Give me three words to describe Tom Roeser and they'd be conservative, Catholic, and curmudgeon. With room for more, I wrote in 2007 that Roeser, "full of years and beans, writes the most fully realized blog I know (blog.tomroeser.com). He's a ruminator, his decades in politics the cud he now chews twice, and he's spellbinding. . . . Roeser, who wears his values on his sleeve, admires some people and despises others." And, I might have added, leaves you in no doubt about who falls into which category.
Furthermore, he's a former president of the City Club of Chicago, a former vice president of the Quaker Oats Company, a former public affairs director of the Peace Corps. And so forth and so on. It's been a life lived in the public arena. Roeser's 81 now, and the other day he sent me an e-mail asking me to call. "Briefly," he said, "I'm in a fight with Cardinal George who wants to shut me down—meaning my comments on my own blog! Incredible."
Roeser is chairman of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a small organization he and others founded in 1996 to champion "traditional Catholic values." A mainstay of the traditional church is hierarchy, and when Cardinal Francis George, new to Chicago in 1997, was challenged by a group of about 40 priests, the "Pastors' Forum," who criticized his management style and nicknamed him "Francis the Corrector," CCI rose to his defense. Members of CCI believe the office of archbishop of Chicago stands for the values they stand for; they think Cardinal George should recognize he has no better friends than themselves.
And some members, including Roeser, claim to be befuddled that George does not. The relationship has been an uneven one going back to 1997, when George seemed insufficiently grateful for their support. "There is no need to mount a defense when there is no attack," said an archdiocesan statement brushing off the confrontation.
"He said a typically baffling thing," Roeser recalled in a long e-mail answering a series of questions I just put to him. "That he didn't need or welcome CCI's intrusion or support for the matter. That poisoned the well and it's still weird to me."
Explaining itself on its home page, CCI observes that "more and more, Catholics in public life are becoming indistinguishable from other Americans, with growing support for abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and other societal ills. Even worse, a veil of ignorance has fallen over Catholic America, obscuring Catholic lay people's understanding of their faith and calling into question their responsibility to serve as witnesses to Christ in the midst of human society." CCI opposes these "ugly trends" and expects the archbishop to oppose them. Roeser makes it clear on his blog—which CCI members are quick to say the organization has nothing to do with—that he believes George has failed the test.
He scorns George as an empty cassock, a politician with intellectual pretensions whose "loose administrative practices" disrespect the faith. As an example, Roeser has cited George's tolerance of Father Michael Pfleger, who this month received a racial justice award from the archdiocese. "I'm purveying hate speech," Roeser wrote me, "but at the same time he's officially honoring Pfleger who stands 100% by Farrakan, who says that Judaism is a 'gutter religion.'"
On March 25 George wrote the members of the advisory board of CCI. His letter said this: "Mr. Roeser has taken in recent years to writing essays that are filled with factual errors and misrepresentations about events in the Archdiocese of Chicago. His writing about both clerical and lay officials of the Archdiocese are also personally insulting and filled with contempt. At times when the Pope or the bishops' teachings or activities do not conform in every detail to his political convictions, he descends to hate mongering. I've included a recent example for your consideration. Would it be possible for you to use your role as advisor to Catholic Citizens of Illinois to put an end to the hate literature produced by the Chairman? Thank you."
George's example was Roeser's March 17 blog post, which lays into George over a statement on health care reform he'd just issued in his capacity as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. George said the bishops were "disappointed and puzzled" and found it "deeply disturbing" that the Senate bill the House was about to pass contained no Hyde Amendment-type language forbidding the use of federal money to pay for abortions. But Roeser dismissed this show of opposition as theatrical foot-stamping.
"My goodness," he wrote in mockery, "you'd think that if only the Hyde amendment language were included in the Senate draft, the bishops would rush to embrace it, tossing their miters in the air and fanning the air with their crosiers."
Not every last bishop, Roeser went on. "Just the fashionable liberal old duffers like George, 73, who went to pre-divinity school since age 14, then seminary . . . then into the clergy, scaled the bishopric and whose hands are soft as a woman's. . . . Never having worked a day in the private sector and nurtured in the then hot-house seminaries sheltered from the world, George and his vintage haven't a clue in the world." He further described George as a "smallish balding ex-university professor."