‘When church leaders refrain from helping political leaders see their moral responsibilities, their lack of action implies that religion has nothing to say to the public square,” Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese of Denver, writes in his new book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. He’s one who is not refraining; his book has guidance for good Catholic citizenship and leadership. As Denver prepares to become the focus of American politics for a week during the Democratic convention, Archbishop Chaput took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did you watch the Rick Warren forum over the weekend? Did anything stand out to you?
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput: I did listen, and I think each man proved himself as intelligent and sincere. The differences in their views — on abortion of course, but other pressing issues as well — were clear. So the event served a good purpose.
Overall though, I’m skeptical about the importance of individual forums and debates. We’re a long way from the kind of rigorous public debates that happened back in the 19th century between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for hours at a time. We don’t have the attention span for really serious discussion anymore; or to put it more accurately, our news media can’t afford and don’t allow that kind of attention span. So we need to compensate privately by spending more time sifting through the “whole package” of a candidate — his words, his actions, his record over the span of his career.
Politics is the exercise of power. Citizenship implicates us in the morality of how that power is used. So citizenship is serious business.
Lopez: What should it mean when someone says, “I’m Catholic.”
Archbishop Chaput: It should mean that we love Jesus Christ as our redeemer, love the Catholic Church as our mother, and give our hearts to what she teaches, because she teaches in Christ’s name.
Lopez: What should it mean when I’m “voting Catholic?”
Archbishop Chaput: We should see ourselves as Catholic first — not white or black, or young or old. or Democrat or Republican, or labor militant or business owner, but Catholic first as the main way we identify ourselves. Our faith should shape our lives, including our political choices. Of course, that demands that we actually study and deepen our Catholic faith. The Catholic faith isn’t a set of clothes that we can tailor to a personal fit. We don’t “invent” our faith, and we don’t “own” it. If we really want to be Catholic, then we’ll live by Catholic teaching. Otherwise we’re just fooling ourselves and abusing the belief of other Catholics who really do try to practice what the Church teaches.
Lopez: What extra responsibilities do Catholic politicians have?
Archbishop Chaput: Catholic public officials have a duty to see their work not merely as a job or a profession, but as a vocation flowing out of their Baptism. Every Christian has an obligation to continue the work of Christ’s redemption and to help sanctify and humanize the world. Obviously, Catholic politicians serve believers and non-believers alike. They need to respect the proper autonomy of secular affairs. But in dispensing justice and administering power, they serve the common good, and the common good is always tied to moral truth. Their religious faith should be their moral compass.
Lopez: How relevant is Thomas More today in answering the previous question?
Archbishop Chaput: Like Chesterton said many decades ago, Thomas More is always relevant. He’s never been more relevant than he is right now.
Lopez: Are there any Thomas Mores in contemporary American history?