Where is God at work today? An interview with Cardinal Francis George
By Cardinal Francis George

On May 19, Cardinal Francis George spoke with CNA about his new book “God in Action” (Doubleday Religion, $22.99). Published on May 3, the book speaks of how God is at work in seemingly “secular” areas of life. It offers believers a blueprint for cooperating with grace in the public and professional realms.

CNA: In the preface to “God in Action,” you explain the book is not simply a book about “religion in public life,” but about God's activity in the world. You describe God as “the primary actor in American society,” and the world at large. Where do you see God at work in American society?

God is at work in American society because God is at work in the world he created. He sustains it in being. 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, so we that can be free too.

You see what happens when there's a false idea of God: you drive planes into buildings in the name of God. So the question of who God is, is a public question, and a question of social importance. I wanted to then say: if we have a sense of how God acts, how is he acting with us in the challenges that we now have in public life?

In private life, you have books of spirituality and the rest, and they're very fine. The public books tend to be books on religion as a set of operative ideas, but the actors are people. What I'm saying is, religion is a relationship to God, who is an actor. And we'd better try to figure out how he's acting.

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 for example, and to bring good out of evil.

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, then something greater than ourselves is at work there, as a cause.

So it's an attempt to take these examples of problems in our society now, and say: How can we work with God, so that we'll be free? Basically, the guidelines are Catholic social teaching; there's nothing extraordinarily different from that. What I've tried to do is to apply it in ways that might open up a conversation.


CNA: Your chapter on immigration begins by stating that the Church sees the migrant as “first of all a gift and not a problem.” But the bishops' statements on immigration are often met with resistance. How can our society begin to understand immigrants in the way that the Church does?

First of all, you have to understand why people are resistant. There are some reasons that have to be listened to there. Some people see it as an “invasion,” because if we were left to our own resources, we wouldn't be reproducing ourselves from generation to generation right now. So suddenly there's an increase in population that's all foreigners, and they see that as a kind of invasion. We have to come to terms with that, and not just dismiss it as prejudice.

That having been said, however, these so-called 'foreigners' are still creatures made in God's image and likeness. However, in this country your legal situation determines who you are, more than our sense of being created by God. In other words, the law is so important in this country that if you are 'illegal' you're less than human. That is a cultural problem that we have to attend to.

From the viewpoint of the community of faith, however, many of these immigrants are Catholic. So they're our brothers and sisters in faith. That's what the bishops mean by saying they're gifts to us. Immigration here is not primarily from Islamic countries. It's from South America and Eastern Europe and from parts of Asia that are Catholic.

So how do we incorporate these people, who are already part of our community of faith, into our society? How can we be of help in doing that? You can be of help in starting with respect. At least they are worthy of respect – as fellow believers, and also as creatures of God. If you start with respect, rather than condemnation, things open up. How do you distinguish between the criminals you don't want, and the people who are here for 10, or 15, or 20 years, integrated into our economy, our society, our parish? You can start making the distinctions that are necessary to have a just social policy.

That's, I think, what the bishops are arguing for. They're not arguing for a particular solution. They're not arguing for amnesty as such. They're saying: Let's make the distinctions necessary, and then let's help those whom we want to keep here, to become legal -- through a process that will involve education, some fines, and so on. After all, crossing our borders without papers is a crime, and so we don't want to turn out back on that. But there are ways to remedy that other than expulsion.

The chapter says: Let's look at the terms of the conversation. The conclusions are political conclusions that have to be made by people other than bishops.


CNA: Your chapter on Catholic just war teaching points out that the dilemma of humanitarian military intervention somewhat stretches the boundaries of the conventional teaching. It's an especially important topic right now, given our participation in the intervention in Libya.

Do you believe Catholic just war teaching needs to develop in order to clarify this issue of humanitarian intervention? If so, how might it develop? And if not, how can we think about it given the guidelines that we have?

There are two challenges to just war theory as we have it now. The first is terrorism, which doesn't fit into a just war theory that presupposes sovereign states invading sovereign states. Terrorism is a movement, without a political organization with which you can negotiate or mediate in any way. That's one challenge to just-war theory.

The other challenge is the one you brought up, and that the Pope addressed when he talked at the at the United Nations when he was here. That is, how do you protect citizens from their own government, when it's oppressive?

So you have a sovereign state, and you have other sovereign states who are looking at these citizens and saying, “Hey, it's not terrorism that's oppressing you, it's not another government that's invading you, it's your own government that is taking away your human rights and changing the pattern of civil rights so it's no longer just.” It might be legal, in that society, but it's immoral. The Pope challenged the United Nations to come up with ways to collectively intervene, so that it would be clear that the human community is saying: “This government itself is no longer just, vis a vis its own people.”

That's new. It doesn't fall into just war theory as such, which presupposes that the governments do represent the people even when they're at war.

The Pope would say that we should try to do this internationally, so it doesn't become a solitary intervention – because no country can act in the name of the human race, it can just act in the name of its own interests. If you want to do it in the name of your own interests, well, go ahead – but the Pope was saying, let's act in the name of humanity as such, which has rights long before there are any governments established, as we ourselves say in the Declaration of Independence.

The U.N. is the best means we have, and it's a very imperfect instrument with its own problems that are great. But nonetheless, it's the only thing we have. So the Pope was asking the U.N. to develop in such a way that it could attend to these problems.


CNA: The book's chapter on war places a profound emphasis on forgiveness. In light of that Gospel teaching, it was somewhat disconcerting to see people, for instance, dancing in the streets after the death of Osama Bin Laden. How do you think this importance of forgiving enemies, while defending yourself, can be put forth in the American context?

The initial reaction to Bin Laden's death was perfectly understandable. This is a man who did great, great harm, and continues to do great harm. He terrorized our country, and killed many innocent people. The Lord said, "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” He died by the sword.

Nonetheless, the challenge to us is: how do we make peace, even with terrorism, to the extent possible? Or how do we, in defeating him, nonetheless try to create a more peaceful world, rather than just going from one war to the next? And that's where forgiveness comes in.

Forgiveness comes in as a condition for being free. The book is all about the question, "How can you be free?" You can be free only by acting with God. God's job, in a sense, is to forgive. That's what he does again and again – he offers us mercy, he offers us forgiveness. The risen Christ gave that gift of forgiveness of sins to the apostles right away after his resurrection. God forgives our sins, in the Paschal mystery of Christ.

The point is that you may win, but you're still not free unless you forgive. How do we do it? Well, that's really hard, isn't it? So much of our system is based upon winners and losers, whether in the media, sports, politics, or economics. It's who wins and who loses. If you win, you win. You don't have to then reach out to the loser.

So we're really going against, or at least beyond, what the general mores of our society would call for, when we say: You're not done with the whole thing, because you're not free until you can forgive.


CNA: In your chapter on religious liberty and the U.S. Constitution, you point to several contrasts between the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the subject of religious liberty, and the Second Vatican Council's document on that subject (“Dignitatis Humanae”). In light of those differences, and given the jurisprudence that we have, do you think the authentic Catholic vision of religious liberty can survive in the U.S.?

Jurisprudence changes. It can't survive long, I think, with the present trend – because the present trend just protects individuals who express themselves religiously, but it doesn't really protect institutions in the way that it's going. It started out doing that, originally. The institutions of religion were to be free of the state's interference, precisely because they have a mission that's greater than the political. And that institutional protection is much eroded.

Individuals can still remain in their freedom of personal expression, to speak religious truths, and that is still protected. But that's individuals' rights being protected; it's not institutional rights being recognized. That has eroded. And I would hope that the jurisprudence would change.


CNA: Several parts of the book discuss ways in which our concept of the individual has become inadequate – how we don't view individuals even as members of families, let alone as persons with religious commitments or other connections to a community. Where do we begin working to change this aspect of our culture?

We begin in in families, because that's where you first learn that you're related and that you're not the most important person on earth. The erosion of the family has done more than anything else to allow the political definition of a person to be reduced to “an autonomous individual with rights.” Whereas when the Church looks at people, they see persons with relationships, and therefore responsibilities, to others. So that vision of community is being replaced by the vision of a collection of individuals.

There's a great societal danger in that shift of vision. So we should start with families, first of all. You've got to protect the family, as the bishops are trying to do -- to defend marriage, and strengthen marriages. And that will change society. Because the family, as Catholic social teaching says, is the basic unit of society, not the individual and their rights. That's political society, but political society is only a small part of civil society – or it should be. If political society becomes all of civil society, then you have a totalitarian government.


CNA: Government isn't the only institution that can strip away family and community from our concept of the person – business, of course, can effectively do the same thing. So how do we orient business toward a more authentic vision of the human person? How can we make the market better serve families and society?

There are two dimensions to that. One is the internal culture of a corporation or a company, and I go into that in some detail in the book: How is it that certain non-familial relationships can also create an internal culture for a corporation, so that the employees are respected? Not just as units of production, nor on the other side as units of consumption. So how is it that a corporate governance structure can respect the people who are their employees? That's one side, and I talk about that quite a bit in the book.

The other side is in Pope Benedict XVI's last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, where he talks about an economy based on the notion of “gift” -- rather than “quid pro quo,” you produce, I consume, and give you something back in payment. Is there a way in which the sense that “everything is gift,” which we believe in faith, can enter into the economy itself? He just gives sort of general principles on that, because there aren't too many examples of where that has been done. There are some in Milan, some in Spain. But the American economy – so far, at least – hasn't tried to incorporate that conviction, that businesses can put gifts above the “bottom line.”

They put them in below the bottom line. Companies do philanthropy, they give away some certain portion of their profit, and that's wonderful. But what if they factored gifts into the whole operation itself? What would it look like? We're not quite so sure. I'm not, anyway. So we have a lot of work to do there.

There is a concern, if you start that way, for something besides profits when you get to the bottom line. What form that would take is something that we don't know yet. It's a challenge for us to work on it. You have to make a profit or you're bankrupt, you go out of business; there's nothing wrong with making a profit. The question is, how do you make it and what do you consider profitably?


CNA: Your book aims to reveal the action of God in places where society either consciously tries to act “as if God did not exist,” or where we're simply accustomed to living that way. Where can believers begin working on this vast problem of “practical atheism”?

The book is designed to help people see, first of all, that God is involved with us, whether we recognize it or not – because God is God.

So the question is, how do you bring people to a recognition of that activity, particularly in the midst of our public life? Private life is a little easier. People pray, and the rest. But it's harder to see how God is at work in our public life. So the book is written to give some clues as to how he works, and therefore how we can be free.

Perhaps the way into it, now that you bring up that question, would be to start where we are having the greatest difficulties in maintaining our freedom, and then ask the question: "Where is God in all this?" – instead of giving up, or else trying to create a 'winners and losers' scenario again.


CNA: Your Eminence, you are primarily a pastor of souls – and the message of your book is ultimately both practical and spiritual, since you're conveying how it is that God makes us free. In your experience as a pastor, do you find that people understand God's action as making us free? And if not, how can we help them understand?

I think that they often don't. Some people, especially if they are secularizing our culture, would tend to think: first of all, God might not exist at all, but even if he does he must be an oppressor because if he's free, then we're not. The first part of the book tries to talk to that. It's an old question, but it's a metaphysical question: how does God create the conditions of our freedom, rather than trying to take away our freedom, though he is sovereign?

It is a pastoral problem that many priests work out, day to day. The dedication of this book is: “To the many Catholic priests who, through prayer and ministry, live with God and interpret his purposes for his people.” That happens again and again. And mothers and fathers do that with their children, priests do it in their parishes, bishops try to do it on a broader scale. We're going it, by fits and starts, maybe not as systematically as we ought to.

I thought the book might be helpful to focus our attention on that. Because even believers can take that for granted. They have an idea of God, and they forget that he's an actor too. “As long as we have the right idea about him, that's all we need” – but that's not all. We have to cooperate with him.

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