COLORADO SPRINGS. Recently, several prominent Catholic commentators have written books warning people that the cultural assumptions that once guided our lives in America are losing their validity, while at the same time offering advice for living in a world of less religious identity and greater moral confusion. These books include Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” and Anthony Esolen’s “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.”
With his latest book, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” (Henry Holt & Co., 2017), Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia adds his voice to the discussion. Archbishop Chaput is familiar to the faithful in Colorado due to his 14 years spent leading the Archdiocese of Denver, where he served as archbishop from 1997-2011. The second Native American to be consecrated a bishop in the United States, Chaput’s name means “good eagle” and it is clear that he is a keen observer of cultural trends. In his book, the title of which is taken from The Book of Exodus, he prepares readers to better understand and adapt to a world that has undergone a fundamental transformation, and not for the better. How do we live and love, work and create, educate our children, build our churches, and reflect Christ in a world that often sees the Christian (particularly the Catholic) Church, her teachings, and her institutions as an enemy?
While ultimately hopeful, this book is a sobering look at how far our American culture has fallen from its earlier goodness. Although he recognizes that the founders and framers of the United States were not saints, Archbishop Chaput nonetheless describes the foundations of America as resting solidly on Christian faith and Enlightenment sensibilities. He examines original American society through the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French observer of early American life, who offered a clear rationale for the success—in contrast to his own French Revolution—of America.
Quoting Tocqueveille, he writes, “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.” (page 5, citing Pierre Manent’s Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy).
Archbishop Chaput sees the swift slide from godliness to self-centeredness in America as being similar to the world of the Hebrew judges, who lived in “another generation who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). At its founding, America had a “shared moral and political creed” that transcended ethnicity and eventually even Protestant and Catholic religious differences—one founded on biblically-influenced roots. Not ignoring the contribution of Enlightenment philosophy, or romantically asserting that America was always a completely orthodox Christian nation, Archbishop Chaput sees the unique balance of reason and faith as one of the keys to the genius of America’s founding principles.
He rightly understands that the framers built “on the Enlightenment’s trust in mankind’s ability to create rational institutions that could hold tyranny in check, while upholding in balance an altogether biblical sense of justice in rejecting oppression” (p.25). America would be the delicate and often unnoticed blending of reason and faith—famously described by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence as “nature” and “nature’s God.”
Indeed, later in the country’s history, Abraham Lincoln would not only appeal to reason, but to the spiritual “better angels of our nature” in rejecting slavery and holding a divided North and South together in the Civil War by virtue of “the mystic cords of memory.” President Lincoln did not have to invent a new concept, but simply to recall an older one—the foundation of America’s greatness that was her goodness, reason and revelation in perfect balance.
Archbishop Chaput moves us through the growing degradation of the American culture but does not descend into hopeless or bitter recrimination; he is not an angry talk-show host, but a calm grandfather whose wisdom draws from both saints and political philosophers alike. He pulls no punches, however, in his survey of the weaknesses of the American Catholic Church, observing that “roughly half of all American Catholic teens now lose their Catholic identity before they turn 30. The reasons are varied. Today’s mass media, both in entertainment and in news, offer a steady diet of congenial, practical atheism, highlighting religious hypocrisy and cultivating consumer appetite . . . fostering an uncritical moral relativism.” (p. 51)
Drawing from the Church’s best theologians and thinkers, Archbishop Chaput recapitulates Augustine’s “City of Man” in all its irreverence and amoral absurdity. He points us beyond a pious pessimism and into the vision of the “City of God,” casting a vision that is foundationally hopeful. It is filled with people who know how to discuss ideas, debate without recrimination and anger, explain carefully and entice with the beauty of the Gospel message. They don’t so much argue as they allure, witnessing to the beauty of the earth and to the reality of the Creator whose fingerprints are upon that world. Archbishop Chaput relates words a believing father gave to his daughter, still recalled by the woman at age 60. On a starry summer night, the father said to her, “God made the world beautiful because he loves us.” Such is the seasoning that our words must have to live in a world that has forgotten God and to gently give witness from heart as well as head.
Archbishop Chaput has given us a worthwhile book, filled with insight and admonition. His words echo Christ, who himself said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16-17).” The world will oppose the Christian message and the Christian person—there will be wolves who will destroy and consume. We must keep our purity and faithfulness just as a lamb trusts the shepherd instinctively. But we must also be both serpent and dove to this faithless world. The dove flies straight and true, returning home even across wide distances because of an inbred sense of direction. So must our hearts also keep their heavenward focus.
But to slither like a snake, can that be a calling as well? Christ knew that obstacles and difficulties would rise against us, and sometimes our help comes from a careful analysis of the situation and a difficult decision not to argue with wickedness. Yes, we can slither away to live another day, where there is a better opportunity to share the goodness and beauty of the Gospel. Purity and common sense can inform our life and actions, as Archbishop Chaput would warn us in our exile here on earth.
For more information, to reply, or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholic Christians, please write Deacon Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.