Building a Moral Framework for Life
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 5 JUN. 2011 (ZENIT)
At a time when religion is often portrayed as being harmful or noxious to modern society Chicago's Cardinal Francis George has come out with a book in which he strongly argues that religion can make a unique contribution to the common good.
In "God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World," (Doubleday), published in May, he clarified right from the start that he is not talking about religion in the sense of influencing how people think and act, or as a philosophy of life.
Instead, the book is an attempt to discern how God acts in our times. In other words following the recommendation of Vatican II for Catholics to read the "signs of the times."
As human autonomy has become the preeminent value, and progress has substituted for providence, God's role has largely disappeared from popular consciousness, Cardinal George stated.
He also explained that the modern philosophical tendency to exalt the will over reason has influenced the reaction to situations where God's will clashes with our own desires. Instead of seeing the following of God's will as a pattern for holiness and joy, it means that submission to God is considered as servitude to some arbitrary power.
Starting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries modern thinkers reduced God to a first cause who played no vital role in society. With this religion becomes a private affair with no normative value.
Once set on this path there was an inevitable slide towards deism and as depicting God as an empty symbol. From that it was a small step to seeing God as a threat to human flourishing, as happened with Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud.
"Sooner or later, those who are sure they are entirely free to determine their own identity and actions without God will deny his existence," Cardinal George affirmed.
He then went on to ask how is it possible to consider that God's action strengthens human freedom instead of being a threat to it.
Drawing on Thomas Aquinas Cardinal George explained that God not only creates but also sustains what he has created. As well, creatures act in a particular way because God has given them a particular nature.
A free act whose end is consonant with human nature is done under the providence of God, no matter how trivial or how profound the act. Seen in this light God's influence is not outside the structure of our acting or an imposition on our freedom.
By contrast, acting for an end contrary to the good of our human nature is not genuine freedom as, according to Aquinas, freedom is ordered to the good.
In addition, Cardinal George recommended that we can come to see God as a friend of human freedom if we rediscover the Biblical perspective of a God who speaks and acts. A God who became incarnate in Jesus and in which two wills, divine and human, acted in union.
"Jesus' properly ordered human freedom is not a block to the divine freedom but an icon of it," he said.
After this initial statement of his position Cardinal George dedicated the bulk of the book to chapter-length considerations that explore God's role in society, the search for truth, the human body, and the areas of the economy and international relations.
In the chapter on freedom and truth he pointed out that God acts freely in creating men and women. In turn, human beings participate in this gift by acting freely. If, however, we are trapped in falsehood, then our human acting will prevent cooperation with a God who is truth.
In contrast to the autonomous person, self-defined by choices based only on individual desire, there is another sense of person, grounded in both faith and reason, Cardinal George maintained.
Science and technology can give us the answers to many questions, but we must also attain a self-knowledge that comes from asking questions such as: Who am I?; What ought I do? The answers to these questions can't be deduced from the laws of physics, but must come from a spiritual source governed and perfected by truth.
In that spiritual source, Cardinal George continued, we find a truth that convinces us and opens us up to ourselves, to others, and to our world.
"Our dignity as persons has its roots in the freedom that images God and is brought to self-consciousness from natural reason and from responding to God's own gracious self-revelation," he said.
Unfortunately, he commented, in the Supreme Court decision of Planned Parenthood vs Casey, that established the constitutional right to abortion, the judges said that the essence of personhood is the ability to control and define for oneself the meaning and purpose of life.
This passage enshrines in law the precept of freedom as being divorced from all relationships. "It is freedom divorced from the truth of things," he observed.
Recovering this truth is vital in order to deal with the challenges presented by many bioethical issues, he asserted in another chapter.
We can't hope to have a conversation about human dignity if we begin with a vision that sees a person as a mere collection of genes.
Instead we need to found human dignity as a property of human nature that cannot be lost. Dignity also comes to us through accepting God's gift of salvation and life in him.
The separation of faith from the ordinary affairs of life is not a new problem for Christians, Cardinal George noted at the start of the chapter on the economy.
If we were to see business as a vocation, then it can become a way to achieve personal sanctification, and to help others achieve this as well. In this way work becomes more than complying with the standards and protocols of a company.
Work is done within a community of persons, and it also serves the community, Cardinal George advocated. People are brought together for the service of society. The marketplace provides many opportunities to be creative and productive and to create wealth. This is good, he accepted, but there is also an order of importance.
Business manuals advise that the best companies are the ones that respect and care for their employees, he observed. This, however, is a reflection of a deeper truth, namely that we were created by God as social beings.
It's wrong to interpret the book of Genesis by considering work as a curse. Instead, Cardinal George insisted, it is a creative activity and we work in imitation of God's creative activity. For a believer, then, work is participating in God's plan for the world.
"Work is part of establishing ourselves as God's creatures, laboring in line with his purpose and establishing goals to achieve what is good for ourselves and others," he explained.
The recent financial crisis has led some religious people to talks as if there were something wrong about making a profit. This is wrong, Cardinal George argued, as when a firm makes a profit it has used its resources correctly and human needs have been satisfied.
Nevertheless, profit is not the criteria for judging a firm's condition. It is possible for the accounts to be in order, and at the same time the people who make up the community of workers could be humiliated and offended.
God does not dictate our decisions in the social, economic and political orders, but as we go about our lives the most important human activity is to watch for God's, Cardinal George concluded. A timely reminder in an age when people only too often put themselves at the center of attention.