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Toward a renewed Catholic imagination

· Review of Cardinal Francis George's book ‘The Difference God Makes’ ·

The following review of Cardinal Francis George's latest book was written by Fr Robert P. Imbelli of the Archdiocese of New York, Systematic Theology Professor at Boston College. A version of this review originally appeared in the 2 November 2009 issue of “America” Magazine, published by the Jesuits of the United States.

Cardinal Francis George, with doctorates both in philosophy (Tulane) and theology ( Urbaniana ), is a formidable intellectual presence in the Church in the United States. In addition he brings to his reflections significant missionary and pastoral experience as Vicar General of his religious congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and as Bishop of Yakima, Archbishop of Portland, and, since 1997, as Archbishop of his native Chicago. He is currently the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (Chestnut Ridge Road, NY, Crossroad Publishing Company, 384 p., $26.95) is a collection of writings that does not disappoint. In it Cardinal George articulates in a blessedly clear, substantive, and challenging way central issues regarding a distinctive Catholic identity, discernment of the possibilities and perils of contemporary American society and culture, and a renewed call to evangelization, the joyful sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Though the essays derive from different occasions, Cardinal George skillfully and systematically structures them in three main parts: The Church’s Mission, The Church’s Life, and the Church’s Goal. “Communion” serves as the foundational reality that integrates the three into a comprehensive theological vision. Cardinal George celebrates the source of communion in the very life of the triune God and its earthly realization in the Church which, as the body of Christ, is called to be the sacrament of communion and, hence, of salvation for the world.

One finds in the book careful and perceptive discussions of globalization, of liturgical inculturation, and of the dialogue of the Church with Judaism and with Islam. While insisting on the crucial importance of this last, George also sounds a number of cautions. He writes, for example: “In the dialogue with Islam, Catholics have not always avoided, in an attempt to find shared beliefs and common ground, the danger of ‘catholicizing’ Muslim concepts and terminology and reading into them a Catholic sense they cannot possess”. He insists further, in words that are applicable to all inter-religious dialogue: “Essentially dialogue is a service to truth. The parties explain their respective faiths and communities, thereby hoping to grow in mutual understanding and in obedience to revealed truth”.

With regard, however, to a sorely-needed intra-ecclesial conversation, the two most challenging, and potentially most fruitful, essays are: “Sowing the Gospel on American Soil: the Contribution of Theology” and “The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism”. In these essays Cardinal George’s concern to highlight the distinctive newness of the Gospel proclamation and to discern how contemporary American culture provides both “rocky and receptive soil” for that proclamation comes most explicitly to the fore.

George insists that the Gospel must be inculturated to be faithful to its incarnational roots. At the same time every culture must be discerned in the light of God’s revelation which requires that believers labor for the transformation of their milieu. In this regard contemporary American culture is no different from ancient classical culture. Moreover, far from culture being some neutral external reality, it enters into our very being, forming and also deforming us by the meanings and values it propagates in myriad ways. Before we shape culture, it has already shaped us.

In George’s view American culture is, by and large, the product of modernity with its secularizing thrust that confines religion to some private sphere divorced from the public life of society. One of the merits of Cardinal George’s book is his ability to trace, in straightforward terms, the intellectual pedigree of this development: from Descartes and Hobbes, through Jefferson and Emerson, to the present day triumph of therapeutic individualism.

What George terms “liberal Catholicism” was the laudatory attempt, beginning in the nineteenth century to engage in a creative way this emerging culture. The designation “liberal” is to be understood primarily in its theological, not political sense. What clearly concerns him, however, is that on American soil this attempt runs the risk of progressively allowing the values of the culture to prevail upon those of the Gospel. Thus aggiornamento declines into accommodation and assimilation with the result that the salt of the Gospel loses its distinctive savor and becomes insipid.

What theological principles, crucial to Catholic identity, are, thereby, imperiled? Among others, three stand out. First, objective divine revelation becomes narrowed to the confines of subjective religious experience and taste. Second, Christology dissolves from confession of the incarnate Son of God to admiration of the all-too-human proclaimer of the kingdom, from Jesus, the Savior of humankind, to Jesus the Galilean prophet. Third, ecclesial-sacramental mediation yields to the consumer-driven celebration of individual preference and the assembly of the like-minded.

What needs to be underscored in this too succinct summary is that Cardinal George’s theological vision neither supports a naïve restoration of some fantasy-tinged past, nor does it countenance a simplistic “counter-cultural” invective. Rather he seeks to provide signposts toward a renewed Catholic imagination, at once generous, discriminating, and demanding. His is a deeply relational vision and commitment, grounded in the life-giving soil of the Eucharistic and ecclesial presence of the one who is truly God and truly human: God's kingdom in person.

In some ways Cardinal George's new book engages in implicit and, at times, explicit conversation with the challenging book by Peter Steinfels, A People Adrift , published in 2003. In A People Adrift , Steinfels had made this crucial admission: “the narratives that have framed the contending diagnoses of Catholicism's health are outdated and inadequate”.

Cardinal George’s The Difference God Makes may be read as a significant effort to offer a more acute diagnosis and indicate the direction towards a more promising narrative.

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