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Jewish World Review May 14, 2001 / 21 Iyar, 5761

George Will

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A Man of Papal Quality -- 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 Paul II.

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's 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 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.

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