National Catholic Register


The Church After a Storm

U.S. Bishops’ Head on the Situation That Faces American Catholics

BY Tom McFeely

March 2-8, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/26/08 at 2:18 PM


Cardinal Francis George of Chicago isn’t afraid of tough questions.

What is the state of the dissent crisis on Catholic university campuses? When will Catholics hear a new translation of the Mass that is meant to be more faithful to the official prayers? How long will the Church suffer the aftershocks of the abuse scandal? Is the media being unfair to the Church?

The cardinal, who became the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last November, spoke Feb. 8 with Contributing Editor Tom McFeely.

In your judgment, what are the biggest priorities facing the Church today in the United States?

Always the biggest priority is to tell the world who Christ is from generation to generation, to pass on the faith and to pass it on not only to those who are already in the household of faith but also to others who don’t yet know who Christ is so that they will come to know him in his body, the Church.

Within that general context of the mission that Christ gave to the apostles and they handed on to all of us, the bishops have set some priorities for our own country. They’re the ones that we’re trying to focus on for the next several years.

One of them is the strengthening of marriage, because in Catholic social teaching the family is the basic unit, not individuals, and that’s different from our political system. In the larger social context, we all begin our lives in families.

If the family is threatened and marriage isn’t respected, then it’s harder to become saints, and we also won’t have a very good society.

The bishops are also concerned about sacramental practice in the Church at this time, and concerned about using the sacraments as ways of evangelizing. We’re concerned about addressing adequately the multicultural dimension of the Church in our country, particularly the large number of Hispanic Catholics who have now enriched our Church here.

To be sure that their needs are met is a huge challenge.

Another priority are vocations to consecrated life in the Church, to ordained life as a priest, as a deacon — the kinds of callings that are necessary for the life of the Church to be strong and the baptized be holy so that we can pick up that larger mission of reaching out to the world.

The preaching of the Gospel of life here is a constant challenge.

Those are priorities that the bishops have set for themselves. I’m not sure that the Pope will speak to them when he comes, but he knows what they are.

The sexual abuse scandals continue to affect the Church in America. How successful do you think the efforts of the U.S. bishops have been in terms of addressing the scandal’s causes and its consequences? What remains to be done?

Objectively, the programs that the bishops have put in place are very successful, in the sense that the protections of children now — through the training of adults, through the education of children themselves, the background checks even of volunteers — have provided an environment in Catholic institutions that is as secure as you’ll find anywhere. Maybe more secure.

Beyond that I think most dioceses, almost all, have a victims’ assistance ministry, so we can try to help people who have been terribly abused by this sin to put their lives together and go on with some freedom. Sometimes that’s successful, sometimes not, but I think there’s a very concerted outreach that is general and that objectively, at least, is very good.

Whether or not people have come to understand those two facts is another question. It’s hard to get the facts out there sometimes because the stories are after a priori [prior judgment]. We’ll see. Perhaps the papal visit will be a time when some of those facts will be able to be understood and therefore change the dominant story.

Beyond that, to try to see to it that the predators’ actions are better understood, we have the causes and context study going on now that came out of the original John Jay study to find out just what happened in 1973 to 1986, when most of the abuse took place. What are the causes of that? We still don’t have an adequate grasp of that, but we will have the chance to be more effective in protecting children when we get the results.

In terms of seminary formation and instructions to priests already ordained, I think there’s real clarity around the demands of celibate living. Sometimes that perhaps got a little confused in the 1970s and 1980s.

The instructions are very clear. They’re not just external instructions. There’s a spirit of total dedication of oneself to Christ that demands the discipline of celibacy.

There is a realism about it. There are red flags now to be noted that are taken account of in formation that some didn’t take account of in formation because they weren’t aware what those flags were before the studies that have been done in the last several years.

We’re trying to attend to the protection of children. We’re trying to take care of victims who have been terribly abused in the past. We’re trying to take care of the training of priests, and a fortiori [even more so] of others who are near children in our parishes, to be sure that as much as we can know and accomplish humanly this will not happen again.

Whether or not that story is out there is another question, but I think objectively it’s a good story. And we would hope as the years move on people will come to understand that it is — even though there’s always the possibility of terrible errors again. But hopefully that will be so rare as to be nonexistent.

Do you think there has been unbalanced coverage in the American media of the Church’s problems in this area, compared to the similar problems that exist in other institutions?

The problems we know about are all there in the public schools and in a lot of other institutions too.

If you just take it and do a quantified study, you’d find out that the quantity of newsprint around the Catholic Church has been greater than the stories about other institutions.

I think the press often wants to be fair and we will see what happens in the future.

The shock, however, of sexual abuse in the Church is always greater, and perhaps therefore the damage to the victims is greater too. Because the trust is greater, and therefore the betrayal of trust is greater.

So it’s a different kind of story when it is priests who do this, even by comparison to schoolteachers or even sometimes in the family. There is a particularly sinful quality about this terrible tragedy when it’s a priest who is involved.

In that sense, I suppose it’s understandable the press would zero in on this.

But there is also the fact the Catholic Church is resented in many quarters because of her moral teaching, because she’s in the way of some agendas. So this is an opportunity to put her in her place and to relativize the influence of the Church in our society.

How much of that is present in this kind of coverage I don’t know, but I think it would be fair to say there’s probably some of it there.

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.