NOTRE DAME, Ind. — In his 50 years of voting in U.S. elections, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Sept. 15 he has never seen the two major parties offer “two such deeply flawed” presidential nominees “at the same time.”
Without naming the nominees — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — the archbishop said he presumes they “intend well and have a reasonable level of personal decency behind their public images, but I also believe that each candidate is very bad news for our country, though in different ways.”
“One candidate, in the view of a lot of people, is a belligerent demagogue with an impulse control problem,” he said in a speech at the University of Notre Dame. “And the other, also in the view of a lot of people, is a criminal liar, uniquely rich in stale ideas and bad priorities.”
Chaput delivered the 2016 Tocqueville lecture on religious liberty, sponsored by the school’s Tocqueville Program for Inquiry Into Religion and Public Life. His wide-ranging talk also addressed the moral threats facing society, the necessity of strong families, and the controversy surrounding Notre Dame and its awarding of the Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden.
Though faced with flawed presidential candidates, he said, Catholics and other Christians do not have “the luxury of cynicism,” because if they “leave the public square, other people with much worse intentions won’t.”
Many “honest public officials” are currently serving our country well, and both parties have “good candidates for other public offices,” he added, offering other reasons not to be cynical.
Christians “have a duty to leave the world better than we found it,” the archbishop said. “One of the ways we do that, however imperfectly, is through politics.”
“Elections do matter,” he said, emphasizing that the next president will likely appoint several Supreme Court justices. One seat is vacant, with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the oldest of the current justices are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, and Anthony Kennedy, 80.
The next president will “make vital foreign policy decisions, and shape the huge federal administrative machinery in ways over which Congress has little control,” Chaput said.
Instead of whining or wringing our hands over the current state of politics and the feeling citizens have no say in “the big mechanical Golem we call Washington,” Chaput said, the situation demands “we be different people” and change the country by changing ourselves.
The nation’s future depends on strengthening traditional family life and church life, the archbishop said, and rejecting secular society’s mores of casual sex, adultery and divorce, abortion, selfishness, instant gratification and sexual confusion.
The future, he said, “belongs to people who believe in something beyond themselves, and who live and sacrifice accordingly. It belongs to people who think and hope inter-generationally.”
In his 46 years as a priest and hearing countless confessions, he has observed a “huge spike in people — both men and women — confessing promiscuity, infidelity, sexual violence and sexual confusion as an ordinary part of life, and the massive role of pornography in wrecking marriages, families and even the vocations of clergy and religious.”
Along with that, he said, has been the “media nonsense about the innocence of casual sex and the ‘happy’ children of friendly divorces.” The result “is a dysfunctional culture of frustrated and wounded people increasingly incapable of permanent commitments, self-sacrifice and sustained intimacy, and unwilling to face the reality of their own problems.”
He said that “weak and selfish individuals make weak and selfish marriages” that in turn make “broken families,” which “continue and spread the cycle of dysfunction” by “creating more and more wounded individuals.”
“The family is where children discover how to be human … how to respect and love other people,” he said, adding that “social costs rise” when “healthy marriages and families decline.”
While single parents deserve praise for the “heroic job” they do, he said, “only a mother and father can provide the intimacy of maternal and paternal love.”
“Only a mother and father can offer the unique kind of human love rooted in flesh and blood; the kind that comes from mutual submission and self-giving; the kind that comes from the complementarity of sexual difference,” he said.
Parents aren’t perfect, he said, and too often modern American life “encourages them to fail.” He also acknowledged many pressures on families come from outside the home, like unemployment, low pay, crime, poor housing, chronic illness and bad schools.
Strong families and churches “stand between the individual and the state,” Chaput said. “They protect the autonomy of the individual by hemming in the power of government, resisting its tendency to claim the entirety of life. But they also pull us out of ourselves and teach us to engage generously with others.”
In the U.S. “marriage, family and traditional religion all seem to be failing and … support for democracy itself has dropped,” he said. None of that has happened overnight, he said. The current situation, he said, has been fueled “by a collection of lies” over the issue of abortion.
“No issue has made us more dishonest and less free as believers and as a nation than abortion,” he explained. “People uncomfortable with the abortion issue argue, quite properly, that Catholic teaching is bigger than just one issue. Other urgent issues also need our attention. Being pro-birth is not the same as being pro-life. And being truly ‘pro-life’ doesn’t end with defending the unborn child.”
He said, “In every abortion, an innocent life always dies. This is why no equivalence can ever exist between the intentional killing involved in abortion, infanticide and euthanasia on the one hand, and issues like homelessness, the death penalty and anti-poverty policy on the other.”
Chaput noted the criticism Notre Dame received for awarding its Laetare Medal to Biden, a Catholic who supports keeping abortion legal. Former House Speaker John Boehner, a pro-life Catholic, also was a recipient. The men were honored for their public service, the university said at the time.
“For the nation’s leading Catholic university to honor a Catholic public official (Biden) who supports abortion rights and then goes on to conduct a same-sex civil marriage ceremony just weeks later, is — to put it kindly — a contradiction of Notre Dame’s identity. It’s a baffling error of judgment,” the archbishop said.
Notre Dame “really is still deeply Catholic,” he added, which is what the Catholic Church needs and what is necessary to create people who can change the country.
The church needs “a university that radiates the glory of God in an age that no longer knows what it means to be human,” he said. “What the people of God need now is a university that fuses the joy of Francis with the brilliance of Benedict and the courage, fidelity and humanity of the great John Paul.”