You'd think that they weren't on the same side.
Cardinal Francis George and Father Michael Pfleger are both ordained priests of the Roman Catholic Church. According to that faith, both have direct lineage to the apostles and Christ. Both believe in and administer the sacraments. Both espouse virtue and condemn evil. Both are shepherds.
But here we are, opening the greatest fissure among the faithful in the Archdiocese of Chicago since Cardinal John Cody's controversial reign. It's a sorry sight, but one that was inevitable thanks to Pfleger's refusal to obey one of the sacred promises he took as a priest. That refusal came as long ago as 2002 when George, following a 40-year-old and reasonable policy, indicated that he wanted to rotate Pfleger to another assignment, as all archdiocesan priests do. With Pfleger's nearly 30-year tenure of St. Sabina Parish on the South Side threatened, Pfleger responded with a flat "no," according to Robert McClory, a former priest, retired journalism professor and Pfleger's biographer.
Pfleger got away with it for years, until he forced the cardinal's hand by publicly proclaiming that if he were "removed" ("reassigned" is the more accurate word) as pastor of St. Sabina's, he would explore leaving the Catholic Church.
Commentators have colored the uproar in vastly conflicting hues, some beyond reason or relevancy. Ask some: Why "remove" a pastor who has done such great work, when others who have sexually abused children are allowed to stay? A good rhetorical point (and score one for folks who don't very much like the Catholic Church anyway), but it's a red herring in too many ways to withstand logical challenge. It's Pfleger's damage to the church that's at issue.
Other interpretations abound. The fight, we are told, is between: church liberals and conservatives; legitimate church authority and Pfleger's disobedience; stuffy old authoritarianism and the larger good; advocates of the liberalizing Vatican II and those who would re-establish a "1950s church"; authoritarian-minded Catholics and people "who would speak up for themselves"; priests who create a cult of personality and a church hierarchy that sees the value in rotating priests to bring fresh air to all the churches.
Obviously George can't win, encircled as he is by critics who at once fault him for "not cracking down on Pfleger soon enough" and those who (inaccurately) accuse him of trying to discredit the "social gospel" and those who practice it. Some don't like Pfleger's style ("too African-American"); others abhor his extracurricular political activities, such as his ridicule of Hillary Clinton during his pro-Barack Obama campaign speech or his alleged threatening of gun-shop owners.
They all miss the mark. A parishioner nailed it: "No one can replace Pfleger."
Is the faith of the St. Sabina congregation so weak that parishioners can't survive without Pfleger's presence? Is their faith deep and passionate enough to sustain them no matter who is in the pulpit? Do the parishioners flock to the church because Pfleger has ignited their ardent love of God? Or is Pfleger the reason they come? Does Pfleger or his congregation believe that he will be around forever? And when he's not, what then? Is it the man or the church?
Through the church's two millennia-long history, the faithful have been inspired by many great and holy men and women. Part of what made them truly great and holy was the way they prepared their flocks for when the shepherd would be gone, by inspiring a trust in God. Because for the faithful, the only true shepherd is God.
By coincidence, the liturgical year has brought us to that place where the apostles faced the stark realization that their shepherd, crucified, had departed. In hiding, their faith was severely challenged. Until Christ appeared before them, with a message that he has not abandoned them, nor will he ever.
But that was Christ. Pfleger is not Christ. Pfleger may well be a great and holy man. But let us pray that he is also a humble man.