Francis Cardinal George, OMI (1937-2015) was an intellectual pillar of the Catholic episcopacy in the United States. I’ve spoken to a couple of priests who knew him and they all remarked on his authenticity, holiness, humility and keen mind. When he died, after a long battle with cancer, Bishop Donald Hying wrote a beautiful reflection on his life for Cream City Catholic.

During a recent visit to a used bookstore, I picked up Cardinal George’s final book, A Godly Humanism: Clarifying the Hope that Lies Within. With ease, he borrows from Church fathers, medieval and modern philosophers, theologians, doctors of the Church and secular intellectuals. I’ll admit it’s not a light read, but well-worth the effort. His chapter on Catholic identity at the university is extraordinary. One chapter, “Integrating the Second Vatican Council,” was particularly interesting, and sobering. His reflections are quite relevant for the Church today. For example:

  • The Church has authority from Christ to speak in his name. When the Church becomes just one more pressure group, she loses her true identity. One path to loss of ecclesial identity is for the Church to abandon her intellectual mission and seek legitimacy from society by allowing herself to be absorbed into service. This is something the world will praise: we have good schools, we go a long way to help the poor, we have admirable works of charity and healing. But if the Church’s mission is absorbed into providing services, there’s no call to conversion.
  • For the Second Vatican Council there is an opening in the documents themselves for the kind of multiple competing interpretations, some of them contrary to the wishes of the Council itself, that have burdened the Church’s pastoral and intellectual life in the last fifty years.
  • Bishops are not originators of revelation; they are stewards of the Lord’s gifts.
  • The pope himself is steward of the Lord’s gifts; he is not master of the Church, as [Pope] Benedict has said more than once.
  • Whether out of naivet√© or out of generosity of spirit, bishops around the world [after Vatican II] often destroyed common customs, religious and cultural markers, and replaced them with individual choice. A case in point would be Friday abstinence from meat. It was a Catholic community marker, as well as a religious act of penitence. … When the discipline was dropped in the United States, what did the bishops here say? They explained continuity remained in the new regulation: we should all do penance on Friday; but it’s now up to the individual to determine what that act of penance will be. We have a common value, if you like,but we don’t have common behavior. It’s hard to keep a common value when the community no longer shares in common behavior.
  • A secular crisis developed when the Council changed the Church’s relation to the world for the sake of evangelizing. Evangelizing the world means changing the world, but only after listening to a world created and loved by God yet also steeped in sin. The listening became “catching up,” and the renewal, too often, become self-secularization.