The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture
by Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.
New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009.

This collection of essays by Chicago Archbishop Francis Cardinal George brings the resources of the Catholic tradition to bear on the quest for the right balance between the individual and the society in contemporary America though to what extent America even is a “society,” rightly constituted, comes under considerable scrutiny in this book. George addresses the role of government in the destruction of proper community but his focus is more cultural than political. These essays provide illuminating insights for how those concerned with conserving the Permanent Things—Catholic or otherwise—might relate to a culture in which truth and order are bent down low under the crushing weight of people’s desires and their appeals to the State to fulfill them.

American society, George argues, is “rigorously secularized.” Consequently, it struggles to function as a community because Americans unquestioningly conflate freedom with individualism. Americans understand religious freedom only in the limited “‘church/state’ context,” where the former “cares for the spiritual good of the people” and the latter is the only force that “ought to order public life.” This prevents real dialogue genuinely concerned with the pursuit of truth. The result is today’s curious mix of ennui, decadence, and ravenous individualism. George offers a solution: the Catholic teaching of communio, the “network of relationships that are formed when the gifts of Christ are shared with others.”

Over the course of several essays George lays out an historical and theological argument for the Catholic Church as “the locus of interfaith encounter, of interreligious dialogue, of the intercultural collaboration among religions and people of good will.” George derives this relational vision from Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas through Pope John Paul II’s 1990 missionary encyclical, Redemptor Missio. This tradition harmonizes faith and reason, where freedom must always be connected to the truth. For St. Thomas Aquinas to say that Christianity is a rational faith means that while one might not prove matters of faith empirically, one can at least prove that faith is rational. This effort avoids fundamentalism, is “philosophically rigorous,” and draws on nature and human history, not airy ideology.

According to George, this rich Catholic tradition and the vision it offers face two important challenges in contemporary America. First, there is a deep suspicion of religion due to fear that religion (as opposed to a nondemanding “spirituality”) limits personal freedom and leads to social upheaval and violence. Since Americans equate freedom of religion with freedom from religion, they have created a Hobbesian governmental formula that “assumes the primacy of antagonism.” This drives out real community because it reduces people to “a thoroughly individualistic and ‘secular’ existence.” Such “a rigorously secularized society is less and less able to call people to any kind of participation” outside their own individualistic framework. In such a culture, intermediary institutions die, and government’s role becomes one of keeping the peace among increasingly isolated individuals, whose common ties have frayed. This structure provides a “peace” where the common good is defined down, as merely the absence of conflict and offense, unconcerned with truth. Inevitably, this occurs through coercion.

Second, and more damaging than fear of religion, is a suspicion of reason. This is not so much anti-intellectualism as it is a facet of radical individualism, which necessitates that all claims be deemed equal in the pubic square. As George points out, the fruit of scientism has been a relativistic mind that has “lost confidence in its ability to know unchangeable truth.” Put simply, to dialogue with secularists who reject Revelation outright, philosophical rigor is a necessity. Yet in a society where skepticism has made doubt of reason equal to or greater than doubt of faith, where does one begin?

George spends much of this book answering this question. He concludes that “all the answers point to the primacy of relationship,” and he argues that the Church, as a “communion of diverse relations,” both “points us toward” the ultimate goal while allowing us to live it in the present as well. This diversity includes ontological, juridical, and even adventitious relationships, some visible and others invisible. The goal of the Christian is to extend this communion to all, and this is what missionary work ought to do—show the “difference God makes” in the world.

To believe in universal truth is to say that there exist universals applicable across cultures. Yet one culture cannot impose its political forms on another and expect good results. Moreover, after Vatican II a goodly number of Catholics grew afraid that “direct evangelization constitutes a violation of religious liberty.” George draws on Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, who responded to this fear by distinguishing between “imposing and proposing” truth. George argues that the primary mission of the Church “is to direct the gaze of all toward Christ the Redeemer . . . in whom God’s love and mercy are fully revealed.” Evangelization is not proselytism; it is, George says, a sharing of communio. Missiologists model their work on the relationship among the Persons of the Holy Trinity, not by imposing European forms on non-European cultures in the name of Christ. This is what it means to direct “the gaze of all toward Christ.”

Not unimportantly for Americans, the Church’s life is one of hierarchical communion. Alexis de Tocqueville, whom George often cites, correctly recognized the inherent opposition of freedom to equality. Most Americans do not. Tocqueville also saw relativism as the natural result of an obsession with equality and personal freedom. So, too, does George. Serious thinkers like Orestes Brownson, John C. Murray, and, more recently, Peter Steinfels have explored the extent to which Roman Catholicism can adapt to American culture. George has much to say about the latter two but very little about the former. Good Thomist that he is, George presents Murray’s and Steinfels’s arguments in the strongest possible light before engaging what he sees as their faults. One only wishes he might have done likewise with Brownson, who was one of America’s most interesting political theorists and critics. In the end, George contends that the Church must always be “inevitably ‘other’ in any society” because it is called to bring forth a civilization of love through evangelization.

Since the 1960s this tension has led many Catholic Americans to engage in what G. K. Chesterton called “banging the head to fit the hat.” This involves seeing the Church as akin to any voluntary club, and taking American political forms and cultural impulses for the way all things ought to be ordered and governed.

George addresses this conflict head on in “The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism,” an essay that will be of special interest to conservatives. In 1998, George declared, “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project.” This essay is his explanation of that remark. In it, George explores the meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” in their political, economic, religious, epistemological, and even psychological contexts. He is strongest here when talking about the religious and the economic, less so when describing the political.

He is most interested, however, in distinguishing between those cultural aspects of modernity which the Christian must reject—moral relativism and individualism, for example—and those which might actually make the Church’s message stronger in an age where faith and culture are at war. These latter include freedom of religion and liberal political institutions. What about “liberal Catholicism”?

Instead of understanding Vatican II as a limited accommodation to modernity for the sake of evangelizing the modern world, the liberal project seems often to interpret the Council as a mandate to change whatever in the Church clashes with modern society. . . . This is a dead end, because the Church’s mission would then have nothing original to contribute to the world’s self-understanding.

Unfortunately, after this strong critique, George then calls it “too general and somewhat unfair.” Even George is not immune to the American impulse for fairness, for he next tries to balance the books with an assessment of what he calls “one form of conservative Catholicism.” His heart just does not seem in it, however, for he musters barely over a page against a reactionary mix of clericalism and rubricism, compared to four pages on the liberal project. Clearly, liberal Catholicism has done far more damage in the last half-century than have a few ultramontanes, and quite often it has been the excesses of the former that produced the latter.

George’s triune Catholic vision of communion, faith, and culture, which he presents as, “simply, Catholicism,” is impossible without Catholic colleges and universities. He said as much in a lecture on the Catholic intellectual tradition at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 13, 2004. Yet missing from The Difference God Makes is an essay on the role Catholic colleges and universities play in this communion. One hopes that George’s newest book, God in Action, will address this issue so that readers can benefit from his insights. The same can be said for religious orders, mention of which is also missing from The Difference God Makes. The dichotomy of episcopacy and laity used by George needs to be broadened to include these two critical components of Catholic life.

The contemporary West, and the United States in particular, is a far cry from the Western Civilization described by Christopher Dawson in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, where the State was “recognized as an organ of the spiritual community and not as the sovereign end of human life.” Ironically, or as the Christian might say, diabolically, in the name of individual freedom Americans are now left not only with the consequences of their own behavior but with less freedom than ever before at the hands of a State they themselves have empowered. Nothing but God, George points out, can redeem such a culture.  

John C. Pinheiro is Associate Professor of History and Director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-Military Relations during the Mexican War (2007), and blogs at