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Luke Coppen's Catholic Herald Blog

Cardinal George on the thirst for power

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For me, the web highlight of the week was John Allen’s long, thought-provoking interview with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

I was especially struck by his suggestion that both “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics share a common obsession with ecclesiastical power. He recommends that instead of defining ourselves as liberals or conservatives, we should call ourselves “simply Catholic”. According to Cardinal George, “simply Catholicism” is focused on serving Christ, rather than exerting influence in the Church. Here’s how he expresses it, in conversation with Allen:

You wade back into a debate you set off in 1998, when you defined liberal Catholicism as an ‘exhausted project’. Among other things, you write that while liberals and conservatives often see themselves as opposites, both share an implied ecclesiology that comes from St. Robert Bellarmine, defining the church as a visible society. Can you explain that?

For both of them, bishops take on an importance that’s disproportionate. Liberals and conservatives both define themselves vis-à-vis authority.

Broadly speaking, liberals want you to have less of it, and conservatives want you to use it more.

Liberals are critical of [authority], although they’ll use it when they’re in power. Conservatives would tend to be less critical, but equally dependent upon it.

Consequently, when you get into the Church, you get the conservatives unhappy because bishops aren’t using power the way they’re supposed to, the way they want them to. You get liberals who are unhappy because [the bishops] have any power at all. Both of them are defining themselves vis-à-vis the bishops rather than vis-à-vis Christ, who uses the bishops to govern the church. It’s not a Christ-centered church, as it’s supposed to be, it’s a bishop-centered church.”

This chimes with the Gospel reading we will hear on Sunday, October 18, Mark 10:35-45, in which James and John ask to sit next to Jesus in the Kingdom, one at his right and the other at his left. Jesus replies:

You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The cardinal’s idea isn’t original, of course. Fr Robert Barron advocates a “post-liberal, post-conservative evangelical Catholicism” and in Witness to Hope George Weigel mentions that the future cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger wrote an influential essay in which he argued that French Catholics on the Left and Right shared a common thirst for power in the Church. But still, it’s interesting to see the president of the American bishops’ conference making the case.

With that, it’s time to add Cardinal George’s new book, The Difference God Makes, to my Amazon wish list.

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Written by Luke Coppen

October 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm

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