Ethics & Public Policy Center

More than a hobby

Published in The Catholic Difference on November 19, 2003


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Ambrose, Augustine, and Bonaventure; Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales; Felix Dupanloup and Wilhelm von Ketteler – the tradition of scholar-bishops runs deep in Old World Catholicism and continues to the present in men like Cardinals Jean-Marie Lustiger, Karl Lehmann, and Christoph Schoenborn, OP. The scholar-bishop model is not as well-established in the United States, though. Over the past two centuries, far more Catholic bishops in the U.S. have been appointed for their administrative skills than for their intellectual accomplishments.

There have been exceptions. Francis Patrick Kenrick, Bishop of Philadelphia and later Archbishop of Baltimore in the years just before the Civil War, was one of the leading moral theologians of his day and personally translated the entire Bible into English (his cantankerous brother, Peter Richard Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, argued against the bishops of the United States sponsoring his brother’s translation!). The most prominent scholar-bishop in the U.S. today is the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, whose two doctorates (one in theology, the other in American philosophy) have given him a penetrating insight into American culture and its impact on the Church’s identity and mission.

Speaking at the U.S. bishops’ summer meeting this past June, Cardinal George said several things that deserve a wider audience. For while he was thinking out loud with his brother bishops as they tried to get a firmer grip on their distinctive responsibilities, the cardinal’s analysis of the Catholic situation in twenty-first century America bears on all of us – because all of us are responsible for the new evangelization.

Cardinal George suggested that certain cultural default positions and the attitudes they inspire make Americans nervous about the relationship between an “almighty God” and human freedom. “Since freedom is our primary cultural value,” the cardinal proposed, “claims that God has power over us are very problematic.” Yet biblical faith, a response to God’s revelation of himself, testifies to the power of a God “who creates us from nothing,” a God whose “power…saves us from sin.” We are who and what we are, the cardinal concluded, because of God: “God’s power constitutes us.” But in a culture that misidentifies freedom with doing things “my way,” an almighty and all-powerful God – even an almighty and all-powerful God who reveals himself as radical Love – can “be seen as a rival, a competitor to human beings, a threat.”

Cardinal George also had an interesting take on how American culture had shaped the American reception of Vatican II, forty years after Blessed John XXIII and the Council Fathers challenged the Church to a new evangelical fervor:

“The greatest failure…of the post-Vatican II Church is the failure to have formed and called forth a laity engaged in the world in order to change it, a laity engaged in the world…on faith’s terms, not just on the world’s terms. If perhaps we paid less attention to ministries and to expertise and to functions, necessary though all of that is, and more to mission and purpose, then we might recapture the sense of what should be genuinely new as a result of the Council. The novelty, the change [the Council] sought was in the world and only secondarily in the Church.

“Not that the Church doesn’t need to change. Of course the Church must constantly change to be obedient to the Lord who calls her…to constant conversion. But the purpose of the Church itself is not just to comfort individuals, celebrate events, or be a voluntary association for people who like to spend their leisure time in that way. The purpose of the Church is to tell the world with one united voice that an alternative way of life is possible, that we do not have to live in the despair that more and more contains us inside traps of our own making. The purpose of the Church is to be Christ’s judgment on the world.”

Catholicism is not a hobby. Catholicism is not a life-style choice. Catholicism is a way of life – a life lived in the obedience of faith. Countercultural? To be sure. Challenging? Certainly. But it’s the truth of the matter, and we won’t be the Church of the new evangelization without embracing that truth.

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

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