By George, I think she's got it: Chicago Tribune reporter has in-depth questions for outgoing archbishop

Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear Pashman, past subject of a GetReligion interview, asks all the right questions of Cardinal Francis George OMI, the soon-to-retire Chicago archbishop, and is rewarded with newsworthy answers.

Pashman starts with a punchy lede and then launches right into a quote in which the cardinal offers some potent media criticism:

In a sweeping interview weeks before he steps down, Cardinal Francis George expressed frustration that his defense of church doctrine has ever caused offense, discussed the story behind his successor's selection and voiced concerns that expectations placed upon the popular Pope Francis could backfire.

"They've got the pope in a box now. … The danger of that is he's like a Rorschach test, sort of," George, 77, said Monday during an hourlong conversation at the archbishop's Gold Coast residence in which he expressed both pride and remorse about his 17 years as archbishop.

"People project onto him their own desires, and so you've got people who are expecting all kinds of things. Some of them might happen. A large number of them won't and so there will be great disillusionment. … People will write him off."

George's observation about people projecting their own desires onto the pope will ring familiar to anyone who has read GetReligion's coverage of media misinterpretations of Francis, especially our reminders that context is essential to understanding "Who am I to judge?" 

Pashman then asks George about his "more inclusive" successor. I have criticized reporters in the past for using that term as a means to paint a sharp dichotomy between "inclusive," i.e. good, Cupich and "conservative," i.e. mean, George, but Pashman avoids caricaturing the cardinal. Instead, she wisely lets him describe the contrast between him and his successor in his own words:

George officially retires Nov. 18, when his successor, Archbishop Designate Blase Cupich, takes over. In September, George received word that the pope had consulted sources outside the typical process and planned to tap Cupich, a bishop known for a more inclusive manner than his predecessor.

"I would imagine, and hope, this is the case, that he'll have a different approach, a different tone," George said. "That's good because there are people who I couldn't reach that he'll be able to, and there are things that I perhaps didn't think important to tend to that he will think are. That's the advantage of a change."

I don't want to quote much more from the piece, because the entire interview is well worth your time, especially the thoughtful answers Pashman elicits on topics, some of which are quite personal: they range from George's cancer treatment to his regret over mistakes made in handling the abuse crisis. But one other quote is worth noting, given our recent discussion here over what constitutes a culture warrior:

"There are a lot of stories told about [Pope Francis] and some stories told about me that aren't always 100 percent reflective of reality," George said.

"Culture warrior," for example, is a label that vexes George and one that comes up often when people tell stories or compare him to Cupich.

"If 'culture warrior' just means that I'm eager to have a conflict, I'm not," he said. "No one asked for a conflict on gay marriage. … The wars, if you want to say that, have been picked always by people for whom suddenly this becomes very important and the church is in the way.

"It irks the heck out of me, to tell you the truth," George said.

Kudos to Pashman for not only avoiding using politically loaded labels ("liberal," "conservative," etc.) to describe religious beliefs, but also giving George the opportunity to air his discontent over such labels.

What we have in George is a rare bird indeed: a cardinal who refuses to be pigeonholed. You can tweet that.

Photo via Wikipedia.

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