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In the spring of 1997, a routine meeting of the finance council of a venerable archdiocese (best left unnamed) was interrupted by the startling news that Pope John Paul II had just appointed Francis George, archbishop of Portland, Oregon, for less than a year, as archbishop of Chicago. “Oh, no,” groaned the local auxiliary bishop (also best left in anonymity); “he’s the one who gets up at meetings and uses all those words the bishops can’t understand.”

Well, whatever His Anonymous Excellency didn’t get, others did. Indeed, a lot of the American episcopate not only understood what Francis George was saying over the years but were in sufficient agreement with what they heard that they elected the cardinal archbishop of Chicago their president. In doing so, they affirmed the potent combination of dynamic orthodoxy and robust engagement with a threatening cultural environment that now defines the U.S. bishops’ ecclesial self-understanding and public profile—and that will continue to characterize the vital, vibrant centers of the Church in the United States in the future. Still, that theologically challenged auxiliary was on to something: Francis Eugene George, O.M.I., who will be archbishop emeritus of Chicago as of November 18, was not cut from the typical cloth out of which American bishops have traditionally been fashioned.

There have been a few scholar-bishops in U.S. Catholic history; in antebellum America, Francis Patrick Kenrick, sixth archbishop of Baltimore, translated the entire Bible by himself (his cantankerous brother, Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis, argued that the U.S. bishops shouldn’t pay for the publication of his brother’s work). But as a general rule, university-based scholars and men of notable intellectual accomplishment have not been regularly chosen for episcopal leadership in the United States, as has often been the case in Europe. Francis George was the outstanding exception to this rule in the entire history of the American episcopate: a first-class intellectual who became both a successful local bishop and a major figure in the national conference of bishops.

Francis George brought to his episcopal ministry, in both its local and national expressions, a sophisticated appreciation of the distinctiveness of the Catholic experience in the United States and a finely honed critique of the underpinnings of the American experiment in ordered liberty. Knowing exactly what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was talking about when he spoke before the conclave of 2005 of a “dictatorship of relativism,” Cardinal George’s keen mind and his pastoral experience led him to the conclusion that twenty-first-century American democracy was in trouble—to the point where he famously observed that, while he would die in his bed, his own successor would die in prison and his successor’s successor would be martyred in the public square. It was a deliberately provocative formulation, intended to shake his audience out of their complacency, but it would be foolish to deny that there was a large kernel of truth in what he said.

Cardinal George also knew that the liberal Catholicism that defined the establishment Catholic response to Vatican II and the first thirty-some years of the postconciliar bishops’ conference was going to be of no assistance in meeting the challenges posed to an American Catholicism menaced no longer by Protestant nativists but by aggressive and hegemonic secularists. John Henry Newman’s biglietto speech” (1879)—given in response to the formal notification, or biglietto, from Pope Leo XIII that he would be made a cardinal—was a brilliant and pointed polemic against “liberalism in religion.” George, in 1998, echoed Newman when he observed that the times were indeed a-changin’:

“We are at a turning point in the life of the Church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.

“The answer, however, is not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ.

“The answer is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any culture and yet able to engage and transform them all, a faith joyful in all the gifts Christ wants to give us and open to the whole world he died to save. The Catholic faith shapes a church with a lot of room for differences in pastoral approach, for discussion and debate, for initiatives as various as the peoples whom God loves. But, more profoundly, the faith shapes a church which knows her Lord and knows her own identity, a church able to distinguish between what fits into the tradition that unites her to Christ and what is a false start or a distorting thesis, a church united here and now because she is always one with the church throughout the ages and with the saints in heaven.”

His deep Christian faith, his theological sophistication, and his doctoral studies in American philosophy gave Francis George a depth of insight, perhaps unique among American bishops, into the way American religiosity tended to bend historic Christian traditions to the cultural winds prevailing at any given moment—a pattern also recognized by John Courtney Murray in his analysis of postwar mainline Protestantism’s inability to provide cultural ballast for the American democratic experiment. That bending, Cardinal George understood, had warped American Catholicism in the post–Vatican II period. As he put it in an essay for Commonweal that picked up where his earlier announcement of the death of liberal Catholicism had left off, “Instead of understanding Vatican II as a limited accommodation to modernity for the sake of evangelizing the modern world, the liberal project [in Catholicism] seems often to interpret the council as a mandate to change whatever in the Church clashes with modern society. To caricature somewhat, the project both for ecclesial renewal and for mission in the world takes its cues from the editorial page of the New York Times or, even worse, USA Today.”

Beneath that tendency to let the world set the agenda for the Church, however, lay an even graver problem, one that Newman had earlier nailed in the biglietto speech when he observed that liberalism promotes “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion.” Cardinal George saw exactly that at work in postconciliar U.S. Catholicism: “Behind the crisis of visible authority or governance in a liberal church lies a crisis of truth. . . . The cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice.” And the net result of this supine accommodation to the intellectual and cultural fashions of the day, in today’s postmodern moment of incoherence wed to decadence and political correctness, was a Catholicism emptied of its essence: “The church, at best, is the body of John the Baptist, pointing to a ­Jesus not yet risen from the dead and, therefore, a role model or prophet but not a savior.”

Not a Church, in other words, prepared for the mission to which John Paul II summoned all Catholics in his call for a New Evangelization; not a Church equipped to give America a new birth of freedom rightly understood; not a Church capable of helping secure the crumbling moral and cultural foundations of an America being dumbed down from a republic of virtue to a republic of the imperial autonomous self.

Throughout his seventeen years as archbishop of Chicago, and in his efforts in the national bishops’ conference, Cardinal George worked not to slay liberal Catholicism (which he knew was doomed by its own implausibility) but to create a Catholicism true to the authentic legacy of Vatican II: a Catholicism that, having met the Risen Lord and having experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, could bring to twenty-first-century America the revealed truth about the Merciful Father who restores to his children the human dignity they have squandered by self-indulgence. That kind of Catholicism, he knew, was the only Catholicism—“simply Catholicism,” as he put it—that could be both faithful and helpful: faithful to its Master and helpful in the public square.

As to what form that public helpfulness might take, well, the cardinal had some ideas about that, too. When his speculations about his fate and that of his two immediate successors went viral on the Internet, the last sentence of Francis George’s provocative rumination about the future was almost always omitted. After his death in bed and the persecution of his successors, the cardinal had continued, his third successor would “pick up the shards of a ­ruined ­society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” It was a statement of the profoundly ecclesial faith that led Francis George to take Christo gloria in ecclesia (glory to Christ in the Church) as his episcopal motto. It also spoke volumes about the character of the man.

For beneath the scintillating brilliance and the sparkling skill in argument is a man of holiness and courage: a polio survivor who has lived with chronic pain since he was a teenager, who has faced down cancer on several occasions, and who has borne suffering of body and spirit with the grace and fortitude that come from a lifetime of meditation on the mystery of the Cross. The episcopal example he leaves behind is not to be measured, in the final analysis, by his articles and books but by his fidelity to Christ the Lord, to whose love he responded by pouring out his own life, just as the Master had done.   

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.