Cardinal George: The Myth and Reality of 'I'll Die in My Bed'

What Cardinal Francis George Really Said

(photo: Darren Leow)

(Editor's note: This blog entry originally appeaed on Oct. 24, 2012):

At long last, the Archdiocese of Chicago's Cardinal Francis George has definitively affirmed what exactly he said in relation to the much-quoted statement about him dying in his bed, and his successors dying imprisoned and martyred.

I first heard the quote used by a Catholic speaker sometime in 2010. If you're a Catholic reader or conference attendee, you've no doubt heard it as well. It's taken on rather mythic proportions... so much so, that I suspected that it might not be factual. The quote has even made its way into the Cardinal's Wikipedia entry.

Over the years I've heard numerous commentators and speakers and writers refer to this quote. Many have described it as "prophetic." Others have incorrectly stated that it was made in response to the current Health and Human Service contraception mandate. Some have attributed it to Archbishop Charles Chaput; others attributed it to Cardinal George. Some thought it was in a column by the Cardinal, others thought it was said in a speech.

The earliest online usage I could find of the quote itself dates to May, 2010.

Call it the journalist in me, but I was never comfortable passing on the alleged quote or using it until I had confirmation about it. In fact, the last few times I've heard the quote used, I've suggested that those using it might want to track down the source. In May of this year, I reached out to the Archdiocese of Chicago to find out if the Cardinal had indeed said it, when it was said, and the context in which it was said.

Susan Burritt, media relations director, said that the quote could not be found in any letter or speech. It was, therefore, not something they could verify or confirm. Burritt noted that it was most likely said by the Cardinal in response to a question, and that it was said sometime in 2010.

"It was a hypothetical statement made in a different context, and intended to dramatize the danger of our living in an increasingly secularized culture," Burritt told me at the time.

With the publication of Cardinal George's most recent Catholic New World column, the source has not only been found, but confirmed by the man who originally uttered the statement.

Cardinal George confirm that he said it, and also adds that the quote has most frequently been used without his important follow-up sentence.

Here's the salient section from the Cardinal's column.

"Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring," writes the Cardinal. "I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: 'His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.' What I said is not 'prophetic' but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse."

So, as a corrective, for all those writers and speakers out there desirous of using the quote, when used it should be used in its entirety.

"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."

The Cardinal's entire column is well worth reading. The end, in particular is quite poignant.

Analogies can easily be multiplied, if one wants to push a thesis; but the point is that the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making “laws” beyond its competence. Few there are, however, who would venture to ask if there might be a better way for humanity to organize itself for the sake of the common good. Few, that is, beyond a prophetic voice like that of Dorothy Day, speaking acerbically about “Holy Mother the State,” or the ecclesiastical voice that calls the world, from generation to generation, to live at peace in the kingdom of God.

God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.”

The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters. The Synod on the New Evangelization is taking place in Rome this month because entire societies, especially in the West, have placed themselves on the wrong side of history.