The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Cardinal George flashback: “We have a unique situation in America, for good or for ill…”

While the hand-wringing continues over the planned meeting between Nancy Pelosi and Pope Benedict, I thought it might be instructive to look at an item that John Allen posted in the pages of NCR five years ago:

In January 2001, Rome’s outgoing mayor, Francesco Rutelli, was the candidate of Italy’s center-left “Olive Tree” coalition to be the country’s next Prime Minister. (Rutelli went on to lose to Silvio Berlusconi). Rutelli’s political background was in the Radical Party, which had led the battle for legalized abortion in Italy. As he moved into the mainstream, Rutelli took the classic position of left-leaning Catholics in public life: personally opposed to abortion, but not willing to impose his stance through law.


On Jan. 6, Rutelli and his wife Barbara, who are regular Mass-goers, attended the final act of the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year: the closing of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica. Despite what in the United States would be termed his “pro-choice” stance, Rutelli came forward for Communion and received it from Pope John Paul II himself.

By itself, the episode does little to indicate the right answer to the communion controversy currently raging in the United States. But it does reflect a striking aspect of the debate, which is that so far it is an exclusively American phenomenon.

Across Europe, there are many Catholic politicians who differ from church teaching on issues such as abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, and stem cell research. One clear example comes in Germany, where Christa Nickels is a deputy in the Bundestäg with the leftist Green Party, which favors marriage rights for homosexuals. Yet Nickels is also a practicing Catholic and the spokesperson for environmental and bio-ethical questions for the Central Committee of German Catholics, a state-sponsored body. To date, no German bishop has suggested denying her communion.


Similar examples can be found in every European parliament. In Austria, the Social Democratic Party supports abortion rights, and features a number of practicing Catholics. In Belgium, the Christian Democratic Party includes Catholics who clash with the church on homosexual marriage and euthanasia.

So why is it just the Americans talking about sanctions?

I put this to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was in Rome May 25 for his ad limina visit to the Holy See. He and I sat down for an interview at the North American College.

“That’s a very good question, and we’ve raised it ourselves, even with the Roman Curia,” George said.

“Of course they’re not going to talk about another conference, that’s not their job, anymore than they would talk about us to the Belgians or the Spaniards. But they listened, and they noted the fact,” he said.


How does George explain it?

“First of all, we’re the only country that has said there is a constitutional right [to abortion],” he said. “Other countries have passed it as a matter of legislative procedure, and therefore they can work with it more easily.

“[Attempts to limit abortion are seen as] against the freedom of women, and freedom is our most important value. We’ll kill for freedom, we do it all the time. That’s a peculiar cultural situation in our country.

“We also have a political situation that changes culture and laws by crusades. You have ideological movements that are much more single-minded in some ways. Given that, you also have groups eager to capture whatever authority they can from the church, and so you have a politicization of the internal conversation in the church herself that you wouldn’t have elsewhere. Not about doctrine, but about pastoral practice.


“For all those reasons, I think we have a unique situation in America, for good or for ill, and you can’t easily make the comparison to other places,” George said.

I asked if Europe’s experience of anti-clericalism also played a role. Perhaps European bishops are more sensitive than Americans to the risk of backlash if the church is perceived as too explicitly political.

“That’s an interesting idea. I’d have to think about that, but it makes sense,” he said. “I’m somewhat aware of the history of anti-clericalism in France, in Italy, and in Spain, and while I’m not sure what you say is true, it might well be.”

You can read the full text of the 2004 interview with Cardinal George for more.

Comments read comments(5)
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Chris Sullivan

posted February 16, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Allen is right.The attitude of some in the US Church on denying eucharistic communion is very judgemental, a far cry from the gospel and from what Jesus did at the last supper wrt Judas, and from Catholic practice everywhere else in the world except the USA.The Church in the USA has some problems and this is one of them.God Bless

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posted February 16, 2009 at 2:59 pm

I’m sorry but I see all of this as a cope out. If Cardinal George wants to use the “freedom” defense, than he must also preach “No real,freedom outside of Truth.” Consequently, what appears to be “freedom” is actualy enslavement. Isn’t that, more than anything, the job of the leaders of the church, to keep us(at least by warning) FROM the enslavement?How else is the message going to resonate? As Bishop Burke recently wrote, it’s the dissenters who are making it political, not the church.

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posted February 16, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Consequently, what appears to be “freedom” is actualy enslavement. And thus is fascism justified. Orwell warned us against just what you laud.

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posted February 17, 2009 at 2:05 am

America is far different from any other country when it comes to faith and politics. Our country was founded on Christian beliefs and incorporated into the country was the understanding that faith was an important component in our ability to function under what they were setting up in our founding documents. “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention,” Tocqueville reports in Democracy in America. His understanding our our country and American democracy and the entertwined freedom of religion were correct. In Europe, the Church and state were one and we wanted them seperate, but entwined in a way where faith was essential to the democracy and that government could not say everyone has to be Catholic or any other denomination. I think what they were avoiding was what they had seen in Europe and eventually what Europe did in throwing religion out with the bath water. Today the state religion is aethism, yes another ism that those who call for seperation of church and state want to become the national religion through the use of courts. Christian Churches had a huge involvement in ending slavery and helping to bring about civil rights legislation. Generations of leaders have known that their faith guided their actions as leaders. If one says they believe in something fundamental to their faith, how can it not impact how they vote or lead? One is a lie.

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posted February 18, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Our country was founded on Christian beliefs and incorporated into the country was the understanding that faith was an important component in our ability to function under what they were setting up in our founding documents. To believe this requires willful ignorance of history. It’s a lie that won’t die, and is perpetuated by those who know nothing of American history or of religion, and who are too afraid of doubt to have real faith.

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