A Godly Humanism: Clarifying the Hope That Lies Within

A Godly Humanism: Clarifying the Hope That Lies Within

by Francis E. George OMI

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Is the Catholic Church a movement built around ideas, or a communion built around relationships?
In A Godly Humanism, Francis Cardinal George shares his understanding of the Church in lively, compelling prose, presenting a way to understand and appreciate the relationships of God to human beings and of human beings to one another. These loving relationships are continually made available to us in and through the Church, from the time of Jesus’s first disciples down to our own day.
We are introduced to how the spiritual and intellectual life of Christians, aided in every generation by the Holy Spirit working through the Apostles and their successors, resist the danger of splitting apart from one another. Though they take different outward forms at different times, both wisdom and holiness are made possible for every Christian in any station of life.
Sign-posting his conversation by the milestones of his own spiritual and intellectual journey, Cardinal George invites us to view the Church and her history in ways that go beyond the categories of politics—through which we find merely human initiative, contrivance, and adjustment—and rather to see the initiative as God’s first and foremost. God is the non-stop giver, we are non-stop recipients of his gifts, and the recent popes, no less than the Father of the Church, have made every effort to make us aware of the graces—that is, of the unearned benefits—that God confers on us as Catholics, as Christians, as believers, and simply as human beings. Pope Francis, he reminds us, contrasts human planning with God’s providence, and this book is at once an exposition of that providence and a personal response of gratitude for the way it has operated in one man’s life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813227788
Publisher: The Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 08/20/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 164
File size: 706 KB

Read an Excerpt

A Godly Humanism

Clarifying the Hope that Lies Within

By Francis Cardinal George

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2015 Francis Cardinal George
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-2778-8


Saints in Catholic Intellectual Life

THE FULL BODY OF REFLECTION on the truths of the Catholic faith represents the collected wisdom of intelligent and holy men and women from every part of the world over two millennia. Its tributaries include thousands of years of ancient Jewish experience as well as the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt; it draws on the entire heritage of classical Greece and Rome, the civilizations of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, romanticism, modernism, and our globalized postmodern culture. Briefly put, there is nothing quite like it.

The Catholic intellectual tradition is universal in scope and synthetic in purpose. It aims to show the unity of reason in its ceaselessly self-critical stance, and it proposes to unite faith and reason in mutual complementarity. On occasions, the union has been effected too quickly or not critically enough; but always there is an attempt to synthesize. Even when the Catholic cannot foresee the imminent achievement of the synthesis, there is a belief that it can and will be done, because the God who reveals himself in history is the same God who reveals himself in nature, and, therefore, the one truth can't be in contradiction to the other.

This tradition, though founded on some simple truths of the Gospel, cannot by its nature be a simple thing. It has had to address many questions — many kinds of questions. For example, early Christians had to think carefully about the relationship of the Church to the Roman commonwealth, avoiding the pattern common in human history wherein the gods of the locale were closely associated — and sometimes identified — with its rulers. In spite of all subsequent developments after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the faith has always carried within it a critical distance toward every political order. It knows that some things do not and never can belong to Caesar. Church and state therefore continue a conversation without a collapse, on either religious or political terms, of one entity into the other.

At the same time, the Church early on began to make use of Greco-Roman culture with its highly developed tools of analysis and expression. In the nineteenth century, under the impulse of hyper-Protestant and skeptical scholarship, this process was often represented as an improper Hellenizing or paganizing of Christianity, as if it were better for the Church to remain without cultural or intellectual elaboration. Professor Robert Wilken has recast that old argument. Christians, he says, naturally began appropriating the best thought they could find, and "At the same time, one observes again and again that Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman culture, transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being."

This process is not merely of historical interest; the Church has always maintained that Christ came into the world "in the fullness of time," which is to say at the proper moment for the proclamation and spread of the Gospel, including in that fullness the political and cultural conditions of the classical world with its search for universalism in thought and in governance. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of this fact in his 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg: his aim was to remind his old university — and all of us — of the necessary connection between faith and reason. He proposed an understanding of the role of history common to Jewish and Christian self-understanding. He said, "The encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of St. Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: 'Come over to Macedonia and help us!' [see Acts 16:6–10] — the vision can be interpreted as a 'distillation' of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry." His purpose was to show that violence ensues when faith is not interpreted by reason and that violence ensues when reason creates its own secular utopias uncriticized by faith.

Pope Benedict understood that some parts of the Christian contact with the Greek heritage cannot be exported everywhere or entirely preserved. But there are other parts — the way that the great "I AM" on Mount Horeb anticipated and engaged Greek metaphysics, for instance, or the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek — that are not merely accidental to the development of the faith. He said, "A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and revealed religion." In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul calls Christian worship logike latreia, worship in harmony with the logos, presupposing that human reason is modeled on and judged by the Word made flesh.

Pope Benedict points to three phases of an improper de-Hellenization of Christianity. The first took place at the Reformation, when some Protestants threw out all philosophical reflection on revelation in favor of sola scriptura — the axiom that Holy Scripture was the sole and sufficient rule of faith. This was understandable, perhaps, as a desire to return to Gospel sources too often obscured; but in some cases it involved a wholesale rejection of the cooperation of faith and reason. A second phase emerged in the nineteenth century with liberal rationalists like Adolf von Harnack, who set up human reason as the measure of revelation and theological thought in a desire to make these fit with what he assumed were the inescapable demands of modern philosophy and science, including Immanuel Kant's restrictions on what counted as reason at all. We have seen since then that the "radius of reason" to which such figures appealed was limited, not to say stunted. Finally, in line with the cultural pluralism of the postmodern West, some have argued that the first inculturation of Christianity into the Greco-Roman world was not part of God's design but a mere accident, one particular expression of faith arbitrarily refracted through one particular culture, which may legitimately be rejected in favor of going back to Gospel sources and restarting the whole process in whatever culture the innovators find themselves.

This notion of an abstract faith universally and identically insertable into any and every culture was proposed about thirty years ago and has since been seen to be illusory. While we must appropriate God's revelation to the Jewish people into our own self-understanding in order to read the New Testament well, we cannot simply posit the manifold cultures of Africa and Asia as functional equivalents of the Old Covenant so as to inject the Gospel into them.

Such intuitions about inculturation, Pope Benedict argued at Regensburg, are not entirely false, but they are not exactly true, either. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the decisions that believers made about the importance of reason in the early Christian centuries are a permanent part of our faith and of our intellectual tradition. In that perspective, the purported antagonism between faith and scientific reason must be seen as an aberration that fails either by excluding religion from the rational or by consigning religion to merely local cultures as a species of folklore. Paradoxically, the claims of a reduced reason to be more truly universal harm both faith and reason as global human values:

In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A [form of] reason that is deaf to the divine and that relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.

The ample realm of logos is the place where true human dialogue has to take place, Pope Benedict told his listeners at Regensburg University: "To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university."

The life of the mind, or the effort to know and live according to the divine logos, does not take place only within universities. The two most important figures in Western history — Jesus and Socrates — were not university professors. They each talked about truth but took no payment for what they taught. They inspired disciples who carried on their missions down to the present day, though both were tried, convicted, and put to death in their own cultures. In direct and indirect ways, they each began a conversation that has not ended — because it cannot end. Socrates modeled the rational inquiry into the nature of things that humbly opened itself toward religious truths. In the Phaedo, for example, Plato portrays Socrates as discussing life after death and the immortality of the soul with his friends just before he is executed. When they are not convinced or consoled he tells them that it is the part of the philosopher "to take whatever human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking upon it as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers, unless he can sail upon some stronger vessel, some divine reason (logos) and make his voyage more safely and securely." In older translations, logos was often translated as "revelation" in this passage, a bit of an anachronism but one that fit the case. After all, it was the revelation of the Oracle of Delphi, that he was "the wisest of men," that got Socrates thinking about how he really knew nothing. That humble acknowledgment was the only way in which he would call himself wise.

It is not hard to see how the part of Greek culture that was influenced by Socrates and Plato had natural affinities with Christian revelation. Once our Lord had appeared in this world, nothing could ever be the same: "he spoke as one possessing authority," even in the view of some of the Jews who were authorities in the Sanhedrin. They were not able to defend him from others who resisted the irruption of the divine into what they thought was an already complete religious system or from Roman colonial authorities who wanted to maintain civil peace at all costs. But no other figure in the history of the world has pronounced such striking statements — "Before Abraham was, I AM"; "I am the way, the truth, and the life"; "He who has seen me has seen the Father"; and perhaps most shocking of all, "Your sins are forgiven." All this, too, transpired outside institutions of higher learning.

And yet all this has immense importance for those institutions, the universities, that were created in the Middle Ages by the Church and after that, for the most part, sponsored by Catholic or Protestant initiatives. State colleges, which some see as the norm, are a relatively recent creation. These too serve a purpose, but often one different from the original notion of a university — a place where everything is open to intellectual scrutiny. The Catholic intellectual tradition provides us with an already developed body of thought tested by many different people in a wide variety of circumstances over many centuries. While we have to learn about life and love and intellectual achievement for ourselves, we do not have to learn the most important truths without reliable teachers from the tradition.

In such teaching and learning, both professors and students are part of a common enterprise — a tradition that shapes a community. What we find in the indisputable genius of major carriers of the Catholic intellectual tradition, Augustine and Aquinas, we may discover in numerous other figures across the ages: in Justin Martyr, Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Dominic Guzman, Catherine of Siena, Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, Robert Bellarmine, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Pascal, Chateaubriand, John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Edith Stein, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karol Wojtyla, and Joseph Ratzinger. All of them are marked by the Catholic embrace of both faith and reason and are quite deft in drawing on great secular thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Cicero, and Plotinus in the ancient world and Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and many others in the modern world. The Catholic intellectual tradition is almost by definition an education in great books — and great souls.

Let us look for a moment at the tradition in universities and in the various disciplines. So rich is this tradition that at times it runs the risk of getting lost or losing its cogency in the sheer welter of different schools and truths that it harbors within itself. Too often what is valued in academic life is almost entirely criticism and creativity, not homage and fidelity to what has been discovered and found sound.

A very good example in recent formulation of this academic stance appeared in 2007 in the "Final Report of the Task Force on General Education," written by a curricular committee at Harvard University. That committee was given the responsibility to examine the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard, but it retained enough of the old understanding of liberal education as a preparation for the life of a free human being that it distinguished such studies from professional training. Then it went on to proclaim, "The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people." True enough up to a point; it was the exact thing that Socrates used to do with the youth of Athens. But Socrates would never have called the "aim of liberal education" to be unsettling, de-familiarizing, and disorienting the youth of Athens. He wanted to know the truth, and he did not assume that the truth would turn out to be the kind of politicized goal evident in the Harvard Task Force's belief that a liberal education will "reveal what's going on beneath and behind appearances."

Catholic intellectual tradition is quite a bit more radical and unsettling than that, even if it appears quite settled and familiar at the outset. It believes that God himself has communicated to us truths about matter that are beyond our natural capacities to understand but that are essential to living a good life here and to attaining eternal life in the world to come. Those who think that our tradition accepted this revelation as settled and familiar thereby show themselves to be quite provincial and unfamiliar with the truly immense critical and scholarly labors applied to the faith by legions of very careful reasoners. When St. Paul proclaimed Christ on the Areopagus in ancient Athens, the jaded Athenian intellectuals had the same reaction as many of their descendants today. But from that revealed seed, as we have seen, several subsequent civilizations arose. The Harvard approach results in a worldly wise skepticism about our immediate American culture. St. Augustine's Platonism or Aquinas's Platonic-Augustinian-Aristotelianism poses a critique not only of our mainstream culture but of the critical categories of Harvard curricular committees. The reason for this is simple: the main figures in the Catholic intellectual tradition want to know the truth, and they believe that knowing the truth is the purpose of education at all times and in all places. Furthermore, they believe that truth exists, however difficult it may be to achieve a grasp of it.

The Catholic intellectual tradition makes its greatest contributions when it remains itself, when it offers as much as possible of the rich and varied heritage with which it has been blessed. Tradition, as the philologists remind us, means a "handing on" of what we have received. As we can see from the tradition, that handing on is not the mere mechanical reproduction of thoughts from one generation to the next. Handing on means, inevitably, the active engagement of currents of thought, first by teachers and then by learners, since the tradition has developed. But both the contemplation and the passing on, to say nothing of the appropriation, are all carried on by living human beings who try to discern the particular way in which the tradition may come to be incarnated in new situations in different cultures. In that sense, our tradition values newness and creativity but not the radical break that modern creativity assumes; rather, it requires the kind of creativity that recognizes its connection to the whole of human history, past and future, and to God himself. A tradition like ours that has looked deeply at the most basic questions — Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I destined to go? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?, as John Paul II listed them at the beginning of his great encyclical Fides et ratio (1998) — is not mired in some settled and familiar backwater but is engaged with intellectual work that has not gone out of date because it cannot as long as human beings inhabit this earth.


Excerpted from A Godly Humanism by Francis Cardinal George. Copyright © 2015 Francis Cardinal George. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface and Retrospective Acknowledgments Chapter 1: Saints in Catholic Intellectual Life Chapter 2: An Integrated Life Chapter 3: How God Thinks Chapter 4: A Christian Intellectual in a Post-Christian Society Chapter 5: A Christian Intellectual and the Moral Life Chapter 6: Education That Integrates Culture and Religion Chapter 7: Integrating the Second Vatican Council Chapter 8: Recent Popes and the Renewal of Catholic Intellectual Life Bibliography Index

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