By RACHEL ZOLL
When he turned 75, Cardinal Francis George did what the Roman
Catholic Church expects of its bishops. He submitted his resignation so
the pope could decide how much longer the cardinal would serve.
George said he hoped Pope Benedict XVI would keep him on as Chicago
archbishop for two or three more years. "But, it's up to him, finally,"
George told WLS-TV in Chicago.
Two years and one surprise papal retirement later, the decision now
belongs to Pope Francis. The pontiff's choice will be closely watched as
his first major appointment in the U.S., and the clearest indication
yet of the direction he will steer American church leaders.
"Many signals for this relationship between the pontificate and the
U.S. church will come from Chicago," said Massimo Faggioli, a professor
at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who studies the Vatican and
the papacy. "I think this is going to be the most important decision by
Pope Francis for the U.S. church."
The Archdiocese of Chicago serves 2.2 million parishioners and is the
third-largest diocese in the country. The Chicago church has long been
considered a flagship of American Catholicism, sparking lay movements of
national influence and producing archbishops who shape national debate.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin remains a hero to Catholics who place
equal importance on issues such as abortion and poverty. George, who
succeeded Bernadin in 1997, is especially admired in the church's
conservative wing as an intellectual who helped lead the bishops' fight
against the Obama administration's health care overhaul.
Whoever Francis appoints as archbishop is expected to become a cardinal and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope.
George celebrated 50 years as a priest last December with a Mass at
Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral that drew bishops from across the country.
In January, he turned 77, having recently been treated for a second
bout with cancer. But the process of choosing his successor is
confidential, so it's not known how much longer he'll serve. George's
spokeswoman, Colleen Dolan, said in an email "it could be six months to a
year before a change is announced."
Last week, church records released in a settlement with victims
raised new questions about how George responded to some abuse cases even
after U.S. bishops pledged to keep all guilty clergy out of ministry.
The revelations will intensify public scrutiny of the child protection
record of George's successor. But it's unclear whether the disclosures
would have any impact on the Vatican timeline to replace the archbishop.
With a few exceptions, American bishops who failed to quickly remove
accused clergy have remained in office well after details became public.
The only U.S. bishop ever convicted for mishandling a case, Bishop
Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., remains on
"It will increase the number of people who will ask that it be sooner
rather than later," Dennis Doyle, a University of Dayton theologian,
said of the Chicago documents and George's retirement. "Maybe this will
hurry it along a little bit, but I don't think by much."
While Francis has been famously breaking protocol since the night he
was elected, there are some limits to how unconventional he can be with
the Chicago assignment. He'll be choosing among bishops elevated by
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as lieutenants in their campaign to
restore orthodoxy. Since his election last March,
Francis has argued that the church has been driving away the faithful
by emphasizing divisive social issues over compassion and mercy.
Still, in temperament and outlook, the current bishops are hardly
carbon copies of the former popes or each other, giving Francis a
broader field of candidates than their histories suggest, Doyle said.
"There's quite a bit of diversity," Doyle said. "I think they've done
a very good job not displaying that. I think they decided they'd show a
unified face in public."
These differences came into view last December, when Francis changed
the makeup of the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican office that
evaluates and nominates candidates for bishop worldwide. Francis added
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who is considered a moderate, while
letting go Cardinal Raymond Burke, the outspoken conservative and
former St. Louis archbishop. Burke had banned Communion for Catholic
politicians who back abortion rights, and said the Democrats risked
becoming a "party of death." He is head of the Apostolic Signatura, the
highest Vatican court, but his seat on the Congregation for Bishops was
what gave him direct influence on appointments.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics
and Organization of the Catholic Church," categorizes the 260 or so
active bishops this way: very few liberals, about 30 moderates, and the
rest conservatives. Yet, he splits conservatives into two groups:
ideological conservatives, who he argues would be unlikely to adopt
Francis' gentler tone, and pastoral conservatives.
"Pastoral conservatives are churchmen in the good sense of the word.
They're loyal. They grew up in conservative families. They had a
conservative education in the seminary. They're trained to be loyal to
the pope. Now we've got a new pope," said Reese, an analyst with the
National Catholic Reporter. "I think these people will eventually come
over to Francis and his way of approaching things."
The vetting will begin, unannounced and behind closed doors, from
Washington, as the pope's U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria
Vigano, consults with U.S. cardinals and archbishops to choose three
nominees. Vigano will write a dossier on each candidate, rank them, then
submit the names to the Congregation for Bishops. If the congregation
approves, the names will be forwarded to the pope, who can choose from
among the three men -- or appoint someone else entirely.
Since Francis is less familiar with the U.S. compared to many other
nations, he will likely rely more heavily on the advice of U.S.
cardinals and others, Faggioli said. Francis is also aware he must tread
carefully because of polarization in the U.S. church, Faggioli said.
Some U.S. Catholics who had embraced the focus on doctrine under John
Paul and Benedict have been alarmed by Francis' criticism that the
church is obsessed with "small-minded rules."
Still, Francis has shown little hesitation so far to go his own way.
"Everybody is going to look and know that this is Francis' guy," Reese said. "This is Francis' choice."