Cardinal George on Calvin and Hobbes in America

by on April 21, 2015

It seems Cardinal George liked to read cartoons, particularly Calvin and Hobbes. Anyone who has read the Cardinal knows that he looked to them as the prime influencers of American culture – but a cartoon? It could be that the Cardinal liked the cartoon but, in this case, he was referring to the 16th century Protestant reformer, John Calvin, and the early modern political theorist, Thomas Hobbes, whom, interestingly enough, were the same figures the Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist, Bill Watterson II, based his characters on.  But despite this, the Cardinal advised anyone interested in evangelizing American culture, especially priests and seminarians, to know these figures and their thought. They are the two giants of the modern era.

In his excellent essay “Sowing the Gospel on American Soil” in The Difference God Makes, Cardinal George gives us a context for thinking about Calvin and Hobbes. This might be a controversial attribution, especially in regards to Duns Scotus, but in that article the Cardinal attributes those figures’ thought to the metaphysical framework influenced by Duns Scotus’ univocal conception of being and Nominalism. In such a framework, the hierarchical cosmos and the metaphysics of participation in Aquinas and Dionysius are denied, laying the ground for the anti-hierarchical and individualized universe of modernity. Given this context, it was hard to make sense of some teachings of the Church, particularly teachings presupposing ­– what the Cardinal calls ­– “communio metaphysics.” Within this framework, Calvin gave expression to the individual’s experience of God and Hobbes saw society as the result of a social contract made by antagonistic individuals, purposing government with the role of protecting “each individual from the potential threat by every other individual.”  The theology of Calvin and the metaphysical violence of Hobbes makes for the potent mixture we call American culture, influencing our conception of politics, economics, education, etc.  Obviously, American culture, like any culture, is ambiguous. Good and bad elements are found throughout. But the ambiguity remains, and evangelists must be consciously aware of this.

In November 1997 during the Synod of Bishops for the Americas, the Cardinal said that Americans “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith,” and American society “is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture and private experience of God.”[1] In response to this the Cardinal did not call for “countercultural” movements since we are inescapably American. Being countercultural is an illusion. Rather, he called everyone to look for seeds of the Word latent in the culture and American history. The Cardinal says we must look at the culture with “Gospel eyes.”

A good book that does so is Eugene Genovese’s The Southern Tradition. While rebuking many elements of the Southern Tradition, Genovese makes the case that the Southern Agrarians and Catholics share many things in common. That tradition places great value in the “givens” of life and the dignity of human life, especially valuing slowness in an age that hectically wants to change the world overnight. While still mainly Calvinist, there are many elements that American Catholics can uphold in the Southern Agrarians. When Cardinal George told us to look for seeds of the Word already in American culture, he probably would approve of such a tradition so long as it is a tradition and not an ideology.

Cardinal George was not an ideological man. He was open to the conversation wherever it led him, confident in reason and its “natural ability to seek a transcendent God.” Following the example of the Cardinal, American Catholics must reinvigorate confidence in reason, a confidence that was sorely lacking in Calvin and Hobbes. Only then will we ironically fulfill the project of the Enlightenment in a non-ideological and non-modernistic fashion. I think Cardinal George is praying for all, particularly at Mundelein Seminary, to think in this direction.  For it is in such a hope that the Catholic Church will be “an agent of transformation that is, paradoxically, completely at home.”[2]


[1] Allen, John L. All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks, 316.
[2] George, Francis Cardinal. The Difference God Makes, 24.