Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: In sellers’ market, Chicago’s priests are emboldened

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at, or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ The recent controversy in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago between a group of influential pastors and the new archbishop is a fascinating example of what happens when there is a sellers’ market for priests.

The pastors sent Archbishop Francis George a brisk report card on his first months in office. They were particularly critical of the archbishop’s propensity to suggest on-the-spot corrections of liturgical practices of which he did not approve. They informed George he had earned himself the nickname”Francis the Corrector.” George had, for example, apparently banned the practice of the ministers of Holy Communion receiving the Eucharist after _ and not before _ everyone else and the wearing of gray instead of white vestments at funeral liturgies.

The letter was tough but respectful, though its authors seemed to have forgotten that many pastors also make arbitrary decisions and do not consult with their laity as they would like the archbishop to consult with them. They also reminded the archbishop repeatedly that he had never done any parish work.

Apparently, they are unaware that none of the archbishops of Chicago this century did appreciable parish work.

I have to admire the courage of the Pastors’ Forum, as the group of priests calls itself. No doubt the action ended all possibility for at least some of the priests that they will ever become bishops.

Among the Chicago clergy there is a recklessness that comes from near despair. They remember the quixotic tyranny of the Cardinal John Cody years. They mourn the death of their beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

As one of them remarked,”If the new man doesn’t like what I’m doing, he can have the keys of the parish tomorrow. Let him run it.” Another said:”If he doesn’t like the way we do things at this parish, we won’t invite him again.” Courage is facilitated, as we say these days, when there is a shortage of priests.

On some of the substantive points, I am on the archbishop’s side. Messing with the order of Holy Communion is a liturgists’ affectation that I detest. Gray vestments instead of white miss the point of Catholic belief in the Resurrection. Whether they merit the on-the-spot use of his authority is another matter. There are more serious problems.

If the letter of confrontation was unusual, even more unusual was the archbishop’s response.

When a group of far-right laity leaked the letter and announced they were defending the archbishop, he replied that he did not feel attacked and, therefore, did not need defense. He also remarked that maybe he’d have to change his style. He felt that he had been making suggestions, not giving orders.

Can anyone remember the last time a bishop said he might have to change his style?

The future remains in doubt, but the exchange thus far seems to have been a mature exercise in dialogue between an adult clergy and an adult bishop. Such things don’t happen very often in American Catholicism these days.

Yet the image left behind by this first phase of the dialogue is sour. The trivial group of far-right laity who released the confidential letter managed to grab the initial headlines.

The Chicago media botched the story and the national media followed suit. Everyone reported that the archbishop insisted on gray vestments, when the opposite was the case.

The public relations office of the archdiocese, however, made a mess of things, as usual. The faces change and the names change, but the ineptitude continues.

I don’t know how Catholic bishops can find good media advice these days. But they don’t need advisers who tell a bishop what they think the bishop wants to hear instead of what he needs to know. Nor do they need the kind of people whose first impulse is to”protect”them from the media. Cardinal Bernardin coped with the false charges of pedophilia only by ignoring his media consultants.

Patently, Archbishop George’s advisers should have insisted that he meet with the priests who wrote the letter and then have a press conference with them to clear the air before he left for the Synod of Bishops from the Americas currently underway in Rome.

If he were a day or two late for the synod, that would not have been as unfortunate as the situation he has left at home. Now the icon of”Francis the Corrector”lingers in the atmosphere, a poisonous and apparently false image. I can’t image a responsible media relations team not arguing vigorously for such a response. Maybe someone ought to write them a letter.