He’s regarded as being one of the most insightful thinkers in the Church and one of the two or three of the most-listened-to voices for the Church in the public square of American life. His latest book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, is perhaps deliberately unsettling. Here, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philapdelphia explains his thoughts to Marilyn Rodrigues on the choices Christians might make if they want their children to be vibrant sons and daughters of the Church – great envoys of the love of God – instead of fading into the practical atheism and moral relativism that have come to dominate so much of global culture …
While your latest book is largely written for American Catholics, in Australia we share many of your challenges. In what ways do you understand us to be living in a ‘post-Christian world’?
There’s actually no such thing as ‘post Christian’ as long as people anywhere believe in Jesus Christ and try to live accordingly. Jesus is the lord and meaning of history. And since He is, there can be no history ‘after’ Him. The Church has often found herself dying or extinguished in some places and thriving in others. It’s no different today. But we can do our best to ignore or diminish Jesus. In that sense, much of the developed world, or at least its leadership class, makes itself ‘post Christian’ by trying very hard to forget God.
You paint a comprehensive picture of the historical philosophical, political, and social anti-Christian forces underpinning contemporary life. Much of your book is concerned with how we got to this point. Why is it not enough to simply get on with things – why is it so important to understand the past?
The ability to remember and learn from the past sets humans uniquely apart. So a man with amnesia literally becomes a ‘nobody’. He loses his identity. He’s a blank slate for others to write on. That’s because his life story is shaped by the past, by his beliefs and experiences over time, and once forgotten, others can insert a new story in its place. The same applies to nations and communities. That’s why totalitarian systems – and democracies, too, [which] can be totalitarian – always end up trying to erase or revise the past.
You explain that Christian hope is the overcoming of despair, differentiating it from optimism which assumes things will always improve. In many ways we are witnessing a crisis of despair, maybe best manifested in Australia in unprecedented suicide rates. Would you say that the world we face today is crystallising into precisely a most Christian moment of hope? Where do you most see manifestations of hope today?
The Christian faith is growing rapidly in much of the world. But we rarely hear about it because it doesn’t fit the standard secular narrative. So we over-focus on our own problems. That’s natural. But it’s also dangerous, because when we lose a sense of the larger picture, we can lose confidence in our own beliefs. The reality is this: Even in countries like the United States and Australia, God is raising up plenty of strong young clergy, religious and laypeople, and movements and communities committed to renewal. They’re the future. They need to be encouraged. That’s where we need to focus. God will take care of the rest. There’s no reason to be bitter or afraid. What believers are now experiencing in the developed world is equivalent to a cold shower. It’s not fun, it’s not pleasant, but it does wake us up. It forces each of us into a choice. The indifferent may leave, and that’s a sadness. But those who stay with the Church will be more alert and intentional. That’s a good thing. Honesty and clarity are always good things. Confusion and ambiguity are never ‘of God’.
In Australia, among other things we are seeing companies exerting pressure on the Federal Government to enact same-sex marriage laws. New South Wales has been facing a push for extreme abortion laws, and in Tasmania and other states it has been euthanasia. Where do you see examples of Christians engaging well in political life? What are they doing successfully?
I can’t speak to Australia’s situation, obviously. But in the United States, companies like Apple and Salesforce.com have been very aggressive in pushing same-sex and similar issues, often in the face of strong popular resistance. They have no interest in the will of the people unless their economic and public relations cost is too high. So Christians need to get involved in the kind of political organising and economic boycotts that inflict an appropriate penalty. That has to start at the local and regional level. Lots of people are already doing it. Even when good people lose a battle in the public square, they achieve something good. They witness to the truth, they clarify what’s at stake in an issue, and they extract a cost from those who would do evil. None of this should lead us to believe that politics is the most important part of a Christian life. It’s not, by a long shot. None of this absolves us from the Christian duty to act with good sense about strategy and tactics, or with the respect, justice, charity and prudence we owe to others – including those with whom we disagree. But avoiding a fight on matters of real importance is never excusable. None of this should lead us to believe that politics is the most important part of a Christian life. It’s not, by a long shot….But avoiding a fight on matters of real importance is never excusable.
Increasingly, Christian values around marriage and family, reverence for life from conception until natural death, and are being understood to be archaic and naïve at best, and inhibitory of human freedom and equality at worst. A Catholic mentality means different things by freedom and equality. What is happening here at the level of language of meaning? Is it more important than ever now for Christians to say what we mean and mean what we say?
Those who control the language of a debate largely control the outcome. Words shape thought. An expression like ‘marriage equality’ is deeply misleading and arguably dishonest. But it’s also very effective. It bypasses serious thought and goes straight to the emotions that surround the word ‘equality’. So it’s vital for Catholics to know and understand what their faith teaches, to speak the truth, and to challenge the words of a public debate when they mask lies and ambiguities.
You express some sympathy for, but don’t advocate for, the ‘Benedict Option’ – the idea that people wanting to preserve Christian culture might need to withdraw into alternative communities. You would rather see Catholics as ‘healthy cells’ within society. Why is this the better option, and why do you think the idea of the Benedict option is so appealing to many people?
Rod Dreher – the author of the recent book The Benedict Option – is a man I know and admire and I’m quite sure he doesn’t mean the ‘Benedict Option’ as a call to withdraw to a religious bomb shelter. He does mean, and I think he’s right, that we Christians need to find better ways to build intentional communities of faith and separate ourselves mentally from the bad things in our culture. But this isn’t a new message. And Benedict probably isn’t the best model for our age. Augustine is. Augustine never ran or hid from adversity. He was a bishop for and with his people, people who had to continue their everyday lives even as the Roman world around them fell apart. Augustine knew that the City of God and the City of Man overlap and interpenetrate. He wanted Christians to realise that their real home, their real loyalty, is heaven, but we get there by passing through the City of Man. So we need to seed this world with as much good as we can while we’re here. Like anything else, the ‘Benedict Option’ is unhelpful when it’s over-marketed and poorly understood. People are always attracted to escape hatches in trying times. But there aren’t any escape hatches. The world follows us. The world is in us, so we need to deal with it. Jesus accepted the cross, and if we claim to be His disciples, why would we try to avoid it? And even if we could hide from the world, we shouldn’t, because we have the mandate to heal and convert it. My advice to parents: Turn off the electronics. Unplug the devices. Read to them. Pray with them. Play with them. Teach them the value of silence. Develop their critical skills [in examining the daily life around them]. These things sound simple but are actually quite radical.
What can young parents do, who are worried about their children being exposed to toxic elements of culture at younger ages, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to shield them at younger ages?
(The steps I described just now) sound simple, and in a sense they are. But try to do them for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see that they’re actually quite radical. Most of all, love each other and show it, because the love, tenderness and fidelity between parents has a profoundly formative effect on children. They’re watching their parents every waking minute of every day.
You write that the fundamental crisis of our time, and the special crisis of today’s Christians, is a crisis of faith. Could you offer some thoughts about the continuing disunity among Christians, and within the Catholic community (as manifested by the disagreements over Pope Francis’ ministry and Amoris Laetitia) – on how this relates to the crisis of faith?
Any current disunity we have in the Catholic Church – and we can easily overstate it – comes down to how much we want to accommodate the world; how much we’re willing to bend; how much we want to ‘gloss’ the hard edges of the Gospel message and Church teaching. I was a Capuchin Franciscan before I was a bishop, so Francis of Assisi has always had a big influence on my thinking. Francis had no use at all for glosses, so I think we need to be more radically faithful to the uncomfortable parts of our faith and teaching, not less. Numbers aren’t essential for the Church. Fidelity is. Charity is. A commitment to truth is. And that’s because the Church doesn’t finally belong to us, but to Jesus Christ. It’s his Church, not ours. …we need to be more radically faithful to the uncomfortable parts of our faith and teaching, not less. Numbers aren’t essential for the Church. Fidelity is. Charity is. A commitment to truth is. As for our relations with other Christians: The disdain often shown toward religion today has the ironic effect of drawing many believing Christians together across lines that once divided them. I have more friends who are pastors, scholars and persons I deeply admire in other, non-Catholic Christian communities than I ever thought possible 45 years ago as a young priest. Denominational labels are often less important than whether a person really believes in Jesus Christ, the Word of God and the core of the Christian faith. Our differences are important. They can’t be minimised. But the common faith we share in Jesus Christ is equally important.
You recommend an effort to live the beatitudes, in their radicalness, for ‘people who live in the world of mortgages, tough jobs, and complaining children…all Christians in their daily lives. They’re meant for plumbers and doctors, teachers and salesmen, mothers and fathers’. Can you give an example where you have seen someone who has really tried to live this way? What impact has that made on you?
Dorothy Day had a huge impact on my life. And there are many other invisible people like her in the Catholic Worker movement, the Neocatechumenal Way, the (Protestant) Bruderhof communities, Communion and Liberation, and a dozen other renewal movements and communities. And there are thousands of similar examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in local parishes. No one lives the Beatitudes perfectly. We all fail. It’s in our deliberate, persistent efforts in trying to live them that God remakes us, and through us, provides a witness of holiness to others – which is the only way a culture really changes for the better.