‘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?
Archbishop Chaput: Pennsylvania’s late Governor Robert Casey came very close. He was an extraordinary, courageous Catholic man.
Lopez: There’s another book out this month that includes a questioning of the Real Presence by a prominent politician. Is that kosher, to do such a thing publicly?
Archbishop Chaput: The Real Presence is at the heart of Catholic belief. Denying it carries a person out of the Church, whether he or she realizes it or not.
Lopez: Is there an abortion litmus test for Catholics?
Archbishop Chaput: “Litmus test” is a media expression that’s front-loaded with the assumption of some priestly censor checking off behavioral-compliance boxes. That’s not how any sincere believer thinks about his or her faith. Faithful Catholics want to live their faith fully — and one of the principles of Catholic social teaching is that we can never deliberately kill innocent human life. Abortion always, deliberately kills an innocent unborn child. Nobody can honestly claim to be a faithful Catholic and then support a false “right” to abortion; it’s just an elegant way of evading the brutality of what abortion actually does.
Lopez: Is there any virtue to the Cuomo-esqe personally opposed, etc. formula we see over and over again with politicians, especially Democrats?
Archbishop Chaput: The problem isn’t unique to either political party, and no, there’s no virtue to the “personally opposed” argument at all. The word “virtue” comes from the Latin virtus meaning strength or courage. I don’t see much courage in maneuvering around the reality of abortion with sanitized labels like “pro-choice.”
Lopez: Whenever I write about Catholics and abortion, I am immediately asked, “What about war? What about the death penalty?” What about them? Can a Catholic vote for Senator “Surge”? We have killed people in Iraq, after all.
Archbishop Chaput: I’ve written and spoken against the death penalty for more than 30 years. And along with most other American bishops, I opposed our intervention in Iraq. But these issues are different in kind, not merely degree, from the violence involved in abortion. Anyone rooted in Scripture and Catholic tradition will understand the distinction if he or she reasons honestly. Genocide, euthanasia, abortion, and deliberately targeting civilians in war — these things are always grievously wrong. But in Catholic thought, war and capital punishment can be morally legitimate under certain carefully defined circumstances. Abortion is never morally justified.
Lopez: What about marriage? What are Catholic voters and politicians supposed to do and think about marriage? To what extent are questions about constitutional amendments and civil unions prudential judgments?
Archbishop Chaput: We’ll begin to fix marriage nationally by living it faithfully and generously at the family level first. Personal example is very powerful, but many Catholics simply don’t cultivate a sacramental understanding of their own marriage as a permanent covenant. That’s one of the reasons Catholic divorce rates don’t differ much from the general population.
On the political level, any society that doesn’t protect and preferentially advantage marriage is on its way to trouble. Marriage and the family are the foundation stones of society. So we need to work hard to protect them legally. Any arrangement that directly or indirectly undermines marriage is a bad idea. But there’s no one bullet-proof legislative formula to deal with the challenges.
Lopez: You point out that there is a real anti-Catholicism in our midst. That’s beyond the supposedly sophisticated hostility toward religion in general. Why is it worthwhile to talk about … and combat?
Archbishop Chaput: Many of the Catholics I meet don’t know the history of anti-Catholic prejudice in this country, and they don’t want to believe it persists. My own state of Colorado was Ku Klux Klan territory well into the 20th century, and the Catholic Church in Colorado was a major player in breaking the power of the Klan. Some of the contempt directed at the Catholic faith in our current news and entertainment media would be inconceivable if the targets were Muslims or Jews. And it’s not accurate to blame this hostility mainly on the sex-abuse scandal. When leaders in the Church sin and fail, they deserve to be criticized. They deserve to be held accountable. But anti-Catholic prejudice was part of American culture long before the abuse crisis. When public figures or the media act in a bigoted way toward Catholic beliefs, they also need to be held accountable. Catholics need to do a better job of demanding that.
Lopez: Is your book for Catholics only? What can everyone else get out of it?
Archbishop Chaput: I wrote the book mainly for fellow Catholics and other interested Christians because they’re my family of faith in a special way. But the basic principles of bringing one’s religious faith to bear on public issues apply equally across many other faith traditions.
Lopez: I frequently find that Vatican II is a source of confusion and tension for both fallen away and faithful Catholics. What do you mean when you write “When we look back over the past four decades, Vatican II may have assumed a maturity and zeal in Catholics that too few of us have lived — or even understood.”?
Archbishop Chaput: I think the council was urgently needed and a great positive in the life of the Church. But we underestimated its psychological and cultural implications and overestimated our ability to deal with them. We assumed a more solid foundation to American Catholic life than we actually had.
Lopez: Post-scandals, besides “With Christ all things are possible,” what gives you hope that there’s renewal happening or to come in the Catholic Church in America?
Archbishop Chaput: Some years before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger said the Church in the future would be smaller but more convicted, more zealous, because the cost of belonging would be higher. I think that’s true. What gives me hope is the number of committed, extraordinary young Catholics I meet all the time. So I think the future will be bright. But that doesn’t mean it will be comfortable.
Lopez: You stand out as a bishop who talks about these issues and holds feet to the fire. Why do you do it? Why don’t more bishops do it? Isn’t it part of the job of a bishop?
Archbishop Chaput: A lot of bishops do it very well, but the media don’t give them a voice. And it’s not a question of holding anyone’s feet to the fire. As Catholics we owe each other the respect of speaking and acting honestly. If we claim to be Catholic then we need to prove it by our actions, guided by the teaching of the Church. Otherwise we’re lying to each other.
Lopez: If there is one single point that every Catholic reader of your book could take away from it and pray about and make their own, what would you pray it be?
Archbishop Chaput: Again: Don’t lie. If we say we’re Catholic, we need to back it up with proof. Our faith needs to be the North Star of our lives. Our behavior needs to match our words, including in our political choices.
Lopez: You note that “the new media breed and feed an audience — including voters — with little patience for complexity or sustained debate.” What does that mean for The Word? How can Catholics master the new media for The Master?
Archbishop Chaput: That’s a problem for younger Catholics than myself to solve. But at a minimum, we need to do a much better job of understanding how the media work, how they shape our assumptions, needs and appetites; in other words, how they work on us.
Lopez: Is there a takeaway from that papal visit earlier this year for Catholics this election season?
Archbishop Chaput: Benedict has the gift of saying hard things in a warm way. Along with a great deal of praise and encouragement, he also cautioned American Catholics about the “silent apostasy” that so many laypeople and even clergy can fall into today. For Benedict, we don’t need to formally reject our faith to be apostates. All we need to do is choose to be cowards when we need to have courage; to be quiet on vital public issues of human dignity when we need to speak up.
Lopez: You cite and agree with Cardinal Avery Dulles who has written, “the greatest danger facing the Church in our country today is that of an excessive and indiscreet accommodation.” What does that look like and what can be done about it? What can the Catholic reader busy, with a family and a job and no public soapbox do about it?
Archbishop Chaput: The first step in fixing a problem is to realize we’ve got one. We don’t serve our country by abandoning our religious convictions in public debate in the name of good manners or a mistaken idea of pluralism. Democracy thrives on the competition of ideas, and it dies without that healthy conflict. We need to stop being embarrassed when we talk about our faith, and we need to insist that others respect it — including our political parties and leaders. Everyone can make telephone calls, and write emails and letters. And everyone can simply shut off the TV and computers one night a week to read, pray, talk and share time with the family. That’s a rebellion — the best kind.
Lopez: How are you preparing for the Democratic takeover of Denver next week?
Archbishop Chaput: We’re delighted they’re coming. The delegates have important work to do for our country, and a lot of them are Catholics. We want them to feel welcome, and we’re eager to provide them with all the spiritual support we can.