Cardinal George on religious freedom at BYU

March 18, 2010 | 14 comments
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His Eminence Francis Cardinal George

His Eminence Francis Cardinal George

A loyal reader requested that I blog about His Eminence Francis Cardinal George’s speech at Brigham Young University last month, available to download here.  Ever the faithful servant of my reading public, all three of you, I respond with alacrity!

BYU often invites prominent figures to address the university community on topics of mutual interest, and Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, graciously contributed to the long-running series with his February 23 remarks entitled “Catholics and Latter-day Saints: Partners in the defense of religious freedom.”

Cardinal George framed his remarks within the cooperative efforts undertaken by Catholics and Latter-day Saints: from the friendly relations  at home between LDS church leadership and the Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City, to the communities’ mutual interest in the moral health of American society in matters of life, family, and pornography, to the many and far-flung charitable efforts  jointly carried out by Catholic Charities and LDS Philanthropies.

He devoted the bulk of his remarks to yet another mutual interest of Catholics and Latter-day Saints, namely the defense of religious freedom, and in particular the prerogative of religious voices to raise moral issues in matters of public policy.  It’s a topic that I have followed with interest, and which has concerned Latter-day Saints in the wake of the backlash to Proposition 8. Cardinal George situated the question in the American traditions of limited government and freedom of conscience, and, at greater length, in the long-established Catholic tradition of forthright public comment on political matters of moral relevance.

In expanding upon the latter, Cardinal George emphasized that the church’s perspective on matters public and political is always rooted in the communitarian ethos of its social teaching. He cited three important historical moments in this tradition: the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, which in the context of urban industrialization supported the rights of workers while affirming the right to private property; Vatican 2, which praised constitutional limits on government and advocated religious freedom for individuals; and the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the “philosopher pope,” whose influence in the Polish Solidarity movement famously contributed to the fall of communism. His point was clear: the Church has long supplied a moral voice in public discourse, and its current appearance in debates over healthcare, same sex marriage and abortion is merely the continuation of its role in American society, not a new intrusion into some putatively secular realm.

In discussing the work of John Paul II in Poland, Cardinal George set up an provocative contrast between communism and liberal democracy. Communism created a destructive trade-off  under which personal freedom was suppressed in the (supposed, anyway) service of social justice. By contrast, Cardinal George observed, liberal democracies suppress objective truth, in which moral truth is included, in favor of unfettered personal freedom. This is a rather curious way to frame the hot-button life and family issues in which the church is now involved.  Opponents of the church’s position on gay marriage and abortion would probably frame the problem as a conflict between social justice and religious dogma.  Cardinal George shifts the terms of the debate by allying dogma with scientific knowledge and other forms of objective truth: in the new formulation, championing “truth” against unfettered individualism is a more straightforward rhetorical task.

For my own part, I’m not fully convinced, much as I appreciate any forward movement of the debate, and able as Cardinal George’s efforts are. It seems to me that religious teachings rest on moral commitments that are ultimately opaque in ways that scientific knowledge is transparent. Even when scientific findings coincide with church teaching, the two rest on very different epistemological grounds, and ultimately they will make each other unreliable political allies.  I agree with Cardinal George’s assertion that moral voices have an important role to play in public debate, but I wonder whether “objective truth” is the fortress in which moral discourse is safest in the public square. Whatever flag that fortress ultimately flies, however, I’m pleased to find it defended by Cardinal George.

cross-posted at Civil Religion

14 Responses to Cardinal George on religious freedom at BYU

  1. James Olsen on March 18, 2010 at 9:41 am

    It would be strange for the Cardinal to claim long held moral stances as something other than an objective truth, though wouldn’t it? I don’t see the Cardinal making the epistemological equivocation you do, but rather refusing to back down from the legitimacy of revelation and the legitimacy of “moral” or “religious” voices in the public debate. Ironically, social conservatives like Catholics and Mormons are now drawing on the arguments of the “radical” liberals like Iris Marion Young in claiming that every form of argument – specifically those whose rational only makes sense within a certain culture or community (or what you’re calling epistemologically opaque) – are legitimate to the public debate (the Cardinal’s BYU address, and Elder Oaks’ recent BYU-Idaho address are great examples).

    And what do you make of his insistence that all of the major changes cited, and certainly their positions in the current debates, are firmly grounded in Catholic communitarian philosophy? Is his rabid-anti-radical-individualism a point of kinship or separation between Mormons and Catholics? You describe the speech but only give us the briefest taste of your evaluation…

  2. Peter LLC on March 18, 2010 at 10:09 am

    “Catholics and Latter-day Saints: Partners in the defense of religious freedom.”

    Hmm. Sounds like he’s trying to build on common ground.

  3. Rosalynde Welch on March 18, 2010 at 10:49 am

    James, it’s the “objective” modifier that gives me pause. The epistemological legitimacy of the church’s teachings comes ex cathedra, a source of authority quite apart from the subject/object distinction of Enlightenment epistemology.

    On the other hand, I do understand the need to find a social locus for religious commitments other than “conscience,” which since its inception has been constructed as a private entity and thus is inherently limited in the ideological work it can do.

    As for the communitarian theme—I don’t know enough about Catholic philosophy to say whether George is spinning the historical record. In Mormonism obviously there are elements of both communitarianism and individualism—for my part, I think the authoritarian, communitarian streak runs deeper, theologically if not sociologically, than the individualism. But that may simply reflect my own philosophical preferences. Anyway, I’d say the communitarian ethos is a point of kinship, for sure. Do you think otherwise?

  4. Chino Blanco on March 18, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Here’s where I get stuck … If I’m not mistaken, this is from the Catholic Catechism: “If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.”

    Which strikes me as utterly pragmatic and anything but objective.

    In any case, I find myself agreeing with the last bit from your first commenter and would appreciate the opportunity to seriously engage re the content of Cardinal George’s BYU address. That I quite possibly qualify as a “quasi-fascist” in George’s estimation seems all the more reason to attempt some serious dialogue. In any case, His Eminence’s language strikes me as mostly designed to obfuscate the reality that our various sides are actually involved in some fairly elaborate negotiations.

  5. Chino Blanco on March 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Hmmm. Just clicked over to the x-post.

    No use hiding the fact that we are indeed in the midst of a serious cultural conflict.

    Agreed. So, let’s talk about the conflict, shall we?

  6. Brad Dennis on March 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    “His point was clear: the Church has long supplied a moral voice in public discourse, and its current appearance in debates over healthcare, same sex marriage and abortion is merely the continuation of its role in American society, not a new intrusion into some putatively secular realm.”

    This may be. But I wonder why Cardinal George would want to highlight conservative religion’s relationship with politics this way. Because in this sense it would appear that religion is on the losing side (with the legalization of abortion, the gradual legalization of gay marriage throughout the US, etc.) When religion is portrayed as having discovered a new role in politics, then doesn’t it give it a sort of ‘underdog’ appearance, that more people root for? I think that religious organizations are faring quite well by playing the victim of waves of secularization (although I personally believe that this is not the case). Maybe it is in this ‘victimhood’ sense that many religious institutions are actually continuing their involvement with politics.

  7. TMD on March 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Cardinal George is great. From him I’ve heard one of the better descriptions of an increasingly prevalent attitude in Western civilization, what he thought of as a kind of secular protestantism, an attitudinal amalagm self-indulgence and self-righteousness.

    As I read his argument (having only read the summary), I think I have a different take on what he means by the suppression of objective truth. Liberal democracy, by its very ‘liberalness,’ refuses to recognize an inhering objectiveness in any truth or argument advancing a truth-claim. This refusal or suppression has nothing to do with the underlying epistemology of any particular claim, but rather with the social/state recognition of a process which defines things as “objectively true.” There are some sciencists (spelling intentional) who would argue that science produces objective truths, but certainly as a catholic cardinal George would have an institutional bias against recognizing scientific truths as more than provisional (given that the milennia of Catholicism have seen an impressive sucession of scientific fidnings presented as objective truth, only to be overturned later; which is not an anti-science statement, it’s an accurate description of (1) the history of science and (2) the strongest truth claims the scientific method allows).

  8. James Olsen on March 18, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Well, I’m also fairly rabidly anti-radical-individualism. I think it’s both delusional and pernicious. I would like to think that my philosophical leanings here are influenced by my Mormonism, though I’ve found many Mormons who disagree with me. I like your way of distinguishing between our theology and sociology; though I think the two were in much more harmony during our first century+. We have a lot to say about individualism (work out your own salvation, self-reliance, etc.), but I think it’s mostly a strong commitment to individual responsibility, whereas our notion of salvation is strongly communal. And so yes, I do think it’s a point of kinship with Catholicism (though I wouldn’t deny important, nuanced differences).

  9. Rosalynde Welch on March 18, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    TMD, very smart thoughts which I may not fully grasp. What do you mean by “refuses to recognize an inhering objectiveness in any truth or argument advancing a truth-claim”? Do you have in mind a sort of Rawlsian notion of the overlapping consensus in which only a particular set of claims/discourses are recognized, or something different? In thinking about classical liberal thought(in which I am no expert), it seems as though certain truths are held to be self-evident—whether or not those are “objective truths,” though, I’m not sure.

  10. Rosalynde Welch on March 18, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    James, thanks for the follow-up!

    Chino Blanco, are you hoping for a knock-down drag-out on the particular political conflicts? That is not my cuppa. I’ll take abstruse ruminations on the philosophical implications, please. :)

  11. Chino Blanco on March 18, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Yeah, Cardinal George is teh awesome.

  12. Chino Blanco on March 18, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Rosalynde, what is it with Utah and standing ovations?

  13. Rosalynde Welch on March 19, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Darned if I know. I’m not from Utah and I don’t live there now. Culture of niceness, maybe?

  14. Chino Blanco on March 19, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Perhaps. Still, between the recent standing O’s for Kevin Garn and Cardinal George, maybe it’s time to reconsider such thought-terminating displays. Before he was invited to BYU, George was already known as another sad example of the problem noted in T&S’s own “Notes From All Over” sidebar (Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal goes global). The only fortress Francis is defending is the one protecting Papa Ratzi and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy from the scrutiny (and criminal prosecution) they deserve.