‘Nothing guarantees that America’s experiment in religious freedom, as we traditionally know it, will survive here in the United States, let alone serve as a model for other countries in the future,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia writes in the new e-book, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America. “The Constitution is a great achievement in ordered liberty. But it’s just another elegant scrap of paper unless people keep it alive with their convictions and lived witness,” he continues. Archbishop Chaput talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the threats to and future of religious freedom in the U.S.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So are we about to fall like Rome did?
ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT: People make history, and each human life is unique, so history never really repeats itself. Comparisons with Rome can be tempting, but they’re also pretty melodramatic. What’s true is that every great nation rises until the weight of its own success begins to pull it down. I think it’s revealing that America’s “greatest generation” — the men and women who survived the Great Depression and fought the Second World War — gave birth to one of the most self-absorbed generations in American history, my own.
LOPEZ: John Courtney Murray said that America’s “most striking characteristic is its profound materialism” and that it had “gained a continent and lost its own soul.” Is America anywhere near as awful now as Murray thought we were decades ago?
CHAPUT: Murray wrote those words in 1940 — before network television and a hundred other consumer distractions. Are we more or less materialist as a culture? People can draw their own conclusions.
LOPEZ: Your concern about religious liberty in America runs much deeper than the HHS-mandate debate. How important is this one regulation, and how do you see it playing out? If you’re compelled by the Gospel to provide charity, to do good works, etc., you’re going to continue to do them, state penalty or not, aren’t you? Or will you simply have to shut down hospitals and charities?
CHAPUT: The mandate debate has serious implications. Shutting down services is very much a possibility if the circumstances require it. We can’t violate what we believe as Catholics in order to do good works as Catholics. That doesn’t make any sense.
LOPEZ: Is there an element of anti-Catholicism driving the mandate and its supporters?
CHAPUT: There’s clearly an indifference to religious liberty.
LOPEZ: What about the fact that so many Catholics — however many — use contraception and are advocates of legal abortion in their political lives?
CHAPUT: That’s the wrong question. Plenty of self-described Catholics also commit adultery and cheat on their taxes. That doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t make their behaviors “Catholic.” The central issue in the HHS-mandate debate isn’t contraception. Casting the struggle as a birth-control fight is just a shrewd form of dishonesty. The central issue in the HHS debate is religious liberty. The government doesn’t have the right to force religious believers and institutions to violate their religious convictions. But that’s exactly what the White House is doing.
LOPEZ: How can Catholics save religious liberty in America? How can they work ecumenically — and with those of no faith — to do so?
CHAPUT: The most important thing they can do is realize that constitutional guarantees are just scraps of elegant prose unless people fight to keep them alive. This country has no special immunity to anti-religious bigotry in our courts and legislatures. If we don’t press our lawmakers to defend the rights of religious believers and communities, then we’ll lose those rights. It’s already happening.
LOPEZ: Why do you begin A Heart on Fire with a critique of news and entertainment media?
CHAPUT: People need to understand the power that our mass media have in shaping and mis-shaping our perception of reality and the course of public debate. Journalists generally do a good job in examining the flaws of other institutions. They’re less gifted in examining the flaws of their own. A healthy skepticism, including skepticism toward our news and entertainment media, is simply the mark of mature citizenship.
LOPEZ: How did “overconfidence” on the part of Catholics help create this hostile environment for religion that is emerging in the U.S.?
CHAPUT: I think making their way into the mainstream led many Catholics into a false sense of security in this country. Important elements of our Catholic faith will always be in tension with America’s Protestant and Enlightenment roots, and especially with today’s secularist thinking. A lot of people in my generation apparently forgot that.
LOPEZ: Does the Church have moral authority in the public square? Should Catholics even have a public voice given the clergy’s abuse scandals?
CHAPUT: We don’t have a choice. We need to witness because Jesus Christ commands us to witness. His moral authority is unimpaired. The evil actions of some priests do not license the rest of us to be silent.
LOPEZ: Why the Melville quote — “Truth is like a threshing-machine; tender sensibilities must keep out of the way”?
CHAPUT: The public discourse of Catholics needs to be guided by charity and respect for others, but above all by truth. The truth can be difficult, so we often want to soften its edges. But this just wastes time and compounds our problems. Candor can be uncomfortable in the short run, but it’s much healthier in the long run.
The point is this: We need to be frank with each other as Christian adults, frank in our public witness and frank in our own self-criticism. Again, we also need to be prudent and kind — but not at the expense of courage, and not at the expense of speaking the truth.
LOPEZ: Do you feel that you have a particular or heightened responsibility to discuss civic issues now that you’re shepherd of the flock in Independence Hall’s backyard?
CHAPUT: Philadelphia is very rich in American history, so that’s a special gift. But every bishop has the duty to speak about the public implications of the Catholic faith.
LOPEZ: You have a reputation for being a more political, even a right-wing, bishop. How do you respond to such characterizations?
CHAPUT: Christianity is a “political” religion only in the sense that it has wider implications than the individual. Christian faith is communitarian; it places both personal and social obligations on the believer. It requires certain actions. It’s never merely private. As for reputation: The only reputation that should matter to a bishop is a reputation for leading people to Jesus Christ. Beyond that, what people say about any bishop is unimportant.
LOPEZ: How can Catholics prudently engage in politics without becoming inordinately wedded to a political party? Should that be a concern?
CHAPUT: It certainly should be a concern, and the cure for political addiction is keeping an eye on our mortality. Life is short. We’ll be forgotten by everyone but God. Our home is heaven, and the politics of this world won’t matter there. Charity, justice, courage, mercy — these are the virtues, or their absence, that will shape our eternity. These are the things that really matter. So to the degree we remember where we’re finally headed, we remain sane.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.