The Next Pope?
5/13/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
CHICAGO--Given ancient traditions, and contemporary resentments of
America's global ascendancy, it is fanciful to think that the priest who
lives here, hard by Lake Michigan, might one day be summoned to the west
bank of the Tiber River to hold the world's oldest office. However, Francis
Cardinal George, 64, the first Chicagoan to be Chicago's Archbishop, is
temperamentally and intellectually suited to continue the work of Pope John
But, then, George is invaluable here, as a critic--loving but
unenthralled--of American culture at a moment when complacency obscures
reasons for anxiousness. A holder of doctorates in theology and political
philosophy, George, who laughs easily and often, wears his learning lightly
but wields it seriously. He casts a cool eye on today's triumphalism, which
is the sin of pride tarted up for the post-Cold War victory parade.
The evaporation of Marxism, with its beguiling (to intellectuals) brew
of pseudo-science and messianic promise, and the collapse of other
collectivist creeds have left no rival to the American model of
market-oriented social arrangements. But George argues that America once
was and needs to be again more Lockean and less Hobbesian.
John Locke, so important to America's Founders, tempered his
philosophic individualism by stressing shareable norms that come to us from
nature and common experience, and which require us to take into account
something other than our own desires. But Locke's intellectual precursor,
Thomas Hobbes, portrayed human beings not as possessing personhood, not as
rational or responsible, least of all as free. Rather, Hobbes said, they
are subject to irresistible stimuli and are, George says, ``as determined
as any physical object.'' Human rights as Hobbes understood them are banal,
arising from, and being defined by, irresistible urges.
People comfortable with such a characterization will, George warns,
lose their ability to stand ``outside'' their actions and witness their
self-creation though moral choices. And a society morally anesthetized by
the reduction of persons to bundles of impulses, and by the definition of
rights in terms of power (powerful desires), should not be surprised by 1.3
million abortions a year, and one in three children born out of wedlock.
Hobbes famously said that life in the state of nature is
completely presocial (``solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short''). But a
society that postulates, as Hobbes did, a world void of natural norms, will
be a barely social society. Such a void, says George, will be filled
exclusively by every individual's interests and drives. This limits our
horizons to our own experiences. The classic American antidote to such
truncation of moral vision is education. But there can be, George tartly
notes, ``well-instructed moral cretins.''
Man, said the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, is a creature who
makes pictures of himself--and comes to resemble the pictures. George warns
that Hobbes' picture of mankind, or any radically individualist depiction,
can be self-fulfilling. Against such depictions, the church bears witness
to a particular and universal notion of the good.
This puts--or should put--believers in perennial, and healthy, tension
with any society, but particularly with pluralistic societies, and
especially with those permeated with modernity's mentality, which eschews
the idea of a transcendent source of norms. George celebrates evangelical
Christians' ``model of discipleship.'' He says ``they understand faith as a
surrender'' that prevents surrender to the culture and ``the collapse of
religion back into culture.''
The three great carriers of American culture--universities,
entertainment and the law--currently teach, George says, the supreme value
of something value-free--a mere process, ``choice.'' So politics is
becoming a mere ``ensemble of procedures'' for ``regulating the pursuit of
our personal satisfactions.'' The resultant culture is comfortable with
merely comfortable religion--religion that is, George says, a ``personal
motivator'' but not ``an organizer of life.''
In an increasingly secular society, in what Max Weber called the
``disenchanted world,'' faith decreasingly infuses life. It organizes
neither space (towers of commerce, not a cathedral, are at the center of
the city) nor time (even Catholic schools take spring breaks, not Easter
breaks). This result is what George calls ``religious indifferentism.''
In an era of watery convictions and thin theological gruel, George's
forthrightness must be bracing even to the unchurched: ``Although the
Catholic Church does not embrace religious pluralism as an ideal, she
understands it in the context of her eschatological confidence.'' John Paul
II's calendar for (BEG ITAL)2003 is filling up. Long may he
remain full of humor and remarkably robust for one well-stricken in years.
But a worthy successor could be found just off Lake Shore Drive.