Francis George: The RealClearReligion Interview

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

His Eminence Francis Cardinal George is the Archbishop of Chicago and former President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In April of 1997, Pope John Paul II named him the eighth Archbishop of Chicago which made George the first native Chicagoan to serve as Archbishop.

On the 15th of this month, I sat down with the Cardinal at his residence to discuss his new book God in Action, free will, Michele Bachmann's "submission," Islam's "submission," and the sometimes disputed authority of the Bishops. After spending nearly an hour picking his brain, I doubt anyone can dispute that this Archbishop is an authority on all things God and truth.

RealClearReligion: How does The Difference God Makes compare to God in Action?

Francis George: The first book was more relationships and primarily the relationships that are ours by reason of being baptized and in therefore the family of God. So, how does God figure into the network of relationships that make us who we are? The second book is how does God figure into our action and particularly as the guarantor of our freedom not our competitor, but somebody who is necessary for us to be free? How do you therefore work out God's purposes in the world -- not just in your private life, but in your social life, public life, in such a way that you can cooperate with God?

That being the purpose of the first part talking about how God's causality is different from ours and yet, He's closer to us and our activity than we are to ourselves. How does that work out in the challenges of the day? That's what the various chapters are about -- both in terms of constraints on God's appearing in public, particularly because of the cultural and legal constraints that are now ours. And then more actively: what do you do positively in such a situation in order to be free, in order to act with God?

RCR: What is the relationship between God's freedom and our freedom?

FG: The fact that God knows everything does not mean that He is directly causing everything. He respects our freedom at our level. He makes it possible for us to act freely. If He didn't, we wouldn't act at all -- we wouldn't be at all. His is the causality at the level of our being, and therefore the roots of our freedom. Ours in causality is determinative of what kind of being we're going to be through our free choices, what kind of action we are going to do through our decisions.

It doesn't mean either that He just sits there and looks -- He does guide. He does have a plan. He does have a purpose. But He made us free, and He respects that. It is two different spheres of causality. Interdependent, though. It is not two boxes looking at one another without any kind of direct connections. There are very direct connections. That's why the question of "how are we free if God is omnipotent?" is a real, constant question. Ultimately, God is all powerful, and yet we are free.

RCR: In a recent Republican debate, the Washington Examiner's Byron York asked Michele Bachmann about "submission" and whether or not she would be submissive to her husband in the White House. If God acts in the world, what kind of minutia of our lives does He act in?

FG: I haven't followed what Michele Bachmann has said, or the debates for that matter, but the short answer is: love. God always wants what's best for us, just as you want what's best for someone you really love. You put them before you, and God does that too. God puts us before His Son, who He sacrificed for our salvation. But the Son did it voluntarily because He has the love of the Father before us. And so, that question in marriage is mutual submission, really -- the next verse goes on: "husbands love your wife as Christ loves the Church."

So, in every case if you really love someone there is an element of submission to them because you want what's best for them, and at times they're going to tell you what's best for them. Even if you have second thoughts about it, you'll probably still do it because you love them. From a Christian perspective, the answer to all of that is not power, as it is in the modern perspective. It's love. It's self-sacrifice. That's what love is all about. The marriage ceremony says it very well: sacrifice is difficult, but love can make it a joy.

RCR: More on submission: five years ago this month, Pope Benedict XVI lectured Regensburg about the relationship between faith and reason. Also this month, we mourned another anniversary where submission to God's will made for some awful violence.

FG: That's the heart of Islamic...

RCR: Can you talk more about that in particular?

FG: Well, love isn't blind. Love is reasonable. God is pure love, but He is also pure reason. The Pope's point was that if you separate reason from faith you'll end in violence. Either way, if you have a purely rationalistic scheme that is atheistic, for instance Communism was for social justice. Fascism was for the nation-state, which isn't automatically a bad thing. If you, however, separate reason and faith so that it's purely a rationalistic scheme, it will end in violence. If a pure faith scheme -- sometimes called the fundamentalist scheme in modern parlance -- you'll end in violence too.

The Pope's point was more critical of Western secularism than it was of classical Islam. He used the example of the criticism one of the Byzantine emperors who said, "What have you brought except violence?" The Pope didn't necessarily subscribe to everything that was attributed to him. He's simply saying: what the Emperor said was true. If you separate faith and reason and there's no interchange between the two, you'll end up with a violent society.

RCR: Why has Islam had such a problem with that interchange between faith and reason?

FG: I think it dropped out of that discussion in the 13th and 14th century. Every faith uses some kind of tool to understand itself better. Faith seeks understanding. The Western tradition has used philosophy to understand the truths of the faith and you come up with theology. Where as, Islam at a certain point said: we'll use law. There are these four major, developed schools of Islamic jurisprudence. There is the enormous corpus of Islamic law that is very rich. However, law is one rational exercise of reason. Philosophy is very different. Philosophy wants to try to understand everything. It is a better dialogue partner with faith, I would say, than law.

RCR: Christians, on the other hand, as you point out have developed this understanding of God's will. Yet, the question remains, should Catholics in the public square obey God's will when making public policy choices?

FG: Well, everybody is supposed to obey God's will or this world won't end up very well. That's the history of the human race. Abraham believed in God and Saint Paul credited his faith. Abraham had met God. There was an encounter and he knew that God had made a promise. And God would keep that promise. Now He's telling him something that doesn't make any sense, but there's a trust that He would work it out somehow.

You've got to have met God. Religion doesn't start with a set of laws or rules and it doesn't start with a set of ideas. It starts with an encounter, with the living God and in our case, Christ risen from the dead. In that encounter you meet someone you can trust. That's faith: trust in truth. But then you've got the obligation to keep searching for the truth of the faith so that your life is oriented in a way that is consistent with the faith. The trust is a matter of love and faith is a matter of truth. The two together give you the guidance that you look for.

Nobody has a letter from God saying: do this. But we have a sense that God is provident, that He protects us and wants to save us. You can trust Him if you look for indications of where He is at work. You have some indication from the 10 Commandments, but also when you look at your own life and your own history and you see how God has created good out of the evil that you've done. Only God can do that: take something evil and make something good out of it. It's not like we have some sort of blueprint. Though we do believe at the end of time, He'll return and judge the living and the dead and you'll see how it all works together. But, right now no one knows how it all works together. You continue to search and you do that within a community of faith.

Christ didn't leave us a book of instructions; He left us a body, a family -- a Church. If it were perfectly clear, there wouldn't be any freedom.

RCR: This discussion is, in part, why I mentioned Michele Bachmann. She, along with many other Protestants, has said that God tells her to do things. You don't often hear Catholics talking like that.

FG: No.

RCR: Why is that?

FG: For us, the relationship with God is mediated by the Church. We're not standing alone before God. We never go to God alone, He doesn't come to us alone. Christ comes with the Saints and the Church that He gave us. God does talk to the Saints sometimes; read the mystics. You see not so much instructions, but the experience that gives them a sense that what they're doing is what God wants. There's never the kind of absolute certitude that enables you to say: this is totally what God says. You check it with the Church. That's what Jesus said all the time: you're estranged from your brother, you talk to him and if that doesn't work you talk to the Church.

The Church is our Mother, which means it is an internal voice. It is not a set of external rules. That's what isn't understood about Catholicism in this Protestant culture. It means that your conscience is formed by the Church, but in the end you're responsible for your own activities. If you're going to say you're Catholic, you inform your conscience so that you're activities will conform to what God is telling us through the Church. If God is telling you something outside of that, well, the Church will look at that and say: we think it is true or we don't think it is true. The Church might say: that might be true for you but it has no public normative value.

Public normative value of Revelation closed with the last Apostle. The Church is founded on the Apostles. That's the continuation; it's not new revelation. It is new ways of discerning what God has revealed in the past and how He guides us in the present. It's a collective thing for us. That's why you won't hear Catholics coming out and saying: God told me to do this. The Church tells us to do this. The Church has to keep correcting herself as she moves along examining herself. That's not to say that in using Holy Scripture you can't have a kind of inspiration. Sometimes it is true, but how to do you check that? For us, we check it through the Church.

RCR: Earlier you mentioned laws when talking about Islam. You write quite a bit in God in Action on American jurisprudence and place a significant amount of blame on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Why?

FG: Holmes is the one responsible more than anyone else, I think, for reducing law to process rather than principle. That's what we've got: the law is a process. If there is equality of process for everybody, then that's our definition of justice. Whether or not what is done is right or wrong, you follow the process. And so, the end result is just by definition within that alternative universe that is American law. Most people still operate within a moral universe where principles of good and bad and what is right and wrong in itself, and not just as a result of the process.

Holmes purposely, if you go back to Common Law, where he separated it from any sort of principle from common law in the English sense (which is after all, the cumulated wisdom of people in any culture and that doesn't work so well in a multicultural society so we have statutory law rather than common). Holmes said: no, instead law is what a judge sometimes in the future will say it is, looking at your actions. In that sense, they called him a pragmatist, but he really wasn't. He knew James, but he wasn't a philosopher in an official pragmatic sense. Because he was concerned about future consequences, getting the meaning of what a law is, he's called a pragmatist. There's a certain similarity there. The law is only is only discoverable by what a judge interprets it sometime in the future. That's effectively the system we have.

RCR: Do you see any hope in the Catholic majority of the United States Supreme Court?

FG: It depends on how much they might be influenced. I mean, they have to live and work within that system -- they've all taken their oaths. That they recognize there's more than that system is where you get into a discussion. Scalia, for example, would say it's very imprudent to go outside that system because, what are you pulling into our legal system in order to judge the system itself. In a sense, he is accepting the Holmesian principle, but he's saying: what saves us from being held captive to the present moment is the Constitution itself, not natural law or anything else.

We would traditionally, as Catholics, at least in our Magisterium, say: no, the principles of natural law are in fact to be the ulra-legal, meta-legal, metapositive law guide. We judge a law from those principles. Natural justice doesn't figure in our system at all. It used to figure in English common law, but as that recedes more and more in a multicultural society, all that you have left is process. Process corrects process. You have endless appeals and at no point does somebody say: this is right or this is wrong in itself. The question then is: is our legal system able to be a guide for human experience? In other words, all human experiences have to be ground down into the categories of that system. What's left isn't very recognizably ours any longer.

The big objection in God in Action is that the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court has gutted the first amendment to the Constitution. What's left is protection for religious self-expression, but very little institutional protection as such. That's the way our individualistic culture works. We have interpreted the Constitution in ways that conform to our cultural individualism. If you want to be religious, that's fine, but it has no public normative activity. If you want to belong to your Church, that's ok so long as it doesn't get in the way of public policy.

RCR: Do you see the recent passage of civil unions in Illinois as a consequence of Holmes' philosophy?

FG: To the extent that equality under law has now been interpreted to mean equality in natural institutions that predate the law, like marriage, or the Church, or religious institutions, or human life itself. None of that is a creature of the law. The presumption that the law can tell us what natural institution is supposed to be is a formula for totalitarianism. There's not equality in a family; there never is. And yet for that reason, the family is condemned as patriarchal. For a generation now we've had this. The goal of this sort of legislation is about the destruction of the traditional family, not just marriage.

Equality, therefore, becomes the criterion because we can handle all that in process, but we can't handle that as principle without infringing on freedom. In our country now, equality means your liberal and freedom means you're conservative. That tension is there and it can't be handled on its own terms. It can't be handled as you go out of that and go back into natural institutions or natural law or divine revelation. Something outside of the system has to tell you the system has gone wrong. This is case-in-point where the system has gone wrong. It's gone wrong ever since Roe v. Wade. Terribly wrong.

RCR: Same with American jurisprudence where religion has been shunted out of the public square --

FG: Pushed out.

RCR: Religion has also been pushed out of Catholic higher education. Particularly by the Land of Lakes conference.

FG: Well, we did that to ourselves. You can't have a Catholic university that takes Land of Lakes as a charter document. Because Catholic means within the body of the Church and there is a public authority within that body which is the Bishops and it's a teaching authority, a governing authority. It has its own limits; it is not dictatorial, but it is pastoral. It is inclusive of our experience within the Church and our experience as disciples who are also human beings and citizens. That kind of authority doesn't sit well in a Protestant culture, which says that the only authority is yourself and the Holy Spirit. The Church then is a sort of spiritual support group. And there are Catholics assimilated into that culture who resent episcopal authority.

So while outside the Church sometimes you have people who are anti-Catholic, within the Church there are people who are anti-episcopal. If you want to create a Church which can ignore the Bishops, then you'll have a lot of the things you are talking about. The problem for those of us who want to remain Catholic is that those churches already exist. I shouldn't have to change my religion in order to make some group happy who doesn't like the exercise of episcopal authority within the Catholic Church. They've got a choice. We don't; we have the Church that has authority from Christ, not from the people. That whole notion is deeply resented. Not only by some Protestants who are anti-Catholics, but by some Catholics also.

RCR: Your mentioning of the Bishops' authority brings up an important point, especially for this discussion on Catholics in the public square. In endorsing God in Action, George Weigel described you as a "thoughtful citizen as well as a distinguished churchman." Where do you think churchmen go too far when involving themselves in the public square?

FG: The Bishop has authority to teach, and he has authority to teach you.

RCR: He has authority to teach me on policy?

FG: He has authority to teach you the principles that ought to shape policy. How far along you go in determining the details, I think the Bishops would be far more sober, perhaps, about going into details than they would a generation ago. You can have the illusion of influence when you write a letter that's of interest to people because you recognize that it's influencing certain people, but it's probably influencing people who would agree with you anyway. Where that line is about going to far, as you say, has to be looked at in every case. You have to look at it and say, for example: the principle from our faith is we shouldn't kill. But can you go into some detail and say you can kill someone who has invaded your home with a gun and is about to shoot your wife? Can the Bishops go that far and say you can't kill there either? However, the Bishops have said there are just wars.

How far do you go in determining actions in detail? The economy, for example: the general principle is that the economy should be for people, not people for a machine that chews people up as they go along. You can't be judging people simply based on producers or consumers. Human dignity predates that and has to be respected in an economic system as well as a political system. The Bishops will always be there to say: this is against human dignity, but how much detail do they want to say? The Bishops aren't going to give you specific answers, as in: redo your whole economic system in this fashion. They give you principles. Too often people get stuck in the political discussion, and then your only categories are liberal and conservative, as far as that discourse will take you. No, the final categories are is it true or is it false.

RCR: What happens, though, when a priest or Bishop goes too far?

FG: What happens if they don't go far enough? It would mean the Church isn't well governed.

RCR: Well, as an example I wrote about back in April, what happens when a priest advocates for a particular piece of legislation? Wouldn't that be inappropriate?

FG: It depends on the legislation. If the priest had said: this law that will fund abortions is wrong. Would that have been ok?

RCR: I would rather them not talk about legislation. Give me the principles that help me understand that abortion is wrong, but to have a call to action on legislation would be inappropriate. Where is the line?

FG: Well, he shouldn't do that in a homily. But if he is in a community outside of the Mass, he is a concerned citizen and it is a political choice. He has the right to do that. He can't say that he's saying this as a priest and it is the only moral thing to do. You can agree in principle, but disagree with the solution. We're all citizens. Just because we're not experts on the solutions, doesn't mean we have to stop and have nothing to say about law.

That's precisely what happened with the health care debate. They said: Bishops aren't experts in the delivery of health care, so shut up and trust the politicians. We trusted the politicians -- I didn't -- and got a terrible law. There the Bishops stuck very close to the principles. Everybody should be cared for, nobody should be deliberately killed. After that, you figure it out. But on the level of principles, it is clearly a bad law. That's all we said, nothing more. I think it was a good exercise of episcopal authority.

RCR: As we approach the 2012 elections, do you see any positive in the increased role religion plays?

FG: Interest in religion is not necessarily interest in God. The book is called "God in Action," not "religion in public life." That was one title that was suggested, but I said no. Religion in public life means a set of ideas, an ideology that has certain positions. Religion is then one more ideology among others. Religion is about God. Religion begins with a relationship to God, not a relationship to an idea. It is God who is an actor, not just individuals who have certain beliefs who are actors. God is an actor.

You know, we have secularized the public life of our country in such a way to say something is religious is something negative. Religion has now turned into a way to discredit people. It is futile and dishonest to argue about religion. Religion is a phenomenological umbrella; there are all kinds of religions. It makes a difference when your religion is telling you something true or something false. What God do you worship? Do you worship a God who tells you to forgive your enemies or get even with them? That's a public question. The consequence is not just for you; its consequence is for how you are going to act in public.

The question about who God is is a very public question. We don't have the tools in this kind of political atmosphere to handle that, and maybe politics isn't the best place to answer that. It is a public issue. You can see the consequences in worshiping a false god -- we just got done commemorating September 11, 2001.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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