On September 2, 1939, the House of Commons debated the British government’s response to the German invasion of Poland the previous day. The ruling Conservative Party was badly divided between those demanding that Britain fulfill its obligations to Poland and those addicted to the habits of appeasement. “Party loyalty” was being invoked to drown out Conservative opposition to Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain when the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak. Then, from the Tory back benches, came the voice of an anti-appeasement Conservative, Leo Amery, who cried, “Speak for England, Arthur!”
Who speaks for country and principle, not just for faction or party? It’s a perennial question. I was reminded of it, and of Leo Amery, when my friend, Senator Henry M. Jackson, died in 1983, and one of his aides said, “We’ve just lost the last adult in the Senate.” When I asked what that meant, he replied, “There was only one man here who, when a crisis was at hand and the country was at risk, had the personal authority to say, in effect, ‘Close the door; let’s get serious and get this settled.’” That’s what the death of Scoop Jackson meant: the last reference point had left the scene. (And if you want a sense of that aide’s prescience, look at the U.S. Senate today.)
Legislative bodies with contending factions and ideas need that kind of leadership: They need someone—or, preferably, several someones—with the authority to speak for the common good and get others to think outside the narrow confines of their own concerns and interests. And so (if I may stretch an analogy just a bit) do bishops conferences.
The death of Cardinal Francis George on April 17 opened a breach in the life and work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Since Cardinal John O’Connor’s death in 2000, Cardinal George played the role championed by Leo Amery and embodied by Scoop Jackson in another sphere of action: Cardinal George was the man with the authority, in this case, to “speak for the Church,” and to get his brother bishops to bracket their differences and act as one for the good of the Church. He did it quietly, but he also did it effectively. And he could do it because of who he was: His character and insight made him the reference point when things were very serious.
When Francis George was appointed archbishop of Chicago, an auxiliary bishop who will remain nameless said, “Oh no, he’s the one who gets up at the meetings and uses those words the bishops don’t understand.” Well, His Nameless (and now deceased) Excellency may not have understood, but others did. And those who didn’t necessarily have the same breadth of learning and culture as Francis George nonetheless followed his lead because they knew him as a man of erudition and humility who thought things through, who had the courage to follow his convictions, and who could be trusted to speak for the Church, not just for his point of view or his “party.”
It was immensely important that the bishops elected Cardinal George their conference president in 2007. For it was his leadership that created the broad consensus about the Catholic future in America that led to the election of Cardinal Timothy Dolan as conference president in 2010—and that made possible the bishops’ stalwart defense of religious freedom in the face of an administration determined to bend the Church and its work of healing, educating, and empowering the poor to the government’s will.
That contest is by no means over, for the modern state—whoever is in charge—seems to have an irresistible urge to expand its reach, shrinking the sphere of civil society in the process. This tendency is a direct challenge to the core Catholic social doctrine principle of subsidiarity. And it must be resisted, even as the Church works to marry subsidiarity to solidarity with the weakest among us.
So: Who will now “speak for the Church”?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.