Cardinal George and the Dragon | Media | Chicago Reader

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Cardinal George and the Dragon

Can Chicago's Catholic leader smite fire-breathing critic Tom Roeser?


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The cardinal had had enough. "I'm not trying to silence anyone," he asserted in a short e-mail to me. "I couldn't if I wanted to. I am concerned about responsible speech in the Church. It's interesting to see someone who for years has aggressively and personally attacked others portray himself as a victim."

George might believe he was simply asking the CCI to insist that Roeser dial it down a little, but the extreme language he used to describe Roeser's language was an invitation to shut him up. (As in, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome blogger?")

And to suppose that "liberal old duffers" is the language of hate is to underline Roeser's case that the cardinal has led a sheltered life.

If in fact Roeser does regularly spew hate in his blog, the cardinal might have protested when someone besides himself was its target. Like everyone else, princes of the church are least attractive when most self-involved.

I did not find hate when I returned to Roeser's blog after months away; I did find writing that was ill-considered and charmless. For instance, Roeser's allusions on his blog to Obama as the "Indonesian Prince," as the "African-born mixed-blood Prince," and as "Our Kenya-born Half-Blood American Prince" add nothing to whatever arguments he might think he's making. Perhaps they amuse a peanut gallery Roeser's playing to, or perhaps he simply writes to amuse himself. This much is clear: when he rips the archbishop of Chicago he's not amusing much of the leadership of the Catholic Citizens of Illinois. However rocky the relationship has been, they are the laity and he is the cardinal.

"I think he's a wonderful writer," says Mary Anne Hackett, a cofounder of the CCI who today is its president and CEO, "but I object to his personal attacks against the cardinal." And she's told Roeser so. "It remains to be seen," she says, "whether some of our advisory board members will quit. They don't want to be seen as members of an organization that is seen as bashing the cardinal."

One board member, Jerome Urbik, calls Roeser's blog "scurrilous" and says he intends to resign. "I know Tom really well," says Urbik. "I see him in church every Sunday. He's really gone off the edge. He always has good issues but he is not the archbishop of Chicago and he can't tell the cardinal how to run the archdiocese, especially in terms that are disrespectful. When we put this thing together a number of years ago the idea was for it to be a source that would take on attacks against the church that were improper and unfair and all that. We would speak out on TV programs, which Mary Anne Hackett has done several times, and put out a newsletter." But, he continues, CCI has "turned into a vehicle for Tom."

Roeser writes for his blog and not for the CCI Web site or newsletter, and one CCI officer used the word "firewall" to describe the distance the organization tries to keep. Nevertheless, says Urbik, "he is the head of the organization, and it bleeds over, and it makes it look to the cardinal that we are involved in a joint effort to pull down his authority. I don't like that at all."

Roeser wrote me, "There's no doubt I'm a tough correspondent and I pull no punches anywhere in my blog but the words Mary Anne and others object to are these: I called him 'bald.' Gee, if I were writing a profile of him for a newspaper or magazine, I'd call him 'bald.' Second, I called him 'short.' Again: he is short. . . . Third, I said that he hasn't worked in the private sector and that he has not much of a sense of what it is to work for a living. . . . Fourth, I said his hands are 'soft' emphasizing he hasn't done physical labor. That is taken as a grave insult. Shit my hands are soft and I haven't done much physical labor around this house as my wife will be first to testify. Frankly his umbrage with me is pathetic."

But it's divided Roeser from old allies. Hackett responded, "I object to attacks on the physical appearance of the Cardinal. I have never objected to exposing moral problems in the Church. . . . I have never objected to any of Tom's articles in the past. This particular column is the first time. I don't care to continue with this third hand conversation that Tom is having with you and me—telling you things about what he thinks I think. I have known Tom for over 30 years, have been friends, and I think he is a great writer. I think it is time to put an end to this particular subject. My position is that Cardinal George is the head of the Catholic Church in Chicago and when you hold him up for ridicule, you are tearing down the body of Christ. That is the extent of my position and exactly what I told Tom and that is the position I stand by and what I want quoted as my position."   

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