Q&A with Philly's Chaput on secularism and its discontents

Q&A with Philly’s Chaput on secularism and its discontents

Q&A with Philly’s Chaput on secularism and its discontents

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput addresses the crowd during the visit of Pope Francis to Independence Hall in Philadelphia Sept. 26, 2015. (Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring.)

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia is one of America's most visible and outspoken Catholic prelates, and in his new book 'Strangers in a Strange Land,' he reflects on what it means to live an authentically Catholic life in an increasingly secular and even 'post-Christian' culture in the United States.

For the past two decades, Archbishop Charles Chaput has been one of the most visible and outspoken members of the American Church hierarchy. In 1988, Pope John Paul II appointed him as Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and in February 1997, he was named Archbishop of Denver, Colorado.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as the ninth Archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011. Four years later, he served as host to Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families in September 2015.  In recent years, Chaput has become the Church’s most prominent defender of marriage and religious liberty.

In his new book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, he offers a hard-hitting critique of America today. According to Chaput, the rise of secularism has not only led to a decline in the practice of Christian faith in the United States—but an open hostility to those that maintain traditional Christian beliefs and values.

I recently sat down with Chaput while he was in New York for the launch of his book to discuss patriotism, the “Benedict Option,” the Trump administration, and the future of Catholicism in this country and beyond.

You begin your book with some reflections on patriotism and write that “patriotism, rightly understood, is part of a genuinely Christian life.” Do you have any concerns that in America today—where we often hear statements like “America first”— that patriotism has become idolatrous?

Patriotism when I was a young boy was taught as a corollary of the Fourth Commandment—of loving our parents and honoring thy mother and father. So, filial piety—the love of a child for parents—and patriotism were taught together as one virtue as an extension.

The community in which I live and in which I was born is in some ways an extension of my family and extended family. I think it’s an extraordinarily important concept. If there’s any danger today in the United States, I think it’s that we’re not patriotic enough.

Having said that, patriotism does not mean “my country first.” That’s never the case because God is always first, right? If we make our country first, we’re giving our country a place that belongs only to God, so it would be horrible.

When I was in college we had the Vietnam War. And many people who were in favor of the war would say “my country, right or wrong,” which was, in some ways, an even worse kind of statement because it was a willingness to do wrong things for country—using evil means to accomplish good ends, which is never a good thing.

If we had a war today, how many young people of your age would actually sign up for the military? I don’t want to be pessimistic about the younger generation, but do they love the country and what it stands for enough to risk their lives? It was a common thing when I was young that people would do that—maybe mindlessly, quite honestly—but today, I think there would be a lot of hesitation to risk your life for your country and to lay down your lives for your brothers and sisters is seen as a basic principle of Christian life.

I think we need to talk about patriotism and what it actually means, and not presume that loving the country is a Republican thing or a conservative thing or a bad thing. It’s actually a Christian thing as long as it’s actually understood appropriately and we should criticize ourselves when we’re wrong.

There’s a reoccurring theme throughout your book on the effects of technology on both democracy and the faith, which I know has been an interest of yours for a very long time. Are we “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman once warned?

I worry sometimes that we are and when I think of my past, and I lived in a time when television was uncommon. Whenever people were sad or disappointed they would turn to God or go to church. Now, when people get sad or disappointed, they tend to watch television, or play video games, or go to the mall. I think technology and consumerism have replaced God.

I think we feel that the true object in our hearts is God but we’ve substituted him with all these other things and we’ve found many ways to amuse ourselves to the point of death without being serious about life.

I hear confessions every week at our cathedral before the Sunday evening mass for an hour and I see that people really do get captured by much of this. Most of people’s confessions today are around issues of technology, such as pornography, for example, issues of consumerism, and marriages falling apart over money—those sorts of things.

Or, people substitute false images of love as portrayed by the media, whether television, movies, or art, so there is a danger of amusing ourselves to death without taking life seriously.

In your 2014 Erasmus Lecture, which served as the basis for this book, you received quite a bit of attention for saying that “if we do not love the poor, we will go to hell.” You repeat this again very strongly in the book. Do you think the American Church has sufficiently elevated this concern in the public square in recent years?

I don’t know that we do it in our parishes, let alone in the public square. Back again in my youth, we had many parishes, which had very active St. Vincent de Paul societies, which was a hands on commitment to help the poor. Now we delegate that to Catholic Charities or to the government. We write a check rather than give ourselves. So, I think there is a real danger that this isn’t elevated appropriately.

I also want to say that there’s a danger of elevating the government to doing it for us inappropriately. It seems to me that that’s where the debate is in the Church. How much of this is personal responsibility and how much of it is the government’s responsibility?

See, you can have very good Catholics who are really interested in helping the poor and they can take different points of view in terms of social justice issues—not in terms of there being issues, real issues, but in terms of how to deal with them. Some want to rely more on the government because they think that safety net is the only way to really deal with it because of the massiveness of the problems.

I may personally tend in that direction, but I don’t dismiss those who want it to be more of a personal and ecclesial responsibility rather than a government responsibility. They need to listen to each other rather than to stake positions out and argue from those positions. We will go to hell if we don’t love the poor because Jesus tells us that in the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

You note that the Christians can’t withdraw from the world because the world will come after us—and furthermore that we’re called to be the soul of the world. Is this, then, a rejection of the “Benedict Option” that some are proposing these days?

The Church has always had the Benedict Option as part of its life—Jesus himself went off with his disciples to pray, he withdrew before making big decisions. The point of difference between myself and others who embrace the Benedict Option would be how much of a withdrawal and for how long?

I think homeschooling, for example, is part of the Benedict Option, and if you’re deciding to educate your children in your home rather than delegate or share that responsibility with the government or the school system—in some ways, that’s separating in order to be stronger and I think that can be a very good thing.

Whether or not we need to go off and not pay much attention to the world around us in order to build strong Christian communities is where I would disagree with some people. I don’t think that’s appropriate.

I don’t object to other people doing it, though as long as they don’t say it’s the only way. The Church has always been a rich place where there’s always many different ways of doing things, so those who want to experiment with that—and I think there are several experiments going on, some successful and some not quite so successful in our world.

I don’t think it will be the general approach of the Church in the world because I think God calls us, as St. Augustine says, to be the wheat growing amid the weeds and only at the end of time will the separation of one from another occur and that’s done by God and God’s judgment and not by us. I think we should not withdraw from the wheat field before it’s time for the harvest.

Over the last eight years the Catholic Bishops and the Obama administration were frequently at odds with one another. In describing the Obama administration you write that “the reality it delivered for eight years was…a brand of leadership that was narcissistic, aggressively secular, ideologically divisive, resistant to compromise, unwilling to accept responsibility for its failures, and generous in spreading blame.” How would you assess the first month of the Trump presidency and what do you anticipate its relationship to be with the Catholic Church? 

I think the same thing could be said of the Trump administration using the same words. There would be different issues that we’re dealing with probably but neither political party and no political candidate is the Church or embodies perfectly the teachings of Jesus Christ.

What I would say—and I think it’s important to say this at this time—is that we should hope that the Obama administration was successful, and we should that the Trump administration is successful. We can vigorously disagree with the parts of their efforts that deserve our disagreement, but we shouldn’t want to undermine the leadership of our country.

We all rise and fall together, and that’s a very important fact. I think to oppose the administration in a communal way from the very beginning is very dangerous.

You’ve spent quite a bit of time, both in the book and in recent years, focusing on marriage and family issues. You recently hosted the World Meeting of Families in your diocese. What do you think the legacy of this event and Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia will be?

It’s a unique grace for the pope to visit any community. I was privileged to be the Archbishop of Denver for fourteen years, beginning my ministry there three or four years after the pope visited Denver for World Youth Day and his visit bore incredible fruit in terms of evangelical and ecclesial enthusiasm. Only a year and a half has passed since Pope Francis’s visit to our diocese but it was a wonderful time for us and he was very generous in giving us his time and attention and the Church in Philadelphia will always be very grateful for Pope Francis.

We’ve begun initiatives in Philadelphia where we are reviewing the life of the Church from the perspective of family life. It’s a three-year process, the first year is focusing on the Pastoral Center, or the chancery—or the Death Star, depending on who’s talking about it! —where I’m asking everyone who works for the structure of the Archdiocese to evaluate what they’re doing in terms of supporting family life.

We’re reviewing our financial policies for the employees of the Archdiocese, but also our services for the broader Archdiocese. The second year we’re going to focus on the clergy and religious and how they have responsibilities for family life and the things they do in parishes, which are the fundamental structure of the diocese in terms of supporting family life, including married couples and marriage preparation and that sort of thing.

And then the third year will be the families themselves being called to engage in this dialogue about the family being the most important structure of the Church and how the mother and father have the greatest responsibility not just for the physical and psychological health but also for the spiritual health. Fathers and mothers are going to be producing the next priests and pastors and children in a way that’s different from my generation.

That’s what we’re doing and I hope it’s going to bear fruit, both locally in Philadelphia but also maybe we’ll model things for the broader Church. People came from all over the world for this gathering and everything I heard about it was—to this day—was that much conversion took place. So, when the Pope calls us to make family the primary place of ministry within the Church today, I certainly hope to embrace that wholeheartedly and to do it and become a model for the Church in the United States.

You conclude your book with a meditation on beauty and the belief that a rediscovery of it will save our culture. With so much despair and ugliness in our public discourse today, how can Catholics reorient our engagement in the world in a way that is more attractive and presents an appealing alternative?  

Practically, nothing attracts people to Sunday worship more than beautiful music, a beautiful environment, and a beautiful homily and if that’s done well, parishes flourish because people are attracted to goodness, truth, and beauty. As I look at my own life and the moments of religious experiences that I’ve had have been around these kinds of issues.

I really think that truth survives in a very confusing world and beauty calls us to embrace the truth of these experiences, so I’m glad you noticed that, it’s what I tried to do in the end is to say despite all the turmoil, despite the ugliness of the world, the world is still a very beautiful place. It’s an extraordinary place and God loves it very much or it wouldn’t be what it is. Beauty can call us to experience the Creator and help us see it’s a reflection of him.

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