Cardinal George: an anniversary appreciation

When Francis Eugene George first sought admission to the Chicago seminary in the 1950s, Chicago Catholicism imagined itself the future of the Catholic Church in the western world—and not without reason. A lot of the ferment in Catholic intellectual, liturgical and pastoral life that would eventually produce the Second Vatican Council had already passed through Cook and Lake Counties in the previous two decades. Thus “this confident Church” (as one historian of Chicago Catholicism dubbed it) readily imagined itself the cutting-edge of the Catholic future: where Chicago was, the rest of the Church would eventually be. It was a conceit, to be sure; but it was a conceit with some institutional and pastoral foundation.

Now, as he marks his golden anniversary of priestly ordination on Dec. 21, Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., the first native Chicagoan to lead what many still regard as the flagship American diocese, is best known, in some circles at least, for proposing the possibility of a very different Catholic future. He sketched it starkly for a group of priests, to illustrate the implications of radical secularization for America: “I will die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die as a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

There have likely been moments when my friend Cardinal George has rued the day he publicly engaged in that thought-exercise. Many 21st-century Catholics are reluctant to think outside their comfort-zones; the blogosphere can distort anything. Yet the arresting way he formulated that possible future, and especially its net result, gets us to the essence of Francis Eugene George, I suggest.

By the time Francis George became its bishop in 1997, the “confident Church” of Chicago had become a shaken Church: pastoral practice was slack; practice of the faith, by such elementary measures as Sunday Mass attendance and frequency of sacramental confession, had taken a severe hit; the seminary was in various forms of distress. Cardinal George addressed these and other problems in the face of ecclesiastical resistance (both clerical and lay), an increasingly challenging public environment, and a deteriorating culture. Yet even after a difficult decade of working to restore Catholic practice in the Windy City, Cardinal George remained confident that, even if the worst should happen down the line, the Catholic Church would not only survive but become one of the agents of society’s renewal. And the cardinal’s confidence rested, not on the vast institutional network that buttressed the “confident Church” of his boyhood, but on his faith in the Lord’s promise that the Holy Spirit would always be with the Church, calling it to conversion and mission, to the works of charity and service.

Francis Eugene George is a man of well-honed, critical intelligence. But to focus solely on the man of intellect can sometimes obscure the deeper truth that he is a man of profound faith: the cross-centered faith that supports the remarkable physical courage of this polio survivor who must bear regular pain; the faith in divine mercy that allows him to say, without blush, that “the most important conversations on the planet” take place in the confessional; the evangelically alert faith that has led him to support such bold initiatives as Father Robert Barron’s “Word on Fire” media ministry and its remarkable “Catholicism” series; the ecclesial faith that made him an effective leader of the U.S. bishops, preparing the way for the work of Cardinal Timothy Dolan and many others.

He may well be the most intellectually sophisticated bishop in U.S. Catholic history; he certainly has shown keen insight into the sources of America’s current crisis of public culture. Yet as he marks the 50th anniversary of the day when he became a priest of the Church, an icon of the eternal priesthood of Christ, it is as a brother in Christ whose faith-based Christian courage gives courage to others that I wish to salute him.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”