October 11, 2009
Our shepherd writes Cardinal George authors book about relationships, evangelization and the American culture
The week of Oct. 11, Crossroad Publishing will release “The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture,” a 352-page book by our own Cardinal George. It is a book about relationships and love, he said in an interview with the Catholic New World.
The book is a series of essays adapted from work he has done over the years relating to ecclesial communion and “addressing the relationships that are the means and the goal of a new evangelization, a deepening of our life with Christ that makes all the difference in the world, for us and for the world itself,” the cardinal writes in the introduction.
Since each chapter is its own individual essay, readers can jump around the book taking in topics that interest them. Given Cardinal George’s background as a philosopher, the book can delve into deep theological and philosophical waters. It is not a book the average reader will sit down and get through in a day.
Cardinal George is often talked about as one of the great thinkers of the Catholic Church in America. This book supports that belief. It is filled with rich ideas and arguments for loving God and each other in the world today. Each chapter could be its own discussion topic in a parish book club or study group.
At the very least, “The Difference God Makes” is a glimpse into the mind and heart of the man who is our shepherd.
He recently sat down with me to discuss this book. Here is what he had to say:
Catholic New World: Why this book? Why now?
Cardinal George: The book is a series of essays on relationships. It is not necessarily tied to any particular event right now. It is just helping people to think that what defines us is relationship, before individual choices.
It is a different way of thinking for many people. The church has to keep presenting that fact because it is the reality of things. Because I’ve done work in various areas related by that central concern, I put these chapters together from the best pieces.
CNW: When you talk of relationships, is that what you mean by “ecclesial communion”?
Cardinal George: Ecclesial communion is a network of relationships. By relationships, I mean that you’re somebody’s daughter: that’s a relationship. It was yours before you knew who you were, before you were conscious of yourself.
The relationships are more real than our self-consciousness. They shape our lives. From your baptism, you belong to Christ. Your parents had you baptized before you even knew about it, and the relationship is real. You can’t unbaptize yourself. You can’t unbirth yourself and be somebody else’s daughter. Those are all real relationships that precede your own self-consciousness.
CNW: Is ecclesial communion something we can accomplish or is it an ideal?
Cardinal George: No, it is a reality right now. We are all related in Christ. What we have to keep doing is expand that relationship until finally everybody is within it. That’s the mission of the church, universal communion.
CNW: In the second chapter you wrote “evangelizers must take responsibility for the culture to be evangelized.” Are we doing this well? It doesn’t always seem so.
Cardinal George: Well, there is always tension, and they are tensions inside us. We’re American and we’re Catholic. These “voices” are both inside us. That is true also if you’re Chinese and Catholic or African and Catholic. These tensions between faith and culture are always there.
So are we doing a good job in the sense of the external society making it easier to live internally and believe as a Catholic? Well, no, but it never was easy. It is generally more difficult now in ways different than it was perhaps a century ago. But it was challenging then too.
CNW: I enjoyed Chapter 9 “The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism: An Internal Dialogue” where you write that what is needed is not liberal or conservative Catholicism but “simply Catholicism.” This seems particularly applicable to Catholics in this country.
Cardinal George: Simply Catholic means that your context finally is global, and more than that your frame of reference is heaven as well as earth. This context is not captured by politics, whether liberal or conservative.
Catholics have to think beyond the confines of their nation state, whatever their citizenship might be. You have to think beyond the liberal-conservative divisions in every political order, because those are terms that describe how you situate yourself in relation to political authority.
In the church, we understand ourselves in relationship to God, first of all — God in Christ and Christ in his church. So if you collapse that relationship into the political, then you lose the church.
Living as “simply Catholic” means you have a context that is universal. It is not just your family. It is not just your city or your state, or your race, or your culture. It is universal. Once you are in that context and become used to seeing things from that universal perspective, you begin to understand what it means to be simply Catholic, and not a conservative Catholic or a liberal Catholic or an American Catholic or a Chinese Catholic.
It works itself out. The Gospel is in your heart. The sacraments are part of your life. You belong to a community that is shaped by the love of Christ, the universal savior.
CNW: Why shouldn’t we shut ourselves up into a nice, little Catholic bubble?
Cardinal George: Your love is supposed to extend as far as Christ’s love and his salvific action, which is for everybody. You are brothers and sisters to all those people whether you like it or not, whether you know them personally or not. You are supposed to be concerned about their good, and the ultimate good for everyone is salvation.
We want everybody to live in Christ — if not explicitly here, because many don’t, then certainly in the world to come. The church exists for that purpose.
If you love Christ, then there should be a great desire to talk about him and introduce him to others. You talk about those you love.
CNW: You write that Pope John Paul II played a large role in forming your thoughts and ideas over the years. Can you talk a little about the influence he had on you?
Cardinal George: When he became pope, he was clear in presenting a program that was very much based in the Second Vatican Council but also very much aware of the cultural challenges to ministry. Then he began to also present the intellectual vision behind that sense of mission. I became fascinated with how he took the tradition and re-worked it for our day.
I began to read a lot of what he had written and to study his philosophical thought and then to watch him in action. When I became a bishop, I had opportunities to talk to him. After a while, I think I understood fairly well what his mindset was. Certainly, I understood what his goal was, which was the goal of the council: to transform the world in Christ.
I watched him in dialogue with all kinds of groups. I watched how he received us as bishops. Both his thought and his action influenced me profoundly. I believe he was a providential man, one sent by God for the sake of the universal Church.
CNW: In the last sentences of the book you write, “Believers are true to themselves when they raise the question of who they are in ecclesial communion and judge all their personal actions in the light of that truth which, when all is said and done, is Christ himself. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me’ (Jn 14:6).” How do we know what is definitely truth?
Cardinal George: Through revelation and reason. God has revealed who he is in history and also in the book of nature, known by reason. People’s internal spiritual experiences also lead them to some sense of God. Knowing who God is as he knows himself depends upon what he decides to tell you, which is revelation.
If God is not a deceiver, if he is true, and if he makes the world rational or reasonable, then you can rely upon your own reason and upon the gift of faith, if you pray for it, to steer you in the right direction. But the gift of faith is a communal gift; you have the authority of the church to help you to know what the true faith is.
All these sources together are the way Christ guides us. He has given us the church to guide us. You use your reason from the inside and you have authority from the outside, and they should agree. Then you have certainty about the ways of God.
CNW: You write that to evangelize the culture we need to love it. How do we love it?
Cardinal George: The reason why it is important to love the culture is because it is in us. If you hate your culture, you hate yourself. Self-hatred is not an evangelical virtue.
Knowing that this is who you are and how you’ve been shaped and formed, doesn’t mean you can’t be critical or self-critical. You can certainly criticize your culture, but you can’t reject it out of hand or who are you then? It’s basic to who you are.
There are wonderful things about our culture. Then there are things that are less than helpful in terms of living as Catholics. Every culture is evangelically ambiguous. American culture, because it has universalist pretensions, can present itself as a rival to the church, which is also universal. That’s a particular problem that we have as Americans because it is a universal country in many ways, and yet it is not the world. By contrast, we are a universal church, speaking in the name of a universal savior. Nonetheless, we have to keep working to try to bring harmony between church and country, faith and culture, where possible.
CNW: You make it sound so easy.
Cardinal George: It’s not easy. That is just the framework. There is no formula for accomplishing that harmony. How do you love somebody? It is just through living with them, at least intentionally, and working through problems as they arise.
Copies of “The Difference God Makes” will be available in local bookstores the week of Oct. 11, can be ordered from online booksellers or by calling Independent Publishers Group at (800) 888-4741.