Cardinal George on 'God in Action'

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George discusses his new book on God’s role in society.

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.

You note that the law in the past 100 years has radically shifted from a Burkean, common-law tradition to that of law by judicial fiat. For quite some time the American people have been given laws that don’t arise from “We the people” — laws issuing from culture and actual human experience — but from judges and legislators who have personal ideological agendas which tend to be anti-Christian. Speaking of which, many of these judges and politicians profess to be Catholic but promote laws and policies in defiance of Church teaching as well as the public pronouncements of her bishops. Some of your fellow bishops, such as Archbishop Charles Chaput and Cardinal Raymond Burke, have quite forcefully taken such officials to task, even warning them against receiving holy Communion lest they further imperil their souls. Where do you come down on this issue, especially given that Illinois is governed by many Catholic politicians who defy the very Church they claim membership in?

I think what we [the USCCB] said back in 2002 — that bishops should deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis, after having a pastoral conversation [with the official] — has attained a general consensus among bishops. Those conversations are difficult. They often respond saying they feel a need to represent all of their constituents, which isn’t a very practical thing to try to do. The goal should be effecting the best action and legislation for the common good of the country. Abortion, for example, is genocide, especially among black Americans: something like 40% of black babies being killed before being born. Any situation that goes so against the common good can’t last. A state has no right to transgress the common good, including redefining fundamental human institutions such as marriage. So when we have these conversations with politicians, we try to make these things clear to them.

On the subject of marriage, faithful Christian couples looking to get married nowadays might be tempted to bypass the state altogether. After all, the state has been in the marriage business only since the Protestant era, previously having been the domain of individuals and the Church. Speaking of individuals and the Church, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to the Vatican and got a private talking-to by the Holy Father, no doubt encouraged by her public statement suggesting compatibility between abortion and Church teaching. Have you had similar conversations with Pelosi-like politicians?


If you’d care to name names, we’d be all ears.

No, no. [smiles]

In God in Action, you write that “a bad society pulls people back into themselves, without higher purpose or destiny.” What advice would you give for fostering that sense of vocation, especially to the young — knowing, of course, that most people who read this interview will be faithful Catholics and apt to listen?

I think Americans are pretty good in forming generous characters: parents trying hard to form their children into selfless individuals. That’s one of the best things about our society. That isn’t a conversion to God, necessarily. But people often get a higher sense of purpose beyond themselves when their life breaks up and there’s a tragedy. That’s when they start asking ultimate questions about existence. The Church must always be there to help them discover the answers, to show them the path to God.

Now what I’ve said isn’t advice as such, but it’s meant to show the importance of forming habits in life — habits of thought and action — that will keep people on that higher path of selflessness.

This dovetails nicely with something both simple and profound that you write in your book: “If children don’t eat with their parents as a family, the Eucharistic meal in their parish family will seem ever more strange to their experience of life.” But to move on somewhat and address this issue of bad societies pulling people’s eyes to the ground rather than lifting their eyes to the prize, you criticize American society for being obsessed with risk. Why is risk-obsession both anti-Christian and ultimately self-defeating, both spiritually and practically speaking?

The obsessive desire for control is the enemy of freedom. But if we have a sense of God’s providence, we are free. We don’t worry about making ourselves the sole guarantors of our own safety. We live life not in fear — preoccupied with trying to do away with every risk — but with an inner serenity that spreads throughout society.

The phrase “My body, my choice” is born of a false notion of freedom based on selfishness. But how does one show others the falsity of that statement — show them the truth, in other words — without making appeals to religious claims that non-believers would find meaningless if not repellent?

That phrase means freedom as autonomy. And that statement in particular can be shown to be false because a woman is the host of the unborn child: They are two bodies, not one and the same. That’s scientific fact. It’s important, however, to always remind women who might consider seeking an abortion that they are not alone — not alone just in the sense that they are hosting a new human within themselves, but not abandoned by society, either. As Christians we must see to it that they get the help and support they need so that abortion is no longer an option.

In your book you write extensively about the war on terrorism and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Shortly after its publication, Osama bin Laden was killed. How would you have addressed his killing had the ink not dried before his blood was spilled?

In the book I address a number of problems, one of the most prominent being war, because God tells us to love our neighbor. So there are rules for conducting a just war. But that presupposes war being between nations. War against terrorism falls out of the existing categories of just-war doctrine and traditional analyses of violence because terrorists don’t hold themselves accountable to the rules and agreements signed between nations. So I explore this situation in depth in the book.

In the case of the death of that great terrorist, the phrase that comes to my mind is that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And there can be a sense that an evil has been conquered. But for Christians, we have to go beyond that. We have to question how it’s possible to live together under one roof with people who are out to kill you. … We need to be realistic about this, but also rely upon God’s desire to help guide men toward peace.

Returning to the issue of restoring sanctity to public life, especially regarding abortion, what do you think about pro-lifers going into Planned Parenthood clinics and telling falsehoods in order to trap employees into making grossly immoral and illegal statements?

Planned Parenthood violates the sanctity of life, and I think [these activists] are trying to destabilize an institution that is involved in the business of evil. But I suppose that, in this case, other ways of exposing Planned Parenthood than resorting to deception, however good the intentions, would be preferable. As the Pope has said, we’re free when we live in the realm of truth. We must try, as best as possible, to reject falsehood in order to stay in the realm of truth.

You attended the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Please share your thoughts about him.

I was very moved. I had the pleasure of knowing him, and I’m convinced he was a saint. He was very free — the freest man on the face of the earth — because he was holy, having surrendered himself totally to the service of God.

The last line of your book reads, “In every age and every place, the most important human activity is to watch for God’s.” How good of a job are we doing in this day and age, especially given the rampant anxiety over economic concerns? Do you think these anxieties and distresses will occasion the opportunity to help people look beyond themselves?

Well, I hope so. But you see, we need to watch and also be able to see God’s activity in human affairs, and most of us probably aren’t very well skilled in seeing it. We don’t talk a lot about these things, the modern age having relegated religion to the realms of private belief and public charity. Often it takes tragedies to make us open our eyes to the larger realities of life, to see God constantly at work in the world. God is even there making good come from evil. We really must spend the time necessary to attune ourselves to God’s work among us: in our individual lives, in society.

You write that you learned two fundamental lessons when you were a child combating polio: that a person is never an object and that true freedom means acknowledging limitations. These are lessons constantly repeated by popes and men of good will: basic truths but ever new insofar as people and societies are always forgetting them.

You sum it up well. But just because we are not objects, that doesn’t mean we are truly autonomous. We all are limited by having different gifts, besides all gifts being limited in and of themselves. We depend upon one another. A false statement you hear parents telling their children is: “You can be whatever you want to be.” No, you can’t. That sets up a child for failure. There are some realities we can’t create. Now, that might be a source of resentment for some, but it’s liberating for others who recognize true freedom in acknowledging their limitations.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about your book in particular, anything in general?

I hope the book tells people how to be free by acting in cooperation with God’s will.

Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.

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