UPDATED 12/20/11 5:26 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – It’s been a year of ups and downs, highs and lows, for Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George.
A highlight came back in April, when he arrived in Rome for the beatification of John Paul II. A controversial low came when he temporarily suspended popular priest Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church over the objections of parishioners. More recently, he clashed with Gov. Pat Quinn over abortion rights.
George talked with CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine in a wide-ranging, end-of-year conversation.
Last Friday, George had a meeting with Quinn, a fellow Catholic. The governor said the two spent very little time talking about abortion and gay rights. George offered a firm, but diplomatic, response.
“It was a joined conversation,” George said.
Would it be fair for someone to surmise that Cardinal George took Quinn to the woodshed?
“I don’t think you could do that. What does the woodshed look like?” George said with a chuckle.
But in all seriousness, George said from a policy perspective, bishops should be able to lobby lawmakers personally.
“We didn’t see our conversation as lobbying. We have the Catholic Conference in Illinois that does, in fact, engage in that kind of conversation with legislators,” George said. “But if that means that when you’re ordained a bishop, you lose your rights as an American citizen, I don’t think we want that kind of country.”
Numerous interest groups with social positions that oppose the Roman Catholic Church can, and do, lobby, George said.
“If Planned Parenthood can lobby, if Equality Illinois can lobby, if, you go down the line, the banking industry can lobby,” bishops should be allowed to lobby too, George said.
But, Levine pointed out, the cardinal has a moral authority over Quinn, as a practicing Roman Catholic and a parishioner, than does Planned Parenthood or the gay rights group Equality Illinois. George said this does not negate the need for the church to represent itself as an interest group and lobby for policy changes.
“You can’t say that we have a free country if, in fact, the church shouldn’t have a public voice,” George said. “Everybody else has one. Why can’t the church have one?”
Meanwhile, as 2012 approaches, there is an apparent truce with Father Pfleger, who at 62 is just over two years from retirement age. One option, the Cardinal admits, is Pfleger remaining at St. Sabina until then.
The Cardinal, on the other hand, must formally resign next month, when he turns 75, though he’ll probably serve for two or three years longer. If anything, he seems to be getting stronger and more energetic.
Pope Benedict XVI, 10 years older, appears to be slowing down, and people are starting to think about a possible successor.
“I’ve been told there are no serious health issues. It’s the debilitation of age of a fragile man who’s never (been) very robust, who has a history of some heart troubles,” he said.