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The Fr. Pfleger – Cardinal George Controversy: A Guide for the Theologically Perplexed

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Writers and the Christian faithful have been perplexed since the Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, suspended Fr. Michael Pfleger late on April 27, 2011.

Responses have ranged in a mix beginning with “Why would the Cardinal ‘go to the wall’ over this?” to “Can’t we all just get along?” to “Why suspend this priest and not suspend others?” to “A plague on both their houses.”

This article attempts to describe, for the sake of both the initiated and the non-initiated, a number of the theological issues at stake in this controversy.


Why was there such quick and decisive action by the Cardinal on Fr. Pfleger’s comment about looking outside the Church?

Basically, after years of theological training, it is less likely that a priest will make an off-handed, throwaway remark about theology that has no significance. When a priest publicly makes a theological statement about his belief or his own vocation, it is presumed that he means it.

Early Christian writers who considered the fall of Satan reasoned that because of Satan’s high intelligence and angelic nature, Satan’s rejection of God, even for an instant, was a rejection for all eternity. While priests are definitely not angels, or Satan, their statements about belief are taken seriously by both bishops and the faithful.

Because the faithful may have wondered what Pfleger meant about looking elsewhere, and the unity of the Church was in question, the Cardinal suspended Fr. Pfleger and asked him to take time to reflect, and then to state his intentions.

Isn’t Fr. Pfleger a good priest? Why not suspend the bad priests?

Bad priests are not the only priests removed from ministry. Some very good men who no longer wish to remain Catholic or priests, but who do not wish to leave their parishioners, can also be suspended.


Hasn’t Fr. Pfleger done a lot of good? Doesn’t that count for anything?

Fr. Pfleger and his parishioners at St. Sabina undoubtedly perform many Christian good works, following Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:35-36, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, etc. Fr. Pfleger also has defended many human rights. He and St. Sabina parish have worked to advance education and community development, and to reduce urban violence.

But the question Cardinal George is asking Fr. Pfleger is not whether he is a Christian, but whether he is a Catholic, and whether he will remain a Catholic priest.

What’s the difference?

While the Catholic faith is difficult to definitively capture in a few words, I offer the following:

A Catholic–

  • is a Christian baptized by water and the Spirit in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who, after the example of Jesus’ mother, the Immaculate Virgin Mary, in union with the Pope and the Catholic bishops as successors to the Apostles, recognizes the same Pope and bishops as representatives of Jesus Christ;
  • follows Christ in union with the Trinity by living the Christian life of both faith and good works adhering to the whole of the Creed, the Tradition, and the Scriptures as continuously taught by the Pope and the bishops;
  • receives the seven sacraments at the hands of the bishops and delegated clergy, recognizing in the Eucharist–this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in which Christ is offered and by which we offer ourselves in a sacrificial faith–the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ;
  • intellectually follows the path of both faith and reason, of faith seeking understanding, while holding the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in a place of honor, nevertheless holds no official philosophy or ideology, continuing to recognize the truth wherever it may be found, because the Way, the Truth and the Life is Jesus Christ Himself; and
  • while stating a preferential option for the poor as an expression of human unity with the least of our brothers and sisters in whom we find Christ, and taking a general approach of subsidiarity and solidarity in addressing social questions, remains critical of both capitalist and socialist forms of civic organization, recognizing that the reality of love is not an idea, but is embodied in the living, resurrected person, Jesus, with whom we are called to become one.
  • As St. Ignatius of Antioch stated about the year 110, “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal [katholike] Church.” One of the earliest statements about the catholicity of the Church therefore strongly linked the Church to the bishops. This teaching was also strongly affirmed in Chapter III of the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution of of the Church, Lumen Gentium.

    The Catholic Church is not a congregational church formed around a community, but a sacramental Church–a sacrament being an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace (the original meaning of “sacrament” meant, “oath to the death”)–formed around Jesus Christ, with a bishop-successor to the Apostles serving as head.

    In his book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, Cardinal George described a “Catholic sense of the Church” that both liberal and conservative traditions miss:

    “. . . a Catholic sense of the Church as mediator of God’s life and teacher of God’s truth, the Church as a hierarchical communion, an organic body that comes into being as the gifts of Christ are shared, a body to which one is joined in order to be changed, to be converted, so that, with the help of God’s grace, one can accept Christ’s mission to preach the Gospel to all peoples and transform the world.”
    Francis Cardinal George, OMI, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, Crossroad, 2009, p. 159.

    A Catholic not in hierarchical communion, not in union, that is, instead in schism with his or her bishop, is on the path to break permanently with the Church.

    But aren’t the hierarchy themselves the problem? Why must there be a Pope and the bishops for a person to be a Catholic?

    Hierarchy has come to mean, in modern parlance, “top-down,” even “authoritarian and bureaucratic,” but its first meaning, from the Greek hieros, and the Greek archein, pertains to what is sacred and holy, and to one who serves as head. A hier-arch is a holy head of a church. The Catholic Church is hierarchical because Jesus, the very Head of the Church, is sacred and holy, and it is one of the missions of the Church to become holy, that is, absolutely good like God.

    In the Nicene Creed, Catholics recognize the Holy nature of the Church. To strive for a non-hierarchical church would therefore in a sense be attempting a church that did not seek holiness. A church cannot be holy if both its clergy and its laity were not called to be holy. And the clerical abuse scandals are scandals precisely because clergy were not holy as we expected them to be.

    Churches inevitably have those who exercise the role of “head.” If these heads are not holy, it is difficult for the Church to remain holy. It is the role of the bishop to call other Catholics to holiness.

    But isn’t the hierarchical, institutional Church still the Church’s root problem, and isn’t the non-hierarchical, egalitarian Church the solution?

    A friend and also fellow Niles College Seminary alumnus, the Wednesday Journal’s Ken Trainor, has in his 5/3/11 column described the theological viewpoint of some Catholics who are drawn to Fr. Pfleger:

    The beatification of John Paul II highlights the fact that the Catholic Church is, in actuality, two churches (at least): a John XXIII Church and a John Paul II Church. One is pastoral, the other hierarchical — horizontal vs. vertical. It was the hierarchical Church of John Paul II, concerned primarily with protecting the institution and defending its moral authority against perceived threats, that perpetrated the widespread cover-up of the sex abuse scandal, which, ironically, undermined that very authority.

    Fast-tracking John Paul II to sainthood at the very least looks like a desperate attempt to shore up that highly centralized, top-down, bunker-mentality Church. As Sunday’s ceremony demonstrated, this view of Church has many devoted followers.

    The John XXIII Church, on the other hand, is concerned first and foremost with living the gospel and bringing it alive in the modern world. According to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of their Father, and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone. That is why this community realizes it is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history.” In other words, Church defined as “the people of God.”

    All the people of God.

    Ken Trainor does a good job of describing the popular preference of socially-progressive Catholics for a horizontal, non-hierarchical Church. But this view of the Catholic Church is incomplete, just as is the view of a hierarchy-only church.

    For starters, the Vatican II document to which Ken Trainor refers, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, has a companion document, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Both of these important documents address what is called theologically the Mystery of the Church, an awesome and transcendent topic requiring a lifetime of reflection. Both of these two Vatican II constitutions demand to be read and studied by adults claiming to be Roman Catholic.

    The Church defies complete and definitive description structured in one “direction” such as verticality and horizontality. It would therefore be difficult to sustain a credible view that there is a free-standing progressive church of John XXIII separate from a hierarchical church of John Paul II, who earlier as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was himself one of the very drafters of Gaudium et Spes. Some of the most stirring statements ever made from a Christian standpoint about social justice and working people were made by John Paul II. When one fights for justice for workers, one often unknowingly quotes John Paul II. So rejecting the “church of John Paul II” leads nowhere sustainable.

    Unlike the blood libel trying to pin blame for the Holocaust on Pius XII, which unfortunately stuck for decades and is only now dissolving in the face of overwhelming historic evidence, efforts to pin the priest scandals on the aged and Parkinson’s disease-ridden John Paul II are not about to stick.

    The closer one looks at Gaudium et Spes, the more it is incompatible with the modern progressive point of view. Many progressive Gaudium et Spes-only Catholics pass over the fact that Gaudium et Spes itself called abortion and infanticide an “unspeakable crime.”

    Then there is the inconvenient fact that “Good Pope” John XXIII himself authorized a document on 2/2/1961, Religiosorum Instituto, forbidding the ordination of homosexuals to the Roman Catholic priesthood, a predecessor document to a similar instruction issued under Benedict XVI in 2005, an act certainly not compatible with the views of progressives claiming to be Catholic. So the separate church of John XXIII is an imaginary church of an imaginary John XXIII.

    In a way I am happy that Ken Trainor also brought up the charge that the “top-down” church is principally responsible for perpetrating “the widespread cover-up of the sex abuse scandal,” because it allows me to point out that, in perhaps the wide majority of cases, it was the theological progressives themselves who ran (in some places, into the ground) the seminaries of the 1960s to the 1990s and who approved some of the worst miscreants in the history of the Roman Catholic clergy for ordination, in some cases ignoring strong warning signals that there might have been things very, very wrong with given candidates. One need only trace back to the seminary careers of convicted-felon priest-abusers actually jailed, and one might find some of the most lionized liberals among the clergy who did not stand in the way of priesthood or authority within the Church for these felons.

    Hierarchical cover-ups were more than matched in the Church by the naivete and perhaps worse of progressive seminary educators and their colleagues serving in clergy personnel. Both bishops and the seminary educators–and a few lay leaders in the Church–have much for which to answer. But we Catholics cannot step away, and pretend that the burden of healing, seeking forgiveness for, and even forgiving these scandals doesn’t belong to all of us.

    Both the “horizontal church” and the “vertical church” got it wrong in ordaining and in retaining the bad priests. All we Catholics are responsible for cleaning up the mess, because there was always only one Church, not several severed “directional” Catholic churches.

    Which brings me to the salient point of this section: that the very nature of the Roman Catholic Church as revealed by dual teachings of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium prevents the Catholic faith from being “bracketed” and parsed like one might bracket and parse his or her politics, setting aside positions or agendas or leaders so that each person can have their own special political brand unique to themselves.

    In medicine and politics, we can take a personalized, designer approach to our DNA or our political allegiances. But in Catholicism, we must attempt to accept and believe the whole faith as taught through the ages from the Apostles to the Pope and bishops today.

    (See the modern theological summa by a graduate of Fenwick High School in Ken Trainor’s Oak Park, IL, Fr. Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, for a thorough walk through the concept of bracketing).

    In politics, one has the luxury of self-segmentation, in which one can disclaim the faults and mistakes of others, and therefore claim some form of plausible separation and therefore moral superiority, as is often done by partisans of many stripes. But in the Church, because of its organic, corporal unity, one cannot. One cannot step outside one’s body, and blame one’s body, claiming to be better than one’s body. One is one’s body. To Catholics, the Church is also our own body, shared as the Mystical Body of Christ.

    When one becomes a Roman Catholic, one joins in unity with both the Communion of Saints and the multitude of sinners, with both the City of God and the City of Man. One is linked by an eternal sacrament of Baptism to the whole Church and the Kingdom of God: to Jesus, to His Mother Mary, to St. John, to St. Augustine, to St. Francis of Assisi, to St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to the Little Flower, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to Blessed John XXIII, to Blessed John Paul II, and to all the saints, as well as to Constantine, to the Crusades, to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, all the way to the vicious Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, and to all the sinners (among whom we also include all the saints, with the exception, perhaps, of the Blessed Virgin Mary). As has been attributed to the Irish novelist James Joyce, the Catholic Church can partially be described by the phrase, “Here comes everybody.” In politics, we bracket. In the Communion of Saints, we can’t.

    When one becomes a Roman Catholic, one embraces the best and comes to terms with–more precisely, forgives and seeks forgiveness for–the worst in human nature. That is why John Paul II’s concept of the healing and purification of memory and Benedict XVI’s theme of the hermeneutic of continuity are so important. Jesus Himself spoke in several parables of a Kingdom of wholeness that could not be separated: the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), the yeast (Matthew 13:33), the drag net (Matthew 13:47-50), the wheat and the tares, or weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

    In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm noted that fanatics like Nazis had no place in their worldview or structure within their social order for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first antidote to demagogy posing as true patriotism or as true religion.

    OK, but what’s all this have to do with Fr. Michael Pfleger?

    The daily, oppressive beat of violence in certain urban neighborhoods has awakened in some places a suffering church that struggles to face urban despair on a daily basis. This suffering church faces particular challenges, not the least of which for the integrity of its ministry is the temptation of demagogy. This demagogy or demagoguery is a deceptive mimicry of authentic Christian, and especially, authentic Catholic faith.

    Wherever there is poverty, misery, and/or profound unhappiness in a large group of people, demagoguery is never far behind.

    Modern demagoguery often builds upon a central cluster of myth that combines aspects of victim-hood with themes of superiority. This myth not only sets and strengthens the boundary for the demagogue’s group, but also reinforces the illusion that the demagogue is indispensable.

    In a sense, the more idiosyncratic and even false the demagogue’s myth is, the more useful it is in setting boundaries and establishing cohesion among those who follow the demagogue (see, the Big Lie).

    Both the myth and the demagogue tap into a profound need or longing in their followers. Typically, the myth explains to the followers why they are victims, not failures, why their victim status makes them morally superior, and how they can reclaim other forms of superiority.

    To the Nazi partisans in the 1920s and into the 1940s, antisemitism explained why the Nazis were not failures, but victims of a vast conspiracy. This racist, antisemitic myth promised the Nazi common man and woman the status of supermen previously denied their true legacy. A similar myth bound together the Ku Klux Klan, and also drives the antisemitic rants of Louis Farrakhan Muhammad.

    To the initial followers of Rev. Al Sharpton, the Twana Brawley allegations had to be true, despite the fact that a court of law found Sharpton liable for seven defamatory statements, and fined him substantially.

    To the fans of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., his HIV-US government conspiracy theory explained too much about the world and Rev. Wright’s essential place in it, despite the fact that the myth, as demonstrated by science, itself hurts public health by discouraging HIV sufferers from seeking treatment. To his credit, President Obama abandoned Wright in 2008 over this wacky, but still widely-held, conspiracy theory.

    Each of these three recent demagogues, Farrakhan, Sharpton, and Wright, have found solidarity in Fr. Michael Pfleger. The reason for this solidarity is not that demagogues naturally stick together–although demagogues are sometimes mutually useful to each other, if not used by each other–but that each of them have joined, in their own particular way and style, in serving an even greater myth, the myth of transcendent nationhood, one of the most powerful themes in African American culture. More precisely, this is the myth of the return of the lost nation, denied to generations of persons of African descent by the cruel oppressions of slavery, war, and discrimination.

    The demagogue promises a worldview that attempts to sum together all aspects of life, and also offers a public platform on which to celebrate this coherence, but with a difference–the demagogue offers a myth defining its own reality that ultimately cannot be sustained or realized.

    The demagogue takes the short-cut path of outrageousness to fame, rather than the steady climb to truth and authenticity, which is based upon good works complemented both by faith and reason.

    In many urban ministries this myth of the lost nation has converged with themes of the Kingdom of God, of Dr. King’s “beloved community,” of the Civil Rights movement, of the American Dream, and of music and cultural activity, to make religion, politics, and the arts all of one piece. This convergence of mythology and activity provides a basis for public unity. In such a worldview, an ostensibly Roman Catholic parish such as Fr. Pfleger’s St. Sabina can be offering a talk for purchase on its web page by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But it is precisely this mythic convergence that conflicts with true Catholic religion, the Kingdom of God realized first in the person of Jesus Christ. A mythic convergence borders upon the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27).

    It would have been astounding thirty years ago to imagine Catholics on the socially progressive side of the aisle finding a hero in a man who did not speak out publicly against the antisemitism of a Farrakhan, did not strongly differ with the pro-abortion pandering of a Sharpton, or did not openly smack down the malicious HIV conspiracy theories of a Wright, and who himself publicly insulted a female presidential candidate, but that is precisely what these Catholics have done in rallying to Fr. Michael Pfleger.

    So this controversy is actually about defining “true Catholic religion”?

    In part. This controversy is fundamentally about whether Fr. Pfleger is a Catholic, and whether he decides to remain a Catholic priest.

    A secondary question, not spoken of directly by Cardinal George in this instance, remains whether Fr. Pfleger’s pastoral ministry has been compromised by his general silence on moral topics important to the Catholic tradition.

    Pastors face very serious challenges, especially about their own purpose and motivation for ministry. At the beginning of his ministry, Christ Himself was tempted in the desert:

    Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.

    The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”

    He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'”

    Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”

    Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'”

    Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

    At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'”

    Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
    Matthew 4:1-11

    Like Jesus in the desert, the religious leader is tempted by appetite, by self-serving fame and glory, and by power. Over the centuries, the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity, and obedience arose in Catholicism as a partial antidote to these three temptations.

    But to the modern, post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation mind, the most difficult of these Catholic counsels or traditions to accept is obedience.

    Thirty-six years ago this very day, 5/14/75, I was present in the back end of the chapel of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL on ordination day, when Michael Pfleger knelt before his bishop, placed his hands in those of John Patrick Cardinal Cody, looked directly into his eyes, and responded positively when Cardinal Cody asked, “Do you promise me and my successors obedience and respect?”

    At the moment of these promises at this and perhaps other ordinations of the era, “Priests shouldn’t lie,” in stage whisper came from a wiseacre priest among the group packed in the back of the chapel, followed by a few cackles from the clerical peanut gallery.

    This cynicism was typical of many Chicago clergy then, and to a lesser extent now. This very act of obedience to Cardinal Cody in particular I, a child of the times, earlier couldn’t imagine myself doing, and by 1975, I had taken another path, being already married and a young father.

    But Michael Pfleger indeed made this promise of obedience, in public, on his knees, thirty-six years ago to the day of this writing. I was there to see it. So what, indeed, does such a promise of obedience mean?

    For many at the time, this act of obedience was simply an empty formula spoken so that ordination could continue, something of a Promethean act of stealing fire from the heavens for the good of others. Once ordained, the “real” work of the priesthood, the “building of the Kingdom of God” on earth through acts of social justice could move forward.

    This theory that the church of social justice was the real church was as alive then as it is now. First, a man needed to get the power of the priesthood, in order to leverage that power to do good. So, you say a few meaningless words in front of “the Man,” so what? This rationale still remains strong among some in the Chicago presbyterate, who hold that social justice transcends all. The church of Matthew 25, of the Corporal Works of Mercy, appeared to be the “real” church.

    But I wonder. There is also the church of John 6, of Jesus’ teaching that his Body was real food without which one could not have eternal life, a teaching for which he was willing to endure many of the crowd and of his followers to walk away from him. Remaining at his side was Cephas, Peter, the rock, who said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. (John 6:68).” Note again here the theme of the holiness of God.

    Would Jesus have spent three years teaching about all manner of things besides social justice, would he have called the Twelve to Him and taught them about His own Body and Blood as being essential for eternal life, and stress these points to the degree that people walked away from Him, if His only priority was to establish a Church based upon Matthew 25 alone? Not likely at all.

    Cardinal George’s 4/27/11 letter to Fr. Pfleger was such a “walk-away moment,” for which the Cardinal was willing to endure many levels of controversy in order to appeal to the faith of a pastor, Fr. Pfleger, to ask him in a sense to recognize that the Catholic Church is both a “Matthew 25” Church and a “John 6” Church, and to see that obedience to one’s calling, in the person of one’s bishop, is a moment both of grace and virtue, consistent with Christ’s own rejection of the temptations of ministry.

    This is the “Catholic difference” from Protestant traditions: that there is a person, a bishop, acting in the tradition of the Apostles, responsible for calling Fr. Pfleger back to the Church, and reminding him that his promise to obey and respect back on 5/14/75 was not meant for pro-forma, perfidy, or perdition, but for his own salvation, and thus the salvation of those whom he serves. Fr. Pfleger’s unity with his bishop has very much to do with not only the connection between the St. Sabina’s parishioners and the Kingdom of God, but with their connection with the Communion of Saints.

    The bishop’s calling is to anchor others to the faith. Without such an anchor and authority, it is anyone’s guess whether one is acting out of the temptation of human ambition, or out of faith. Thousands upon thousands of Protestant pastors have split away their congregations from others over individual interpretations of the Scriptures. Catholicism answers the question, “By what authority? (Luke 20; John 5:30-32)” by pointing to Christ’s obedience to the Father, and to the bishop’s, and our, obedience to Christ.

    To politicians and political Christians who see a churches like St. Sabina as institutions of social stability and the kind of church they can understand, the Cardinal’s stance is a puzzle and an irritant. Imagine, a bishop actually acting like, well, a bishop, as if theological questions really mattered, when we have gun violence and poverty to fight!

    Much could be said about the social, political, and factional forces that have aligned in the Fr. Pfleger-Cardinal George controversy, but I will refrain for now, as interesting as they may be, because they are secondary to the question of Fr. Pfleger’s faith.

    What we have here, therefore, is not “a failure to communicate,” but a Catholic priest who needs to have a bishop in order to claim to be Catholic, being confronted by this same bishop asking him to do something that he apparently doesn’t want to do.

    So, whither Fr. Pfleger?

    Fr. Pfleger has a decision to make, and the major choices involve either becoming a Protestant, a marginal Catholic, or remaining Catholic and deepening his Catholic commitment.

    Fr. Pfleger could become a Protestant or a marginal (Vatican I schism, Utrecht) Catholic, but then he would be like any other inner-city pastor, dependent on political “preacher money” from whatever politician he can convince that he and his congregation are important. He may go the way of Rev. George Augustus Stallings, Jr. and Imani Temple, and lose national notoriety, upon which his national status as a Catholic exception depends.

    Or Fr. Pfleger can reconfirm his commitment to being a Roman Catholic. To do so, he will not have to do anything like the scene in Superman II, in which Superman must “Kneel before Zod.” But he will have to accept another Church assignment as other pastors do, perhaps after a sabbatical, as other pastors do.

    Such a departure will not be the end of St. Sabina’s parish or school, or Fr. Pfleger. If the work of the parish and school are truly grounded in God the Trinity as taught by the Catholic faith, they will continue. The work of Fr. Pfleger to be transmitted to memory and tradition, as the work of so many great pastors has been transferred. If Jesus had to “go away” in order that his disciples could be led by the Spirit, so much more so should Fr. Pfleger. If what he has given to the parish has been of the true faith, the Spirit will lead his people on. The longer he stays, at this point, the more the true spirit, and purpose, of his ministry comes into question.

    Here follows also my own suggestion for Fr. Pfleger: During his time of reflection, he might consider clarifying, as St. Augustine did near the end of his life, some of his earlier statements. But this writing should be in Fr. Pfleger’s own words, and not edited by theological partisans, such as his recent biographers.

    The following statement might be among those that Fr. Pfleger might consider, and clarify in terms of his own position: A Catholicism that does not clearly, unequivocally, and publicly reject evils like antisemitism, abortion, and destructive HIV-conspiracy-theory demagogy, especially when spoken by one’s friends, is compromised Catholicism. For example, the pro-life efforts of the National Black Catholic Congress have been notably absent from Fr. Pfleger’s public work.

    The prophet Ezekiel spoke of the duty of a prophet:

    If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him.

    When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life.
    (Ezekiel 3:20-21)

    In this case, Cardinal George, the archbishop, has prophesied to Fr. Pfleger.

    I have been praying for Fr. Pfleger, that he may choose well, and live forever!

    © Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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    Saving Father Pfleger

    Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

    Fr. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was suspended on 4/27/11 in a letter from Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago.

    Several writers have seen either power, personality, politics, or a simple difference of opinion between Cardinal George and Fr. Pfleger. These writers have followed the beaten path of previous conflicts regarding Fr. Pfleger and his bishop on race, or Left vs. Right, or conservative Catholicism versus a more liberal Catholicism.

    But few writers have outlined the predicament of Fr. Pfleger as set down by Cardinal George himself, who presented Fr. Pfleger with a clear choice, and asked for a declaration: Did he either choose to remain a Roman Catholic priest, or did he not? Did he, Michael Pfleger, believe as a Catholic believes?

    The first time I saw Michael Pfleger in public action was one Sunday evening early in the 1970s, when he brought the Precious Blood parish choir to our alma mater, Niles College Seminary, then the college seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Clothed in a white turtle-neck, Pfleger accompanied and directed from the piano an enthusiastic and happy group of young people. I recall that one of the songs performed by the choir was “O-o-h Child,” written by Stan Vincent, which had earlier hit the charts in a recording by the Five Stairsteps. If I’m not mistaken, others among the songs may have been the gospel song, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” and also the song “Everyday People,” popularized by Sly and the Family Stone.

    In 1976, a year after Fr. Pfleger’s ordination, I was providentially asked to direct this same wonderful choir, and did so for the better part of two years. This work took me in and out of the Rockwell Gardens public housing “projects” in Chicago, and into friendship with some beautiful young people and their families. Many of these children maintained a deep admiration for Fr. Pfleger, although in some cases, their parents took a more cautious, wait-and-see approach toward him.

    In 1990, with several hundred others I marched with Fr. Pfleger around Cardinal Bernardin’s home over the issue of the closing of Quigley Seminary South. Fr. Pfleger was already then the Chicago media’s favorite priest. He drew attention, he divided opinions, and he was, in the eyes of at least one Chicago op-ed writer, very good looking in his own blue eyes and vestments on a Sunday morning.

    Over the years, Fr. Pfleger became something of an institution. Like his mentor Fr. George Clements, he learned to play the press as a foil against the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago. With St. Sabina’s parishioners and supporters, the parish and school have become a forceful presence in the community. Fr. Pfleger grew close to national civil rights figures, politicians, and figures like Louis Farrakhan Muhammad, whose antisemitic statements have been well-established. But Fr. Pfleger lost much of his political standing after his controversial mockery of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign.

    Several times during Francis Cardinal George’s tenure as Archbishop of Chicago, public discussion arose whether Fr. Pfleger should step down as pastor of St. Sabina parish in Chicago, in keeping with the pastoral term limits established and agreed in the 1970s by Chicago’s presbyterate and its Archbishop.

    Here is the original text of my earlier letter published on this subject:

    February 18, 2002

    Chicago Sun-Times

    Dear Editor:

    It’s understandable that Catholics would like a good pastor to stay a few more years, but it’s not possible, or fair to others not so fortunate.

    People who say they can’t go to church or contribute any more if a Rev. Mike Pfleger or Rev. Jack Wall stop being their pastor don’t realize how much they have weakened their pastor’s credibility. After two decades of pastoring, if Frs. Wall and Pfleger have a majority of parishioners who give and pray and do good works because of them personally and not because of Jesus Christ, they have indeed failed as religious leaders, and should not remain in any case.

    The Good Lord said, “One man sows, another reaps.” This saying conveys something of the mystery of the Church’s endurance throughout the centuries. By holding on to a pastorate, a Catholic priest risks weakening the meaning of his own ministry, risks encouraging a cult based upon his own personality, and can lessen the sustaining power of the Gospel itself to guide his people.

    Sincerely,

    Albert Schorsch, III

    While Fr. Pfleger has differed with the Catholic establishment, he has apparently never, ever, publicly bucked the civil rights establishment, even to the point of refusing to rebuke the Rev. Jeremiah Wright when Wright invoked the malicious lie in 2008 that HIV was invented by the US government to destroy African Americans.

    Then Sen. Barack Obama’s unequivocal 2008 rejection of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s HIV-US government conspiracy theory was not joined by Fr. Pfleger, who somehow laboriously reasoned at the time that both the Senator and the Reverend could both be simultaneously right.

    While known for his opposition to handguns, Fr. Pfleger did not in 2008 rebuke the more deadly HIV-US government conspiracy theory, shown by scientific research to prevent HIV victims from seeking treatment. No one should be taken seriously who spouts such harmful and nonsensical demagoguery as Wright did about a deadly disease, misinforming some of the public who then avoid medical help. Wright’s HIV conspiracy theory deserves every bit of opprobrium that comes its way. But on this point in 2008, Fr. Pfleger was substantially silent, and refused to be drawn into criticism of Wright’s spreading of this divisive, vicious, and hurtful HIV-US government blood libel.

    Neither has the press reported any significant public statement from Fr. Pfleger against abortion in the African American community. Had Pfleger ever spoken such a condemnation, his friends in the media, in government, and in politics would have dropped him completely. If a single, dramatic pro-life, anti-abortion statement ever passed Fr. Pfleger’s lips, there would be no more microphones for Fr. Pfleger (except perhaps on Relevant Radio or EWTN), no more cameras, no more Tavis Smiley interviews.

    Robert McClory has likened Fr. Pfleger to Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand. But Hillenbrand publicly defended Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, losing many of his friends in the process. Fr. Pfleger has done no such thing.

    To the chagrin of the Right, Cardinal George has taken his time with Fr. Pfleger. But the Cardinal’s long journey toward suspending Fr. Pfleger is best explained in light of the Cardinal’s concern to “save the soul” of Fr. Pfleger.

    Our history teacher back in the day at Niles College, Fr. Martin Nathaniel Winters, STL, MA, used to say that it took brains to be a heretic, and that most so-called heretics were actually too dumb to effectively frame an heretical position. It appears that Fr. Pfleger is no heretic.

    St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the sin of heresy is a sin against faith, but that the sin of schism is a sin against charity. Fr. Pfleger may be in schism.

    Cardinal George framed with his typical clarity the question for Fr. Pfleger: Is he willing to be a Catholic priest? —

    Now, however, I am asking you to take a few weeks to pray over your priestly commitments in order to come to mutual agreement on how you understand personally the obligations that make you a member of the Chicago presbyterate and of the Catholic Church.

    Cardinal George’s question, demanding a clear choice in an age founded on equivocation, is both unheard of, and truly unheard to the point of being completely missed. He asked, in effect: Take your time, but answer me clearly, Are you a Catholic, and a committed Catholic priest willing to live out that commitment in obedience to your bishop?

    The word “obey” here has a biblical, theological meaning over and above that of the notion of authority as power. This difference most commentators have likewise missed.

    Jesus, the Son, obeyed the Father and carried his cross. As bishop, as “head,” Cardinal George is asking for a similar kind of obedience. This obedience is the key to Catholic Christian identity, and especially to priestly identity. It is this very obedience that leads to salvation. Cardinal George’s intent therefore appears to be the saving of Fr. Pfleger:

    Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
    (Hebrews 5:8-10)

    Without such obedience–the obedience of Christ–despite a thousand laying on of hands, there is no Catholic identity, and no Catholic priesthood.

    © Copyright 2002, 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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