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