The late Cardinal's famous quote and the "right side of history"
Was the late Cardinal George, who died last week, a prophet? As his death receives prominent attention in both the secular news and among religious sources, there will be an inevitable discussion about his legacy. Shall he be remembered primarily as the first native son of Chicago to serve as its archbishop? Shall he be remembered as “the American Ratzinger”? I think it is likely that as Cardinal George’s legacy is discussed and finally begins to form, many will speak of his oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) remark about the fates of his possible successors—a remark which he insisted was not a prophecy.
Cardinal George’s own reflection on his statement can be found in its entirety on his own blog here and is well worth reading. Here let’s just attend to the key quote:
“Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: ‘His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.’”
He insisted that the statement was not “prophetic”, and I agree, insofar as “prophetic” is taken to mean “a sure prediction about the future.” But insofar as “prophetic” is taken to mean, “the message that God wants delivered,” then I think his statement was prophetic. The merits of that claim will become clearer if we link the famous quote to the rest of what Cardinal George wrote in that blog post regarding Easter, and then reflect on all that in light of the prophet Isaiah.
Cardinal George noted in that same blog post that, “…God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression… The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end… It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters… entire societies, especially in the West, have placed themselves on the wrong side of history…”
I say that Cardinal George is standing in a long line that extends at least as far back as the early fifth century, with Saint Augustine writing his famous “City of God” in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. In God’s Providence, the Church will always outlive her would-be pallbearers. Faithful Christians, both Francis George and Saint Augustine would agree, are on the right side of history. History is decisively and irrevocably defined by the triumph over sin and death achieved by the Crucified, Risen and Returning Christ of God. All human events have their measure and meaning in light of Easter. Those on the right side of history, in other words, those who understand the purpose of human life which is to be found in Jesus Christ, will be able to accept His offer to share in His glory, bringing humanity into the life of the Trinity. Those who reject the Christ of God will have their choice accepted by God.(Matthew 25: 31-46)
Meanwhile, from time to time, the Church steps into the wreckage of human history (whether amidst a fallen civilization by the likes of Saint Augustine or Cardinal George’s hypothetical “future successor," or in the life of a fallen sinner ministered to by a priest-confessor) and starts rebuilding. Human history, whether writ large or small, is replete with examples of the Church renewing the work of human living. And this brings us to my earlier point about the prophet Isaiah. I mention Isaiah to show that the work of the Church to restore fallen human life is often a very lonely, if not solitary work.