Cardinal’s Virtues

Cardinal Francis George sat down with Edward Pentin to discuss his new book about faith and culture in the United States.

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 on 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 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 minor 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.

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 loath 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 loath 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.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.