[Editor’s note: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has published a new book called Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World. On Feb. 27, he and I sat down to discuss the book and also his perspectives on Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia in New York for a new Crux video segment called “A Drink with John.” The following are excerpts from that exchange, available in full on our Facebook page.]
Lots of bishops publish books, but often they’re pretty churchy. This book is really an exercise in cultural criticism.
Chaput: I think that would be correct. It’s borne out of my own personal experience and my frustration with the culture in which I live. I’m disappointed in the direction we’ve gone, in some ways over the course of the last 40 or 50 years.
I’m very pleased, of course, by other things and cultural developments…we certainly live in a world where people can be healthier and happier than in the past. One thing in my mind is that I have many friends who have children with disabilities, and it’s obvious over the course of these last many decades that our country, our society’s care for people with disabilities has gotten much better. People are much more included in the life of our communities.
But at the same time, it’s a culture that kills people with disabilities in the womb in ways that never happened before. Very few children today who were born with Down Syndrome because people can detect that early on and children are aborted.
So the same society, with the same kind of technology, can use it in ways that serve us more radically generously or ways that are more radically selfish and sad. So that’s the kind of confusion that I write about in the book.
The gist of the book is that in the United States, we’re living in a post-Christian culture. Some might find that counter-intuitive. On the lists of the most Christian countries on earth, the United States is #1. Christian concerns, Christian values play an enormous role in our politics. Why do you use that vocabulary to describe where we are?
Well, I’d like to agree with you that in some ways it’s wrong ever to use the expression ‘post-Christian’, because Christ is always the center of life and history whether we acknowledge it or not, so in reality we’re not living in a post-Christian time.
In terms of Church practice the numbers of people attending Christian services on Sunday whether they’re Protestants or Catholics is much less than it was in the past. The Gospel principles in terms of family life are not as embraced as they were in the past. I think that we live in a much more diverse society in the United States than before in terms of people accessing other forms of religious faith. It used to be that we defined our country as a Judeo-Christian country in terms of our heritage, but there’s a resistance to even talk that way among some of the elites of today.
You write that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a watershed moment for America, the advent of a new way of conceiving American society no longer based on a shared set of values rooted in Biblical faith.
I think that President Obama had a certain kind of commitment and energy behind him that led him to lead our country in a different direction. The example that comes immediately to mind would be the understanding of the meaning of marriage. Of course, in the end that was a decision of our Supreme Court that gay marriage would be recognized in the same way as traditional marriage.
But I think it was interesting to see how President Obama himself changed his position on that during the course of his term, and Vice President Biden actually [witnessed] a gay marriage in his office. I think they took active and somewhat aggressive leadership in that direction.
In terms of the Health and Human Services mandate, in terms of imposing a contraceptive practice on insurance programs in the country, leadership was taken by the White House unnecessarily in terms of the law itself. We’re surprised by the focus that we now have on transgenderism, but I think it also had its origin in that period. All those things demonstrate a watershed that is going in the direction that is contrary to traditional Christian moral principles.
Yet you also write both Trump and Clinton in 2016 were deeply flawed candidates. You’ve been sharply critical of some early moves by the Trump administration, for example on refugees and immigrants.
I certainly will continue to do that. During the campaign I tried to speak clearly about how I thought about the candidates because people asked me, and I would receive criticism from those who supported Trump as being not pro-life enough and I would receive criticism from those defending Secretary Clinton as not being Catholic enough in terms of the immigration policies. I got equal criticism from both sides.
But, I think that’s something that you happily risk if you try to speak the truth with honesty.
If we live in a culture that’s in some ways post-Christian, what’s the Church supposed to do?
Well, first of all we need to be aware of what’s going on in the world around us. Many people of my generation are somewhat anxious about what’s going on, but they haven’t really analyzed in a serious way how we got from where we were to where we are today, and in the book I try to point out some of the factors that were active in our culture that led to where we are today. We have to be aware of it, but then we also have to have hope that we can live in this culture in a way that we can be full-throated, committed Christians and pass that on to our children…
The answer is, you have to be personally converted into the faith. You can’t pass it on if you don’t have it. Parents are going to be more important in the life, the faith life of their children than they have been in the past, because in the past the culture supported that faith life. The schools basically supported that faith life. The Christian communities were strong. People would go to church and that would support that faith life.
It’s really going to be the family that’s going to be the primary tool that God will use to evangelize, beginning with their children of course. But then families associating together in smaller groups, support groups of one another will be very important in the future as well. As parishes are supposed to be, but they’re institutions now rather than support groups.
Your basic prescription is first of all, encourage people to build stable, loving, flourishing Catholic families.
Secondly, find ways for those families to network in some circumstances, for instance in a parish, right? But if that for whatever reason doesn’t work, find other ways to do it, whether that’s a movement or whether that’s bringing them together in an informal way…
And those of us who are responsible, bishops and pastors, have to make sure whatever we’re doing actually works, and that means we can’t wholeheartedly ascribe to the practice of the past and say you have to go to church in your church boundaries, you know. If people aren’t registered in a parish they aren’t good Catholics. Those kinds of things don’t work anymore.
Let me put on my Vaticanista hat and ask a couple of pope questions. First, in some press coverage you’re styled as one of the critics of Pope Francis. Yet in Strangers in a Strange Land, you quote Francis approvingly. What is your actual take on Pope Francis?
I think Pope Francis is an interesting man. He’s the pope, first of all, so my take on him is he’s succeeded to the role of Peter as the vicar of Christ, and it’s very important for those of us who are bishops to maintain enthusiastic unity for the Church and to be supportive of the Holy Father because of that.
At the same time, he’s being pope in a way that’s very different from his predecessors, and that has been confusing for people, and I think it’s important for us to help the Holy Father understand that but also to help people understand the Holy Father and to do what we can to help people through the confusion and disappointment I think some people are experiencing.
As bishops we can’t deal with that alone, we have to do it in conjunction with the Holy Father. He has to be aware of that confusion, and I think that he has a responsibility of responding to it as well as us responding to it.
One of the leitmotifs that runs through the book is your concern for marriage and the institution of marriage. Today’s debate over Amoris Laetitia pivots on that subject. What do you think is at stake?
St. Francis of Assisi encouraged the brothers, the Franciscan brothers, to accept the Gospel without gloss. And glosses were convoluted efforts to make the Gospel say something that it didn’t say, or Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. So it seems to me we ought to take Jesus at his word, and his words about divorce and remarriage, about it being adultery, are very clear. I mean, there’s just no doubt about what Jesus said in the Gospels.
It seems to me that it’s impossible for us to contradict the words of Jesus, and it’s also impossible for a teaching to be true 20 years ago not to be true today when it’s the teachings of the pope. The teachings of Pope Francis can’t contradict the teachings of John Paul II when it is a matter of official teaching.
So, it seems to me we have to interpret Amoris Laetitia in the light of what’s gone before it, primarily the words of Jesus, but secondarily the teachings of the pope, the Magisterium of the Church. And so how can it be true that people can receive Communion when they’re living in an adulterous union today. How is that possible, when the Church says it’s not possible?
Do you want the pope to answer the dubia? [Note: The term refers to questions put to Pope Francis by four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, about the meaning of Amoris.]
Yes. I think it’s always good to answer questions, clearly.
Even if the answer doesn’t go in the direction you might want?
Do you think he will?
I don’t know. He certainly has opportunities to do that. [But] I don’t really know what he’ll do. He hasn’t told me.