“I’m a pastor, not a scholar,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since 2011, said when I interviewed him earlier last year for Catholic World Report about his new book. “A bishop’s job is helping people get to heaven, not to Washington.”
In fact, since the death of Francis Cardinal George of Chicago in 2015, Chaput has taken the lead as the most erudite, well-read, and deeply thoughtful of American bishops, capable of both trenchant observations and detailed, nuanced analysis of matters theological, philosophical, cultural, and political. He has a gift for getting at the heart of things with just the right degree of detachment combined with a wry sting. In Chaucer’s words, “Short, to the point, and lofty in his theme.” For instance, this remark in response to my question about how Christians in America should be “strangers”:
The not-so-good news is that times have changed. The past 60 years have transformed almost every aspect of American life. Christians are waking up to the fact that the country they thought they knew isn’t the country they actually live in. That’s especially ironic for Catholics. We’ve spent the last century trying to fit in to the American mainstream. Now that we’ve finally made it, the place is under new and even less friendly management.
This book follows two previous volumes, one focused on fundamental Catholic beliefs and the other on how faithful Catholics can best be involved in politics and present in the public square. “Looking back,” Chaput writes, “I think much in both books remains useful. But if that’s so, why do a new book? The reason is time. Time passes. Times change. Watersheds happen.”
A profound watershed, Chaput asserts, was Obergefell v. Hodges (June 2015): not just because it licensed “same-sex marriages” and did away with the traditional understanding of marriage, but because the Court “changed the meaning of family by wiping away the need for the natural relationships—husband and wife, mother and father—at the heart of these institutions.” Marriage and family are now what “the state says they mean. And that suggests deeper problems, because in redefining marriage and the family, the state implicitly claims the authority to define what is and isn’t properly human.”
Obergefell contains the premise that sexuality and sexual relationships are “purely matters of personal choice and social contract.” That decision, celebrated by the elites and the dominant culture, confirms that America really has changed, radically and seismically. Chaput’s summary of the situation is as simple as it is on the mark:
The special voice that biblical belief once had in our public square is now absent. People who hold a classic understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family have gone in just twenty years from pillars of mainstream conviction to the media equivalent of racists and bigots.
True to its subtitle, this book is a guide—pastoral, but also scholarly—for Christians wanting not just to survive but somehow to thrive in the post-Christian world. There are several good reasons to read it; I’ll focus here on three.
First, Chaput brings an abundance of riches to his discussion of his subject and writes with a pleasing deftness. It’s not surprising that he should draw deeply on Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Pieper, conciliar documents, and the writings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. But he is clearly a student of political philosophy as well, referring often, and sometimes with sustained treatment, to Tocqueville, Alasdair MacIntyre, Roger Scruton, George Steiner, and several others. Tocqueville and MacIntyre are especially prominent in this book. “Tocqueville,” Chaput observes,
saw that the strength of American society, the force that kept the tyrannical logic of democracy in creative check, was the prevalence and intensity of religious belief. Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse. Religion moderates democracy because it appeals to an authority higher than democracy itself. But religion only works its influence on democracy if people really believe what it teaches. Nobody believes in God just because it’s socially useful. To put it in Catholic terms, Christianity is worthless as a leaven in society unless people actually believe in Jesus Christ, follow the Gospel, love the Church, and act like real disciples. If they don’t, then religion is just another form of self-medication. And unfortunately, that’s how many of us live out our Baptism.
Reflecting on the failed Enlightenment-driven attempt to maintain Christian morality while eradicating Christian belief from Western society, Chaput offers a summary that helps make some sense of the current unrest in the United States:
For MacIntyre, this incoherence explains three chronic patterns in our public life: the appeal to rights, the eagerness to protest, and the appetite for unmasking. Aggrieved parties demand their rights, which are allegedly self-evident (despite the absence of any agreed-upon grounding for rights). They protest the attack on those rights by oppressive structures and rival parties. And they seek to unmask the wicked designs of their opponents. All of which feeds a spirit of indignation and victimhood across the culture.
Second, Chaput masterly holds in tension two fundamental facts: that objective truth and the nature of reality—especially the nature of man—are immutable, and that the current age is experiencing an epochal revolution driven by both ideology and technology. In the chapter “Nothing But the Truth,” he states that “belief in objective truth, and the framework of moral right and wrong that naturally grows from it, is the ‘bone structure’ of a society.” It is this belief that “supports every other virtue and roadmap to meaning that can help people build a decent common life.” This belief, and the objective nature of truth, have been under assault in many ways for decades, and Chaput highlights the role that certain technologies have played in this bitter struggle, including contraceptives, the digital revolution, and changes in the economic “machine.”
“We use our tools,” he posits, “but our tools also use us.” But how aware of this fact are most people? “Americans are technology addicts,” says Chaput, not as a Luddite scold but as a shepherd who recognizes that “modern technology . . . tends to cause deep changes in our relationship with nature. Creation is no longer a sacrament. . . . The essence of technology’s spirit is becoming, not arriving; restlessness as a destiny.”
Finally, Chaput understands what far too few Americans comprehend: Truth and goodness are under relentless assault, and the abuse of power rooted in abuse of language is key to this sustained attack:
In practice, earnest-sounding junk thought from opportunists can infect every element of society, not just science. And junk thought—from rewriting history, to inventing new narratives of oppression, to sex and gender studies that claim to prove the implausible—is the human intellect weaponized to serve political goals. Especially the goal of silencing different views. . . .
So this is [a] key feature of our common national life today: malice wrapped in the language of tolerance, sensitivity, and rights. It consists in an appetite to use power not simply to prevail in political debate, but to humiliate and erase dissent, and even its memory, in reworking the cell structure of society.
Examples range from the strange to the bitter. They include efforts to scrub Confederate public monuments from the South, and “progressive” academic attacks on American Founder Alexander Hamilton (of Hamilton Broadway musical fame).
Science and technology give us power. Philosophers like Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Nietzsche give us the language to deny God. The result, in the words of Henri de Lubac, is not atheism, but an anti-theism built on resentment.
But the Christian is called to something entirely different: to build on a perspective flowing from and into eternity, ever mindful of the transitory nature of this world. “I wrote Strangers,” the Archbishop told me, “to help people see that there’s too much beauty, too much friendship, too many examples of generous lives and unselfish love all around us to ever become discouraged. But we’ll only find those things when we rest in God.”
[Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.) 288 pp., $26.00]