Ethics & Public Policy Center

Good Catholic, Good American

Published in National Review Online on December 8, 2012



Luis Antonio Tagle, the boyish 55-year-old archbishop of Manila, was the media star of Pope Benedict XVI’s November 24 consistory, in which six new members of the College of Cardinals were created; the Italian press and American bloggers quickly broadcast, exclaimed, or whispered that Tagle might be the first Asian pope. His Beatitude, Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal — major-archbishop of Trivandrum and head of the Syro-Malankara Church, an eastern Catholic community with ancient roots in India — won the sartorial prize for 2012’s second consistory, with a conical-shaped ecclesiastical hat that outshone even the exuberant women’s headwear sported by festive Nigerian supporters of the newly created Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja. Sober analysts of the Christian Church’s desperate situation in the Middle East hoped that the bestowal of the cardinal’s red hat would inspire Béchara Boutros Raï, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch, to a more assertive defense of civil society and elementary decency against Hezbollah aggressions in his native Lebanon; those same observers expect Bogotá’s new cardinal, Rubén Salazar Gómez, to help consolidate and deepen his country’s impressive democratization — an especially important task, what with Hugo Chávez next door.

For their part, the little people of the Vatican – the elevator operators, policemen, ushers, housekeepers, and minor office workers — probably got the greatest satisfaction from the elevation of the new cardinal who got the least media attention, James Michael Harvey, the Milwaukee native who, since 1998, had been prefect of the Papal Household: the manager of the pope’s public life and schedule. In February 1998, when Harvey was a mere monsignor (although a senior figure in the Secretariat of State), he and I were walking together through the splendidly frescoed halls of the Apostolic Palace, between visits to the just-created cardinal Francis George of Chicago and the freshly minted cardinal James Francis Stafford, former archbishop of Denver and newly named president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In the confusions that remind visitors to Rome that “system” and “Italian” do not readily co-exist, Monsignor Harvey and I got briefly separated, and one of the Vatican ushers, sensing an opportunity to do a bit of what my evangelical friends would call witnessing, pulled me aside and said, sotto voce, “Your friend — he is the best priest here.”

Cardinal Harvey is also one of the most knowledgeable and acute observers of Catholic affairs in the world. He admired and was deeply moved by the immense physical and moral courage (and indomitable humor) of Blessed John Paul II in his later years; and like many others, he wept as the great Polish pope’s triple casket was lowered into its first resting place in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s. His insightful appreciation of Benedict XVI, as a man and as a Christian disciple, was eloquently captured in the omaggio, the greeting of gratitude, that Harvey, as the first in precedence among the new cardinals, offered the pope in the name of all the new members of the College at the beginning of the Mass for the Solemnity of Christ the King on November 25:

“Holy Father, when you accepted the burden of the Office of Peter in 2005, the Church and the world knew you as a towering intellect, as one of the great theologians of our time. Now, after more than seven and a half years, the Church and the world have come to know you better; they have understood that your unique command of the truths of Christian doctrine, and your singular ability to make those truths come alive catechetically and homiletically, find their roots in a profound faith: and that your conviction has been deepened by a lifetime of study and teaching, guided by the regula fidei [rule of faith] and inspired by the Church’s liturgy. Your scholarly life – as priest and professor, as diocesan bishop, as curial prefect, and finally as Bishop of Rome – has been a living lesson in the truth that the most profound theology is not theology articulated at a desk, but theology done on one’s knees.

“You have shown us, Holy Father, that theology must always return to the Word of God as its ‘permanent foundation.’ For it is by reference to the Word that the science of theology, as the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, ‘is most firmly strengthened and constantly rejuvenated, as it searches out, under faith, the full truth stored up in the mystery of Christ.’ By exemplifying this teaching of the Second Vatican Council in your theological work, your preaching, and your magisterium, you have embodied the Council’s call to all bishops, priests, deacons, and catechists to ‘immerse themselves in the Scriptures’ — and in so doing, to meet the divine Word who speaks to us in the Word of God, so that we may offer to others friendship with him, with his Father, and with the Holy Spirit.

“That offer of friendship with the Lord Jesus is the heart of the New Evangelization to which you, like your predecessor, have called the Church in every corner of the world. The Church exists to respond to the great mission to preach the Gospel ad gentes [to the nations]. In this providential Year of Faith, we shall seek with even greater vigor to give the world the greatest gift we can give it: to share with all humanity the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who gently brings his brothers and sisters to the Throne of Grace, where they find the fullness of their human destiny.

“In accepting this honor of the cardinalate from your hands, we freely pledge ourselves, with the help of divine grace, to be persevering and responsible agents of the New Evangelization, by conforming our own lives more closely to the Gospel so that we may offer our neighbors friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, King of the universe and the unique savior of the world, the supreme revelation of the truth about God and man.”

Cardinal Harvey’s insight and eloquence do not stop at the sacristy door, however. The day before receiving the red hat, he made brief but striking remarks at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, where the chargé d’affaires hosted a reception for the Wisconsin native and his family:

“I’ve been raised to believe and appreciate the adage I learned in Catholic grade school: ‘Be a good Catholic and you can’t help being a good American.’ Our nation was founded on the belief in a Supreme Being to whom all honor is due, and from whom all authority and power descend. We know, of course, that the right to rule is not bound to any one form of government. We have had no divine revelation that the system of government under which we live in America is the only legitimate form of government. But we do know that the American experiment . . . in liberty and justice for all has borne the test of time and has proven to take a privileged place, if not the primary place, in the history of those forms of organizing social life which redound to the good of individuals, of the family, and of society as a whole.

“Foremost among the liberties we cherish as Americans is religious liberty; it is the first freedom, the first of human rights. James Madison, fourth President of the United States and an architect of the U.S. Constitution, explained why this is so [when] he wrote, ‘Before any man can be considered a member of civil society, he must be considered a subject of the Governor of the Universe.’ What he is saying in his 18th-century language is that religious freedom precedes and transcends the power of government.

“In welcoming Ambassador Lindy Boggs to the Holy See in 1997, Blessed Pope John Paul II reminded the new American representative at the Vatican, and indeed all Americans, that ‘the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, make
s its own the moral truths on which the founding fathers staked the future of your Republic.’ Obviously these words are as true today as they were 15 years ago. Each generation of Americans faces new challenges to test the endurance of the founding principles. Sometimes these challenges are unexpected; sometimes they are unnecessary, especially if our cherished principle of the separation of Church and state is properly understood [as] a relationship intended to bring a blessing to both.

“I take this occasion to join my voice to [those of] many concerned Americans, including and led by the American bishops, in recommitting ourselves to the defense of religious freedom, the first freedom, which surely includes the rights of conscience and the freedom to worship as conscience dictates, but must also include the right of the Church to be itself: to conduct its charitable and educational ministries according to its own self-understanding and according to the moral truths known by both reason and revelation.”

As the contest for religious freedom in full continues in the second Obama administration, all concerned might well keep in mind what America’s newest cardinal called “the right of the Church to be itself.” Government must respect that; bishops, pastors, and Catholics in all walks of life must never betray that, in their defense of the freedom of the Church and the religious freedom of believers. For in defending the conviction that the Church has “the right to be itself,” as do the people of the Church, Catholics are being the best Americans they can be — as a young boy was taught in a Milwaukee Catholic elementary school more than a half-century before he became a cardinal and a new voice in a debate with the most serious consequences for America.

- George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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