Daniel Stollenwerk reviews Cardinal George, OMI, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2009)
It all goes back to Thomas’s Ipsum esse subsistens. Dons Scotus and William of Oakham steered us away from a medieval communion of nature, society and politics. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke eventually offered us the pursuit of happiness – but ungirded, unanchored, unfocused by truth – with its accompanying government to ensure peace in an antagonistic community. A rationalist Christianity, for its part, has been all too willing to accept the modern metaphysical construct, while not just individuals but whole societies are turning from the faith.
In a series of addresses given over the last decade, to the US Library of Congress, the Catholic Theological Society of America, the First Friday Club of Chicago, the universities of St. Louis and Chicago, the 2000 International Eucharistic Congress, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Francis George, Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago addresses concerns about the interaction of Western Culture and the Christian Faith.
Former professor of Philosophy, Vicar General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and current president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, George holds a PhD in both Philosophy and Theology. Not only does he lead one of the world’s largest Dioceses, and is a leading spokesperson for the American Church, but he is also a brilliant thinker, in this case outlining the philosophical background that has led to the present church-state state of affairs.
In Thomas’s great medieval synthesis of Aristotelian Philosophy and Christian Theology every creature was kept in existence, George reminds us, through the active causality of the creator. God was understood, he continues, “not so much as a supreme being, but the sheer act of to-be itself … allow(ing) the medievals to see God in creation and thus to appreciate the essential connectedness of all things to God and, through God, to one another” (47).
This metaphysical account of a unifying reality, which saw violence “as not only ethically improper but ontologically inconsistent”, started to break down when God began to be conceived as separate, set apart from creatures – the initial stages of what would eventuate into the concept of the creator clockwork divinity. By the time of Hobbes, humanity could expect but solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and very short lives. Locke and Jefferson may not have been quite so pessimistic in their assessment of human destiny, but disassociation and suspicion – not communion – still underlay their City of Man world view and government no longer sought to achieve civic or social justice, but rather to ensure the protection of individual rights in an often hostile world. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, yes – but to what end they did not say.
Freedom, then, in contemporary Western society became detached from justice and truth. Or, in the words of 1992 majority US Supreme Court opinion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (49). Eventually the Western concept of freedom slid the slippery slope into the priority of economic freedom, materialism, self-absorption and litigiousness. Government is to keep us safe from disruption via insurance, prisons and homeland security. The present is made tolerable only by distraction and frivolities – all because, George assesses, of a “disenchanted metaphysics” (49).
Despite its apparent truncation, nevertheless, freedom remains enthroned, uncontested, the summit of Western values, and the often unrecognized hermeneutic of the day. Modern secularization, George continues, began when humanity started to clothe itself in the medieval attributes of God: It replaced divine power over nature with technology; it substituted divine providence in history with the myth of progress. In sum, matter had power; spirit did not. The secular West did not need to kill God à la Nietzsche; it could merely tame God, like a pet, or Hallmark poetry, brought out for entertainment or comfort – for celebrating, but not changing. If God had power, if religion could make truth claims, if Bishops had authority, we would not be free. And freedom is untouchable. The present crisis of faith, George surmises, lies in the first line of the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father Almighty.
George’s unhappy assessment of the contemporary state of affairs, then, forms the basis of his understanding of the Christianity’s role vis-à-vis culture. The greatest failure of the post Vatican II Catholic Church, he continues, is that of calling forth and forming laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially on faith’s terms, not the world’s terms. John XXIII called the pastoral – not doctrinal – council as a response to the slaughter of Europe’s two devastating wars, the divisions of class and race, nationalism and totalitarianism. The church was to be an instrument of healing and direction in a world gone awry. Since the council, however, there seems to have been more inner reflection than outer engagement, more focus on community than conversion.
Echoing John Paul II’s Fides et ratio and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate, George adds that the Christian faith must first of all – ironically – save reason from the humanity’s self-inflicted wound of skepticism, the result of which in the secular world is both atheism and moral relativism. (Under the attack of modern skepticism, even science has fallen from the pantheon of deities; it may be a practical construct that enables us to manipulate material in a pragmatic way, but should make no claims to truth in a necessary way.) In the world of religion, it is reason that purifies the faith from extreme fundamentalist claims.
In the end, however, faith must ultimately engage with culture so that the latter might be open to transcendence – the aim is to propose, not impose – and this is where George sees a necessary interfaith dialogue with Judaism and Islam as all important. As the modern nation-state becomes relativized, as national sovereignty is displaced by “social arrangements still to be invented” (92), it is the major faiths of the earth that will carry the culture. Interfaith dialogue with Islam – despite the many problems inherent therein (there is not one Islam, for example; who does one dialogue with?) – will be most significant for the human race in the next 100 years.
We should never fall into the trap, moreover, of juxtaposing bad systems and good people; we are inextricably part of a culture which can only be transformed through love. Pointing to Francis of Assisi and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, George insists that real reform comes less from management theory than from holiness, zeal. Liturgy too plays a role. Although Christian liturgy is ultimately its own goal, and should never be reshaped to serve political goals, still it is to be acknowledged that after the fall of Rome, it was the beauty of the liturgy pointing to the transcendent God that united Europe not only in worship, but also in thought and the principles of life.
Although specifically addressed to an American audience, the philosophical background in The Difference God Makes and the present applications to such themes as laity, priesthood, evangelization, interfaith dialogue, and liturgy remain valid in other Western contexts. George does not seek a return to medieval Christendom – in the foreseeable future anyway, the secular state is here to stay – but does envision a Christianity that will engage with the culture to bring forth a new age of communion open to the transcendent.
Daniel J. Stollenwerk is Director of Religious Studies, St. Peter’s College Middle School, Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a doctorate in Systematic Theology from the Pontifical University of Salamanca, Spain.