By Ken Trainor
Right after he disposed of Mike Pfleger, Cardinal Francis George flew to Rome for last weekend's big John Paul II beatification bash.
Father Pfleger, the longtime (very longtime) pastor of St. Sabina, a poor, mostly black parish on Chicago's South Side, committed a grievous sin: He overstayed his welcome. Then he committed an even more heinous sin: He said "No" to his superiors.
Some people, I'm told, don't like Mike Pfleger. They think he's too full of himself, that he's a publicity hound, that he believes the rules don't apply to him, and he isn't obedient enough. That last one really rankles conservative Catholics, who, by the way, had a very good week: JPII beatified, Mike Pfleger de-beatified.
I don't know Pfleger, so I can't vouch for or against his style. But the people of St. Sabina seem to like him a lot and he has a reputation for being a dedicated advocate for the poor. Is he a saint? Probably not. Is he simply a power-hungry, grandstanding opportunist? I doubt it.
Is he a man of the people? Certainly. Is Cardinal George a man of the institution? Absolutely.
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.
Sounds like a pretty good summary of the ministry of Rev. Mike Pfleger. It does not, unfortunately, capture the tenure of Cardinal Francis George. I hear he's a good man. He is certainly a very intelligent man. I'm not questioning his authority in any way. Just his priorities.
I found his public defense of the American bishops' opposition to health care reform to be almost as intellectually dishonest as his public defense of the Vatican's investigation of women's religious orders. Now this. He has shown that he's all too willing to use his intellect and eloquence to support the institutional church — to put authority first, people second.
In this case, he wanted Pfleger out of St. Sabina, so he asked him to take over St. Leo High School, a failing inner-city institution that the archdiocese would probably like to close. He backed Pfleger into a corner, then waited for him to say or do something he could pounce on. He got what he wanted. Pfleger said no.
Never mind that St. Sabina would probably have closed long ago if not for Mike Pfleger. The archdiocese's commitment to inner-city parishes is tepid at best. Too expensive, not enough return. That's why St. Catherine of Siena in Oak Park is now St. Catherine-St. Lucy, the latter being a church in Austin that wasn't cost-effective.
In the case of St. Sabina, Cardinal George is enforcing a rule that pastors shouldn't stay too long in one place. In theory, that's healthy. But Mike Pfleger is the exception that proves the rule. If they were really concerned about the best interests of the people of St. Sabina, the archdiocese wouldn't be planning to replace Pfleger with an inexperienced priest imported from Africa.
The Cardinal made a choice: Obedience to authority is more important than serving the poor. He chose the institution over the people of God. That's not only wrong, it's profoundly wrong. The good of obeying authority should never outweigh the good of living out the gospel. If we want to get rigid about rules, let's make that the rule.
If you asked the people of St. Sabina whether they prefer the institutional Church or the pastoral Church, I'm pretty sure which one they'd choose.
I know which one Jesus would choose.