Ending months of speculation, the Vatican on Tuesday named Archbishop Francis E. George of Portland to head the archdiocese of Chicago, one of the most visible Catholic leadership posts in the United States.
George, former bishop of Yakima, replaces Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who died of cancer in November.
Bernardin was beloved in Chicago and admired by Catholic moderates throughout the country for his attempt to find common ground between the most conservative and liberal wings of the church and for his outreach to other faiths.
Since the cardinal’s death, Chicagoans and church activists have been waiting anxiously to see whether Pope John Paul II would appoint someone as conservative as other Catholic bishops named to key positions in recent years.
“The faith isn’t liberal or conservative,” George, 60, said Tuesday. “The faith is truth, and so I’ll preach the faith as Cardinal Bernardin preached it and taught it.”
Bishop George is considered an orthodox leader, yet moderate, much like Cardinal Bernardin. Church law doesn’t allow much latitude on such issues as the church’s condemning of abortion and its ban on the ordination of women as priests.
Yet within that orthodoxy, there is room for a personal style of leadership. In the church hierarchy, the labels “conservative” and “liberal” frequently come down to a prelate’s style and willingness to engage in dialogue with those espousing views not in sync with basic doctrine.
In that way, George “is a moderate to mild liberal. He is open to conversation. Where he differs from Cardinal Bernardin is, he tells you where he stands and says so quite forthrightly,” said the Rev. Thomas Hosinski, chairman of the theology department at the University of Portland, a Catholic school.
“He thrives on discussion, yet he is assertive of his own positions.”
At a news conference, George was asked whether he was a “carbon copy” of Cardinal Bernardin, and joked: “The Vatican isn’t into cloning at this point.”
Still, one sign of his willingness to engage all in the church comes in his openness to former priests in Portland. In January, he hosted a reception at the cathedral in Portland for a group of former priests who are now married.
The group, many of whom wish to continue their priestly duties although church law prohibits it, had not had an amicable relationship with George’s predecessor.
“We found George very personable and warm. He was our friend,” the leader of the former priests, Jim Magmer, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
In 1994, he joined two other Catholic leaders, Spokane Bishop William Skylstad and Seattle Archbishop Thomas Murphy, in opposing two anti-gay-rights initiatives in Washington and did so again a year later.
George was born in Chicago, and is the first native of the city to be appointed archbishop here. The position all but ensures he will someday be named a cardinal.
George is untested as head of a major archdiocese. A former philosophy professor, he spent much of his career in Rome administering his religious order. He will be installed May 7.
Since last May, George has led the 280,000 Catholics in the Portland archdiocese. Prior to that, he was bishop in Yakima, one of the smallest dioceses in the West, for six years. He oversaw a 64,000-member diocese that is half Hispanic.
During that period he defended the Vatican’s stance on such issues as abortion, the ordination of women and doctor-assisted suicide.
There are 2.3 million Catholics in Chicago, the nation’s second-largest archdiocese.
George overcame polio as a child and continues to walk with a leg brace. Those who know him say he has an engaging personality and a keen intellect. He learned Spanish while in Yakima, has doctorates in philosophy and theology, and at the Chicago news conference Tuesday quoted T.S. Eliot.
“He actually reads journals of metaphysics for relaxation,” said Hosinski, who said the bishop had lamented to him about a lack of time for reading since arriving in Portland. “I think the people of Chicago are going to be pleasantly surprised.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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