Cardinal Francis George, a vigorous defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy who led the U.S. bishops’ fight against the Affordable Care Act and played a key role in the church’s response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, died April 17 at his home in Chicago. He was 78.
Cardinal George, who retired as Chicago archbishop in the fall of 2014, had cancer, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Appointed to Chicago in 1997 by Pope John Paul II, Cardinal George became a leading figure of his era in many of the most important events in the American church.
He oversaw the contentious new English-language translation of the Roman Missal, one of the biggest changes in Catholic worship in generations. In 2002, at the height of the abuse crisis, he led a group of U.S. bishops who persuaded resistant Vatican officials to more quickly oust guilty priests — a policy at the core of reforms meant to restore trust in church leaders.
In his three years as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal George spearheaded opposition to the Affordable Care Act, arguing that President Obama’s health-insurance initiative would use taxpayer money for funding abortion.
In 2012, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago joined dozens of dioceses and Catholic nonprofit groups in suing the Obama administration over the requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers contraception.
“I don’t believe the bishops have been more politically active in recent years, but it is true that our political activity is more adversarial as the law no longer permits the exceptions that used to safeguard believers whose conscience will not permit them to approve of what has become lawful,” Cardinal George told the Jesuit magazine America last year.
Francis Eugene George was born on Jan. 16, 1937, and was the first Chicago native to become the city’s archbishop. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. A five-month bout with polio at age 13 left him with a lifelong limp.
He was initially rejected from a high school seminary because of his disability, but he went on to become an intellectual leader within the church. He spoke Italian, Spanish, French and other languages, and he wrote several books.
He was a 1964 theology graduate of Canada’s University of Ottawa, and the next year he received a master’s degree in philosophy from Catholic University. He later earned a doctor of philosophy degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and a doctor of sacred theology degree from the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, among other degrees.
A member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he eventually helped lead the religious order as vicar general based in Rome. In 1990, he was appointed bishop of Yakima, Wash., then archbishop of Portland, Ore., before being assigned to Chicago.
Cardinal George’s appointment to the Archdiocese of Chicago, with 2.2 million parishioners the third-largest diocese in the United States, underscored the shift under John Paul toward upholding orthodoxy and drawing a more definitive line about what could be considered Catholic.
Cardinal George had succeeded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a beloved figure of national standing who advocated a “seamless garment” of life that gave equal weight to social justice teachings and opposition to abortion.
By contrast, Cardinal George prioritized upholding doctrine and preserving tradition, leading disgruntled priests to dub him at first as “Francis the Corrector.”
Cardinal George declared liberal Catholicism an “exhausted project,” arguing that it failed to pass along “the faith in its integrity” on marriage, the priesthood and other issues. “It no longer gives life,” he wrote in 2004 in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. He said fighting abortion should be the primary concern of all Catholics.
In September, the pendulum seemed to swing back when Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Blase Cupich as Cardinal George’s successor. Cupich has a record of taking a less confrontational approach on divisive social issues and works to build ties with those who disagree with church teaching.
In Cardinal George’s brief time leading the archdiocese during Francis’s pontificate, the cardinal said he struggled to understand the new pope’s approach, calling the pontiff’s messages “a bit jumbled at times.”
Cardinal George could be blunt when he thought the church was under threat. When a proposed route for the Chicago Gay Pride Parade passed a parish close to its Sunday Mass, Cardinal George warned that the procession could “morph into the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.” He later apologized.
Despite his leadership in confronting sex abuse by the clergy, Cardinal George faced a 2006 crisis over his own actions, when Daniel McCormack, a local priest, was left in a parish for several months despite abuse allegations against him.
McCormack eventually pleaded guilty to molesting five children. Cardinal George apologized for not acting sooner. Thousands of documents released toward the end of Cardinal George’s tenure as part of a settlement with victims revealed that the cardinal went against his advisers in one case to delay removing an accused priest and tried to win early release from a Wisconsin prison for a priest convicted of molesting a child, although the cardinal later reversed his stand to the parole board.