Chicago Cardinal George's Remarks to the Pope

«Church’s Ability to Evangelize Is Diminished»

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 1, 2004 ( Here is the text of the remarks U.S. Cardinal Francis George delivered to John Paul II last Friday during the five-yearly visit of bishops from the ecclesiastical provinces of Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.

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Holy Father,

We are the bishops of the provinces of Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. With our priests, religious men and women and faithful lay people, we offer you our prayers, our gratitude and our love. In our part of the United States, Catholics comprise 10 to 15 percent of the total population in some dioceses and more than 40 percent in others. Catholics have lived in this area for over 300 years, long before it was part of the United States, but the ancestors of most Catholics today came as immigrants from Europe throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now they are joined by many recent immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia.

On the occasion of this «ad limina» visit to you and the officers of the Roman Curia, we believe it important to affirm our profound commitment to the mission Christ gave the Church and to do so at a time when the Church in the United States is in great danger.

The Church’s mission is threatened externally by an erosion of institutional freedom. The scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by some priests and the failure of adequate oversight by some bishops has brought with it a more overt expression of the anti-Catholicism which has always marked American culture. In this context, courts and legislatures are more ready to restrict the freedom of the Church to act publicly and to interfere in the internal governance of the church in ways that are new to American life. Our freedom to govern ourselves is diminished.

The Church’s mission is further weakened by her inability to shape a public conversation that would enable people to understand the Gospel and the demands of discipleship. The public conversation in the United States speaks easily of individual rights; it cannot give voice to considerations of the common good. Matters that should fall outside the purview of law in a constitutional democracy with a limited government — the nature of life, of marriage, even of faith itself — are now determined by courts designed only to protect individual rights.

The increasingly oppressive legal system and the bureaucratic apparatus of states are abetted by a media industry which selects for publication only facts which fit stories it wants to tell. The public conversation, like the political, legal and economic systems, is based on the generation of conflict between individuals and groups. Culturally, the right to sexual freedom is now the basis of personal freedom.

In this culture, the Gospel’s call to receive freedom as a gift from God and to live its demands faithfully is regarded as oppressive, and the Church, which voices those demands publicly, is seen as an enemy of personal freedom and a cause of social violence. The public conversation in the United States is often an exercise in manipulation and always inadequate to the realities of both the country and the world, let alone the mysteries of faith. It fundamentally distorts Catholicism and any other institution regarded as «foreign» to the secular individualist ethos. Our freedom to preach the Gospel is diminished.

The Church’s mission is threatened internally by divisions which paralyze her ability to act forcefully and decisively. On the left, the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the nature of ordained priesthood and of the Church herself are publicly opposed, as are the bishops who preach and defend these teachings. On the right, the Church’s teachings might be accepted, but bishops who do not govern exactly and to the last detail in the way expected are publicly opposed. The Church is an arena of ideological warfare rather than a way of discipleship shepherded by bishops. The freedom of the Church is now threatened by movements within the Church and by government and groups outside the Church. The Church’s ability to evangelize is diminished.

Unsure of other protection, the Church turns in faith to her Lord. Your teaching, Holy Father, on the Eucharist and the initial preparation for the next Synod of Bishops on this mystery of faith both illustrate the inability of our culture to understand what is central to the Catholic faith and also show us how to address our current struggles. The relation between the body of Christ which is the holy Eucharist and the body of Christ which is his Church passes through the sacrament of holy orders. A culture founded on the rejection of the sacrament of holy orders can grasp neither the Eucharist nor apostolic governance.

Even Catholics, shaped by this culture more than by faith, often fail to understand these gifts of the Lord to his people. Catechesis and preaching on the Eucharist are being better integrated into our ministry; even more important, participation in the celebration of the Eucharist each Sunday and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on a regular basis as part of the way of discipleship are being emphasized. These and many other signs of the Holy Spirit’s action in the Church in the United States give us hope.

Over a century and a half ago, Father Isaac Hecker, a convert to the Church and the founder of the Society of St. Paul, held that America would have to become Catholic in order to fulfill all that was good in the American soul. His fellow convert, Dr. Orestes Brownson, held that America would become Catholic when the country came to realize its own inadequacies and sinfulness.

Americans know that we as a people can be generous, fair-minded and freedom-loving; we are slower to see that we can be arrogant, brutal and eroticized. Is the mission of the Catholic Church to America one of fulfillment or healing? One of completion or forgiveness? The Eucharist is both, of course, and so must be the mission; but we are still struggling to find an approach to evangelizing which will open our culture and our country to the Holy Spirit and to the path of Christian discipleship.

In dedicating ourselves anew to this mission, Holy Father, we thank God for your ministry as vicar of Christ, as Successor of Peter, and we ask for your prayers and your blessing.

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