Of God and Man: The Two Cities in the Third Millennium


"A scholarly and spiritual collection of essays on the role of the Catholic faith in the modern world . . . from one of the most thoughtful men in the American hierarchy." - Publisher's Weekly

History is what God remembers. No calendar is neutral, as the French revolutionaries and various fascist dictators well understood. To mark a Christian millennium is to claim that we remember what God knows to be of central importance in human history. The millennium's importance is determined by the decisive and momentous influence of the person of Jesus Christ. Out of our understanding of who Christ is, the relationship between an incarnational metaphysics and the political/social sphere can be explored, demonstrating how the former ought to be the permanent, though freely offered, structuring element of the latter.

St. Augustine's understanding of this relationship is more helpful than the various views that have flowed from the characteristically modern construal of the world. This Augustinian perspective has shaped not only the Catholic community, but most Protestant and some other Christian groups as well. It has been a continuous point of reference throughout the past sixteen hundred years for analyzing the relationships between faith and society, and it continues to be a point of reference in understanding the relationship between faith and the modern nation state.

Philosophy of Incarnation

At the heart of Christianity is a provocative claim: In Jesus Christ, God has become a creature, without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he becomes. Many pre-Christian myths and legends spoke of God or the gods "becoming" creaturely, but such incarnations always resulted in uneasy mixtures of the divine and the nondivine. Thus Achilles and Hercules are quasi-godly and quasi-mortal, their divinity compromised by their humanity and vice versa. But as the Greek and Latin theologians of the patristic period struggled to express their incarnational faith, they consciously abandoned this mythological construal. The council of Chalcedon in 451 expressed the radicality of Christian belief when it said that in the divine person of Jesus Christ, two natures – divine and human – come together in a hypostatic union, without mixing, mingling, or confusion. This means that in Jesus the divine and the human unite without competition or compromise. Christ is not quasi-divine and quasi-human; in fact, just such a mythological reading was rejected in 325 at the Council Nicea during the struggle against Arianism. Rather, Jesus is fully divine and fully human, the proximity of the divine enhancing and not weakening the integrity of the human.

But the condition for the possibility of such a claim is a new understanding of the nature of God. Finite things exist necessarily in a sort of mutual exclusivity: the being of one is predicated, at least in part, on its not being the other. Hence, when one finite thing "becomes" another, it does so through ontological aggression and surrender: the desk becomes a pile of ashes through being destroyed by fire, and the lion assimilates the antelope by devouring it. Competition characterizes the play between conditional realities. Therefore, when the Church proclaims that in Jesus Christ the divine and the human have come together without competition and compromise, she is saying something of extraordinary novelty. She is claiming that God is not a worldly nature, not a being, not one thing alongside others. God is not in competition with nature because God does not belong to created nature; God does not overwhelm finite being, because God is not a finite being.

When Christian theologians, inspired by their faith in the Incarnation, attempted to name God, they accordingly reached for language that evoked this distinctiveness. Thus St. Anselm said that God is not so much the supreme being as "that than which no greater can be thought," implying, paradoxically, that God plus the world is not greater than God alone. And when St. Thomas Aquinas named God, he avoided the term ens summum (highest being) and opted for ipsum esse subsistens (the subsistent act of to-be itself).

Both of these theologians thought of God as non-competitively transcendent to the realm of finite things and therefore totally immanent to all things as the cause of their being. God is transcendent cause, and therefore Christianity is not a form of pantheism or Emersonian panentheism; but God is therefore closer to his creatures than they are to themselves. God is not related to the world, for that would create too great a division between God and the world, but neither is God identified with the world. The transcendent God is within his creation as the cause of its very being.

It is from this understanding of God, rooted in but developed from Jewish faith, that the peculiarly Christian sense of creation flows. Because God is not one being among others but rather the sheer energy of to-be itself, God does not make the world through manipulation, change, or violence, as the gods of philosophy and mythology do. Since there is literally nothing outside of God, he makes the entirety of the finite realm ex nihilo, through an act of purest and gentlest generosity. God's is a non possessive love. And since God is the act of to-be, all creaturely things exist in and through God, "participating" in the power of his being and the graciousness of his love. And we can draw a final implication: because all of nature and the cosmos are, likewise, creatures participating in the divine generosity, they are all related to one another by bonds of ontological intimacy.

When St. Francis of Assisi spoke of "brother sun and sister moon," he was making both a poetically evocative and metaphysically precise remark. All things in the cosmos exist in a communio with one another precisely because they are rooted in a more primordial communio with the creator God. This view of reality as a communion based on love is the worldview that proceeds from the Incarnation.

Augustine's Two Cities

Whatever Christians say about the social, political, and economic realm must flow from this grounding metaphysical vision. Or better put, there is an unavoidably social dimension to the Christian ontology of communio and participation. This can be discerned clearly in one of the most remarkable and influential presentations of the Christian worldview ever written: the De Civitate Dei – On the City of God – of St. Augustine. What strikes the modern reader perhaps most immediately is St. Augustine's adamant refusal to dialogue with the representatives of the polity of Rome who had challenged the legitimacy of Christianity. He is interested in neither accommodating nor compromising with the Roman system, which he sees as fallen. Rather, he boldly proposes the Christian way as being, in all regards, preferable. He does not turn to Rome to find a social theory or political arrangement compatible with a privatized and interiorized Christian spirituality; on the contrary, he excoriates Rome as an unjust society and holds up Christianity itself as the only valid basis for a just form of social arrangement.

Augustine's hermeneutical key is well known. He distinguishes sharply between the City of Man (a collectivity based upon self-love) and the City of God (a collectivity whose foundation is the shared love of God). The former is not so much an inadequate society; it is rather like a group of thieves or marauders masquerading as a body politic. Much of the first part of De Civitate Dei is a spirited demonstration that what looks like a paragon of justice – the Roman Empire – is in fact a manifestation of the City of Man.

Again, what is surprising for moderns is Augustine's refusal to place this analysis in anything even vaguely resembling a "church/state" context. It is not the case that the secular state ought to order public life while the Church cares for the spiritual good of the people.

Augustine's argument has a "theological" and a "political" phase. First, he shows, over hundreds of pages, that the multiple gods of Rome are in fact demons because they engage in and encourage various forms of immorality, including and especially rivalry, jealousy, and warfare. Then he paints a vivid picture of the political life that has followed from the worship of such gods. What has characterized Rome, from its founding in the fratricidal struggle between Romulus and Remus to the chaos of Augustine's day, is unremitting violence. The door of Janus, supposed to be closed during times of peace, has remained stubbornly open for almost the entirety of Roman history. The regnant spirit of Rome is what Augustine refers to as the libido dominandi, the lust for mastery, and it is this spirit that has sent conquering armies around the world. At the heart of Augustine's analysis of Rome is the correlation between a faulty metaphysics (the worship of finite and self-assertive gods) and a faulty polity of violence and domination. A denial of a metaphysic of participation and communio leads to the false imitation of justice in the City of Man.

But Christians believe in the God who is Father of Jesus Christ, a God of nonviolent and creative love who brings the whole of the world into being from nothing. Such a God, unlike the false gods of Rome, enters into competitive relation with no one or no thing. The worship of such a God leads to a society based not on the libido dominandi but on the love, compassion, nonviolence, and forgiveness preached and embodied by Jesus. What Augustine proposes, therefore, is an altera civitas that has "no logical or causal connection to the city of violence," requiring the repudiation of worldly dominium and worldly peace. It is a city based upon the consensus that mirrors the community of the saints and angels in heaven, an icon of the heavenly ordo. This communio conception of society corresponds to God's original and deepest intention toward the world.

If one seeks to know the origins of the City of Man – the corruption of this original intention of God – one has to look to the rebellion of Adam and Eve. In the original sin, Augustine sees the first human decision to sever the relationship with God, to deny the implications of creation and communio and to establish a kind of "secular" realm apart from God. The violence and injustice of Rome is, for Augustine, simply the latest and most virulent consequence of this original rebellion.

Again, what is surprising for moderns is Augustine's refusal to place this analysis in anything even vaguely resembling a "church/state" context. It is not the case that the secular state ought to order public life while the Church cares for the spiritual good of the people. There is no such easy distinction in Augustine. There is, rather, the dramatic difference between the false worship (and hence flawed social arrangement) of the City of Man and the proper worship (and hence life-giving social arrangement) of the City of God. The problem is not how to reconcile the competing concerns of the spiritual and the secular; the problem is orthodoxy, that is to say, getting our metaphysics and our praise of God in order, so that we can live in a just, rightly ordered society.

It is impossible to trace in a brief chapter the complex development (and corruption) of this Augustinian notion through late antiquity and the Middle Ages. But one can see its perdurance in the remarkable relationship between medieval worship and social life. At the center of the medieval town – both physically and psychologically – was the church or cathedral, where the drama of the paschal mystery and its communal implications were played out in a sacramental rhythm. This visual display of the Christian faith shaped the consciousness of worshipers and in turn influenced economic, agricultural, and political life, as had the Temple in Jerusalem. The activity of medieval guilds, the labors of farmers, the ordering of the economy – all were predicated upon and shaped by the sacramental life, especially baptism and the Eucharist. There was a keen sense that the heavenly liturgy (God's ordo), iconically displayed in the earthly liturgy, worked its way into all of those social and political realities that today we would misleadingly refer to as entirely "secular." In the medieval consciousness, a sacred/secular chasm would have seemed anomalous, since politics, economics, and social order existed as a sort of extension of the sacramental life of the Church.

As the civil society became more explicitly shaped by faith, it came to be treated as good in itself because it had the same ultimate goals as the Church: the incorporation of each citizen into communion with God. Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotle's reflections on man as essentially political and social, admitted real distinctions between church and state according to their respective functions, but he saw them united in a single goal – the common good of all on earth and a common life in God for all eternity.

The Emergence of the Modern: A Compromise with the City of Man

The dark underside of this ideal unity of the social order informed by religious faith was the use of state power, often uninfluenced by moral considerations of its limits, to enforce religious conformity – a conformity more often used for political than for genuinely religious ends. The reaction to this misuse of power justified modernity's understanding of religious freedom. What created modern consciousness is a breakdown of classical Christian participation metaphysics and the consequent emergence of a secular arena at best only incidentally related to God. It is this modern, non-participatory, ideological context that impoverishes most of our discussions of religion and politics. It is most evident, perhaps, not in the loss of visual symbols to integrate space but in the creation of rival calendars to shape the rhythm of public life. In the modern era, national feasts and ceremonies replaced the liturgical calendar of the Church, whose feasts become private observances. The end of the modern era, however, is signaled by the inability of the secular calendar to call people out of their private concerns into the rhythm of a shared public life. National holidays have become primarily occasions for private recreation. Time itself becomes a field to be personally scheduled, a function of private purposes. A rigorously secularized society is less and less able to call people to any kind of participation.

The loss of the communio ontology in Western thought begins, perhaps surprisingly, just after Aquinas, in the writings of Duns Scotus. Scotus consciously repudiates the Thomistic analogy of being – predicated upon participation – and adopts a univocal conception of being. Though it was perhaps Scotus's intention to draw the world and God into closer connection, this epistemological and ontological shift had the opposite effect. In maintaining that God and the world can be described with a univocal concept of being, Scotus implied that the divine and the nondivine are both instances of some greater and commonly shared power of existence. But in so doing, he radically separated God from the world, rendering the former a supreme being (however infinite) and the latter a collectivity of beings. In opting for the univocity of the idea of existence, Scotus set God and world alongside each other, thereby separating "nature" and "grace" far more definitively than Aquinas or Augustine ever had and effectively undermining a metaphysics of creation and participation. God is no longer that generous power in which all things exist but rather that supreme being next to whom or apart from whom all other beings exist.

The distancing of God from creation and the defining of the world as profane, made possible by this univocal concept of being, can be seen in the voluntarism and nominalism of William of Ockham, which in turn had a decisive influence on Martin Luther. Scotus's compromised sense of analogy shaped the later and more decadent scholasticism, finally giving rise to Francisco Suarez's awkward rendering of Thomas's doctrine of analogy. Some have argued that this Jesuit Renaissance version of Aquinas – with its sharp delineation of nature and grace – came to form modern consciousness, especially through the work of the Jesuit-trained Rene Descartes. In both its Lutheran and Cartesian manifestations, modernity assumes a fundamental split between the divine and the nondivine and hence implicitly denies the participation/communio metaphysics that had shaped the Christian world through the ancient and medieval periods.

What does this modern worldview produce in the arena of the social and political? Thomas Hobbes made the political implications of modernity most evident. In his famous description of the natural (pre-political) state of human beings as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," Hobbes assumes the primacy of antagonism. Void of a religious, and therefore communitarian, sensibility, natural man is engaged in a desperate attempt to keep himself alive, fighting a "war of all against all." Responding only to his most elemental passions, man in the state of nature lives a thoroughly individualist and "secular" existence, and any link to an englobing and transcendent context is lost.

Given this framework, the role of government – Hobbes's Leviathan – becomes what it was in ancient Rome: the maintenance of a temporary and ersatz peace on the basis of coercion and violent control. The only way to curb the relentless violence of the state of nature, Hobbes assumes, is to accept the mitigated violence of the commonwealth. Because debates over ultimate ends and especially over theology tend to be disruptive of the peace, Hobbes places the Church under the tight control of the Leviathan, the sovereign who determines and enforces what is to be believed. To be sure, this adoption of a particular religious policy has nothing to do with a correlation to an objective truth; it is simply adopted as political expediency. It is this stipulation that constitutes the core of the modern "theological" vision. The natural state of human beings is irreligious, unrelated to a transcendent God and his purposes, thoroughly secular. Whatever role religion plays in the structuring of life is artificial and totally subordinate to political ends.

God is no longer that generous power in which all things exist but rather that supreme being next to whom or apart from whom all other beings exist.

This Hobbesianism is softened a bit but preserved in its essential structures in the political thought of John Locke. Though he allows a rudimentary moral sense to remain even in the state of nature, Locke follows Hobbes in deriving individual rights from irresistible and antagonizing passions and in defining government's role as basically protective of those individualist prerogatives. Government's only task is to ensure one man's legitimate claim to life, liberty, and property over and against the encroachments of others. The loss of a sense of man's nature as deeply social leaves unchallenged the assumption that antagonism, disassociation, and suspicion are the natural condition of human beings. Here, the metaphysics of participation and communio has become a distant cultural memory.

This Hobbes/Locke tradition profoundly shaped the minds of the founding fathers of the United States. In the prologue to the Declaration of Independence, we hear of "self-evident truths" concerning "inalienable rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As in Hobbes and Locke, these rights are individualistic – my liberty and life over and against yours. These rights are somewhat correlated to moral ends outside of themselves by the greater or lesser religious sense of common destiny and purpose in the minds and beliefs of many of the founders; but it is, tellingly, the pursuit of happiness – unguided, unanchored, unfocused by truth – that is guaranteed as a right. And government is "instituted among men" in order to protect these prerogatives and hence assure some level of peace and order in a still primarily antagonistic community. In what appears to be a departure from Hobbes, the framers of our Constitution insisted that no single religion be officially established but that the state should remain separated from religion, neither sanctioning nor prohibiting its exercise. This approach to religion, however, is still essentially Hobbesian, since it proceeds from the distinctively modern creation of a thoroughly secular space, untouched by religious questions, concerns, and finalities.

Much more could be said about the subtle differences in emphasis and accent between the pure Hobbesian, Lockean, and American construals of political reality. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville's still provocative analysis of the play between the American "secular" state and the vibrant, though officially privatized, religiousness of the American people continues to yield insights into the actual experience of generations of Americans. But despite certain nuanced differences, all three perspectives remain recognizably secular and modern in form and content. All three are possible only after the breakdown of the communio metaphysics characteristic of authentic Christianity. And therefore, all three amount to an embrace – whether relatively enthusiastic or relatively cautious – of what Augustine would describe as the City of Man.

Protestantism and Modernity in the American Context

What was the Christian response to the challenge of modernity in its American form? The full answer is obviously complex, and it varies according to whether one begins from a Protestant or from a Catholic perspective. After Walter Rauschenbusch's theology of the Social Gospel in the beginning decades of the twentieth century, the two most influential American Protestant social thinkers of the last century were the prolific Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard. What makes these figures particularly interesting from our perspective is their Augustinianism, expressed in and for the peculiarly American context.

Reinhold Niebuhr began his career as a liberal in the tradition of Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, but soon he became disillusioned with what he took to be the ineffectuality and uncritical idealism of this position. Through his pastoral practice and his reading of the Hebrew prophets, he was in time converted to a stance that his commentators are nearly unanimous in referring to as "Christian realism." By this they mean that, despite (or perhaps because of) his religiosity, there was nothing dreamily idealist about Niebuhr's political analysis. He was willing to take human beings as they are – with all of their duplicity, violence, selfishness, rancor, and sin – and not as he would like them to be. "In political and moral theory, 'realism' denotes the disposition to take all factors in a social and political situation, which offer resistance to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power."

Niebuhrean realism manifested itself in the distinction between a personal ethic of love and a social ethic of justice. Whereas the demands of radical love contained in the Sermon on the Mount could be justifiably applied to the personal realm, they would have to be set aside in favor of the more mitigated form of love that is justice when applied to the properly social or political arena. Given the fact of original sin, it is simply asking too much, thinks Niebuhr, to expect a body politic to behave according to the absolute moral demands of the Gospel. The more appropriate and "realistic" criterion for evaluation of the moral quality of a society is that of justice, that "rendering to each his due" which is a qualified mode of love. This clarification, with its deepest roots in Max Weber's distinction between an "ethic of ends" and an "ethic of means," enabled Niebuhr to accept and affirm, for example, both a personal embrace of pacifism on the part of the saint and a social acceptance of warfare as a tragic necessity on the part of the body politic.

As Henri de Lubac pointed out in his Catholicism, one of the defining marks of the Church Fathers as a whole is the passionate conviction that no dogma is to be construed individualistically, that every Christian claim has a social range and implication.

For our purposes, it is interesting to note that Niebuhr saw Augustine as a major influence in the development of his social ethic. Presumably it was Augustine's honest assessment of the City of Man and his qualified acceptance of certain social practices (such as warfare) that shaped Niebuhr's position. It seems, however, that Niebuhr's solution bears only a passing resemblance to Augustine's treatment of the two cities. For St. Augustine, the Niebuhrean distinction between love and justice would be highly problematic, precisely because what determines the justice of the City of God is finally the quality of its love. The City of God is just only in the measure that it remains a collectivity that loves God (and hence human beings) according to the pattern of Jesus. Furthermore, the privatization of love would have struck Augustine as untenable. As Henri de Lubac pointed out in his Catholicism, one of the defining marks of the Church Fathers as a whole is the passionate conviction that no dogma is to be construed individualistically, that every Christian claim has a social range and implication. That there is a private and interior dimension that can be cleanly distinguished from the public seems to be a conviction far more Lutheran than Augustinian, and it would certainly fly in the face of the communio metaphysic we have been describing.

A form of Protestant Augustinianism perhaps more congenial to this analysis is that of Reinhold Niebuhr's brother, H[elmut] Richard Niebuhr. In his classic text Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr distinguished several paradigms for the relationship of Christian faith to the culture in which it finds itself. Christ has been envisioned over the centuries as, variously, against, over, of, and in paradoxical relation to the culture. Each of these positions has advantages and disadvantages, but Niebuhr seems to favor the paradigm that he articulates last, namely, Christ as the transformer of culture.

According to this model, the culture is fallen and hence in need of transformation, but it is also capable of conversion through the influence of Christ's way of being. The "transformation" paradigm is sufficiently "realistic" in its honest assessment of sin, but it is also spiritually alert to the possibility of a real and thorough conversion of a culture through Christ. Intriguingly, H. Richard Niebuhr claims St. Augustine – especially in the City of God – as the best advocate of this position, and here we can agree. There is no artificial distinction between public and private and no pessimistic resignation to the intractability of the public realm. But rather, in the spirit of Augustine, the whole of the public ordo is seen as fallen through false love but redeemable through the authentic love of the communio opened up by Christ. This position, unlike Reinhold Niebuhr's, allows for a more robust Christian critique of the assumptions and practices of a political culture flowing from Hobbesian individualism.

Catholicism and Modernity in the American Context

What is the Catholic attitude to the distinctively modern polity that is the United States? Catholics have had, it seems fair to say, a complex relationship to American society. When they arrived in great numbers starting in the early nineteenth century, they were met with fierce opposition from a Protestant establishment fearing a "foreign" and despotic takeover. The Egyptians seemed to have managed to cross the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean and now threatened to corrupt the almost chosen people, to use Abraham Lincoln's phrase, of this American promised land. In the face of anti-Catholic propaganda, the burning of convents and monasteries, and the rise of the Know-Nothing party, American Catholics tended to lie low, muting the "political" dimension of their faith and preferring to build a Catholic culture under the protection of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. And they did so with a passion, establishing by the beginning of the twentieth century a vibrant and institutionally powerful subculture in the still predominantly Protestant United States.

So favorable did this American environment seem that influential Catholic bishops such as James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul actively promoted American-style separation of church and state. At the same time, some American Catholics – and Vatican observers – worried that the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment would conduce to a secularized, or at least Protestantized, understanding of the relation between faith and society. At the end of the nineteenth century, this concern led to Pope Leo XIII's official ecclesial condemnation of the heresy called ''Americanism.''

John Courtney Murray – Reconciling the Catholic and the Modern

To be sure, American liberalism is not, like continental Jacobinism, overtly atheist; but it is, one could argue, implicitly or covertly so. The "peace" gained by the articles of the First Amendment is bought at the price of a secularized understanding of the world and the loss of communio.

It is against this complex background that the thought of John Courtney Murray, S.J., emerged. Murray is undoubtedly the most persuasive voice advocating the reconciliation of the Catholic faith with a characteristically modern political experiment. Murray's proposal needs to be analyzed with some care in order to gauge the degree of success he achieved.

A fundamental and guiding assumption of the Murray project is that a civil society is characterized by constructive and disciplined argument, the working-out of consensus in a rational manner. The conditions for the possibility of this civil conversation are two: an agreement that there is "a heritage of an essential truth ... [that] furnishes the substance of civil life," and a respect for the rights, freedom, and dignity of the individual. If the former is missing, the conversation becomes unfocused; and if the latter is absent, the conversation devolves into power plays. When the founding fathers of this country embraced certain self-evident truths and placed their political efforts under the authority of a transcendent God, they fulfilled the first condition; and when they insisted that basic rights and freedoms – especially with regard to religion – are to be guaranteed, they fulfilled the second. Murray believed that, in their acceptance of both a form of natural law and the authority of the divine, the American founders differ radically from the Jacobin and laicist revolutionaries of Europe, whose convictions were marked by a fierce anticlericalism and a sort of uncritical rationalism.

Though they were not antireligious, the American founders saw the necessity of eliminating a consideration of ultimate ends from the political conversation. Precisely because there was, in colonial America, such an irreconcilable pluralism of Protestant theological views, they saw that the consensus required for civil conversation would dissolve if any religious viewpoint were officially sanctioned or allowed to determine secular policy. Therefore, according to Murray, the framers declared the state incompetent in matters of religion and restricted its interests to the political sphere. The "truths" that are held in common and that undergird the civil conversation are thus not final or theological truths but are rather basic convictions and intuitions in principle available to all people of intelligence and good will. It is here that Murray senses a link to the Catholic tradition of the natural law, a universal moral sensibility distinguishable from the specific precepts of the revealed law.

In this context, one can begin to understand Murray's insistence that the two articles of the First Amendment should be interpreted, not as "articles of faith" but as "articles of peace." Behind the separation of church and state in the American constitution is neither a secularist ideology that would simply drive religion from the public square nor a Calvinist theology placing exclusive stress on the divine transcendence. Rather, Murray claims, there is no ideological commitment – no faith – of any kind behind these purely legal decisions to restrict the range and sanction of the civil conversation. Their purpose is not to make claims regarding ultimate ends, but only to provide the conditions necessary for a peaceful and therefore civil dialogue.

Murray exults in the fact that the First Amendment is the product not of theologians but of lawyers. If it were otherwise, Catholics would be obliged, he thinks, to dissent from the American proposition. It is the very ideological agnosticism of the First Amendment that renders it palatable to people of various religious and philosophical persuasions. Under the protection, and within the confines, of these ideologically "neutral" articles, Catholics can feel free to develop their particular spiritual and faith-based culture while insisting that the original Protestant flavor of early American culture not be normative. Against a perceived Protestant hegemony, Catholics, along with Jews, have often acted as "secularizers" in American society.

The Price of Reconciliation

It appears as though we have found, in Murray's balanced argumentation, a philosophical justification for the pro-American sentiments of Archbishop Ireland and Cardinal Gibbons. It seems that a reconciliation of the Catholic and the modern is not only possible but welcome. With the benefit of a longer historical experience, however, this reconciliation seems less certain. If we look more closely, we uncover some of the distinctively modern ideological content of Murray's ostensibly agnostic solution.

It is no secret that John Courtney Murray's thought was shaped by a neo-Scholastic two-tiered conception of nature and grace, a view that he inherited from his Suarezian Jesuit tradition. This sharp delineation between the natural and the supernatural is, as discussed above, a departure from the communio and participation metaphysics of the patristic and medieval periods. It is congruent with the typically modern carving out of a distinctively profane realm untouched by ultimate finalities or direct religious influence. Given this distinction, Murray could easily enough establish two realms, a "political" one where questions of ultimate ends are bracketed and a "religious" one where those ends can be proclaimed and sought.

Such a demarcation is impossible, however, within the context of a participation metaphysics, which sees all of finitude as grounded in and touched by the divine. It was, of course, John Courtney Murrray's contemporary and fellow Jesuit Henri de Lubac who, in a series of groundbreaking texts, vigorously attacked the two-tiered conception of nature and grace and attempted a recovery of a communio metaphysics. According to de Lubac, nature is not a self-contained realm with its own finalities, but rather one that is permeated by and oriented toward the supernatural from the beginning. But if this is the case, then the separation that Murray tolerates – the bracketing of ultimate ends in the political context – is exposed as simply a pragmatic and religiously inadequate ploy.

Father Murray's separation assumes as well the implicit acceptance of a relentlessly modern view of the person. If the political or social dimension is essentially untouched by the sacred, then the human being who is naturally social is also by nature agnostic, perhaps even atheist. Whatever is religious in him is added as an extrinsic superstructure to a religiously neutral substructure. Any "truth" suggested by religion regarding humanity and its ends remains adventitious if not alien to this secularized natural man. To be sure, American liberalism is not, like continental Jacobinism, overtly atheist; but it is, one could argue, implicitly or covertly so. The "peace" gained by the articles of the First Amendment is bought at the price of a secularized understanding of the world and the loss of communio.


The culture of death is none other than that "world" generated by the separation between freedom and truth; it is a result of the poorly conceived compromise between the City of God and the City of Man which stands at the heart of the modern experiment.

None of this relativizes the important contribution made by John Courtney Murray, for in Murray state neutrality in religion is not so much the condition for social peace as the necessary means for protecting personal religious liberty in a pluralistic society. In fact, his insistence on the centrality of religious liberty was affirmed at Vatican II, although the Council's defense of religious liberty owes at least as much to French Christian personalism as to Murray's historical and social analyses. Nevertheless, the anthropology of the Council's document Dignitatis humanae now shapes Catholic social teaching and has been consistently emphasized in the writings of John Paul II.

The pope's construal of this liberty, however, flows from the thought world of communio metaphysics rather than from a modern political framework. What is central to John Paul's interpretation is that freedom and truth belong together from the beginning, that the latter is in fact an essential component of the former. Without correlation to truths rooted in nature and in God, human freedom becomes license or, alternatively, acquiesces in state tyranny. In Augustinian terms, it becomes an improperly directed love, a mere "pursuit of happiness" rather than a structured spiritual activity. John Paul II consistently criticized in the Western democracies born of the Enlightenment this divorce of freedom from truth, this tendency to think that liberty can be unquestioningly affirmed while consideration of ultimate truth is bracketed or privatized. Such a bifurcation – allowed for by Murray in the interest of peace – was, for John Paul II, an undermining of the very structure of freedom itself.

And what indeed are the fruits of this great divorce? When we look at the moral landscape of America at the dawn of the millennium, what do we see? We see, again to invoke the Augustinian hermeneutic, ample evidence of the flourishing of the City of Man. In the millions of abortions annually, the divorce of human reproduction from the embrace of human love, the increased application of the death penalty, the practice of euthanasia, the conviction that hopelessly handicapped people are better off dead, the seemingly indiscriminate and sometimes disproportionate use of the military, the gun violence in the streets of our cities and the corridors of our schools – in all of this we see the fruits of what Pope John Paul II called "the culture of death," a society that allows for the destruction of its weakest members according to the simple will of the strong. The culture of death is none other than that "world" generated by the separation between freedom and truth; it is a result of the poorly conceived compromise between the City of God and the City of Man which stands at the heart of the modern experiment.


What follows from this faith-based critique of modernity? One might assume that, given the line of argument presented here, the only alternative is some sort of theocracy or confessional state. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having lived through late antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern era, the Church is opposed to "theocracy" on two basic grounds. First, as Murray argued and Vatican II clearly stated, faith is never to be pressed on anyone through coercive means of any kind. A coerced faith is not personal faith, and the development of doctrine in Vatican II has moved the Church from simply standing the modern problematic on its head and accepting a purely public faith as an article of peace in a contemporary version of medieval society. Second, the Church should not seek to establish itself officially or juridically outside its own structures. A communio on its own terms, the Church cannot set up a "political" arm or expression without betraying its integrity. If churchmen over the centuries have sometimes embraced the theocratic model, they have done so without sufficient attention to the demands of the Gospel and the nature of the Church herself.

The deepest truth that Catholics proclaim is that of communio: all things and all people are ordered to God and hence ordered in love to one another.

The community of Jesus Christ does not seek to take over the reins of political power; rather it seeks to create a culture. The debate on the institutional relationship between church and state has become now a conversation on the relationship between faith and culture. Provided the political order respects human dignity, communio can be visible in a culture open to transcendence. The faith creates such a culture by being simply, boldly, and unapologetically itself. At the heart of the Church is the sacred liturgy, what Vatican II called "the source and summit" of the Christian life. The liturgy on earth is an iconic display of the heavenly liturgy of the angels and saints, that community gathered together around the throne of God and united in praise. In the way we gather, the way we pray, the way we behave liturgically, we act out the paradigm of the heavenly communio, seeking to remake ourselves in its image. Then, as a liturgical people, we endeavor to shape the world according to this icon, bringing love where there is hatred, forgiveness where there is resentment, compassion where there is animosity, and peace where there is warfare. By the power of the Eucharist and through a kind of osmosis, we transform the culture, gently but subversively, from within.

In his text on the role of the laity, Christifideles laici, Pope John Paul II articulated several dimensions of this culture-creating work. First, the family must be remade as an expression of communio. Then, starting from that foundation, Eucharistic people must refashion the social, economic, and political realms; next, they should influence the arenas of education, entertainment, literature, and the arts. Finally, they ought to concern themselves with the environment and ecology, caring, in a spirit of communio, for the planet itself. There is nothing coercive or violent about this process; but, at the same time, there is nothing "private" or self-effacing about It either. Its ambition is the total transformation of the world in all its dimensions. In the Lord's Prayer we ask that God's kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as in heaven. We are petitioning, in a word, that God's ordo, God's way of thinking and being, become, in the richest sense, our ordo, that the City of Man might be transformed by the City of God.

This transformation will not be easy. Personal conversion challenges individuals; cultures and entire societies also resist being evangelized. The history of tensions between the community of faith and the political order shifts according to what element of the faith seems the greatest challenge to the civil powers at any particular time. Emperors and feudal lords, during the many years of the controversy over the investiture of bishops, tried to take to themselves the government of the Church. Josephism and the Napoleonic conventions tried to take to the state the control of the worship and ministry of the Church. Modern states founded in revolutions with universalist pretensions, such as the French, the American, and the Russian, have tried to arrogate to themselves the mission of the Church. Co-opting the faith's sense of purpose in order to create a secularist universal culture sets up tensions difficult to dispel. The Church resists being reduced to a department of state, a particular denomination, or a private club.

The deepest truth that Catholics proclaim is that of communio: all things and all people are ordered to God and hence ordered in love to one another. This truth informs everything we say about the political, social, economic, and cultural realms. If we surrender this truth – either through ideological compromise or even out of concern for civility – we succumb to the culture of death. At the beginning of the third millennium, the mission of the community that looks to Jesus as Lord is to create a culture of life and to do this within social structures that are more and more global in outreach. For the second time in two thousand years, the Church finds herself in social, economic, and some political structures that are increasingly universal. In such a situation, the Catholic Church is an agent of transformation that is, paradoxically, completely at home.




His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. "Of God and Man: The Two Cities in the Third Millennium." chapter one from The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009): 3-24.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.


His Eminence Francis Eugene Cardinal George, O.M.I., is the eighth Archbishop of Chicago. As Archbishop of Chicago, he has issued two pastoral letters: on evangelization, "Becoming an Evangelizing People," (November 21, 1997) and on racism, "Dwell in My Love" (April 4, 2001). His book, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, is a collection of essays exploring our relationship with God, the responsibility of communion and the transformation of culture.

Copyright © 2009 Francis Cardinal George, OMI

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