Cardinal George on God in Action

Chicago’s archbishop reflects on religion’s place in an increasingly secular society. Part two of two.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George anoints the hands of Phillip Owen, 26, during the ordination liturgy at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago May 21.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George anoints the hands of Phillip Owen, 26, during the ordination liturgy at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago May 21. (photo: CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Yesterday, Cardinal Francis George spoke to Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey about his new book, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World. Today, we continue that conversation, which took place in his residence May 5.

Your Eminence, in your book, 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.

Speaking 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 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 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 his self 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.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.


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