In this Holy Week in a time of separation from our friends, we prepare ourselves for the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection. This year, most of us will witness via video feed—rather than participate in—the Easter Vigil when the celebrant processes into a darkened sanctuary with the Paschal candle and chants: “Lumen Christi. Deo Gratias.” “The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.” At the Lumen Christi Institute, as we anticipate Easter and pray for the medical professionals and scientists who seek to protect us from pandemic, we are mindful of the 5th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. and are thankful for his witness to the light of the Gospel.

After drafting the prospectus for the Lumen Christi Institute, we met with Archbishop Francis George in June 1997 not long after his appointment to head the Church of Chicago on April 8, 1997—23 years ago today. A few weeks after meeting with the Cardinal in June 1997, we met with—and recruited as a member of our Board of Advisors—an old friend of the Cardinal, Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. Ashley provided a special link to the history of the University of Chicago, for had become a believer and converted to Catholicism as an undergraduate in the honors Great Books seminar of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago. Keeping in mind my reflections from last week, I remember how Ashley urged us to make the conversation between science and religion central to our mission.

In the Spring of 1999—a year and a half after the Institute was incorporated—Fr. Ashley spent a term with us as a visiting fellow and offered a credit course on “God and Creation in Thomas Aquinas and Modern Science.” In April of that Spring, haning taken up Ashley’s challenge, we hosted the philosopher of science Joseph Zycinski, a protégé of Pope John Paul II, who was appointed by his mentor to be Archbishop of Lublin.

Zycinski gave a brilliant lecture on “The Dialogue Between Religion and Science in John Paul II’s Vision of Interdisciplinary Research.” He also gave the keynote address for a symposium on John Paul’s encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio.  Science and religion has remained a key focus of our programming. More recently in 2017, we worked with physicist Stephen Barr to organize and co-sponsor the first conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, which he founded.  In 2019, we received a grant from the Templeton Foundation to develop our Program in Science and Religion, taking Zycinski’s statement of John Paul II’s vision of a “dialogue between science and religion” as an organizing principle.

The Institute’s collaboration with Stephen Barr began when he attended a national meeting we organized on science and religion in May of 2007. The meeting opened with a public lecture at the University of Chicago by Leon Kass on “Science, Religion, and the Human Future.” It was the first occasion—since his move to Washington, DC to Chair the President’s Council on Bioethics—that Kass had returned to speak at the University of Chicago, where he had been Professor in the Committee on Social Thought.

Looking at photos of the event, I was reminded that Cardinal George attended Leon Kass’s lecture. Looking through old emails, I found this note from Kass: “I was deeply touched by your generous remarks about my work with the Council. Thank you too for creating the climate for a fine dinner conversation and, most especially, for the privilege and honor of being seated with Cardinal George, a man I admire enormously.”

When Francis George was first appointed archbishop of Chicago 23 years ago today, like most of the rest of Chicago, we thought: “who is this guy?” Few had anticipated his appointment, least of all himself.  When we learned that, like our colleague University of Chicago philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, Francis George had been a member of the board of the international theological journal Communio (co-founded by Fr. Joseph Ratzinger) and that Francis George had written his doctoral dissertation on the pragmatist University of Chicago philosopher George Herbert Mead, we knew that we had special reason to give thanks: the Pope had appointed a “University of Chicago” intellectual as archbishop.

(We soon learned that he never lost the common touch coming from his working-class upbringing as a Cubs fan in St. Pascal’s parish on Chicago’s North Side. I remember saying in jest to Fr. Willard Jabusch—Calvert House Chaplain and native of Beverly on Chicago’s far south side: “Sure, Cardinal George is very supportive of our work. But can we really trust him? Remember! He’s from the North Side!”)

Kidding aside, Cardinal George’s presence at the lecture of Leon Kass was a sign not only of his esteem for Kass’s intellect and integrity, it was also a sign of the role the Lumen Christi Institute played in organizing some of the Cardinal’s recreational outings. For other bishops, breaks from the pressure of committee meetings and official business might come in golf outings; for Cardinal George—survivor of an earlier epidemic of polio and no longer able to play sports—a Lumen Christi event was a welcome opportunity to knock around—not golf balls—but ideas.

While the first time we hosted Cardinal George at the University of Chicago was for a symposium on the “The Catholic Scholar and the Secular University” organized with the Catholic Common Ground Project founded by Cardinal Bernardin, it was his participation in the symposium on Fides et Ratio noted above that revealed to us the Cardinal’s gifts as a thinker. The two prior respondents were the chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy, Daniel Garber, and philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. Unfortunately, this event took place before we taped events. From my recollection, Cardinal George was able to briefly state the crux of the argument of the encyclical, relate it to the situation of philosophy and American culture today, and respond to the issues raised by earlier speakers. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to think on his feet.

A passage from the first book he published with the assistance of the Lumen Christi Institute offers an indication of how he expressed himself that day in speaking of how in making the case for Catholic belief one needs both faith and reason.

Doubt that human reason can understand the truth of things as they are is the result of a rationalism that separates human thought from any relationship to the data of God’s self-revelation. In such a cultural milieu, the new apologetics must therefore be grounded in a philosophy that grants the sciences their rightful autonomy but not a hegemony; it must make use of a philosophy that is open to contemporary concepts, especially those that promote an appreciation for human subjectivity and for the centrality of human freedom in our experience. In an effective apologetics, reason finds itself strengthened in its dialogue with faith, and vice versa.

The Difference God Makes, p. 71

This Fall Dr. John Haas—former President of The National Catholic Bioethics Center—mentioned to me a comment made to him in November 2014 by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in a conversation in his retirement residence at the Vatican. Pope Benedict said that Cardinal George was “one of the most brilliant men he had ever known, and that it was a blessing to have known him.” Many of us would say the same thing.  Just remember that he was from the North Side.


-Thomas Levergood, Executive Director