Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s new book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, provides a candid diagnosis of the ills of American culture – and suggests a cure.
His thoughtful and humble pastoral guidance to Christians, especially Catholics, is needed direction in our response to the call to sanctify our lives in the middle of the world.
Chaput, the Church’s first Native American archbishop, adeptly traces the role of religion in America’s founding and history.
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He prefaces this by stating that “[f]or readers already well versed in our nation’s history and the Catholic role in the story, [this] might be flyover country.”
But his review is a helpful antidote to the common misrepresentation that the Founders were irreligious or hostile to religion and the “progressive” idea that it is best to ignore any positive role of religion when discussing our past (or our future).
Religion in America is not just a matter for history class. Chaput points to the work of the great French observer of early American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, in concluding that the strength of American society was “the prevalence and intensity of religious belief.” He continues by stating that “religion only works its influence on democracy if people really believe what it teaches.”
What happens when religion is no longer part of our shared common culture? In a word, what happens now?
Chaput responds 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.”
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Consequently, he finds it worrisome that “Americans have grown more and more allergic to claiming that any behavior (especially sexual behavior) is right or wrong, always and everywhere.”
Nonetheless, he tenderly iterates: “We can’t simply blame ‘the culture.’ We are the culture.”
Faced with ever-increasing confusion, he advises that we must avoid the temptation of some Christians today to “fall away from the faith when it becomes difficult” or many other Christians to “grow angry or bitter…. Neither rage nor inaction acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Throughout the book are references to the teaching of the great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, and his masterpiece City of God. In a recent interview with Catholic World Report about Strangers in a Strange Land, Chaput observed that “[t]he parallels between Rome and our own situation are imperfect. They’re easy to overstate. But they’re also hard to ignore. One of the main lessons to take from Augustine is that no earthly power is free of sin. Nor does it last forever. Each of us has limited time in the world. Our real citizenship is heaven. In a culture of noise and distraction, we too easily forget that.”
Following Christ, aware that our true home is the City of God, should fill us with hope.
Such hope, Chaput explains, “compels us to be faithful to our spouses and care for our children, to feed the hungry and welcome immigrants, to visit prisoners and sit by the dying right now.”
This is not a new charge.
He explains that Christians throughout the centuries have served the poor and fought injustice by living out of Christ’s “Rules for Radicals” – more commonly known as the Beatitudes.
Understanding, let alone living, the Beatitudes is tough.
It goes against our modern-day value of comfort to fully embrace the idea “that the path to happiness is one of poverty of spirit, meekness, hunger, mercy, purity, peace and courageous witness.”
Much like all of those who came before us, this is a call that is “ours to accept or refuse.”
Fortunately, Christianity is not a private matter. Chaput reflects that Christ “came to build a family that would set the world on fire with God’s love.”
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Explaining that this “family” is the Church, he examines “what it looks like to live our Christian vocation together” and how the Church can “bring new life in Jesus Christ into the world.”
It should be no surprise in light of his authority on matters related to the family that a big part of this examination involves Christian marriage. Chaput observes that “[b]ecause married love is so closely united to Christ’s love for the Church, it requires making Christlike sacrifices.”
Recognizing that such a vision of marriage is “radically alien to the spirit of our times,” he assures that living it makes spouses “more of a man and woman.”
The archbishop further prescribes that “[a]s American culture becomes more estranged from Christian faith, Catholic homes need to be countercultural sanctuaries where visitors can taste the joy and freedom of the Lord.”
The subtitle of the book – “Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” – is a bit of an intentional misnomer.
After guiding the reader through the role of faith in the history of America and the confusion and challenges facing the country, Chaput explains: “The first thing [God] asks from us is to realize that the words ‘post-Christian’ are a lie, so long as the fire of Christian faith, hope and love lives in any of us.”
It is by engaging Christ “with our whole lives” that we are able to make the world around us better, more beautiful.
So, strangers in a strange land we may be. Chaput, as a good shepherd, ends with this inspiring charge: “[W]hat we do here makes all the difference.”
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.