Give me three words to describe Tom Roeser and they'd be conservative, Catholic, and curmudgeon. With room for more, I wrote in 2007 that Roeser, "full of years and beans, writes the most fully realized blog I know (blog.tomroeser.com). He's a ruminator, his decades in politics the cud he now chews twice, and he's spellbinding. . . . Roeser, who wears his values on his sleeve, admires some people and despises others." And, I might have added, leaves you in no doubt about who falls into which category.
Furthermore, he's a former president of the City Club of Chicago, a former vice president of the Quaker Oats Company, a former public affairs director of the Peace Corps. And so forth and so on. It's been a life lived in the public arena. Roeser's 81 now, and the other day he sent me an e-mail asking me to call. "Briefly," he said, "I'm in a fight with Cardinal George who wants to shut me down—meaning my comments on my own blog! Incredible."
Roeser is chairman of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a small organization he and others founded in 1996 to champion "traditional Catholic values." A mainstay of the traditional church is hierarchy, and when Cardinal Francis George, new to Chicago in 1997, was challenged by a group of about 40 priests, the "Pastors' Forum," who criticized his management style and nicknamed him "Francis the Corrector," CCI rose to his defense. Members of CCI believe the office of archbishop of Chicago stands for the values they stand for; they think Cardinal George should recognize he has no better friends than themselves.
And some members, including Roeser, claim to be befuddled that George does not. The relationship has been an uneven one going back to 1997, when George seemed insufficiently grateful for their support. "There is no need to mount a defense when there is no attack," said an archdiocesan statement brushing off the confrontation.
"He said a typically baffling thing," Roeser recalled in a long e-mail answering a series of questions I just put to him. "That he didn't need or welcome CCI's intrusion or support for the matter. That poisoned the well and it's still weird to me."
Explaining itself on its home page, CCI observes that "more and more, Catholics in public life are becoming indistinguishable from other Americans, with growing support for abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and other societal ills. Even worse, a veil of ignorance has fallen over Catholic America, obscuring Catholic lay people's understanding of their faith and calling into question their responsibility to serve as witnesses to Christ in the midst of human society." CCI opposes these "ugly trends" and expects the archbishop to oppose them. Roeser makes it clear on his blog—which CCI members are quick to say the organization has nothing to do with—that he believes George has failed the test.
He scorns George as an empty cassock, a politician with intellectual pretensions whose "loose administrative practices" disrespect the faith. As an example, Roeser has cited George's tolerance of Father Michael Pfleger, who this month received a racial justice award from the archdiocese. "I'm purveying hate speech," Roeser wrote me, "but at the same time he's officially honoring Pfleger who stands 100% by Farrakan, who says that Judaism is a 'gutter religion.'"
On March 25 George wrote the members of the advisory board of CCI. His letter said this: "Mr. Roeser has taken in recent years to writing essays that are filled with factual errors and misrepresentations about events in the Archdiocese of Chicago. His writing about both clerical and lay officials of the Archdiocese are also personally insulting and filled with contempt. At times when the Pope or the bishops' teachings or activities do not conform in every detail to his political convictions, he descends to hate mongering. I've included a recent example for your consideration. Would it be possible for you to use your role as advisor to Catholic Citizens of Illinois to put an end to the hate literature produced by the Chairman? Thank you."
George's example was Roeser's March 17 blog post, which lays into George over a statement on health care reform he'd just issued in his capacity as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. George said the bishops were "disappointed and puzzled" and found it "deeply disturbing" that the Senate bill the House was about to pass contained no Hyde Amendment-type language forbidding the use of federal money to pay for abortions. But Roeser dismissed this show of opposition as theatrical foot-stamping.
"My goodness," he wrote in mockery, "you'd think that if only the Hyde amendment language were included in the Senate draft, the bishops would rush to embrace it, tossing their miters in the air and fanning the air with their crosiers."
Not every last bishop, Roeser went on. "Just the fashionable liberal old duffers like George, 73, who went to pre-divinity school since age 14, then seminary . . . then into the clergy, scaled the bishopric and whose hands are soft as a woman's. . . . Never having worked a day in the private sector and nurtured in the then hot-house seminaries sheltered from the world, George and his vintage haven't a clue in the world." He further described George as a "smallish balding ex-university professor."
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."