Some wish he weren't. In late July, eight Illinois state lawmakers signed an open letter criticizing Cardinal George, among others, for threatening to end the church's financial support for a rights group. The church had cited the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, because the group came out for the legalization of same-sex marriage in May. The politicians—all Catholic Democrats—said the threat of a funding withdrawal was "not worthy of the church we know, love and respect." They said Cardinal George and others were using "immigrants and those who seek to help them as pawns in a political battle."
But the decision had nothing to do with politics. The church doles out money to organizations on the assumption that they will not violate church teachings. If a church-funded environmental group announced its support for abortion, for instance, it could lose funding. In supporting marriage equality for immigrants, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights clearly broke an orthodoxy compact with the church.
In response to the politicians and other critics, Cardinal George—never one to mince words—took to the pages of the archdiocese's newspaper, the Catholic New World, to respond. "It is intellectually and morally dishonest to use the witness of the church's concern for the poor as an excuse to attack the church's teaching on the nature of marriage," he wrote in an August column. He reminded the politicians that "the church is no one's private club," adding that in a few years they would "stand before this same Christ to give an account of their stewardship.
"Jesus is merciful," the cardinal warned. "But he is not stupid."
This isn't the first time Cardinal George's gloves have come off. In the church's ongoing battle with the administration over part of ObamaCare, Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been among the most visible critics. As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he has articulated the religious-freedom issue raised by the insistence of the Department of Health and Human Services that the church provide insurance that covers contraception for all its employees, in violation of church teachings.
But it was Cardinal George who was the most blunt. In a February video interview with the Catholic News Service, he criticized the Obama administration for behaving "as if a right to free contraception were now a constitutional right" that presumes to supersede "the genuinely constitutional right of freedom of religion." In this, Cardinal George announced, the church "will simply not cooperate." In the same vein, he predicted in the Catholic New World in November 2012 that "the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making 'laws' beyond its competence."
The issue of competence came up in a different way when I interviewed the cardinal in 2011 and asked whether bishops are the best authority on policy issues. I pointed out that he has urged his flock to "support and promote the passage of the Dream Act and the eventual goal of the passage of compassionate comprehensive immigration reform legislation." When I asked him whether he ought to be so vocal about these things, the cardinal smiled. "The bishop has authority to teach," he said, lowering his head to peer directly at me over his eyeglasses: "And he has authority to teach you."
Cardinal George's newspaper column often reads now like a battle plan against government overreach. He recently decried how "this tendency for the government to claim for itself authority over all areas of human experience flows from the secularization of our culture. If God cannot be part of public life, then the state itself plays God."
The cardinal takes a particularly grim view of what this intrusion by government could mean for church and state relations. More than once he has warned for dramatic effect that, "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square."
Death is an important motivator for Cardinal George's thinking these days—and not just because of his age. He is also recovering from a second bout with cancer.
But Pope Francis has so far not replaced him, leaving the Archbishop of Chicago to lead his fractious flock in this world while he considers the mystery of what comes next. Clearly, he has decided not to leave important things left unsaid.
Mr. Hahn is the editor of RealClearReligion.org.