In preparation for his review of “Strangers in a Strange Land,” Deacon Rick Bauer conducted an e-mail interview with Archbishop Chaput. Following is the text of the interview:
Archbishop Chaput, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” is a powerful book, filled with a careful mix of your own insights, the views of your Christian contemporaries, and the historical perspective of the Church and the nation. Why did you write it, and what do you mean when you say that today’s America “feels to many Christians as different in kind, not just in degree, from the America of our memory”?
I began writing about these issues back in the summer of 2010, with an article published on the website of First Things titled “Catholics and the Next America.” I then gave a talk to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars titled “Life in the Late Republic.” The book builds on those ideas and applies them to our current moment. In that sense, nothing in its content is fundamentally new.
What is new is the pace and the nature of change in our country. It’s a very deep kind of change brought on by a generational shift in the nation’s leadership and culture, new technologies, a new demography, declining patterns of religious belief and practice, recent Supreme Court decisions, and other factors. These things have rewired our aspirations, appetites and assumptions about the meaning of a “good life” in a very basic way. We look like the same nation on the surface, but in many important ways, we’re not.
The late Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer said, “If I had only an hour on a train to talk about the Gospel to someone, I would spend the first 50 minutes talking about the bad news, and then the good news in only 10.” His point is that we need to understand the lost state that we are in before the good news of the Gospel starts to make sense. Your book feels that way—you are careful to clearly describe the state of our world, and particularly our American culture.
I’d adjust the bad news to good news ratio, but yes, Schaeffer saw something very true. It’s foolish to talk about solving problems without first fully understanding what they are, where they came from, and why they developed. There’s nothing “negative” about diagnosing an illness unless you stop there and give up on finding a cure.
The cross is the greatest expression of God’s love and human hope. But we can only grasp that if we first accept that we need to be delivered from something bad. Otherwise it’s just an empty symbol. “Strangers in a Strange Land” is about finding Christian joy and hope, but as Augustine suggested, we can only get to the City of God by way of the City of Man with all of its burdens and challenges. And it’s hard to get anywhere worthwhile without first knowing the terrain, the route and its obstacles.
You talk about how difficult it is to find any dialogue between an increasingly divided and polarized electorate; that most policy debates are “endless and irresolvable because our culture no longer has a rational, mutually-accepted way of getting to moral agreement.” What got lost in the common ground of our civic discourse, and do you see a common morality ever returning?
The common ground of American public life has always been shaped by a broadly shared biblical faith, or at least the moral principles that come from that faith. As biblical belief drops off among our people, our politics becomes less human and much uglier. It becomes more like a secular religion -- more Darwinian and more extreme, and without the God or higher moral authority to soften our hatreds and hold our worst impulses in check.
There’s no going back to our older biblical framework of thought without a generation or two of personal conversions. We can’t quick-fi x our way out of problems we behaved ourselves into.
Your book mentions a Wall Street Journal article (p.89) that describes a new sexual intolerance. That writer states “even as America becomes more tolerant of gays, many activists and liberals have become ever more intolerant of anyone who might hold more traditional cultural or religious views.” You explain this phenomenon by providing insights on the relationship of sex and human identity.
Sexual behavior has never been neutral ground. It’s simply too powerful in shaping individuals and societies. In every culture throughout history it’s been intimately connected with moral beliefs about right and wrong, and surrounded with rules and restrictions. Some kind of “orthodoxy” about sexual behavior always dominates a culture, and that orthodoxy will always resist a serious competitor. So if Christianity is “wrong” about certain kinds of sexual relationships and behaviors, then it has to be changed at the cellular level, or driven out.
Your Excellency, you are realistic about our nation’s situation, but you are not overwhelmed, angry, whiny, or dismayed. This book is not a rant, but a road map, and you urge us not to fall into despair and presumption—which you say are rooted in human pride. Why should Christians not lose hope and fall into despair?
Christians have been in much worse circumstances than we face in our nation today. Even now, as we have this exchange, Christians are being persecuted and harassed in many other countries. American Christians still enjoy a wide range of freedom, protections under the law, and an ample voice in public affairs. Ignoring that would be dishonest and ungrateful.
Saying that doesn’t change any of the concerns I raise in “Strangers.” But as Augustine says, we are the times; we make the future. We’re God’s partners in creating and sustaining hope, which means we need to witness our Catholic faith with courage—in our private lives and in our public actions.
Your book includes a who’s who of the faithful from not only our present age —Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, Alasdair MacIntyre —but also from the rich treasury of history. Your spiritual insight draws from Christ, to the Church Fathers, to saints of all ages and includes helpful insights from Protestant theologians. Is this your pastoral way of telling us to turn off the television and our computers and read more?
We can’t “un-invent” technology or “un-know” what we’ve learned from science. Nor should we want to, because both have done an immense amount of good. But the more we cocoon ourselves in noise and distractions, the less we’re connected to flesh and blood reality. The more we use our tools, the more our tools shape and use us. Reading is more than just useful as a means to learn. It’s an act of reverence for the human spirit. Silence grows the soul. So unplugging a little every day is a good way to keep sane and stay human.
When you speak of demographics, you are concerned. Despite the great numbers of immigrants from Central and South America, you are concerned that many are not actively engaged in Catholic parishes in the U.S. How can Catholics in America, and particularly Catholics in Colorado, better reach and disciple the growing Latino population in our cities and states?
We need to adapt. As a Church we need to direct far more of our time, personnel and material resources to reaching our Latino communities. There’s no other way for our Church to have a viable future in the United States.
Archbishop Chaput, you speak of the real world of evangelizing not being restricted to pulpits, classes, or formal teaching, though you recognize their place. You share a friend’s story from long ago—of a woman in her sixties still being able to remember her father telling her as a child that, “God made the world beautiful because he loves us.” Please share some more about the power of the ordinary Christian to influence the world.
Nations and empires pass. The individual human soul is forever. Rome changed fundamentally over time through the power of one conversion and one family at a time. The greatest influence anyone can exert in this life is bringing another person to Jesus Christ. Every such act of witness has a ripple effect of dozens of other lives. That’s the only real “power” any of us have.
Finally, Archbishop Chaput, for the faithful in Denver who cherish your years there, as well as those whom you serve now in Philadelphia, we have one more question —Broncos or Eagles?
When it comes to football, I’ve always been a “both/and” not an “either/or” kind of guy—unless both the Eagles and the Broncos end up in the Super Bowl. In which case, the seal of Confession applies.