The Wrong Meme in Chicago

Originally at:

by Michael Sean Winters

A dominant meme has emerged in the media about the appointment of Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich as the next Archbishop of Chicago, succeeding Cardinal Francis George. The meme is that the great liberal +Cupich is replacing mean, conservative Cardinal George. This meme does a disservice to both men and misunderstands the Church and her mission.

First, let me admit my bias. I like Cardinal George and have never found him to be mean. As I have related previously, when he was first appointed, I rushed out and procured both of his doctoral dissertations. The philosophy dissertation was very smart but half of it concerned very particular issues of concern only to professional philosophers and the other half was way over my head. But the theology dissertation on inculturation was profound and quickly became one of those books that never left my desk to make its way back on to the shelf. The quote that had me, right up front in the introduction, was this:

Americans, especially missionaries, who break out of this cultural conditioning and begin to see their native country through the eyes of a truly different people sometimes turn American moralism onAmerica itself. If the United States is not to be a beacon, the universally inclusive ‘city on hill,’ then it must be a sinkhole, the evil source of global exploitation. Sometimes this judgment is religiously justified as a prophetic stance. Sometimes, in more sociological terms, disillusion calls itself countercultural. Criticisms of institutions and social structures is not, however, countercultural in an anti-authoritarian society such as that of the United States, a country where the mass media lionize dissent. Nor is every social criticism prophetic. The Hebrew prophets, critical though they were, never told their people that they should renounce their past and cease to be Israelites. Rather, the prophets pointed to God and called their people back to their original covenant, to the best in themselves and their history. Modern alienation is not a biblical virtue.  

That is some mighty fine prose writing and some very incisive thinking on display there and his words have shaped my understanding of Catholic identity ever since, better to say Catholic identities for increasingly I am attuned to the fact that the Church, and indeed any religious group, must be attentive to the varied and the plural lest it become a sect. But, that is a discussion for another day.

My liking for Cardinal George only increased when, last year at the USCCB meeting, the cardinal approached me in the hall and thanked me for a recent article I had written. Being complimented on a piece of writing by someone with the cardinal’s intellect is like being called ugly by a frog. It makes you feel very proud.

Some took offense when Cardinal George said that “liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project.” I have never asked him precisely what he meant but I am quite confident that he did not mean that those of us who were born into the world with a liberal heart – or those born into the world with a conservative heart for that matter – are incapable of seeking the Kingdom of God. Insofar as there was “a project,” and insofar as that project entailed the importation of non-biblical, essentially political and sociological categories into the Church’s self-understanding, liberal Catholicism has indeed exhausted itself and was bound to do so. You can pick any century, almost any decade, in the history of the Church and find this kind of importation of an alien line of thought that brings confusion not light to the Church. I would argue that one could as easily, and rightly, say that neo-con Catholicism is an exhausted project, and I suspect the cardinal would at least give my argument a hearing.

The bigger point is this. Cardinal George is a complicated and refined thinker, and a person can never be the one without the other. I fear that too many of my liberal friends believed about Cardinal George what certain conservative cultural commentators said of him. They did the same with Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, two other complicated and refined thinkers. But, it is a grave simplification with a resulting distortion to reduce these men to what the neo-cons say about them. I have no particular knowledge about the situation of the Church in Chicago, but I know that Fr. Michael Pfleger is still the pastor of Saint Sabina all these years on, and that should at least give pause to those who reduce Cardinal George’s tenure to seventeen unrelentingly conservative years. If that doesn’t do the trick, here is another of my favorite quotes from Cardinal George: “We have to form people with a genuine love of today’s city and love our culture itself. Even with its demonic elements, the culture must be loved, because you cannot evangelize what you do not love.”

Recently, reading Cardinal George’s writings, and especially his last column “A Tale of Two Churches,” has made me sad. These were the words of someone who seems depressed, which is understandable given his battle with cancer. I pray that in the time that is left to him, he will have the great grace of being able to look back at his own life, and his innumerable contributions to the life of the Church, and that he will be overcome with gratitude.

As for the in-coming Archbishop, only in certain crazed sectors of the conservative blogosphere is +Blase Cupich understood as a raging and/or goofy liberal. Ironically, some on the left have glommed onto this narrative too. Both sides cite, one approvingly, and one alarmingly, his comments on tolerance and the innate human dignity of gays and lesbians in a pastoral letter he wrote in advance of last year’s referendum on same sex marriage in Washington state. Neither side notes that +Cupich was quoting almost verbatim a document from the CDF written by that meanie Cardinal Ratzinger. To cite another example, conservatives voice their disgust at +Cupich’s remarks at the “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism” conference sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies in June. But, they seem to have forgotten the way +Cupich ended that talk, with a powerful quote from Pope Benedict.

In sum, Archbishop-elect Cupich is as orthodox as any bishop I know – and, as a matter of fact, there is no bishop I know who would merit the designation unorthodox. His style and demeanor will be different from that of his predecessor to be sure. He is sunny and the joy of the Gospel shines through when he speaks and interacts with people. But, he is scarcely ignorant of the shadow of the Cross. Memes have their purpose. They provide shorthand for writing about complex realities. But the meme that the great liberal hope is replacing the mean conservative champion distorts more than it explains. In looking at Cardinal George and Archbishop-elect Cupich at the press conference last Saturday, I saw two great churchmen, each with their own gifts and limitations, both who have dedicated their lives to the Gospel and the Church. Pitting the one against the other is a fool’s errand and a disservice to both men.

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