National Catholic Register


Cardinal George Interview

BY Edward Pentin

| Posted 10/14/09 at 3:47 PM


This interview will be published in the Oct. 25 issue of the Register:

Cardinal’s Virtues
Chicago Archbishop’s New Book Focuses on Faith and Culture


In his first book, The Difference God Makes — A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture, Cardinal Francis George aims to bring together some of the most influential writings on the Catholic vision — “not just of the Church herself, but also of all the peoples of the world,” according to the book’s synopsis.

The publication, which went on sale in American bookstores Oct. 11, contains the author’s observations of Catholicism in cultures around the globe, as well as the perspectives of many other theologians and intellectuals, with a special emphasis on the United States and the teachings of Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal George discussed the book, gave his assessment of the conscience clause and health-care debates, and spoke about the recent discussions concerning the approach of the pro-life movement.

How would you sum up the book’s contents? It struck me as a kind of handbook for the evangelization of America.
I’m glad you see it that way. I was afraid that it wouldn’t be useful, but that’s what I have in mind, and, consequently, it’s something of a polemic against individualism in the culture and against a specialization that prevents us from seeing things whole.
We tend to identify ourselves by individual choices, but the argument is: No, they are secondary to relationships that are given. Secondly, we tend to see things in parts, or at most from a national perspective, and so are at a loss to see things globally. Therefore, universally, in Catholic communion, those two cultural proclivities are hampering us from living as Catholics.

You talk a lot in the book about evangelizing culture and also the point about divorcing freedom from truth. Would you unpack those issues for people who may be unaware of them?
Both of those are from the papal magisterium of John Paul II. Freedom from truth comes out very clearly in John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s writings, and he [Benedict XVI] spoke in the Czech Republic about that very point. The cultural point is that we do divorce freedom from truth in our culture because we see objective truth as a threat to subjective freedom. And subjective freedom is seen as a primary value that must be safeguarded at all costs — even if we have to sacrifice objective truth and the search for it.
The danger and difficulty of that is that you cannot live free unless you know the truth, if you’re enslaved to falsehoods of one sort or another. So, if you want to be truly free, you have to keep searching for the truth, or else you’ll end up in traps of your own making.

You seem to suggest in the book that tackling secularism isn’t so much the challenge as overcoming a Calvinist/Hobbesian individualist mindset in American society.
I think our culture is highly influenced by a conversation with Christianity and its Calvinist expression. So when it secularizes itself, it’s not so much a rejection of God or religion, although that’s part of it to some extent, although it’s a very minority part. It’s rather secularization of Calvinist Protestantism.
So you keep all the attitudes and the proclivities and even the virtues of that kind of faith while you divorce them from God. So there’s this sense of responsibility to oneself, not before a God who judges us, but before ourselves. So you keep all the virtues of Calvinism — and they are virtues — but divorce them from the life with God, and you have secularized virtues. That explains the hierarchy of values in American culture.

What would you say is the best way of going about correcting that?
Be Catholic, that’s all. Since Protestantism split into liberal and conservative, you have had a danger of isolation on the part of fundamentalism and conservatism, and you have had a danger of assimilation on the part of liberals.
Assimilation means the culture is the last word, not the faith. Isolation means that the faith has no influence at all. Either way, you have secularization of the culture. Whereas in Catholicism, we say we know who we are: It’s a religion that’s deeply religious, but it’s also open to the culture. And, so, if we are who we are, living our life together, in parishes, in families, etc., we will be a leaven that will transform the culture into ways that are friendlier to the Gospel than what you’ve got right now.
There’s no formula for that. It’s a question of living the life thoroughly, authentically, not as an individual choice but as a gift to a community, and doing that long enough so society eventually makes changes and is transformed. And since we are very sensitive to popular opinion in the United States, that’s very effective if it’s done well.

And you see the liturgy as being central to that?
Sure. The liturgy is the great gift that tells us who we are. We are called to worship God in this life and in the next, and so the worship of God is something that characterizes us as Catholics. It opens us up to the world.
You move to the Creator of the world and the Savior of the human race in order to go back and dialogue with the world and everybody else, the human race.
So, yes, the liturgy is the source and summit of our life as the [Second Vatican] Council calls it in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). That doesn’t just mean our personal life: It means our social, political, business life and everything else.

You devote quite a lot of space in the book to dialogue with Islam. Could you explain why you pay so much attention to it?
Because even before 9/11, when you looked as a missionary on the world, you saw Islam was growing daily in strength, and so was Christianity. So my point in the globalization argument is that religions are a source of identity more profound than citizenship and nation states. So, if that’s the case, those who identify themselves as Christians and those who identify themselves as Muslims had better enter into dialogue so there is no violence.
That, of course, became far more urgent after the invasion of our country by terrorists in the name of God. So once you make the statement, as I did before, then you better say, “Here’s how you might do it,” and that’s why there’s this chapter on dialogue.

You are quite positive about sharia (Islamic law), saying that it doesn’t necessarily preclude peaceful coexistence.
It doesn’t, but I’m not sure the majority of Muslims would necessarily agree to that. The minority would, so you go with the minority in this case. There is a way of interpreting it, and it doesn’t have to be an instrument of oppression, as it has been in the past, and as it is often, though not always, in the present.

Overall, are you confident that Catholic-Muslim dialogue can effectively move forward, even if it will be a long process?
Yes, I think at this level at the Vatican, the way they’re talking in Rome, Cardinal [Jean-Louis] Tauran [president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue] is doing a very fine job in finding dialogue partners.
Dialoguing with Islam means talking with political leaders because they’re the chief authorities. It started as a political movement, and it continues to be that — as a well as religious movement. At the local level, it all depends. There are imams whom you can talk with, and there are those with whom you can’t. Nonetheless, we’re engaged in ways that were unthinkable 20 years ago.

What made you write this book?
It’s a collection of essays based on conferences, so it’s over a series of years. Over the past year, I’ve put it all together in book form and wrote a few other things, largely because I thought, “There are a coherent set of teachings on those themes that have been in my mind for a long time that I can make a book out of it.” And then friends have told me, “You should put it together and make a book.” So it’s more their initiative, in some ways, than it is mine. They pushed me to do it.

Are there any other reflections you would like to share?
I hope it’s helpful to some people, and they enjoy going through a lot of the things I’ve written before. Some things are new, trying to see this thread of a relationship running through everything. I’ve been interested in relationships in general for a long time, and especially the relationship of Catholic communion ever since the [Second Vatican] Council. I began to understand what had changed in our understanding of Church as communion. So I hope it fosters reflection on those lines. You started off by saying it was like a handbook for evangelization of culture. If it does that, too, then I’m really pleased.

Turning to a few other issues, for various reasons, some people have spoken recently about a lack of charity, and a hostility, among some in the pro-life movement. What is your view of that opinion?
Well, it isn’t only some pro-lifers who are occasionally disagreeable. There are people who are even more disagreeable. I would be very loathe to criticize people in the pro-life movement because a lot of them have given 30 to 40 years of their life to trying to protect unborn children. So if they become overly focused perhaps on that to the exclusion of everything else — if even the Church becomes an instrument to foster this cause — it’s because they’ve given so much of themselves to it with such a good heart. And it’s the singly most important issue in front of us. As Mother Teresa used to always say: if you’re killing an unborn child, what else can you do? There are no limits to human depravity. So, it is of key importance, and these people have carried the burden. So I would be loathe to criticize them.
It’s also true, however, that we’re called to love our enemies, and called to be charitable in all circumstances, and there can be, in any movement, a sector that is less concerned about forming allies — however imperfect they might be — than about maintaining the purity of the cause, and that can turn upon people, even the bishops. That is not productive and it is more from the goal that is being hampered that I would enter a cautious word of criticism than from any consideration about being charitable to everybody. It’s counterproductive.

The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Diaz, recently presented his credentials to the Holy Father. He has spoken about President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI having the same “communitarian vision,” a humanity of the family, and that we must solve problems together. Are you sympathetic to this view?
Everybody hopes we can solve problems together — I don’t think that’s unique to the Pope and the president. I hope that will be the case as we move forward. I think there’s the will for that to be the case, even though there are differences that can be resolved, as the president has said, and they’re substantial. Nonetheless, we share a globe, and we should try to work together as much as possible; and it’s the ambassador’s job [to] see there is harmony. So I’m glad he’s hopeful about that being the case.

Yet there is an inconsistency there when talking about the humanity of the family when his position on abortion and other life issues is as it is.
There are some irreconcilable differences at this point, but there are other areas where I think the cooperation will be good.

What is your analysis of how the conscience clause and the health-care debate is going forward? Are you confident it will move ahead in the Church’s interests?
Well, you know, it’s two steps forward and one and a half — or three — back. It’s a moving target, so we just don’t know. We’ve been promised by the president that it will respect the consciences not just of health-care workers, but of taxpayers who don’t want to see their money spent for abortion. So we’ll see how that works itself out. It’s the Congress that’s creating the legislative instrument to [reach] the goal.
The bishops have two goals: Everybody should be taken care of, and nobody should be deliberately killed. It’s up to the politicians, the lawyers and legislators to see what the mechanism for doing that is. It’s complicated, and the people in Congress are following it step by step, day in day out, and it keeps shifting — the ground keeps shifting as you talk, so you have to meet each shift. What it’s going to look like in the end — your guess is as good as mine, at this point.

Having an administration that appears to be open to all points of view, yet will at the same time pursue its own agenda, must make it very difficult.
Yes, so we’ll have to see what comes out at the other end. We’re hoping that they’ll keep that promise, but if they don’t, then it will be very hard for us to say a good word about it even though parts of it will undoubtedly be good — that people will be covered who weren’t covered before. The abortion issue will vitiate the whole project if it’s not attended to.

But you’re hopeful?
I would like to be hopeful.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.