Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religion and the Common Good

This talk was delivered by Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., the Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver, at the John Cardinal Krol Conference in Philadelphia on April 21. It it is a must read.

"We most truly serve the common good by having the courage to be disciples of Jesus Christ. God gave us a free will, but we need to use it. Discipleship has a cost. Jesus never said that we didn’t need a spine. The world doesn’t need affirmation. It needs conversion. It doesn’t need the approval of Christians. It needs their witness. And that work needs to begin with us. Bernanos said that the 'scandal of Creation [isn’t] suffering but freedom.' He said that 'moralists like to regard sanctity as a luxury; actually it is a necessity.' He also said that 'one may believe that this isn’t the era of the saints; that the era of the saints has passed. [But] it is always the era of the saints.'

"The only thing that matters is to be a saint. At least we can try. And if we do, God will take care of the rest."

Read it all here.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Fr. Chaput's essay, but I am still not completely sold on the idea that Christian politics are the way forward. This country may have been founded by Christians, but it was also founded by men heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking, and it is by no means a safe bet to assume that the majority of voters, let alone senators, judges, representatives, etc. in this country are still Christian, despite what the latest poll may tell you. The tendency in Roman Catholic social thinking, to my eyes, is to engage the secular, post-Christian America on its own terms; but when you try to reason with people who begin from a completely antithetical chain of logic (Theism v. Secular Humanism), these engagements tend to polarize.

Several years ago the literary critic and arch-post-modernist Stanley Fish engaged Fr. Neuhaus in First Things in a debate about this very thing: Fish was challenging Christian academics, philosophers, and social thinkers to stop trying to beg a seat at the table of radical post-Enlightenment secularism, claiming that the ground rules to any and all arguments between Christians and Secularists in this country are set by the Secularists, who merely tolerate the Christian opinion, thereby hindering any possible progress. Fr. Neuhaus was, as you would expect from someone who has staked his entire public ministry on the idea of engaging the secular, not amenable to Fish's proposal. Fish's ideas aren't too dissimilar, to my mind, from his former Duke colleague and theological controversialist Stanley Hauerwas, who certainly disagrees with the usual Roman Catholic idea of trying to work for societal change by voting and through politics, preferring the idea of the dedicated witness of Christian communities, who stand firmly against the dominant secularism of the United States.

It seems to me that too many conservative Roman Catholics and their strange bedfellows, the evangelical and fundamentalist right, have bought into the kind of thinking they decry among liberal Christians, namely that of confusing one's politics and one's religion. The Church is no longer heeded on the world stage, as it was during the age of Christendom. In fact, these modern times strike me as more akin to the late Roman Empire, before Constantine legitimated Christianity and forced Christians to think in more political terms than they had previously.

So, while the world does need conversion and witness, the question is still up for debate, especially after the last 25-30 years of Christian political involvement, which have been a mixed blessing, at best: how best to witness to secularism?

Albion Land said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I read the piece hurriedly, but the message I got from it was just what you cite Hauerwas as saying we should be doing: providing a dedicated witness of Christian communities, who stand firmly against the dominant secularism of the United States.

That is not to say, however, that one shouldn't put his vote where his mouth is.

Anonymous said...


Fr. Chaput's piece is inspiring and knowledgeable, but the underlying thought, at least to my reading, is that Christians need to speak up more in the public square, as though it is merely "good manners" that keep them hushed. I'm not sure that's so.

There is a spiritual vacuum in this country, and there are many ways to tell the story of our de-Christianization, but it is possible that the West has seen and heard the Gospel and rejected it, not because they don't understand it and are in need of more vocal evangelization, but because they simply disagree. This disagreement is bound to turn violent the more this political, public square, shouting match continues. I think the recent spate of atheistic tomes by the likes of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris are only the beginning of a concerted effort to finally silence Christian meddling in public affairs.

There's another reference to this issue today at First Things, where Villanova Law Professor Robert Miller bemoans a political cartoon that implies that the five Supreme Court Justices who upheld the ban on partial-birth abortion only voted the way they did because the Pope told them so. Prof. Miller seems flabbergasted that anyone would be so intellectually crude as to overlook the compelling arguments made on the part of anti-abortion thinkers, Catholic and otherwise. The problem is that many people who support murdering babies aren't in need of more natural law argumentation, but are in need of the Holy Spirit, because they don't believe that human life is sacred because created by a benevolent and omnipotent God. If that first principle is missing, no amount of argumentation will do any good, and only true conversion of the heart can make it right.

The West has forsaken God, and no amount of "reasonable debate" in the public square will change that, however well-intentioned. The Christian witness in these dark days must be less political than prophetic, decrying the wasteland and the idolatry of the age, not trying to engage it in a debate whose terms are those of radical post-Enlightenment secularism. The West, like ancient Israel, has made their choice. Let us pray for their conversion, not for more political engagement, and let us read the book of Jeremiah rather than "The Naked Public Square", when in need of sustenance.

poetreader said...

"The only thing that matters is to be a saint. At least we can try. And if we do, God will take care of the rest."

There's the central conclusion of all this. It's the only acceptable reason for a Christian's taking any political action, and it is sufficient explanation for the utter futility of depending on political action to bring about a Christian answer to serious questions.

The world does not value sanctity. It values success, success as interpreted by sheer human concepts of practicality. If Christians attempt to influence society on the basis of what the world wants, they've given up before they start. If man's main concern is that his own desires be fulfilled, even insisting that it be done with the least possible harm to others, well, then, gay 'marriage', abortion, euthanasia, even infanticide and most of the other rejections of traditional morality certainly have the appearance of being good and practical solutions to many of the serious problems of these days.

Christians are simply out of place trying to fight these battles in those ways. We lose.

Christians are concerned with holiness, a matter that arises from a radically different thinking deep in the psyche. It is not man's will and man's benefit that take center stage, but rightness and wrongness in God's sight. What is not God-pleasing may be practical to a humanist, but it is not practical if one's objective is to obey God, and to build the world He has in mind.

The specific issues being fought over are real ones, but ultimately insoluble in ordinary political terms. The only ultimately workable answers are not understandable except in the context of of Scriptural and Traditional mprality, rooted in "Thus saith the Lord." In a pluralistic society, Christians are not free to enforce either the philosophical/theological foundations of morality and ethics, nor the specifics of moral behavior on that basis, but we are called upon to make all our own decisions, including political ones on that basis in direct opposition to the world.

Ultimately, Christian preachers and Christian politicians have the same mission -- to prepare the way of the Lord, to proclaim His law and His mercy, and to live it out before the world in such a way as to demonstrate God's presence.

This is not what 'religious' politicians, whether of the right or the left, are doing. Both are wrapped up in this world's power games, and both are fallung into the immorality of its traps, and constantly. If the Christian activism I've been seeing is all there is, I'd rather Christians did indeed withdraw from the public square altogether. -- But there is another way. Pray for true Christians in the public square doing things God's way in God's spirit. "The meek shall inherit the earth." -- not the wimps, but the truly humble.