Setting Boundaries

A conversation with Cardinal Francis George

Cardinal Francis George, OMI, archbishop of Chicago, was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2008 to 2011. He spoke with David Gibson May 19, on the occasion of the publication of George's book God in Action (see William L. Portier's review).

David Gibson: In your last book, The Difference God Makes, you wrote that you don’t consider yourself or the church “counter-cultural,” a trope that a lot of social conservatives or people trying to reaffirm a moral order often use. What did you mean by that?

Cardinal Francis George: The church is in dialogue with the world, which is loved by God. So to set yourself a priori against the world as such is not consistent with the mission of the church. And it would mean that the church would become more sectarian than ecclesial. The other side of that concern is personal. Our culture is within us; we’re shaped by our culture. So you set yourself against yourself, and it could be a form of self-hatred, which is not evangelically healthy. The term is really used, I think, to say we’re against certain trends and tendencies in our culture or society, and in that sense, that’s always true. The gospel is a criticism of any society, so there are dimensions of our culture that I talk about in the new book, particularly our penchant for individualism and in our relationships, which are not consistent with the gospel. But to criticize doesn’t mean that you’re “counter.” It means that you criticize from within; it’s our culture, after all, and it’s a good culture—with some demonic tendencies, like all cultures.  

Gibson: Could that kind of dynamic of critique without being “counter” work in terms of the church—that is, being critical without being anti-Catholic? It seems that a lot of people—conservatives and liberals—have profound criticisms of the church, but they stress that they come from a place of loyalty and deep faith.

George: Yes, but then you have to ask whether their faith is ecclesial. There are criticisms that would be so profound that they would put you outside the community of faith. We have a whole history of that. But provided you stay within the boundaries of the faith itself, which are rather broad, then obviously we have to be critical. Our faith is not blind faith; it’s intelligent faith in dialogue with reason and with culture. And so criticism is to be expected. It’s healthy, provided it’s within the boundaries of the faith itself. And that’s of course, often the point of contention, isn’t it? The bishops are saying, “Here are the boundaries,” sometimes, and others say, “No, we can go beyond that.” And they could be right, but they could be wrong. And when those discussions harden, then the dialogue isn’t fruitful anymore but becomes very brittle.

Gibson: In the wake of the financial crisis, a lot of Catholics have become enamored of the libertarianism espoused by the Tea Party movement. I think of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his public admiration of Ayn Rand—in many ways the patron saint of libertarianism. What do you make of that development?

George: I’m not aware of all the dimensions of the Tea Party movement. It’s a broad cultural phenomenon, and we have to take account of it. I suppose, just for starters, to the extent that it’s based in the individualism of Ayn Rand, an atheist, and is totally dismissive of relationships that I argue always create our personalities, it’s wrong. To the extent that it’s concerned about maintaining a limited government, so that politics doesn’t become the ultimate conversation and squeeze out faith, I could be sympathetic with some of their concerns. How it works out in practice, in terms of budgets, because a budget is a moral document, telling you what your priorities are…those are things which I think the laypeople have to move on; it’s their responsibility. It’s not the bishops’ responsibility to govern the world. It’s the laypeople’s responsibility. It’s our [the bishops’] responsibility to say “here are the principles.” Ours is a communitarian ethos, so if you’re a libertarian, there’s a criticism that has to be brought to that position. But ours is also a position of freedom, particularly freedom of religion, so we would also be concerned if someone imagined that the government is the only vehicle for public action.

Gibson: The budget and tax debate raises questions about who we are as a country. Who do we take care of? What should the rich pay? It seems we have reached a crisis point in U.S. society.

George: Perhaps this is a defining moment. But again, you can look at the problem of the amount of taxation—whether it’s excessive or not—from two perspectives. One is: “I want to have more money to do what I want to do on my own, so don’t take my money away from me, whether I’m rich or poor.” Or you can look at the taxation problem vis-à-vis the indebtedness we’re passing on to future generations. That’s a communitarian concern. It means that we see society extending not only beyond the individual but beyond this generation.

Gibson: Many are concerned that throughout the budget debate, traditional prolife social issues—abortion, stem cells, migration—are being forgotten. Do you fear that?

George: Yes, except I’m not afraid they will get lost, because they’re there and they can’t be ignored. So no matter how this present budget is resolved, those issues will remain. Maybe they’ll be exacerbated, but I’m not afraid they’re going to be lost, because they’re in front of us all the time.

Gibson: Religious people are often cast as prophets who won’t engage or compromise. Yet your book seems to be about how to compromise, how to be a Christian in the world, how to be a Catholic in the world. In these debates over who we are as a polity, there’s a real black-or-white, take-it-or-leave-it kind of approach from both the Left and the Right. Does that flow from the passion of the moment, or does it come from something in our national character?

George: I don’t know that that’s in our national character as such. I think what might influence that attitude is the loss of hope or confidence in the future, that was part of our culture for a long time. To the extent that we lose that, then, these arguments become more brittle and society itself is in danger. So that could be happening; I don’t want to say that it is definitively. But as you point out, the acrimony is so widespread now that maybe that is happening. That would be not only dangerous, but also tragic for the role we have played in the world as such, our contribution to the larger society, which is global.

Gibson: And what about religions being viewed as inimical to compromise?

George: It’s the job of the bishops to say, “OK, this is a fundamental principle that can’t be compromised.” But most issues in politics aren’t about fundamental principles, so there is the normal give-and-take of political action. I don’t think the bishops should be directly party to that, otherwise you’re co-opted. At the same time, the danger of not being part of it at all means you’re isolated. You can go from being assimilated in the world to being a sect apart from the world. If you’re aware of those two possibilities, then you make your way in the world as best you can. That’s the point of the first chapter of God in Action regarding the definition of the world. The secular is a good place; it’s not an evil place. There’s evil in it and there’s good in it, so we make our way trying to see where God is acting. If we act with him, we are truly free. That’s the theme throughout the book: How are we free? Only if we’re acting with God. And how do we discern when we are and when we’re not?


David Gibson: It’s been almost ten years since 9/11 and Osama bin Laden is dead, but people are still spooked—understandably so, since legitimate threats remain. But could you comment on this permanent-war mindset? Is that a characteristic of our time?

George: George Orwell thought that was the situation. Perhaps he was right, though I hope not. There is a historical analogy, perhaps: Anarchists, from the assassination of Elizabeth the Empress of Austria through the assassination of President McKinley through the assassination of all kinds of politicians at the end of the nineteenth century, seemed to be something like terrorism and it spooked people. So many people were tried for being anarchists. Terrorism is more of a threat than anarchy was—but it’s not a totally new kind of situation. Perhaps we can go back and learn from the mistakes made then. Now it’s far more dangerous because weapons are far more dangerous; it’s not an individual anarchist stabbing somebody who’s a public symbol of the state. It’s a movement heavily armed against all peoples, so it’s much more dangerous, but how can we protect ourselves without becoming prisoners of our own protective devices? There’s far less personal freedom than there was ten years ago, and perhaps when we begin to realize this, we’ll step back and ask, “How can we be free in a world where terrorism is a real threat?”

Gibson: Speaker of the House John Boehner gave the commencement address at Catholic University in May. That occasioned far less controversy than President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame. On political issues, especially involving the president and the health-care law, there was quite a bit of tension between the bishops and the White House and Democrats. Have things changed?

George: The problem is often that the public conversation is cast in ways that don’t represent either the bishops or the Catholic position. A case in point is Barack Obama. From a cultural standpoint, the bishops were personally very appreciative of his election. It was a watershed moment in our culture. But besides the cultural icon, there’s the political reality. He is a politician. In the case of the Notre Dame fracas, my point was that the university had violated the sense of Catholic communion by not consulting the local bishop. They knew this was going to be a major event because of the president’s very close association and acceptance of abortion as a human right, basically, which is against Catholic teaching. But nonetheless, presidents are presidents, and culturally, great universities like Notre Dame do invite sitting presidents. But to do so without involving the local bishop is not so much directly a question of the abortion issue, but of the nature of ecclesial communion. If the university is in ecclesial communion, it will respect those rules. That was entirely lost [in the public conversation], because it’s a lot easier to talk about Obama vs. George or whatever you want, than it is to talk about principles. That’s what I mean when I say that the public conversation doesn’t reflect the ecclesial reality, since the public conversation is about people in politics. But what I was concerned about, there, was the principle of how we live and act as part of the Catholic community, which is the definition of church from Vatican II.

Gibson: What about your personal encounters with the president. Did you always get along?
George: He’s a very easy person to talk to. He’s really an amiable man, until you get to a point of disagreement. And he’s still amiable; he truly does want to be inclusive, and it’s perplexing when that’s not possible. So you should be careful that when you can’t agree, it’s a matter of principle on which you have to understand the disagreement, and not anything less than that.

Gibson: In your interview with John Allen in June, you gave the impression that the bishops remained engaged, especially when it comes to health care. “This is where we’re at,” the bishops seem to be saying, “let’s see what we can do.”

George: The problem is that our position doesn’t fit into any party. And that is a problem because the press will reduce it to a question of party. The far right was blaming us because we support universal health care in some fashion. They condemned the bishops for it, even though our position on that issue is a hundred years old. And then the far left said, “You’re an obstacle to getting coverage for people who have preexisting conditions; you’re not in favor of more money for pregnant women; etc.” We’re for all that, but within the understanding that all human life is sacred.

Gibson: Where are the bishops now in that debate?

George: The law is the law, and it just keeps going along. We’re where we always were. As a matter of principle, we are opposed to using public money to fund the killing of the unborn. In Evangelium vitae, John Paul II gave us the principle that you can vote for an imperfect law provided it’s going in the right direction. The health-care law is imperfect; the Hyde Amendment is imperfect, but the health-care law goes beyond Hyde.

What puzzles me in this discussion—I’ll have to write to Commonweal because they had a fine article analyzing the bishop’s relationship to the virtue of prudence—is that it seems strange to me to say it’s a matter of prudence to determine the content of legislation. If you’re voting for military appropriations, you’d better know whether you’re voting for battleships or helicopters. That’s a matter of fact—it’s not a legal matter, it’s an empirical matter. And that is what we’re trying to discern, and I think we did it well, since we can point to the areas on the bill where there is an opening to mainstreaming abortion and abortion funding that wasn’t there before. And on the basis of that, we’re saying this isn’t something that can be supported, and unfortunately it prejudices our position vis-à-vis the entire bill.

But now that the bill has been passed, we will work to amend that part of it that is morally wrong. And that’s our only concern, along with the continued effort to see that more people are covered—which this does to some extent, though not perfectly (immigrants are a case in point)—and to see that conscience is protected. One of the worst features of the health-care law is that conscience is not protected, and everybody knows that. So this is a very imperfect law going in the wrong direction to some extent, going in the right direction in terms of universal health care. And we work with it! It’s an imperfect world, so you’re not going to move out of the conversation. But our principles remain the same. The landscape has shifted with the passage of the bill, so now you work with it and work with those who are willing to change it, knowing that, politically, the changes we want will not pass the Senate or get eventual approval. But nonetheless, it’s important to work for it.

Gibson: The Catholic Health Association, including its executive director, Sr. Carol Keehan, publicly supported the health-care law. How is the bishops’ relationship with CHA?

George: The CHA supported the Lipinski bill in the House [the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act]. Sr. Carol Keehan is a very smart and a very dedicated lady. So she brings up things that are good for bishops to be aware of, because she’s much more involved in this. She understands insurance in ways that not many of us do, so what she says is very important. But I think that there was a desire to create greater coverage that, at a certain moment, created a fissure between CHA and the bishops. But we’re in conversation and we’ll see where that continues to develop. Right now, the conversation is healthy.

The bigger conversation is between the CHA and the health-care industry as a whole. How are they going to maintain their Catholic identity in acute care, which is more and more under the control of the government and large insurance companies? Our ethos as Catholics doesn’t fit perfectly into either of those institutions, and that’s where the strain in CHA is going to be felt more than their difficulties with the bishops.

Gibson: You also take up issues of war and peace in your book. Bin Laden was just killed. The Libya intervention continues. We’re pulling out of Iraq and—supposedly—Afghanistan. But the situation for Christians and religious minorities is perhaps worse than it has been in centuries. How should a Catholic think about such things now?

George: I wrote about this in God in Action because the so-called war on terrorism doesn’t fit into just-war theory, which presupposes sovereign states declaring warfare. As I’ve said, the point of the book is that we’re not free until we can act with God, which means that unless you can forgive your enemies—even if you win—you’re not free. And this is intimately related to our cultural divisions. The culture is based on winning and losing, and if you lose, you wait for another day when you can win. And if you win, then you don’t have to forgive your enemy. So people come out of court cases, and they’re asked, “Is there closure? Are you satisfied?” And they say no. They will never be free, no matter how often they win, until they can forgive. That’s the gospel. It doesn’t mean you close your eyes to evil or forgive before there is repentance and reconciliation of some sort at a more basic level. But at the highest level of human freedom, you won’t be free without forgiveness. So that’s the subtitle of the chapter: “How to wage war while forgiving your enemies.”

Gibson: It’s often been said that Obama has a great deal of affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr, for Niebuhrian realism.

George: But that’s precisely the problem. Niebuhr was a Calvinist, so he recognized that there was just cause of war in the Second World War; we were invaded. And how to put that together with his sense of the evangelical law of love? He did it by saying the evangelical law of love is a private morality. And public morality is based on justice. And that’s exactly what the present pope in his first encyclical [Deus caritas est] said can’t be; there is a continuity between justice and love. You can’t be just unless you love, and you can’t love unless you’re just. So the Catholic position is communitarian. It’s against that division between private and public that Niebuhr built on. And I think that [division] is to a great extent President Obama’s position (but I don’t want to say for sure, because I’ve never talked to him about it)—that in the public order, there is justice and you can’t bring religious arguments in an explicit way, though you can be motivated by your faith to make a public argument; that it must be public and therefore not using the vocabulary of love but the vocabulary of justice. As Catholics, we would use both.

Read part two of this interviewincluding the cardinal's thoughts on the sexual-abuse crisis, Catholic identity, and retirement.

(Photo by Adam Bielawski)

Related: William L. Portier's review of God in Action, by Cardinal Francis George
Chicago Catholic: A Profile of Cardinal Francis George, by Peter Feuerherd

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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