Archbishop Chaput

April 22, 2017

Finding Our Bearings as Christians in a Post-Christian World

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia discussed his new book, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” at the Catholic Information Center on Apr. 4 with author and commentator Mary Eberstadt and Michael Hanby of the John Paul II Institute. The book focuses on how Christians should assess and live in a society which is vastly changed in its attitude toward traditional Christianity, from a society in which Christianity had widespread social support if not universal individual commitment, to a society which is either indifferent, unfamiliar, or hostile.

Chaput began by noting the crisis of liberalism described in a 2008 book by Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen explores the contradictions of an ideology valuing both individual autonomy and political freedom. It is to be particularly noted that freedom is now infringed by the state in the interest of affirming individual autonomy, and the latter is contrary to the Christian mandate of obedience to God. This conflict in liberalism, Chaput said, results in a challenge for living according to what Pope Francis has called “the joy of the gospel.”

Despite this challenge, pessimism is dangerous, Chaput said. Both optimism and pessimism can turn out to be wrong. In a turn on Pope Francis’ maxim, Chaput said that both God and the devil can be full of surprises. Both the world and the church are in turmoil, he said, but we trust in the future because of a loving God, and love endures forever. We exist, he said, because God imagined us. A perennial Christian commitment should be the faith and obedience of Job, “though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” (Job 13:15). At a lower level of commitment and meaning in life is American patriotism. While our ultimate commitment is not to America, yet we should not ignore or underestimate Americanism, Chaput said. He maintained that, except in the long-term, people make the future before Christ’s return, while God determines the ultimate future.

Chaput said that we can live the Christian life of hope and joy even in an unwelcoming environment. The election of Obama was not a routine election. It signaled a “deep generational and cultural shift.” This shift was realized in the Obama Administration dropping its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2011, and in the same-sex marriage decisions of 2013 and 2015, decreed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reaction to these same trends elected Trump in 2016. Chaput compared this national shift to the great shift of the twentieth century signaled by the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. But that change mainly involved the economy. The change signaled by Obama’s election, which Obama tried to realize, attempts to alter daily life. Chaput said that the nation and people are changing all the time. This is healthy if it is continuous with the past. But now the pieces of society “no longer fit together,” he said . In the past 60 years, “the entire landscape of culture has changed drastically.” There is no way to “unknow” what we have experienced, and so restore the past as it was. There is a now a “deep dislocation in the American soul.” This dislocation is indicated by the fact that, according to Pew Research, America went from being 16 percent non-religious in 2007 to 23 percent non-religious in 2016. This has particularly important consequences, Chaput believes, for the ideal of freedom. Human rights without God or a moral order is just “public consensus.” It can easily be manipulated and change.

How can we live with hope and joy in this situation, Chaput asked? He pointed out that in his Philadelphia archdiocese there is a “wonderful concern” by various Catholic organizations in business and the professions. There are pro-life and social justice advocates, and lay Catholic leaders in Philadelphia are also important. The problem facing Catholics today isn’t lack of resources, money, people, or plans, but weakness of faith, Chaput said. Today’s realities are different than those the church’s infrastructure was designed to address. He said that we should put flesh on the meaning of the gospel with our lives. We need missionary zeal. American society’s material needs are well satisfied, but it is starving souls. We should “live the beatitudes” and be “heroic saints.”

Mary Eberstadt then said that Strangers in a Strange Land is “a masterfully beautiful story” of life in post-Christian America. Many Christians believe the best days of American society are gone. She said that “the sexual revolution has given rise to a reigning false anthropology” in which “all sexual activity has become a matter of transaction.” This anthropology has made sexual activity a matter of consumerism. The same loss of cultural innocence has a flip side. The world needs to know of the damages of this false anthropology. She believes that people are turning to Christianity for refuge, and that it may be that the overbearing secularist culture is itself sowing seeds of religious revival. Young adults do not like a heartless secular world, and, as a result, there is a search for a “true anthropology of transcendence.” While she said that the old Religious Right is “cold in the ground,” for American Christians today it is “winter and spring at the same time.” Archbishop Chaput said in this regard that we need to address people’s “appetites and behaviors.”

Michael Hanby said that Chaput’s book is a comprehensive assessment of the crisis in America’s liberal order. It treats and analyzes the value of the American liberal order, in which there is a “crisis of reason.” It is not hard to see the crisis of reason, as well as faith, in the dictum of postmodernism and the Supreme Court, that we are entitled to make our own realities. One sees this in particular in the demand for unisex restrooms. But he said there is also the problem of failing to pass the faith to a new generation. Here the impact of the sexual revolution is especially important. Two factors make it especially strong – the relationship between the sexual revolution and technological development (from the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1960, to the possibility of three parent children today), but also in the increasing absolutism of the sexual revolution, denying liberty of conscience.

This civilizational crisis is not merely external to the Christian community. While there is much hope, there is also much “decay in institutions.” The real challenge, Hanby maintained, is whether we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness. He said it is commonplace to talk of crises of faith, but the crisis of reason he finds to be now deeper than crisis of faith. Reason is no longer prescriptive of life, but is now reduced to pragmatism. Only instrumental or technical reason is recognized as valid for modern life. This new pragmatism, he maintained, is an aspect of modernism’s war on the spiritual viewpoint of Platonism. He said that the church inadvertently aids and abets this war by abandoning its own language. What should Christians do when there’s not much that we can do? What we can do, Handby said, is understand. “Understanding lies at the heart of renewal.” He finds Chaput’s book not optimistic, but hopeful.

A questioner asked what advice panelists would have for young Catholics. Chaput said that many young people have no interest in history and culture. Catholics can carry an understanding of Christian faith with other Christians in the new dark ages. How can this result in renewal rather than simply be part of post-Christianity? Eberstadt said we face a clash of rival faiths. Techno-secularism is now vying with the Judeo-Christian tradition to be the ruling faith of the West. She pointed to twentieth century church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, who said that two things were important in the ultimate victory of Christianity at the close of the ancient world: the Christian commitment sexual morality and fully caring for the weak. Both, she seemed to imply, will be appealing in the future. Chaput said that what the early Christians had and what we need for the future is a correct understanding of family life and marriage. Hanby added that post-Christianity is a useful term. There is a different challenge today in renewing Christianity than there was in past renewals of the faith. Now “the culture is at war with its own roots.”

A comment from audience was that the collapse of Catholic education has been one of the most devastating aspects of the recent past. It threatens the vitality of the Catholic community. Chaput responded that cooperative homeschooling is a viable alternative. Catholic schools are not viable, i.e., they are not financially sustainable. Further, Catholics do not live any longer in a culture that is hostile to Catholics per se, as they did in the past.

Today’s Christians indeed face enormous legal and cultural challenges. While it has been generations since Christianity was the doctrine of the state, simply preserving an authentic Christianity among believers is becoming difficult. But Archbishop Chaput and his two panelists clearly pointed to the faithful response for Christians, namely, an appeal to genuine faith, with which a normative, rather than purely instrumental reason is in agreement, and then courage to act, based on hope in the future born of faith in God’s love and providence.


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