Cardinal George and the Denethor Option

Cardinal George's example calls us to fight for the common good and the sanctity of life "on the beaches" and "in the streets."

By John Zmirak Published on April 18, 2015

The first part of Cardinal Francis George’s prophecy, or warning, or cautionary tale, has just come true. As some will recall, Cardinal George warned a group of priests that he expected that he would “die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

That great and good man has indeed died in his bed. After many years of fearless, compassionate witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, and years of suffering with illness, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has gone to his last reward. One of the brightest flowers to bloom during the long Catholic spring we enjoyed under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his words and deeds embodied the best of the Christian tradition, that inextricable tapestry of fidelity and freedom. Without fidelity to the fatherhood of God, freedom is a bleak and empty, sterile exercise, as shallow and adolescent as the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. Without freedom, acts of fidelity are not one whit more pleasing to God than marches on May Day in Stalin’s Moscow.

Cardinal George was a stirring example of what English writer Evelyn Waugh foresaw as the “American moment” in the Catholic Church. He carried on the tradition of Charles Carroll, Orestes Brownson, John Courtenay Murray and Fulton J. Sheen, who each in his own way despoiled the Egyptians — took for Christ’s Church the best and highest and purest that the secular world could offer. For these men, as for George, what they took were the political truths that inspired the founding of a deeply virtuous Republic, the United States of America, where the Church could live and thrive under much more wholesome conditions, with fewer degrading temptations, than under the so-called Christian monarchies that trammeled the Church with favors, which she too often was tempted to accept in place of her freedom. Here on these shores we were offered no mess of pottage, and so we could keep our birthright. That is now what we’ll have to fight for.

Cardinal George’s Warning

Today we face the question of the rest of Cardinal George’s warning. Will his successor indeed die in prison? Will that man’s successor in turn meet his end as “a martyr in the public square”? The hysterical hatred that has erupted in America for defenders of natural marriage and the family will tempt us to assume that this will be true. And it indeed it might. If we flag in the ferocity of our efforts at self-defense it surely will be — and our children should not forgive us for our failure.

The prospect of real persecution contains within it a subtle, more sinuous snare for the Christian soul — the blissful escape of Gnosticism. That’s the comforting option of pretending that we few, we happy few, have been blessed with a higher vision that teaches us to disdain this earthly life, the needs of society and the claims of the common good.

All that we’re called to do is to decorate our own souls, and keep our children “clean” of the vast corruption that surrounds us. We are not obliged to fight in the squalid arena of politics, or to wade down into the “culture.” Instead, we can please Our Lord by fashioning tiny, private gardens, where reverent liturgies and wholesome lifestyles will somehow survive amidst the ruins. When the pagans around us finally collapse in their filth and futility, it’s to us (or to our sturdy, fearless great-grandchildren) that they will look, and our scions will rise from the rubble to build another Chartres from the broken pieces of abortion clinics and international airports.

Yeah, that sounds great to me. We’ll get our payback then, and we’ll sing Easter hymns on our enemies’ unmarked graves.

It would be possible to take such Gnostic comfort by willfully misreading Cardinal George’s final prophecy, that the heir of the martyred bishop “will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” But Cardinal George was not such a cruel or callous man as to wish that future on us, or see it as something hopeful, a promise of vengeful glory after a temporary setback.

Instead, what the cardinal told us was that if the worst should happen, if the world which we are called to redeem for Christ should instead choose the Prince of this World, its follies could not last forever. The structure of human existence as made by God and redeemed by Jesus is incompatible with sin. The Fall doesn’t make us comfortable with evil. It will always irritate us, and goad us to seek something better. Now that Christ has come and assured us that His Church will always endure, we know that the Christian answer will be available always, in one form or another — whether it’s a battered parish in a ghetto where the prayers are chanted in Latin, or a storefront full of Pentecostal immigrants, calling on the Holy Spirit to bless them. The truth once set loose in Bethlehem cannot be hunted down and silenced, any more than Jesus’ body could be contained by a stone at the tomb.

A Profound Obligation

We face a profound obligation today to fight the Culture of Death with all the tenacity that God gives us. We must indeed fight as Churchill promised “on the seas and oceans, on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and in the streets.” We cannot take comfort in the prospect of escape, of a “Benedict option” whereby we will hide from evil in tiny enclaves of fellow believers. Because evil will find us there, as wolves can sniff out lambs. In a closed, self-protective environment, evil is all too likely to take over, among folk whose guard is down.

No subculture is safe. Indeed, the bleak facts of the sex abuse crisis should teach us that preachers are not immune. So should stories like those of the Legionaries of Christ, and the Society of St. John, each of which set itself up as a militant, separatist alternative to the culture — and proved to be the vehicle for some to prey upon the unwary. The further we retreat from the cold, clear light of day, the more vigilant we must be about our motives and our leaders. In fact, I think that a better name for the separatist imperative is not the “Benedict” but the “Denethor Option.”

It is unhealthy, unnatural and un-Christian to separate entirely  from the world, except for the tiny number divinely called to live as monks, nuns or hermits. The rest of us are ordered to emulate the earliest groups of Christians — who worked, played, prayed, and even fought in the Roman army, and set themselves apart only in subtle, profoundly powerful ways: They were faithful to their spouses, and honest in their dealings. They did not murder their infants, but instead went quietly to the walls of that pagan city to rescue babies abandoned by their parents. They loved life too much to recklessly court martyrdom, and Christ too much to betray him by worshiping the Emperor.

They were not radical but moderate, pursuing in fact the Golden Mean which Aristotle had called for. The vital center they found, for which they lived and died, grew over time into the beautiful, humane civilization we call the West — whose side-effects are freedom, beauty, and even material wealth. These are the scraps which the pagans are squabbling over, the shell of the egg hatched at Easter.

We owe them more. Our fellow-citizens and fellow souls who lack the gift of faith deserve our kindness, our wisdom, our witness. And right now, more than anything else, they deserve our courage and perseverance. They deserve to feel us push back against the evils they thoughtlessly follow. Maybe someday they will thank us, as we pause today to thank Cardinal Francis George.

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