In 1998, four years after publishing his best-selling book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter on the nature of episcopal conferences. The letter capped a long campaign, waged across two decades, to limit the pastoral reach of bishops conferences in the name of the autonomy and teaching authority of individual bishops. Coinciding with the passing of a generation of bishops whose sense of collegiality was shaped at Vatican II, John Paul’s letter unfortunately meant the end of such conference initiatives as the U.S. Bishops’ The Challenge of Peace [pdf] (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986). In order to be considered “authentic magisterium,” such letters must now be approved unanimously or by a two-thirds vote with subsequent Vatican approval. And so pastoral letters from the bishops conference have given way to individual trade books—books like Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

Now, as the 2012 presidential campaign sputters to take off, a former USCCB president, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, offers God in Action. Echoing the title of a 1934 book by Karl Barth that set Christian faith against the stirrings of German fascism, George attempts to limn a politics informed by the Catholic philosophical tradition. As his preface aptly puts it, God in Action is “a modest effort to look for how God acts in the challenges of our time.” His introduction explains what “God in action” might look like. George’s God is St. Thomas’s God, as explained in Question 22 on divine providence in the first part of the Summa Theologiae—a Creator, George writes, “supremely present to the world, necessarily active in it.”

The first four chapters of God in Action set forth a serious critique of contemporary U.S. jurisprudence, which George criticizes for quarantining God in a private sphere of personal faith. The bottom-line issues here are abortion, legal recognition of gay marriage, and what George calls the question of “Catholic ethical and religious control over Catholic hospitals, charities, and nursing homes.” He views these questions through the lens of a religious freedom that is communal and organizational rather than private and individual. With the fervor of an abolitionist, George goes after the “gradual legal establishment of secular individualism.” Aggressive secularism, he claims, threatens political freedom more than religion does. He compounds his provocation by adding that democratic institutions—such as the Supreme Court, which he charges with deinstitutionalizing religious freedom and absorbing it into mere self-expression—jeopardize religious freedom in the United States. “For the sake of human flourishing,” urges George, civil law—as teacher and carrier of American culture—must “enter into a more creative partnership with the cultural institutions of marriage, family, and religion.”

God in Action focuses on the neuralgic issues of abortion, gay marriage, and the freedom of Catholic institutions to follow church teaching. The five steps for creating a culture of life it presents at the end of chapter 4, however, are highly abstract. What George clearly wants is to sensitize consciences on life issues and narrow the scope of prudential judgments, the flashpoint of recent intra–Catholic debates about health care. The context here is our cultural polarization—both within and without the church—and the ongoing debate about prudential judgments and the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians who, for any reason, have voted for legislation that includes legalized abortion. In his 2008 presidential campaign book Render unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput addressed the question of Communion and argued that Catholics cannot support a “prochoice” candidate without a “truly proportionate reason.” Such a reason, he asserted, would be one we could “expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions.” Such a standard is enough to make this pro-life Democrat’s soul quake. But it does concede that political decisions involve prudential judgments.

In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris, Pope John XXIII observed the increase in women taking part in public life and interpreted it as a sign of a growing sense of human dignity and equality. Almost three decades later, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that women needed the liberty abortion provides in order to “participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation.” George disputes this verdict. I agree with him, but think he needs to go further in acknowledging, as Pope John did in 1963, what is good and true in contemporary aspirations. George’s argument with the Supreme Court subsumes both abortion rights and gay marriage under “secular individualism.” But this deeply flawed phrase, applied to such complicated social realities, hides the faces of real women and people of homosexual orientation who don’t recognize their hopes and fears in such abstractions. They deserve more compassionate and efficacious words, even from pastors who must in conscience publicly oppose their political desires and demands. They deserve a serious account of what is good in their aspirations and how they can be fulfilled in Christ.

The final four chapters of God in Action reflect and promote the inculturation of the social teaching of Pope John Paul II in our twenty-first-century United States. In his treatment of war, economic life, and immigration, George insists that our country is implicated in global relations that call into question simple resorts to national sovereignty. Such relations demand a self-consciously global or catholic perspective that sees God at work in bringing people together. George’s challenge to reconsider national sovereignty culminates powerfully in his book’s last chapter, with its reminder that “God is not a citizen of any nation state.” The work of contemporary popes for peace, he writes, “relativiz[es] the absolute claims of nation-states upon their citizens’ behavior.” George sees the church—at its best—as a sign of God’s unifying action in the world. Politically, this means affirming the support of most popes over the last century for some sort of international body to promote order and peace. George is not expecting modern nation-states to disappear any time soon, but he does insist that a nationalistic perspective is inadequate for thinking politically about just policy in areas such as economics, immigration, and warfare.

On one large point, I wish God in Action had spoken with a louder voice. “The bishops have lost much of their moral authority and therefore speak without great influence.” George buries this sentence, without analysis or comment, in his chapter on human biology. Surely it deserves more. The hard truth is that the shameful behavior of many bishops compounded the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. The failure of the bishops’ conference to discipline its own in this regard cannot be unrelated to the Vatican’s recent emphasis on individual episcopal autonomy at the expense of episcopal collegiality.

For better or for worse, this emphasis, plus internal divisions among the bishops, has replaced a tradition of collegiality with free-agent bishops and their trade books. In such books, the lure of cheap prophecy is a chief temptation, and for the most part Cardinal George resists it, speaking—as he says the church does—with “a distinctive voice...neither co-opted nor isolated.” God in Action makes a timely and provocative episcopal intervention that deserves wide readership. Its advocacy for life is consistent. George will catch heat from some for so emphatically foregrounding abortion and gay marriage, and from others for his strong challenge to U.S. sovereignty in the name of global solidarity. Perhaps the willingness to challenge both sides suggests an adherence to principle above mere partisanship. As we approach the 2012 election amid dismal times, God in Action offers a trace of hope.

Related: David Gibson's interview with Cardinal George

Published in the 2011-08-12 issue: View Contents

William Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton. His latest book is Every Catholic An Apostle: A Life of Thomas A. Judge, C.M., 1868–1933.

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