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The Catholic Church in America: An Interview with Robert P. George

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.”

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Aaron Taylor

    You are either a Catholic, or you are not. There are no “Vatican II Catholics” [sic] any more than there are “Council of Trent Catholics” or “Council of Nicaea Catholics.” Just Catholics.

    • James Covenant

      I see what you mean Aaron; the Church is one. Perhaps Robert P. George just meant that he was born before Vatican II and has experienced its changes firsthand. That’s my best guess.

      • Aaron Taylor

        Or perhaps he means something like, “I embrace the worthless theological innovations of my 1960s generation, but I happen to be a political conservative.”

        Who knows?

        • Well, the most recent Catechism of the Church and all of your so-called worthless innovations, are the true and revealed meaning of our Lord’s teachings as applicable to our modern predicament. Therefore the true Catholic will take them to heart, even if inconvenient to profit motives.

          • Aaron Taylor

            Yes, the true Catholic will take the authoritative teachings of Vatican II to heart, just as he will take the authoritative teachings of all the other ecumenical councils to heart.

        • Greg

          Let’s assume the worst.

    • Cato

      Calm down. All he meant was that he accepts Dignitas Humanae and Nostra Aetate – namely, the principles of religious tolerance, the dignity of individual conscience, and the non-enshrinement of Catholicism as normative within the State. It was a way of explaining how he reconciles democratic liberalism with Catholicism, contra Patrick Deneen. That’s it.

      Now, personally, I don’t think they are as compatible as he thinks. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) – the beginning of the road to democratic liberalism in religion – merely deferred “the matter of religion” to be resolved at a later date, kick the can down the road, to be dealt with by the grace of God. It did not assume there was no objective theological knowledge that could be known and ought to be enshrined by the State. It’s a slight distinction, but it makes all the difference by preserving the tragic attitude toward religious disunity. Our current situation has none of that.

      Yet…by no means would I impugn the interviewee with charges of departing from the Church. I think this statement is blown way of proportion, in my opinion.

      • Aaron Taylor

        I didn’t impugn him with charges of departing from the Church. I said there is no such thing as VII Catholics.

  • Albert

    It is difficult for me to take seriously a statement like this: “They will lose many of the institutions that they built to help the poor, the marginalized, the weak, and the disinherited.” Which institutions? Hospitals are run like businesses, and schools by and large are populated by successful families (who can pay tuition, or who are adept at fund raising) than by broken ones.

    And the notion that marginalization is equivalent to being persecuted sounds more like a progressive (or at least liberal) exaggeration than a traditional Christian view, according to which “the world” is always in opposition to faith, and persecution–the life and death kind–is to be expected.

    • Therefore we should turn our backs to exploitation and oppression, because it is part and parcel of human nature? And I suppose it is outside our jurisdiction to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth, we should just break down the earth until Jesus is forced to come?

      My friend, I can see you are a Calvinist visiting this forum.

      • Albert

        I don’t know what a Calvinist is. I’m not even sure I know what a Catholic is, even though I attended church in a big archdiocese from childhood on. I’m just a person who is trying to find Christ in a very complicated world.

        I respect everyone else who is trying to do that, but am a little wary of persons who are sure they have found him–especially if their professional stature depends on such an assertion or if their assertions are given a higher place because of their profession, as in university professors. (Not bishops and priests, however–they are in a different league, one inspired by prayer and fasting, I hope.)

        • I see– well, you are correct to be wary of lay apologists, and even certain US bishops and priests search for comfort, as Prof. George would call it. He makes some very good references for Church teachings in the interview too, to which I would simply add the Catechism of the Church as updated around 1992: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM E.g. the world is not always in opposition to faith as you surmised, Jesus did not want us to simply condemn our world as a lost cause, but to march forthrightly through it, on His side.

  • Praise God– Professor George walks with our Holy Father and the meaning of our mission. May the meaning of his words ring true, for his soon-to-be-powerful charges graduating from Princeton U.

  • Thomas Storck

    Prof. George was asked what he meant by saying “that the time of “comfortable Catholicism is over,” and he replied,

    “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.”

    Does anyone else find it odd that instead of focusing on the evangelical duty of preaching the Gospel in its fullness and converting people to the true Faith, he focuses on a subset of moral truths – even if they are important moral truths? The Apostles did not conceive of their mission as the moral reformation of pagan Greco-Roman society. They understood it to be the conversion of that society, after which the moral reform would certainly follow. Our Lord said, Go forth and preach the Gospel and baptize.

    • Yes he seems constrained. He is in the university setting…. regardless of tenure it would seem the best you could do in Princeton today: get people to come around to the moral truths and then show them, oh by the way, that was right over here in the Gospel for the past two millennia!

      • Thomas Storck

        Well, you’re charitable. I wondered if it had something to do with his self-proclaimed Vatican II Catholicism.

        • Forgive me but I never considered Vatican II and how it might have taken us off the rails, I have to do so, but does it speak in favor of kind acts and a softer, more circuitous evangelism?

          • Thomas Storck

            Well, many Catholics since Vatican II have not evidenced much zeal for converting others to the true Faith, due in part to mistaken understanding of the Council’s documents, especially of the decree on ecumenism. This is pretty much fine for many conservative Catholics who are more interested in making political alliances with conservative Evangelicals, Mormons, etc., than in converting them and fundamentally reshaping society to reflect all the teachings of the Church. Of course, it’s pretty much fine for most liberal Catholics too.

          • Yes it seems that in the face of forces we now recognize as onerous, there was nothing bold or transformational about Vatican II. I suppose peace between atomic powers was a great distraction. So here is our new opportunity, which incidentally was just squandered by the USCCB…. our Pope does not mince the truth for comfort, and in the wake of 2008 collapse, most people realize that material efforts can be a great waste of time.

            You see, when we lose political battles it is because of earlier evangelical failures… So when Bishops sit around focused narrowly on “issues”, they are treating symptoms not disease.

          • Thomas Storck

            “So when Bishops sit around focused narrowly on “issues”, they are treating symptoms not disease.”

            Yes, indeed!

          • Hah! Yes they need the vision thing… At a time of maximum opportunity they are stuck in doldrums. Now Prof. George up there, he sounds enthusiastic.

  • Peter Haworth

    George: “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…”

    My response: This will include many “leaders and scholars” from traditions that already have much more permissive views on divorce and remarriage. This is not an encouraging indicator about Francis’s intentions for conservative Catholics.

    And this–> George: “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)….”—> is an example of a skilled lawyer intentionally giving both a red-herring and appeal-to-pity fallacious answer to a question (albeit, a very leading one) which logically had to also encompass the most pertinent part of the “recent controversy among Catholic conservatives and revisionists…over the family synod”—i.e., the issue of whether Francis will support the proposed reform allowing divorced-and-remarried people to receive communion.