Why Cardinal George Can Say Such Outrageous Things

In the wake of Chicago Cardinal Francis George's heinous comments comparing LGBT people to the Ku Klux Klan after a change to the city's Pride Parade route meant it would pass by a Catholic parish as a morning Mass would have been starting, Truth Wins Out (TWO) initiated a petition calling for him to resign. As much as I agree that someone who espouses and even reiterates such a perspective has no business leading one of the largest Catholic communities in the country, I also know that this petition will not achieve the intended result. There will be many important positive outcomes from such an effort, including allowing thousands of LGBT-supportive Catholics to take a public stand on our behalf, and putting Archdiocesan officials on notice that their actions and statements are being scrutinized. But structural issues within Catholicism that are nearly incomprehensible to most Americans--Catholic or not--mean that public accountability tools such as the TWO petition are essentially meaningless to the Catholic hierarchy.

To put it simply, Catholic bishops and cardinals are accountable only to the Vatican. They have absolutely no accountability to anyone in their Diocese. They are appointed by Papal decree, and terminated from their positions only by the Pope. The people whom Church hierarchs supposedly shepherd have no say in whether they are suitable for their jobs, or the length of their tenure.

In addition, the lives and work of these officials provide little if any opportunity for ongoing interaction with "regular people" on a day-to-day basis, so they often have a much distorted sense of our hopes, dreams, struggles, concerns, relationships and spirituality. In my own conversations with an admittedly small number of bishops and cardinals, I've found that they begin from an assumption of authority, rather than from an acknowledgment of our shared Baptism. They believe they have the unquestioned right to set the terms of our discussion. They make pronouncements that belie fact and expect to go unchallenged. When they do this in the public square, as did Cardinal George, the degree to which they are out of touch with their flock becomes glaringly apparent.

In recent years, the lack of familiarity and accountability has been exacerbated by an influx of money from the extreme right wing of Catholicism, particularly from those who seek to limit reproductive freedoms and the civil rights of LGBT people. Funding from the national Knights of Columbus has poured into the coffers of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and into the Catholic lobbying groups in states with marriage equality measures in the legislature or on ballots. The bishops now have a standing committee and staff devoted to "protecting the sanctity of marriage as a lifetime commitment of one man and one woman." Defeating marriage equality measures is listed as the second policy priority of the bishops' conference, topped only by ending access to abortion. Nearly all of this work is being funded by designated gifts, so those with deep pockets are setting the public agenda of Catholic leaders. During this time when so many dioceses are struggling with declining contributions and the costs of sexual abuse claims, this new source of revenue must look very appealing. Many church leaders strive to be seen as worthy, ramping up rhetoric that appeals to the funders, and further alienating those on the other side of these issues.

It truly saddens me that this kind of politics has trumped pastoral care in our Church. Anyone with ears to hear must know that statements like those of Cardinal George are hurtful. However, his focus is elsewhere, so our hope must lie elsewhere.

As more and more Catholics, public officials, and others acknowledge the growing divide between the leadership and the people of the Catholic Church, the true voice and power of our Church must increasingly be seen as resting with lay people. Sadly, we can no longer look to the bishops for moral guidance. In order for the Church to regain its center, the rest of us must find ways to dismantle or disregard structures that reinforce Vatican centrality at the expense of the people of God, separate leaders from others, or respond to an agenda other than that of the Gospel.

So keep the pressure on Cardinal George: as a human being, he should hear from as many people as possible who find his statements offensive. However, seeking change from that quarter seems a futile effort. The change must come from a rejection of current structures and the empowerment of Catholic lay people.