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Finding A Place For Faith In A Post-Christian America


Since before the ink on the Constitution dried, the Catholic Church in America has struggled to come to terms with America. Archbishop Charles Chaput’s new book, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World,” comes at a strange moment in that struggle.

Readers familiar with this genre will find much familiar about Strangers in a Strange Land. Like other Catholic essayists of the John Paul II school, Archbishop Chaput’s tone is avuncular. His footnotes are thorough, but not showy. Like George Weigel and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Chaput draws on many authorities to make his case for him, from saints to sociologists, historians to other Catholic writers (including Weigel and Neuhaus). In this way, Chaput sets himself within a tradition that he recognizes as much older and wiser than he—fitting, for a Catholic bishop. Strangers in a Strange Land could almost serve as a sequel to Fr. Neuhaus’s final book, “American Babylon: Notes of a Christian in Exile” (2010), which it closely resembles, right down to its parallel chapter on the Letter to Diognetus.

Yet it would be a mistake to view Strangers solely in the context of the last few years. Archbishop Chaput begins with a history of the forces arrayed against the American Church, in a story spanning four centuries.

America and Its Discontents

Many of American Catholicism’s critics, of course, have been Protestant. As Archbishop Chaput notes, “America embodies the Protestant social imagination … In a sense, they own the patent.” Catholics here have survived the Know-Nothings, anti-Catholic riots, Senator Blaine’s attempt to dismantle parochial schools, and the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan. All were Protestant movements to “protect” America’s supposed ideals. Lately, the post-Christian elites who run the show have taken to calling Catholics “theocrats” because Catholics refuse to bow down and pay tribute to the idols of the Sexual Revolution—contraception, abortion, and gender nominalism. (Chaput identifies the increasingly coercive sexual “liberation” movement as “Puritanism without the religious baggage.”) Throughout American history, critics outside the Church have argued that Catholicism is incompatible with a free and liberal society.

However, American Catholicism’s most potent critics have always been fellow Catholics. Their argument? That Catholicism is incompatible with a free and liberal society. Just a few years after the Know-Nothings demanded “hostility to all Papal influences” and called on Americans to defend the separation of Church and State, Blessed Pope Pius IX published the Syllabus of Errors. The Syllabus condemned the separation of Church and State by name, insisted that no man is free to choose his own religion, reasserted the temporal power of the Church, and vowed that the papacy would never come to terms with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

In the 1890s, as Blaine Amendments swept the country, Pope Leo XIII was sending encyclicals to the American bishops cajoling them for allowing their flocks to become too comfortable with American ideals like freedom of speech and religious liberty. The Pope recommended that children be sent to Catholic schools to protect them “impious” ideas—appearing to confirm Protestants’ fears.

For a few years in the 20th Century, it seemed the critics had been beaten. The Second Vatican Council changed the way the Church spoke about liberalism, and John Courtney Murray’s work provided an intellectually grounded integration between the two. By the time I was born, Poland was free, the Berlin Wall crumbling, and the idea that the future held anything but the gradual purification of liberal democracy seemed a little nuts.

Yet the last decade has seen a new wave of anti-liberals rising in all quarters, some of them Catholic. Prominent 21st-century lay Americans like Christopher Ferrara (author of the anti-American diatribe “Liberty: The God That Failed”) have taken up the arguments of 19th-century European clerics. They claim that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, majority rule, and other liberties Americans hold dear are inherently corrosive. These liberties drag societies toward corruption, depravity, and the abandonment of all restrictions on their appetites, including the moral law. This destroys the souls of those who embrace liberty and, ultimately, the countries that are built on it—or so these Catholics contend.

For centuries, it has fallen to the bishops of the United States to defend both Church and country, preaching to Protestants and Popes alike that America is not the enemy of Catholicism and Catholicism is not the enemy of America. Chaput lists many examples: Archbishop Carroll’s development of an American Catholic infrastructure. Archbishop Ireland’s paeans to American Catholic patriotism. Archbishop Gibbons’ indignant response to Rome’s suggestion of American Catholic heresy. (Chaput winks at Lord Acton’s observation that 19th-century American bishops “had a talent for warmly applauding Rome’s words and then doing as they pleased.”) Chaput’s own “Render Unto Caesar,” published in 2008, was a robust defense of Catholic engagement in American political life. In Chaput’s telling, the U.S. bishops have faithfully helmed the barque of Peter through American waters, exuding confidence in the American project despite the stormiest weather.

So it is all the more startling when Chaput ends his overview of American Catholic history with this: “A question facing us now is whether [the American constitutional] commonwealth can endure. Another is whether it was ever really sustainable from the start.”

The Twilight’s Last Gleaming

The archbishop never directly answers these questions, but subsequent pages paint a grim picture. Chaput notes our rapid technological progress… but compares our violent subjection of nature (including human nature) to the depredations of Saruman, the evil wizard from “The Lord of the Rings,” whose “willingness to flatten the world (if needed) to make space for the human will” is all too familiar in an American moral culture defined by autonomy. This drive to “define one’s own concept of existence” has surfaced forcefully in the Sexual Revolution’s assaults on truth, marriage, and infant lives. Chaput also sees this “flattening” of the spirit in our technology-crazed consumer culture, where greed is treated (at best) as a necessary evil and (at worst) as a virtue.

Chaput notes Alexis de Tocqueville’s suggestion that America’s strength derives from its solidarity, binding Americans together across social classes… but he contrasts Tocqueville with Charles Murray, who has recently documented the death of that solidarity. Chaput has Murray lead us on a brief tour through the ruins of the civil (especially religious) institutions that served, in Tocqueville’s time, as the warp to the Constitution’s weave.

Chaput notes that, “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths… [It] can seem to put truth on the ballot.” This causes the truth to be “radically privatized by the individual citizen.” There’s no “but” after that, no defense of democracy as a workable basis of government. Chaput adds only that the corrosive moral effects of democracy were once constrained by a “widely-shared biblical moral framework.” This framework has been swept away and replaced by “the real soul of modern American life: the market,” where truth is simply another commodity subject to supply and demand.

Some on the Right might be tempted to ascribe all these evils to the Left and aver that the defeat of Hillary Clinton last fall has forestalled disaster for a few years, but this would miss Chaput’s point. The crisis in our nation, he contends, is a crisis of truth itself. We have become, in Chaput’s words, a “people of the lie,” which manifests everywhere, not just in one political party. Our particular self-deceptions rear up no matter which color is in power at the moment. The dissolution of the family and the rule of law took no notice of the Reagan Administration. Our decline continues apace.

A determined reader might find in these pages some morsel of hope for the future of the classically liberal American order. I found none.

Chaput repeatedly refers to the Supreme Court’s lawless decision in Obergefell v. Hodges as a watershed moment, but it seems clear from his litany of evils that the walls have been closing on American Catholics in for years. Obergefell was thus not a radical transformation of the American order, but the culmination of a culture that has been transforming for a long time now. After all, as Chaput writes, “Culture precedes and informs politics. And American culture has moved miles from the assumptions of the Founders.”

What Obergefell seems to have provided is clarity. “It can’t be like it was” anymore, Chaput laments. At one point, he favorably quotes Rod Dreher’s writing on the so-called “Benedict Option,” which sees Christians as besieged resistance cells in America. Chaput insists, like Chesterton’s Adam Wayne, that natural patriotism—love of the land that raised you—is a virtue. The love he still bears for his country, even as he mourns it, is obvious, and cuts a sharp contrast with anti-liberals like Ferrara. Yet Chaput’s anticipation of a “Dark Age” in America is a far cry from Archbishop Ireland calling America “liberty’s native home” and “the highest billow in humanity’s evolution.” Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, since the book is literally titled Strangers in a Strange Land, but the Archbishop of Philadelphia losing his faith in the American project seems like a watershed of its own.

Handing On Hope

Yet this is not a despairing book. Quite the contrary: Chaput offers—and demands—a great deal of hope. This hope is not offered for this country, which he more or less consigns to God’s providence. The hope is for us. Though suffering may lie before us, we are Christians. We know how the story ends: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Archbishop Chaput hammers this home over and over again throughout the second half of his book as he reveals his prescription for America’s ills. He does not have a political program, a clever argument, or a plan to retake the commanding heights of culture. He has the Good News.

As a Catholic bishop, this is all he has—but, he argues, it is all we need. Strangers in a Strange Land starts as a conservative political essay, but turns into an extended homily. Chaput reminds his readers that the essential ingredient of a healthy political order—democratic or otherwise—is always the same: a virtuous people, animated by the Beatitudes, charitable with time and talent and treasure, walking in the hope of the Resurrection.

Those of you who, like me, find temporal matters far more thrilling than spiritual ones may at first be disappointed by this turn. These are the most basic building blocks of the Christian faith. Precocious three-year-olds know this stuff. What possible interest would I have in reading a hundred-page reminder that the Good Samaritan is a solid role model and that the Devil exists and is seeking the ruin of souls? I go to Mass. I know this.

Except Chaput keeps subtly pointing out that I don’t act like it. Those of us embroiled in the controversies of the day too often lose sight of the Gospel and all it entails. Case in point: I once read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” hoping to find strategies for advancing my anti-abortion agenda. I came away impressed, all set to apply tactics like, “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” to villains like Planned Parenthood.

In a particularly clever chapter, Chaput examines “Rules for Radicals” by contrasting it with the Beatitudes. It’s devastating. Alinsky demonizes, attacking people rather than their sins, and batters them without love or mercy. He does this for the sake of power. To be fair, it’s an effective means of obtaining power, but power is not a Christian goal. Our leader is King of the Universe; we have all the power we need. The Beatitudes instead call on Christians to be meek, to suffer, to show mercy, and to lay down their lives in love.

Chaput closes by describing ISIS’s persecution of Coptic Christians, turning to the mother of a martyr. She says of her son’s murderer that “she would ask him to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of Heaven.” I can hardly even conceive of such radical forgiveness if someone murdered my daughter. So, clearly, I’m not as Christian as I thought. Looking around the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the comboxes—all of which have, in the past year, gone from “toxic” to “soul-rendingly vicious” (most of all among Catholic bloggers)—I suspect I’m not the only one who could benefit from a return to the roots of Christianity.

None of this implies that Catholics ought to retreat from the public square. Quite the contrary: as Archbishop Chaput explains, the Latin word for “root” is radix. That’s the same Latin word that gave us “radical.” All radical change in the world, then, begins with a return to the roots of things. By calling Catholics back to their roots, Chaput lays the groundwork for an unlikely renewal at every level of our society.

When and how the renewal will come about, and whether it will be soon enough to save the American Experiment, we cannot say. Yet we know it will come, if we choose to live well, because hope demands no less. In this way, Chaput’s homily masquerading as a political essay turns out to be a political essay masquerading as a homily after all.