Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Understanding the Difference

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Understanding the Difference

Article excerpt

You've heard of him, of course: Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, current president of the U.S. Bishops' Conference, and the defacto inteuectual dean of the American episcopate. Perhaps what's most interesting about bis new book- The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (Crossroad, 384 pages, $26.95)is the sheer fact of it, for no one besides Cardinal George has both the talent and the ecclesial weight to attempt what he's after in the book. And what he's after is a theological vision with enough breaddi and depth to move beyond the crippling polarization among American CathoUcs over moral questions of poUtical moment.

As such, it is broader and deeper dian the vision set forth by Cardinal George's predecessor in the see of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin. A generation ago, Bernardin was chiefly responsible for disseminating the view of Catholic social teaching as a "seamless garment." Although that approach was doctrinally orthodox in itself, it had the practical effect of allowing some Catholics to treat questions that were clearly matters of opinion- such as which military interventions were just and at what level the minimum wage should be set- as morally and politically equivalent to the question of whether abortion should be legal. Thus, conservative opponents of legal abortion were charged with abandoning the Church's "consistent ethic of life" if they did not also support the politically liberal agenda on those other questions.

Over the long haul, the charge of inconsistency boomeranged. Many began to notice that Catholics on the political left could be asked why the Church should accede to the Roe regime- when Pope John Paul II was saying things that implied no such concession was morally acceptable- while the Church should not compromise on certain other matters about which the papal line was not quite as hard as that of the Democratic party.

There was, after all, a doctrinal basis for distinguishing between negotiables and non-negotiables: The latter were precisely those issues in which the moral norm at stake was the direct, intentional taking of innocent human life, which is always and intrinsically immoral; abortion was and remains the most egregious violation of that norm. In their official, collective statements over the past decade, the U.S. bishops have gradually strengthened dieir emphasis on the nonnegotiables. And so, no longer do Catholic Democratic politicians argue that we must support keeping abortion legal despite our religious belief that abortion is murder.

In fact, they now typically argue that we must support legal abortion because our belief that abortion is immoral is religious. Whatever else may be said about that, it clearly exposes the bankruptcy of the old "seamless-garment" argument: Why cloak ourselves in that garment if it comes from a closet that we may not open? And yet, a self-consistent and theologically orthodox morality still ought to inform CathoUc influence in the pubUc square, which includes culture as well as poUtics. Liberal CathoUcism is a dying project, so the question then becomes: What dieological vision should replace the seamless garment as the context for influencing the wider society?

Taking for granted the truth and the irreformability of the non-negotiables, George sets them and many other questions of CadioUc social teaching (chiefly "the dignity of the human person") in a broad dieological context that allows him to critique American individualism and secular liberalism in terms that could appeal across the political and ecclesial spectra. …

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