For American Catholics, a Conservative Who Listens

Father Andrew Greeley is a novelist and professor of social science at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona

Does the assignment of Francis E. George as archbishop of Chicago suggest that the Vatican is once again sending a message that there is no room for dissent in the Catholic Church and that the next generation of cardinals in this country will be at least as conservative as their predecessors?

From the religious order in which he was an official for 12 years, from the diocese of Yakima in Washington where he was bishop for six years and from his extraordinary press conference in Chicago the morning of his appointment, one gathers that George is a conservative who listens. If the next generation of American cardinals is composed of conservatives who listen, it will be a substantial improvement over conservatives who do not listen.

The new archbishop of Chicago would seem to be an articulate, witty and intelligent man with a considerable range of experience. He has a Ph.D. from a major secular university, Tulane, which would make him one of the few Catholic archbishops with such training. Moreover, anyone who uses trippingly on the tongue the wondrous phrase "epistemological dissonance" (a kind of purgatory for philosophers) runs the risk of being accused of being an intellectual, an accusation that could not be made about many of his colleagues.

A bright, charming, conservative intellectual who listens? Might that not be an excellent job description for a Catholic archbishop as this century jolts toward its end?

A reporter asked George what he would do if people left the Catholic Church because it would not change some of its teachings. He said quite properly that, since they were free agents, he could not prevent them from leaving. That is not, however, the problem for a Catholic archbishop. His people are not free agents who leave. Rather they are free agents who absolutely refuse to leave. As Prof. Michael Hout of UC Berkeley has shown, the "defection" rate has not increased since 1960.

The problem for any bishop is that the majority of American Catholics (lower clergy as well as laity) dissent on a wide range of issues and yet will not leave the church, as even the polls of conservative Catholic organizations like the Ignatian Institute and the Catholic League have demonstrated. It is not the core of Catholic belief--the incarnation of God in Jesus, the resurrection of the dead and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for example--that are at issue. Catholics accept these teachings as enthusiastically as they ever did. Rather, the issues about which they dissent are concentrated in the areas of sex and gender. Most American Catholics have dissented on these issues for 20 years. There is no sign that orders, rules, regulations and denunciations have had the slightest effect.

The basic problem for an archbishop is that you can't even drive out the dissenters, the four out of five who don't think birth control is wrong, the three out of five who think that women should be priests, the seven out of 10 who think that legal abortion can be justified. They simply won't go. They like being Catholics.

Surveys cannot create moral norms. But they can tell you where your people are.

Some Catholic fundamentalists are calling for a bloodletting in Chicago--they want George to silence liberal priests and condemn dissident laity. There is nothing in the new archbishop's manner or record that would suggest that he would try to drive anyone out. The only available option, then, is to listen to the dissenters and try, respectfully, to persuade them. The secular arm (in this case the Chicago Police Department presumably) simply is not available to enforce Catholic doctrine as in centuries past. So a good archbishop has little choice but to listen sensitively to what the people say, to consult them, to attempt to understand them and to try to persuade them.

In the years since the Second Vatican Council and indeed since the end of World War II, it has become increasingly obvious that Catholics now stay in the church on their own terms. This was an inevitable development once the majority of Catholics began to go to college and became a part of a culture in which constant free choices become the matrix of human life. The Catholic-on-my-own-terms approach has existed in many countries for centuries. It is relatively new in this country and is combined here with intense religious devotion and generosity.

Perhaps the appointment to the country's second largest archdiocese (after Los Angeles) of a conservative who listens is a sign that some Catholic leaders have begun to understand the problem and to grasp that any solution to it will require intense and lengthy listening.

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