board in a way that they themselves felt to be adequate. His departure, while it was publicized as because of his opposition to Cardinal Mahony, in fact, was decided long before that happened. Likewise the departure of people now was planned months ago. They themselves have said it's time to go, we can't continue with the kind of intensive work we've done and still keep our jobs. So, the Review Board itself will evolve with new membership, but I don't think it's lost the confidence of the bishops. I think there was some misunderstanding. When we left the administrative board, I left with the clear understanding that we would discuss this in June and make a decision in June, because we have to have a second audit and we couldn't wait until November to do that. I went with that clear understanding that this was going to happen. We wanted to make that decision formally with all the bishops present, because people had asked for that, and because it will be a contested decision. But we will do it, we promised to do it and we'll do it. It's important to keep together on this. We've said that from the beginning, act together, so we should try to stay together. That we would discuss it in June, I understood from the very beginning was the case.

So why does Justice Burke say the board was manipulated?
We promised there would be a second audit, we promised it in Dallas in June 2002. That commitment is made. I haven't spoken to her about this, and I don't want to speak for Justice Burke. When she found opposition, which perhaps surprised her, she got concerned that maybe the promise wouldn't be kept. Opposition by a group doesn't mean that the whole group won't keep its promise. I presume it was a misunderstanding, and now from what I understand everything seems to be patched up and going along OK. I don't think it's my place to sit down and question her as to where her understanding came from. They have an independence, and rightly so. On the other hand, the bishops have an independence. Independence works both ways.

Appropos of that, there are circles in which this independence you speak of the review board enjoying is troubling.
I haven't heard that. I don't think it takes bishops off the hook. There are two different sets of responsibilities. The bishops have a responsibility to act, the board has an obligation to oversee, and at the bishops' own request, to examine them on what they're doing. The board doesn't act except to mandate a report and to analyze it. It doesn't act in regard to priests or in regard to governing the church. It asks if the bishops have acted. I don't think the existence of the board takes away our responsibilities. It reminds us that we have a responsibility to Christ and to his people, and that's healthy. What its long-term institutionalization will look like is a question that I think is open, that I don't have a clear idea on yet. We have to talk about, and I think we should talk to the members of the Review Board themselves. I think they comported themselves extremely well. I think most bishops are grateful to the Review Board.

You're not threatened by their autonomy?
No. We asked them to do something, and they did it well. Now, what's their role? We have to move along and discuss the progress. A certain step has been passed. Now we have to go back and take the John Jay report and do the analysis of causes. It would be wrong to allow all that data to sit there without this further study. But I think that's understood by everybody too. I don't think it's the work of the Review Board that's threatening. Part of the problem is that every time they go public with a report, all the scabs are ripped off, and our whole life and our church is held up for derision in some circles. That, I think, is not pastorally helpful, and we should try to figure out how that might be avoided, even as we go forward responsibly with over sight from others who can see whether or not we're keeping our promises. I think that's a healthy dynamic. On some of these things I don't have an idea yet, and I don't want to have an idea until I've talked to other bishops.

To shift gears, in the last several months there have been statements by Vatican officials on American foreign policy that have not gone down well in some sectors of American Catholic opinion. Is there a problem with anti-Americanism in the Vatican?
I think if you go back and look at the comments, the comments before we went to war were, you're taking the just war theory and you're moving it towards a preemptive strike. Given the need for humanitarian intervention that was missing in Rwanda and elsewhere, I think the Holy See is open to that extension of just war theory.

In fact, they called for it in Kosovo.
That's right. But if you are going to do it, it must be done through the United Nations. Flawed though it is, it's the only forum for humanity as a whole to act. If you're going to act in the name of humanity or freedom or anything else, you should go through the United Nations. That was their call. Of course, they always called for peace, up to the last minute. The pope must ask for peace. It's always a failure of some sort when we have to settle disputes through violence. But once we went in, the pope simply said what just war theory says he should say. The responsibility is on those legitimate officials who have called the war, and it's a legitimate government still in the United States, and they're answerable before God for what they done. Since then, he's prayed for peace. He hasn't said we shouldn't be there. He hasn't said we should pull out. In fact, they've said it would be irresponsible to pull out right now. Obviously, he would have preferred we not go in the way we did. He has not said the war was immoral. Some people think the pope said the war is immoral, therefore he's anti-American. What I'm saying is, see what he said. Now, even within a just war - and it's arguable one way or the other - you can do unjust things. The Second World War was certainly a just war, but the dropping of A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unjust. In the context of a just war, you can do unjust acts. In this case, much to our shame and embarrassment, have been shown to be sexually mistreating, abusing and torturing prisoners of war against the Geneva Convention. Even if our presence there is justified, that certainly is unjustified, as most Americans will say. The fact they would criticize that would not seem to me to be evidence of anti-Americanism. Most Americans are saying the same thing. Then there's the third consideration, which is that Americans are just suspicious of people who disagree with them.

Especially Europeans.
Exactly. We've got that in our own culture, but we have to keep asking ourselves as we move through history, why is it that so many people distrust us? It didn't just come with this war. Whatever you might think about this war, the distrust of the United States and fear and disdain were there for decades. It's much more open because of this.

So you're not concerned about anti-Americanism in the Vatican?
Not in the Vatican as such. I'm concerned about anti-Americanism in the world. I'm concerned about our own ignorance of the world, our own lack of comprehension of how other people think, how they make judgments, and how we figure in the world. We give the impression of being totally self-absorbed. Our own problems set the agenda for the world. From that arise many resentments. That's what struck me as I went around the world for 12 years [as superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate]. Everywhere, even in Marxist countries, they knew who I was as a Catholic priest and I was welcome, they knew what to expect. I was suspect as an American. That was from 1974 to 1986, it had nothing to do with Iraq or anything else. That has certainly impacted me.

Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo told me some months ago that the Holy See wants the American project to succeed, because for all the issues they care about - human dignity, religious freedom, the rule of law - it's the only game in town. They're worried, however, that American's current direction is producing such a backlash that success will be impossible.
I think that Cardinal Ruini's funeral homily when the 19 Italian [soldiers who died in Iraq] were buried, when he said they were on a noble mission and that we should stay there to try to stabilize the country I don't believe that Ruini as the pope's vicar would have preached that homily if the pope didn't know about it. In Latin America too, all the time you went to Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s, you were faced with the Rockefeller Report, such as it was, with the suspicion of the Catholic church supposedly and the need to suppress liberation movements. That anti-Americanism was in Latin America, especially among the poor, long before we were ever in Iraq. It's that lack of comprehension, of understanding what others have been saying about us for decades, that frightens me. We don't know who we are in the world, and we don't seem particularly concerned about it.

Last question. A number of times around town I've had conversations about you in which people will construct sentences that begin peccato che lui un'americano"("too bad that he's an American"). Do you know how they finish it?
No.

Perche sarebbe un'bel papa ("because otherwise he'd be a great pope").
I don't think we're at that point, thank God.

But it must be flattering.
Sure, I'm flattered by it. I'm also frightened, because I know myself, and if this is the best the Holy Spirit can do in this generation, we are in real deep trouble!

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2004

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