Every day, Chicago residents can see vast numbers of people at work in the diverse fields of business, politics, culture and science. In his new book “God in Action,” Chicago's Cardinal Francis E. George holds a magnifying glass up to those areas to show how God is at work.
“God is at work in American society because God is at work in the world he created,” the cardinal and former U.S. bishops' conference president told CNA on May 19.
“That's the first part of the book, where I set out the philosophical basis of God as an actor – because a lot of people, it seems to me, don't reflect enough on how God is free, and acts in ways that we don't always understand.”
“But it's our job to try to discern how he's acting,” Cardinal George pointed out, “so that we can be free too.”
Released on May 3, “God in Action” (Doubleday Religion, $22.99) seeks to fill a gap that the cardinal sees between God-centered books on personal spirituality, and books about the public role of religion that focus mostly on ideas and human action.
Religion itself, as Cardinal George noted, “is a relationship to God” – who is not distant and uninvolved, but constantly seeking to draw human beings into his creative and redemptive activity.
“God in Action” brings Catholic social teaching to bear on a series of modern challenges, in an effort to find God is at work in the public arena. The book's ultimate goal is to bring public life into alignment with God's will.
Immigrants in God's image
One prominent public concern that the cardinal hopes to present in a God-centered perspective is immigration. His chapter on the subject begins with the statement that “the migrant is first of all a gift and not a problem.”
Cardinal George said he understands some U.S. citizens' tendency to see an influx of immigrants as an “invasion,” but he urged believers not to elevate the civil law above the Gospel.
“These so-called 'foreigners' are still creatures made in God's image and likeness,” he observed. “However, in this country your legal situation determines who you are, more than our sense of being created by God.”
Cardinal George believes that an awareness of God's personal love for immigrants can change the tone of the public conversation, allowing lay people to shape a “just social policy” through their actions and votes.
The process begins, he said, with seeing that immigrants are “worthy of respect – as fellow believers, and also as creatures of God.”
God's will in war and peace
The cardinal also sees war and peace as a central theater of God's action. It is often difficult to determine God's will when military conflict beckons, and Cardinal George noted that new situations call for refinements of the traditional “just war” criteria.
“There are two challenges to just war theory as we have it now,” he explained. “The first is terrorism, which doesn't fit into a just war theory that presupposes sovereign states invading sovereign states.”
The second challenge is a matter of especially urgent concern, as the U.S. and other Western powers deepen their involvement in the conflict between Libya's government and rebel forces: “How do you protect citizens from their own government, when it's oppressive?”
Cardinal George said that the United Nations, despite serious flaws, is “the best means we have” to “act in the name of humanity as such.”
He observed that humanity's rights derive from God “long before there are any governments established, as we ourselves say in the Declaration of Independence.”
“God's job is to forgive”
The cardinal's reflections on war in his new book address the value of mercy, as well as justice. “Forgiveness,” he said, is also “a condition for being free.”
He said that events such as the death of Osama Bin Laden showed that victory was not simply a matter of defeating evil.
“The challenge to us is: how do we make peace?” he asked. “How do we, in defeating him, nonetheless try to create a more peaceful world, rather than just going from one war to the next?”
“That's where forgiveness comes in,” Cardinal George noted. “You may win, but you're still not free unless you forgive.”
He explained that this act of forgiveness, which binds Christians whether in war or peace, is an invitation to cooperate with God.
“God's job, in a sense, is to forgive. That's what he does again and again,” he reflected. “You can be free only by acting with God.”
Profit and the gifts of God
The Archbishop of Chicago also hopes that businesses can find new ways of placing God first in economic decisions, in ways that Pope Benedict XVI sketched out in his 2008 social encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.”
“Is there a way,” he wondered, “in which the sense that 'everything is gift,' which we believe in faith, can enter into the economy itself?”
It's a difficult question that relatively few business people have tried to pose, perhaps for fear of appearing “unrealistic.”
But others may wonder, given the economic crash that coincided with the Pope's letter, whether a n economy that has no room for God is itself “realistic” in the long run.
“You have to make a profit or you're bankrupt, you go out of business,” Cardinal George acknowledged. “There's nothing wrong with making a profit. The question is, how do you make it and what do you consider profitably?”
Companies already give away portions of their profits through philanthropy. But the vision of Pope Benedict and Cardinal George is different. “What if they factored gifts into the whole operation itself?”
“There is a concern, if you start that way, for something besides profits when you get to the bottom line,” he explained. “What form that would take is something that we don't know yet. It's a challenge for us to work on it.”
“Something greater than ourselves is at work”
“God in Action” challenges believers to see the “secular” world with new eyes, finding possibilities that only exist because God is at work there.
Cardinal George explained that Christ's resurrection, remembered especially throughout the Easter season, gives believers a blueprint for what God will accomplish in seemingly hopeless areas of both public and private life.
“When you see certain consequences, then you have a sense of God's original activity – to bring life out of death, as in the resurrection,” he noted.
Without God's grace, he said, “we can bring evil out of good, and evil out of evil. But if there's good coming out of evil, something greater than us is at work in that.”
“When there is hope in the midst of a despair that we ourselves have caused,” he reflected, “then something greater than ourselves is at work there, as a cause.”
To read Cardinal George's full interview with CNA, click here.