Cardinal Francis George said this week that the people of the church are his legacy, but it’s unclear how exactly the opinions of his 2.2 million strong flock will shape his memory.
In the opinion of Rev. Stan Chu Ilo, George will be remembered for how he has carried himself while battling cancer.
“He bared the transformative power of grace in the midst of human suffering,” said Ilo, an assistant professor at DePaul University’s Department of Catholic Studies. “The way he has carried on in his frailty and fragility, it is his greatest legacy to me, that God can work in human beings who are weak.”
Rev. Michael Pfleger, of St. Sabina Church, also pointed to George’s battle with cancer.
“I think that some of his greatest leadership took place these last few years after he got cancer. He made it very clear you don’t lay down, you don’t give up, you don’t get frustrated,” Pfleger said. “He continued to push himself with his schedule . . . he has a lack of any kind of fear about death.”
Conservatives may remember George as a leader who, by adhering to doctrinal law and church traditions, became a rock in turbulent times.
He focused on opposing abortion and gay marriage. He also battled health care reforms made under President Barack Obama that required organizations, regardless of religious affiliations, to provide birth control to employees through health insurance.
“He felt it was forcing good Catholic employers and institutions to go contrary to their faith and beliefs,” said Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who serves as senior analyst for the independent newspaper National Catholic Reporter.
George’s doctrinal stances didn’t sit well with everyone.
“His staunch support for a very conservative, closed Catholicism alienated and cause pain for a lot of Catholics,” said Jim FitzGerald, executive director of Call to Action, a Chicago-based group that works for justice and inclusion within the Catholic church. “Women who felt they had a lot of gifts to bring to the church in leadership roles, and people in the gay community and victims of sex abuse who looked to church for accountability felt they had been marginalized.”
George also helped usher in a policy of openness and zero tolerance after the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded. It was an effort, however, that some, including Barbara Blaine, who heads up Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, felt was too little too late.
Another crisis George presided over was the closing a number of Catholic schools due to declining enrollment and budgetary issues.
“I think the decline of Catholic schooling is driven by the economic situation,” said Mike Budde, chairman of the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. “I’m not sure it matters who is in charge. I think it’s a case of managing contraction rather than one person doing a better job than another.”
George is known as a conservative scholar who defended the traditions of the church.
He was a key figure in the church’s decision to adopt the more literal English translation of the Latin language that Catholics hear in mass. “Many objected that it’s much too clunky and does not read well and is difficult for people to understand . . . but that’s what Rome wanted,” Reese said.
Some may fault George for taking an overly authoritative tone.
“There was a sense that the role of the priest was one that was not up for discussion, not one in which lay people could take a more active role, that decision making had to stay with ordained clergy, especially the bishops,” Budde said. “And he often times had strained relations with priests, taking a ‘my way or the highway’ sort of tone.”
One priest he clashed with was Pfleger, who disagreed with George’s decision to focus largely on abortion and gay marriage.
“He has a very strong set of beliefs on which he does not waver, which is both good and causes him problems, but at least everyone knows where he stands,” Pfleger said.