Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He has a unique perspective on the dissent crisis on Catholic university campuses, and his position with the English language Catholic translating body means he knows the latest on the new translation of the Mass that has been in the works for years.

The cardinal spoke last month with Contributing Editor Tom McFeely.


You have expressed concern in the past regarding the implementation in the United States of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic education, and canon law regarding higher education. Is the situation improving with respect to this problem?

Many theologians in many Catholic colleges have the mandatum, which means they are teaching, as they understand it and the bishop understands it, in communion with the Church — not in the name of the Church, but as faithful Catholics.

That’s encouraging. Not all have, but a good number have. Much depends on the university and its own inner culture.

I think between bishops and presidents there is an ongoing conversation in most parts of the country that started with the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Therefore we now meet not as strangers but as friends who sit down periodically, a couple of times a year usually, to discuss the state of the universities.

Many universities have added programs, such as Catholic studies programs, to reinforce the Catholic identity. They’ve paid greater concern to campus ministry.

So there are some very promising developments. But the academic culture as such in our country is quite secular and it produces pressures on even Catholic universities to conform their internal policies to what regular academic institutions do, rather than be exceptional.

In the ’60s, when the rules around in loco parentis [in the place of a parent] disappeared, it created a struggle for the universities in any sense to try to supervise the lives of their students, whether in the dorms or anywhere else. And that strongly is played out in our Catholic universities, too.

The sense of academic freedom that came in with the Land O’Lakes statement is just like the sense of academic freedom in the secular universities. Namely, it’s a way to protect the independence and the autonomy of an individual professor, not as a way formally to protect the search for truth, as it is in the Catholic understanding of freedom: Freedom is for the purpose of discovering truth, not just to protect somebody’s privileged position.

So those are tensions that are ongoing that haven’t been resolved, and I’m not sure we have the means to see our way out of those problems now.


What means are needed to be able to find a way to resolve those problems at Catholic universities?

I think you want to have administrators and professors who see the problems as the Church defines them and who don’t see them just as American academic culture defines them.

Sometimes you have those people, sometimes you don’t.


You are a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara committee, which monitors the progress of the new English translation of the Roman Missal. What’s the timeline for the translation’s completion, and what is the bishops’ conference planning to facilitate its introduction in the United States?

I think the basic translation is completely done. It has to be revised and it has to be submitted to the various bishops’ conferences.

ICEL [International Commission on English in the Liturgy] does the translation for the conferences, but then the conferences, having approved it one by one, submit it to the Holy See. That’s where Vox Clara comes in, to tell the Holy See that we think they should approve it or not.

So Vox Clara is attached to the Holy See’s Congregation for Worship. ICEL is attached to the conferences. It’s an involved process, but it means that the translations pass through many hands.

In order to be sure that people understand why there’s going to be a different translation, there is being planned an elaborate program of catechesis. We’re doing it together with the English bishops right now and, I think, in conjunction with the Canadians as well.

So you’ll start to see, maybe a year before the Missal is going to be in our parishes, the beginnings of explanations about the various differences of translation — what’s the sense of liturgical language, why it’s different from ordinary language, how it’s a witness to the mysteries of faith and therefore speaks first about God and only secondarily about ourselves, although we ourselves are in Christ and therefore related to God.

Those are all catechetical programs that have to be put in place, just as, incidentally, in regard to the papal visit, we now have catechetical materials that we should see in the next couple of weeks for our grade schools and for our parishes, to tell people once again who the Pope is and what his role is in Catholic communion.

So the Church shouldn’t do something, whether it’s to use a missal or receive a papal visit, without trying to explain it catechetically so people’s faith is reinforced by these events and they don’t become moments of controversy.

Whether it’s a papal visit or a new missal, there’s going to be some controversy. There always is.


How do you think lay Catholics are doing in terms of understanding the liturgical renewal and accommodating themselves to it?

Well, lay Catholics are a lot of people, aren’t they? Some I think have deep knowledge of liturgy and what we’re doing, many have a quite adequate knowledge, and some go to Mass sometimes out of duty or for some other reason and don’t have a particularly profound knowledge of the liturgy itself but know that they want to use it to get close to God.

I found out as a pastor that you have to be very careful in introducing liturgical change. There was a very astute lady in my archdiocesan pastoral council, when I was talking about a small change that came about when we introduced the new regulations that came from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal a couple of years ago. I said something like, “Well, it’s just a small change.”

She corrected me and said, “Cardinal, there are no small changes in liturgy.” And she was quite right.

Liturgy is the way that people pray together, along with devotions and private prayer. And when you’re praying, that’s serious business. So any change is a big change and we have to therefore do the adequate catechesis and the explanation and then be sure that people are ready to welcome the change as much as possible.

If it’s a good change, they’ll welcome it.


Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.