Robert P. Imbelli

Cardinal Francis George, with doctorates in both 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, archbishop of his native Chicago. He is currently the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This book of collected writings does not disappoint. In it Cardinal George articulates in a 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, liturgical inculturation and the church’s dialogue with Judaism and Islam. While insisting on the crucial importance of this last area, 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 interreligious 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 not different from ancient classical culture. Culture, moreover, far from being some neutral external reality, 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 19th century, to engage this emerging culture in a creative way. 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 over 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 review’s too succinct summary is that Cardinal George’s theological vision neither supports a naïve restoration of some fantasy-tinged past nor countenances a simplistic “counter-cultural” invective. He seeks instead 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 lifegiving soil of the eucharistic and ecclesial presence of the one who is truly God and truly human: God’s kingdom in person.

Six years ago I reviewed and recommended in these pages Peter Steinfels’s important book, A People Adrift (9/15/03). In some ways Cardinal George’s new book engages in implicit and, at times, explicit conversation with Steinfels’s book. 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 toward a more promising narrative.

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, teaches systematic theology at Boston College.