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October 25, 2009

Illuminating life in the 21st century church in America Word on Fire preacher reviews cardinal’s book

By Father Robert Barron


At the beginning of his essay titled “The Difference God Makes,” Cardinal George muses on the following scenario. As he passes through the corridors of the chancery office in downtown Chicago, he asks the various workers and volunteers whether they would do their jobs any differently if God didn’t exist. This question is a kind of interrogative echo of the famous statement of Cardinal Souhard, the postwar archbishop of Paris: “you should live your life in such a way that it would make no sense unless God exists.”

What both cardinals are driving at is that unless God makes a real difference in the way Christians live, think and operate, Christianity devolves into a bland abstraction or an empty cultural form. It is by no means accidental that Cardinal George takes the title of this particular essay as the title for his book as a whole, for the question concerning the properly public nature of the faith is a leitmotif of practically all of the speeches and essays that make up this collection.

Second Vatican Council

One of Cardinal George’s central concerns is the right interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Again and again, he reminds us that Blessed Pope John XXIII construed Vatican II as a missionary council, the purpose of which was the more effective evangelization of the contemporary world.

But in the course of its awkward implementation, especially in our country, the council morphed, the cardinal thinks, into a call to accommodate contemporary society, to bring the church into line with distinctively modern priorities and values.

This misconstrual has proven disastrous, largely because modernity’s stress on autonomy is so dramatically at odds with the church’s insistence that freedom must always be situated within a wider and deeper context of objective truth.

Paradigmatically modern persons define themselves through an act of the will, becoming a law unto themselves, whereas paradigmatically ecclesial persons allow themselves to be defined by the God who has revealed his truth through the structures of nature and the content of revelation. If characteristically modern people balk at any strictures set to freedom, characteristically ecclesial people find authentic freedom in a joyful acquiescence to the truth of things.

Discovering our nature

Making this relationship between liberty and truth is a major concern of the more philosophical essays in Cardinal George’s book. Through the doctrine of creation, Christians know that, before they make any personal choice, they already, in the deepest structures of their being, belong to God, and through God to one another. Communion — to use a favorite term of Pope John Paul II — is not so much, therefore, a function of voluntary choice, but rather part of the nature of created being itself.

More to it, through the doctrine of the Trinity, Christians know that ultimate reality is not so much an individual but a family of love, a communio of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In a word, the connectedness of love — both created and Uncreated — is prior to our freedom and remains the proper goal of our freedom.

In the final — and by far the densest — essay of his book, Cardinal George develops an ontology of what he calls esse per (being through). Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist through one another, so we human beings, in our deepest authenticity, exist through one another, finding ourselves precisely in mutual relation.

As a wonderfully homey instantiation of this abstract principle, the cardinal tells us that his mother would pick out his father’s clothes, for she knew his tastes better than he did and made him look better than he would if he had chosen on his own. Mr. and Mrs. George existed through each other, realizing in the blending of their minds and wills the communio that both grounded and called them.

Personal vs private

And this brings me back to the public nature of the faith. As long as personal autonomy remains the primary value, religion is effectively privatized, since no claim to religious truth can be imposed on anyone else’s freedom. One can say “this is true for me,” but one could never legitimately say “this is the truth.”

But under this regime, the ties that bind us to one another are effectively loosed, autonomous individuals stand over and against one another in mutual suspicion, and esse per dissolves. And this is why Cardinal George thinks that liberalism — another name for the modern ideology of personal autonomy — is an exhausted project.

He is an enthusiastic advocate of an outreach to the contemporary society; he thinks that we should use the technologies made available to us by modernity; he believes that the church should adjust some of its language and strategy in order to be a more effective evangelist to the secular society. But he doesn’t think that the church can surrender its central and densely textured truth claims in order to mollify the autonomous self.

In this regard, he finds himself in line with one of his intellectual heroes, John Henry Newman, who commented that his entire life’s work could be read as a struggle against “liberalism in religion,” by which Newman meant the view that there is no objective truth in spiritual matters.

I’ve given just a hint of the rich intellectual fare on offer in Cardinal George’s book. He ranges very widely indeed, covering themes in ecclesiology, theology, philosophy, politics and cultural anthropology.

Anyone interested in the life of the church in the early 21st century would profit from dipping into the pages of “The Difference God Makes.”