Thoughts on Cardinal George Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, May. 07, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Second in a series of reflections by Fr. Robert Barron on the life of Cardinal Francis George.

The one who would proclaim the Gospel in the contemporary American setting must appreciate that the American culture is sown liberally with semina verbi (seeds of the Word).

The first of these, in Cardinal Francis George's judgment, is the modern sense of freedom and its accompanying rights.

Following the prompts of Immanuel Kant, modern political theorists have held that all human beings possess a dignity which dictates that they should never be treated merely as a means but always as an end.

It is interesting to note that the young Karol Wojtyla, in his early work in philosophical ethics, put a great premium on this second form of the Kantian categorical imperative.

Creature of God

What Cardinal George has helped us see is that, at its best, this modern stress is grounded in a fundamentally theological understanding of the human person as a creature of God.

Were the human being construed simply as an accidental product of the evolutionary process, then he would not enjoy the irreducible dignity that is assumed by Kant.

Indeed, Kant's contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, rather clearly indicated that his understanding of human rights was conditioned by the Christian theological heritage when he specified that those rights are granted, not by the state, but by the Creator.

Hobbes' interpretation

The Kantian-Jeffersonian philosophical anthropology must be distinguished, Cardinal George insisted, from Thomas Hobbes' account.

On the Hobbesian reading, rights are grounded, not so much in divine intentionality, but in the unavoidability of desire.

Hobbes opined -- and John Locke essentially followed him -- that we have a right to those things that we cannot not desire. For Hobbes, this meant the sustenance of biological life and the avoidance of violent death, whereas for Locke, it was somewhat broadened to mean life, liberty, and property.

The problem is that Hobbes' interpretation is thoroughly non-theological and his consequent understanding of the purpose of government is non-teleological, purely protective rather than directive.

Government exists, not for the achievement of the common good, but for the mutual protection of the citizens. That the Hobbesian strain found its way into the American political imagination is clear from Jefferson's refusal to characterize the nature of happiness, even as he insisted on the universal right to pursue it.

Therefore, the Church can and must affirm, at least in its basic form, the Kantian understanding of freedom and rights, even as it can and must stand against the purely secularist Hobbesian notion.

St. John Paul II

Cardinal George knew that the prime spokesperson for this deft act of affirmation and negation was St. John Paul II, who emerged, in the late 20th-century, as the most articulate and vociferous defender of human rights on the world stage.

The cardinal drew attention to a speech that the pope made in Philadelphia in 1979. John Paul sang the praises of our Declaration of Independence, with its stress on God-given rights, but he filled in the theological background by referencing the Genesis account of our creation in the image and likeness of God.

Pressing well past any sort of Hobbesian secularism and utilitarianism, the pope insisted that Jefferson's ideal should inspire Americans to build a society that is marked by its care for the weakest and most vulnerable, especially the aged and the unborn.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at