Not So Simple

The Difference God Makes
A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Crossroad, $26.95, 384 pp.

This collection of essays, like many in the genre, consists of addresses and reflections given by Cardinal Francis George over the past decade or so. It includes essays on diverse topics like mission and inculturation, liturgical reform, and the writings of John Paul II. Some were presentations first given to learned groups, as befits a member of the hierarchy who also possesses doctorates in both philosophy and theology. George consistently brings gravitas to his writing, even in those essays where he skates lightly over a topic, as in his overview in this volume of complex issues like Muslim-Christian dialogue.

It is not possible in the space afforded me to comment on the range of subjects George discusses, so let me simply reflect on a pair of essays that are at the heart of this volume. They address the cardinal’s dissatisfaction with the polarities expressed in the adjectives “liberal” and “conservative” when applied to the noun “Catholic,” and with the role of laypeople in the church. His ideas about the former subject have their origins in an off-the-cuff remark he made in 1998 when he described “liberal Catholicism” as a “parasitic” and “exhausted project.” That comment, picked up and challenged by Commonweal editor Peggy Steinfels, was the point of departure for a more developed argument. George later repented of using the term “parasitic,” but his meaning was clear: Liberals were living off the achievements of preconciliar Catholicism, but were not adding heft to the tradition itself.

Both in this book and in a very interesting interview he gave John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter (October 9, 2009), the cardinal has elaborated on his thinking about these issues. According to George, both liberals and conservatives focus too much attention on bishops. Liberals lament the poverty of the hierarchy’s leadership skills, while conservatives demand that the bishops take their office more seriously, display some leadership, and crack down on dissenters. The former despair of episcopal leadership (George has Peter Steinfels’s book A People Adrift in mind), while the latter demand that episcopal power be used more agressively. Both parties, George thinks, have a common intellectual ancestor: Robert Bellarmine’s model of the church as a visible hierarchical society. Instead of conservative or liberal Catholicism, George wants a third way, which he characterizes as “simply Catholicism.”

What is one to make of this picture? First, to borrow a distinction from George’s beloved John Henry Newman, the understanding of liberal versus conservative as George describes it (he spends more time on liberal Catholicism than on conservative Catholicism) is a notional one, not a real one. Next, even if one grants the distinction, the liberal tends to look back not to Bellarmine but to Newman himself who, while unfailingly obedient to papal authority, always wanted bishops to exercise their office in tandem with, and not simply under, papal power. In the final analysis, however, neither liberals nor conservatives are concerned primarily with the bishops (only bishops think that). No serious Catholic who thinks about it for a second denies that the college of bishops constitutes the core theological authority that makes the Catholic Church catholic, but within that college there is a vast variety of theological outlook. That was true in the patristic age, in the medieval period, and, yes, even in the church of the 1950s.

Is it sufficient for George to suggest that his “simply Catholic” trope will liberate the church from its liberal-versus-conservative stalemate? What does the cardinal mean by the phrase “simply Catholic”? Is it like C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”? The cardinal is vague about what the concept means, although he does stipulate the centrality of following Christ and a concomitant love for the poor. Again, the term strikes me as more notional than real. To put it bluntly: Catholicism has never been, nor is it now, “simply” Catholic. My suspicion is that George wants to hold up an ideal that would bypass the (tired) distinction between liberal and conservative and replace it with one centered on the person of Christ and expressive of a true love for the poor. These two characteristics, love of Christ and the other, form the core of George’s being “simply” Catholic.

What George is driving at in his picture of the simple Catholic becomes clearer in his essay on laypeople. Here he writes that the American Catholic Church has been very successful in forming professionals but less successful in developing disciples. For George, I think, the disciple is the “simply Catholic” person. Thus, we have Catholics who run hospitals, administer schools, and manage other Catholic institutions, but it is not clear whether these professional skills amount to discipleship. George seems to think that smaller, more intensive communities (once the Catholic Workers, now groups like Sant’Egidio) might provide the model for the simply Catholic. However, he recognizes that such communities constitute tiny minorities within the larger Catholic world.

George develops his triad of conservative, liberal, and “simply” in an attempt to find some way out of what he perceives as an intellectually sterile discourse within American Catholicism—a kind of intellectual stasis that he (rightly) believes is enervating the church. However, what he proposes in his model of the simple Catholic is described far too briefly. This is not a criticism but a request for further light on this precise question: What, in fact, does it mean to be simply Catholic? Is it possible to be simply Catholic (and not this or that kind of Catholic) within a real culture?

Or one could put the question this way: Whom would the simply Catholic citizen cast a vote for in the coming midterm election, and would the vote be cast for simply Catholic reasons? Would that vote be different if the simply Catholic person were, say, poor and African American, or Caucasian, comfortable, and suburban? One could vary the profile ad infinitum, but in those permutations the picture of the simply Catholic person becomes too flaccid a category to be of much use. It is clear that what George has tried to do in his book is to move the discussion beyond the frame of white hats versus black hats. In so doing, he has prepared a good introduction to a more detailed and in-depth discussion.

 


Related: Simply Catholicism, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
How Liberalism Fails the Church, by Cardinal Francis George
Patrick Allitt reviews Peter Steinfels's A People Adrift

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