The difference Cardinal George made

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”?

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.