Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

The kingdom of God and religious liberty

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The season of Advent helps us prepare to celebrate the birth of Our Lord by focusing our reflections on the kingdom of God, a world where everything and everyone is ordered in accordance with God’s will for his people’s happiness. This is the kingdom described by the great prophets, the kingdom that God promised to establish by sending the world a Messiah, a savior. When the promised savior grew up, he confounded many of his contemporaries by identifying God’s kingdom not with a place but with a person, himself: Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David. Where Jesus is, there is God and God’s kingdom.

Jesus explained, as he put aside any suggestion of political power, that his kingdom was not of this world, even though his disciples were in this world and would continue so from generation to generation until he returns in glory at the end of time. Living in the world in the hope of Christ’s return means that the church, which is the visible sign of God’s kingdom, lives “in-between” two worlds and experiences always some tension between God’s kingdom and any earthly regime, between God’s ways and man’s ways.

To be herself, the church must be free to govern herself by her own laws and to worship God, to proclaim the Gospel and, in Christ’s name, to care for the poor and the sick and all those in need. Over the centuries, the church has lived in all kinds of worldly kingdoms and has struggled in each of them to be free. Political orders and governmental systems come and go and relate to the church in different ways, but the challenge to religious freedom is present in all of them. A week ago, the pope called the cardinals to Rome for a day of reflection and consultation on five topics, the first of them religious liberty (see related story on Page 2). We heard a detailed report on the work of the Holy See to create legal frameworks for protecting religious freedom in various countries, through concordats, treaties and diplomatic initiatives of different sorts.

The ensuing discussion explored the challenge to the church’s freedom in countries without effective governments, where the problem is lawlessness or anarchy. The challenge to religious freedom is clearer in countries whose governments actively persecute the church. In our own country, the challenge to the church’s freedom is basically cultural; anti-Catholic bigotry is an acceptable prejudice and the church is often regarded with contempt, which sometimes reduces her freedom of action.

For many years, the church could rely upon the law in this country to protect her against enemies; now, however, the law itself is often adversarial, used to destroy rather than protect. The Catholic Church in this country is perhaps less free to govern herself now than at any time since the founding of the American Republic. The advantage of this situation is that it makes it impossible to imagine the United States as the kingdom of God, which has been a recurring temptation in our national history.

People used to speak of “the Gospel truth,” but one of the causes of resentment against the church is precisely because she claims to speak religious truth. Speaking to Italian journalists at the beginning of Advent, Pope Benedict XVI said: “One of the most important cultural challenges in our own post-modern world involves the way we understand truth. The dominant culture, the culture propagated by the marketplace of the media, adopts a skeptical and relativist attitude towards truth, considering it as equivalent to mere opinion and, consequently, believing that many truths can legitimately coexist. But the desire that lies in the heart of man testifies to the impossibility of resting content with partial truths … The truth for which man thirsts is a person: the Lord Jesus. By encountering this Truth … we find peace and true happiness. The church’s mission consists in creating the conditions that make this meeting between man and Christ possible.”

The four weeks of Advent are an invitation to prepare once again to encounter the Lord Jesus, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and born for our salvation. Creating the conditions for meeting him anew means opening up some time in our busy lives to listen to him in prayer. Part of the examination of conscience to prepare us to receive the sacrament of penance during the Advent season might be to ask ourselves to which realm we give our ultimate allegiance, the kingdom of God or an earthly kingdom, the truth or false gods? Jesus insisted that the truth makes us free. Those who give up the search for truth lose their freedom.

This is why the church guards her own freedom: to ensure a place where all can discover the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ and taste the freedom he wants to give us. In the midst of the many concerns of daily life, may the weeks of Advent be free time, a time of reflection, of interior silence and spiritual renewal for each of us and for the whole church.