While attending the Love and Fidelity Network’s national conference in Princeton, N.J. this weekend, I had the privilege to interview Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. What follows are excerpts from our exchange on the subject of the fragile state of the Roman Catholic Church in America today.
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Ryan Shinkel: You said at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast that the time of “comfortable Catholicism is over.” What do you mean by that?
Robert George: I mean that actively and publicly witnessing to moral truths proclaimed by, among other traditions of faith, the Catholic Church—particularly truths about the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions and the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife—is no longer welcome, or in some places even tolerated, by those occupying the commanding heights of culture. Influential and powerful people and institutions don’t want to hear it, or allow others to hear it. They are prepared to exact a price from those who insist on speaking truth to their power. Catholics and their allies in the Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and other communities are outsiders—even heretics—and will be treated as such, because they defy the secular liberal orthodoxy in places where it is, in effect, the established religion.
Professor Patrick Deneen has written: “Those Christians and other religious believers who resist the spirit of the age will be persecuted … by judicial, administrative, and legal marginalization. They will lose many of the institutions that they built to help the poor, the marginalized, the weak, and the disinherited.” Do you find this an accurate depiction? If so, what is necessary to fight against it?
Yes, Professor Deneen, alas, is right. But all is not lost. Bullies yield when people refuse to be cowards. We must stay strong, stand up to them, boldly speak our minds. We must not permit ourselves to be intimidated into silence or acquiescence. We must make clear to them that we are indeed prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden” in witnessing to what is true and good and right.
Deneen finds that the ideals of the American founding are in principle, and thus often in practice, incompatible with Roman Catholicism. You seem more in the Fr. Neuhaus camp that Roman Catholicism can be consistent with the classical liberal tradition of America’s founding. Would you say this is a fair appraisal, and if so, how would Roman Catholicism and American ideals/institutions be consistent?
On this point I do indeed agree with my dear, departed, and much missed friend and mentor Father Neuhaus, and disagree with my old, dear, and much admired friend and former colleague Professor Deneen. I am an orthodox Vatican II Catholic. I believe what the Council fathers proclaimed in Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom) and Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Non-Christian Religions). I also believe in the basic principles of justice in the social, political and economic orders that are set forth in the great tradition of papal teaching extending from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, and beyond. My views are more fully set forth in the opening chapter of Conscience and Its Enemies and in the chapters on religious freedom. I am no libertarian, but I do believe in the properly regulated market economy and in limited government and basic civil liberties, such as those enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. I don’t see anything in Catholic teaching that contradicts these ideas, and I see much in the tradition that supports them. As for the American founding, I suspect that it was a good deal less “Lockean” than many people suppose, but that’s a big debate on which there is much to be said on the competing sides.
You’re attending the conference on marriage and complementarity at the Vatican this coming weekend. What is the purpose of this conference? What do you make of Pope Francis’s direction given this marriage conference and recent controversy among Catholic conservatives and revisionist Catholics, amidst mostly inept media reports, over the family synod?
The purpose of the Vatican Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage is to bring together leaders and scholars from the world’s great traditions of faith to bear common witness to the idea of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and to the marriage-based family as the fundamental unit of society on which the well-being of all other social systems—economic, legal, political, etc.—vitally depends. The Pope personally approved the proposal for this conference and will give the opening address and preside at the opening session. This tells you where Pope Francis is on the question of marriage, in case anyone was in any doubt (which no one should have been).
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I concluded by asking Professor George if I had omitted any important questions. He responded, “The one thing you did not explicitly ask me to do was to ‘give a reason for the hope that is within [me].’ The answer to that question is: Jesus.”