In 1984 Richard John Neuhaus – then a Lutheran pastor – published his seminal work, The Naked Public Square, which argued that by discouraging or even disallowing references to religious concepts from public policy discussions, America was not only depriving civic life of key understandings about human nature and American culture. It was also making religion itself appear hostile to America’s self-understanding. Freedom of religion was fast becoming freedom from religion.
Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, now takes up the argument in a new book, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World. What makes Cardinal George’s book unique is its point of view, which is God’s perspective on us more than our perception of God. The book’s early chapters are a primer of sorts on the fundamentals of Christian theology – who is God? What does He expect of us? Cardinal George answers these essential questions with reference to Thomas Aquinas. We are reminded that God:
does act in the world and is responsible for whatever good exists in creatures, since God’s providential ordering of things to their proper end is indeed good for creatures. [Emphasis added.]
A major premise in the Christian exposition of the civil order is that God is the source of our freedom, which freedom is fulfilled only when it is unified with His will. What, then, does it mean that modern society seems increasingly to reorganize itself in contradiction to that will?
I’m not sure I agree with the Cardinal that the anti-religious bias in popular culture was substantially accelerated after September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks in the name of God led many in the media to conclude that the very existence of religion – any religion – had been “proved” to be the principal cause of violence on earth. Surely the “dictatorship of relativism,” to use the phrase of Joseph Ratzinger, has been gathering momentum for many, many decades. Indeed, Cardinal George aptly quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 prediction that secularism, even in so religious a nation as the United States, would inexorably lead Americans to (quoting Tocqueville) “an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural.”
Whatever the causes, we’ve clearly reached a point in history at which the age-old tension between God and Caesar is resolved simply by taking faith-based concepts out of public consideration, by treating them as the problem, not the solution. This is untenable for two reasons: first, because God created us; and, second, because, as Cardinal George writes, when “secular life is constituted without respect for religious freedom, it becomes profane, and persecution of religion becomes inevitable.” Trouble is: our democracy depends upon faith, even though democracy itself can’t provide it.
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Bringing faith and religious tradition back into the public square will be a challenge, especially in a period of aggressive atheism in which secularists claim victim status and seek the mantle of legal protection. Thus Cardinal George appositely quotes Leszek Kolakowski: “Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.” We’re fast going from being “an almost chosen people” (Lincoln) to being an almost frozen people (Miner).
Cardinal George provides a short-course discussion of Supreme Court decisions that first nibbled at the margins and later took large bites out of the role of religion in public life, and he cites in contradistinction various papal and other Vatican documents (most especially Dignitatis humanae) that direct attention properly to God and His intentions. Those who reject the divine origin of our rights are left clinging to the dubious notion that we ourselves are the source. The terrifying implication of this is that our rights are as variable and fragile as the next election or revolution. And the main casualty isn’t simply a right; it’s simple justice. Civil authority may get some things right, as in the case of civil rights, but it gets a lot wrong, as in the grave injustice of abortion.
How can rights to personal autonomy, privacy, or liberty trump the right to life?
Apart from the most doctrinaire libertarians, no one believes that the unregulated market yields pure economic freedom; nor should anyone imagine that the retreat of the law from family life and related areas of culture yields personal liberation of fulfillment.
It’s a case, his Eminence concludes, of a bad society pulling “people back into themselves, without higher purpose or destiny.”
Brother Priests: Benedict XVI and Cardinal George
So what’s the answer? A culture of life in which every person is recognized as having dignity, that that dignity comes from unity with God, that life itself comes from ordered sexuality, that respecting humanity also means respecting nature, and all life and culture becomes comprehensible only through contemplation of the Creator. Cardinal George writes of “coming into possession of oneself,” which – properly understood – will guide us towards the right answers to questions of public policy and morality, especially in the sphere of bioethics.
Christians are called to caution concerning everything Caesar wills: peace as much as war, economic justice as much as economic liberty. The first pairing is an especially tricky matter since 9/11. Neither hawks nor doves will embrace the Cardinal’s insights; true too of hyper-capitalists and socialists. If I disagree with Cardinal George, it’s not on these issues but on his insistence that all migrants are a “cultural treasure.” As stated, there’s no religious problem, but the objection arises in the matter of legal versus illegal immigration. Few people object to legal immigrants, and the bishops’ open-borders position seems simply to ignore the lawlessness rampant at Mexico-United States border crossings. Are visas un-Christian?
A small quibble that. Papa Ratzinger and Cardinal George and the Catholic Church provide a consistent, God-centered vision of life that embraces every aspect of life, one that urges each of us to see God in action: “In every age and in every place, the most important activity is to watch for God’s.”