Cardinal George and Catholicism Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, May. 21, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

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

The other principal sign of the exhaustion of the liberal project is its hyper-stress on freedom as self-assertion and self-definition.

In Cardinal Francis George's words, "The cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the Gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice."

We might suggest that another shadow side of Catholic liberalism is a tendency to accept the scientific vision of reality as so normative that the properly supernatural is called into question.

We see this both in a reduction of religion to ethics and the building of the kingdom on earth, as well as in extreme forms of historical critical biblical interpretation that rule out the supernatural as a matter of principle.

Authentic Catholicism

What is too often overlooked -- especially in liberal circles -- is that Cardinal George was just as impatient with certain forms of conservative Catholicism. Correctly perceiving that authentic Catholicism clashes with key elements of modern culture, some conservatives instinctively reached back to earlier cultural instantiations of Catholicism and absolutized them.

They failed thereby to realize that robust Catholicism is, in Cardinal George's words, "radical in its critique of any society," be it second-century Rome, 18th-century France, or the America of the 1950s.

What he proposed, finally, was neither liberal nor conservative Catholicism, but "simply Catholicism," by which he meant the faith in its fullness, mediated through the successors of the apostles.

Relationships

At the heart of this Catholicism in full is relationality. Cardinal George has often pointed out that Catholic ontology is inescapably relational, since it is grounded in the Creator God who is, himself, a communion of subsistent relations.

The Creator, making the universe, ex nihilo, does not stand over and against his creatures in a standard "being-to-being" rapport; rather, his creative act here and now constitutes the to-be of creatures, so that every finite thing is a relation to God. Aquinas expressed this when he said that creation is "a kind of relation to the Creator, with freshness of being."

This metaphysics of relationality stands in sharp distinction to the typically modern and nominalist ontology of individual things, which gave rise to the Hobbesian and Lockean political philosophy, whereby social relations are not natural but rather artificial and contractual.

Since grace rests upon and elevates nature, we should not be surprised that the Church is marked by an even more radical relationality. Through the power of Christ, who is the Incarnation of the subsistent relation of the Trinity, creation is given the opportunity of participating in the divine life.

This participation, made possible through grace, is far more intense than the relationship that ordinarily obtains between God and creatures and among creatures themselves, and Catholic ecclesiology expresses that intensity through a whole set of images: bride, body, mother, temple, etc.

Church as living organism

In Cardinal George's striking language, "The Church is aware of herself as vital, and so calls herself a body. The Church is aware of herself as personal, and so calls herself a bride who surrenders to Christ. The Church is aware of herself as a subject, as an active, abiding presence that mediates a believer’s experience, and so calls herself mother. The Church is aware of herself as integrated, and so describes herself as a temple of the Holy Spirit."

Notice the words being used here: vital, personal, present, surrendering, mother, integrated. They all speak of participation, interconnection, relationship, what Cardinal George calls esse per (being through). This is the living organism of the Church which relates in a complex way to the culture, assimilating and elevating what it can and resisting what it must. This is simply Catholicism.

Cardinal George was a spiritual father to me. In his determination, his pastoral devotion, his deep intelligence, his kindness of heart, he mediated the Holy Spirit. For this I will always be personally grateful to him.

I believe that the entire Church, too, owes him a debt of gratitude for reminding us who we are and what our mission is.


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 www.WordOnFire.org