In His Own Words
Cardinal George is a widely respected commentator on Catholic issues. Here, he discusses the future of the clergy, racial divisions, and restoring trust.
The Priest Shortage
The ordained priesthood is central to Catholic life. There are many reasons why there are fewer priests. Some of it is just the general secularization of the culture in society, where religion becomes a hobby. If religion is just a hobby or a pastime, you are not going to become a priest. The real problem, therefore, is discipleship. It’s not vocations in the priesthood. It’s that religion is no longer central to life.
The Changing Face of the Church
This is a church now more dominated by immigrants than it has been since the 1920s. About 40 percent of the church [in Chicago] is immigrant, and we get half of our priests from that part of the population. So that’s a whole new ballgame. The troubling thing is that we’re not getting vocations from the third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation Irish, Germans, and Italians, the ones who have really been the mainstay of the [Chicago] priesthood over the last 30 years.
The Future of Catholic Schools
There are fewer children everywhere now than there were before, but there are especially fewer in the city as it fills up with empty nesters and professionals who don’t have children. But you have to have the money, and that is complicated by the fact that the public schools now not only want public money, but they also are competing for private money. That’s new, and it has made it all the more difficult.
But the Catholic schools are marvelous schools. They root people in realities that you can’t address in public schools. They train people to be happy and not just successful.
A priest is not a bachelor; a priest is married to the church. And there are tensions in the life of a priest. It’s not a job; it’s a vocation. A marriage is not a job; it’s a vocation. So you’ve got two vocations. That doesn’t mean it can’t work. In apostolic times they would ordain married men, who would then leave their wives and kids and give themselves to this vocation. So the idea of the priest as a celibate man goes back a long, long time.
That falls outside the conversation. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have the other challenge of creating the leadership and visibility of women within the church. They were a lot more visible when there were a lot more nuns around.
The Problem of Race
This has always been a very segregated city. I think there has been a lot of progress in Chicago, but we are still pretty segregated by where we live. I have a pastoral letter that addresses that. [Read the cardinal’s 2001 pastoral letter, “Dwell in My Love.”] But concern about racism has been pretty constant. We grew up with that. There is a lot of racism, but it isn’t the Catholic Church. We live in a racist society.
Restoring Trust and Faith in the Wake of the Sexual Abuse Scandals
The bishops, whose lack of oversight of priests was responsible for allowing some predators to move forward—I think we’re the last people who can ask the people to forget and go on. What is important, however, is that we remain a church, a place of healing and forgiveness. Without forgiveness, people aren’t free, and that’s what you have to expect when you come to the journey of a victim. They have to find a moment where they can forgive; otherwise they won’t be free. But I don’t think a bishop can be the agent for that. That has to come from friends and families and others. And you rely upon the Lord’s grace to do his work.