Cardinal George on 'God in Action'
Chicago’s archbishop reflects on religion’s place in an increasingly secular society. Part one of two.
BY MATTHEW A. RAREY
| Posted 5/27/11 at 12:01 PM
Cardinal Francis George recently celebrated his 14th anniversary as archbishop of Chicago. Almost simultaneously, he published his third book, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World.
The 74-year-old cardinal, a native of the Windy City, was formerly archbishop of Portland, Ore., and bishop of Yakima, Wash. He is a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 until 2010.
Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey spoke to the leader of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics at the cardinal’s residence May 5.
Why this book? Why now?
In a certain sense, it’s a follow-up on the book I published a few years ago [The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, 2009], where I tried to bring into prominence that we are who we are through our relationships. And then, once we establish who we are through our relationships, we ask, How are we free? and How do we act in a way that our freedom is enforced rather than diminished? And just as God is the basis of our relationships, God is the basis of our freedom. So God isn’t somebody who is jealous of our freedom, but he supports it. But he also isn’t someone who is a cosmic love machine or anything like that. He’s personal, too. He’s free; he acts; he makes choices; he helps us in our actions to increase the love and depth of our love in our lives to make it known that he is with us.
So this book was an attempt to say that, If God is truly active, then how do we describe his actions? Particularly his public actions.
American currency bears the motto “In God We Trust.” What does that mean for a society that is practically atheistic, with many people leading their lives as if God didn’t exist?
We are a believing society. The overwhelming majority of Americans have a personal faith in God. Religion is an important part of our life, but it’s less and less seen as an integral part of our public life. There’s a push to relegate religious faith to the private realm alone. The book points out that this process has a long way to go. We know of societies that have constructed themselves on the principle of atheism — Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Mao’s China — and we know what’s been lost; places where people have lost their freedom, not just freedom of religion. But this all drives us back to the God question, which is very public. When we say, “In God we trust,” in which God do we trust? This is all very important: which God we are to be in relationship with, the true God or not.
In your book, you contrast the difference between a properly secular society and a profanely secular one. Does our own society fall into the profanely secular category?
No, not yet. But there are people who want it to go that way, and I guess that’s an arguable point: How far are we? There is the secular world, where God expects us to act freely and rightly and to cooperate with him, and there’s a struggle there with all those who would enforce a secularity which is profane, a world without God.
You write in your book that America already is on the road to totalitarianism. You referenced the Soviet constitution’s conception of religious freedom as being eerily similar to the notion of religious freedom promoted by our own political leaders.
The Soviet constitution permitted freedom of worship. But they didn’t have freedom of religion. Religion is worship, first of all. But there are also emanations of worship beyond the Church itself — expressing the faith through various charities, for example — and you couldn’t do any of those things in the Soviet Union. Here in the United States, we have people who want to similarly reduce the Church to a worshipping society and that’s all.
Can you give any examples of such ideas being put into action, especially in light of all of these laws instituting civil unions and homosexual “marriage”? [Illinois’ own civil-union law was to take effect on June 1.]
The question of adoption services with gay couples. It’s obvious that you can do that nowadays, but we [through Catholic charitable organizations] are not going to facilitate it.
In your book, you state that the possible revocation of Roe v. Wade need not make the abortion issue a battle in every state if states, by acknowledging the personhood of unborn children, afforded them the same protections granted any person under the Constitution. But what are the prospects of Roe v. Wade being overturned?
One talks about whether law shapes culture or culture shapes law. Yes on both. And so we need to be vigilant and keep moving on both fronts. Culturally, you can see younger people recognizing what abortion is — attitudes that seemed impossible to change some decades ago. So there seem to be big changes in the culture, but I don’t see huge changes happening in the laws, though there do seem to be some changes in the culture regarding negative attitudes toward abortion.
You write that promoting sanctity-of-life issues requires changes both in law and culture. Two points. First, what issues beyond abortion require change? Second, what can Catholics in general, but specifically Catholics in public life, do to effect that change on both the cultural and legal fronts?
A whole spectrum of issues relate to the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, beginning with abortion and embryonic stem-cell research and ending in euthanasia. In terms of effecting good change regarding these issues, I think the political mechanisms are in place to do so: Politicians just need to act on them and lay Catholics publicly demonstrate in support of changes. But I think cultures don’t change with the sudden passage of laws. They change through the customs and the habits and the actions that make up our days.
Tomorrow: Cardinal George talks about his approach to dealing with Catholic public officials who support laws contrary to Catholic teaching.
Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.
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