There is little doubt — among conservatives at least — that religious liberty is threatened by the federal government. The Obama administration’s demand that a group of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, provide contraceptives to their employees has been followed by other attacks on conscience rights. Religious freedom, perhaps our most fundamental freedom, ought to be of serious concern not only to religious believers: A well-ordered society must protect the realm within which all men can consider essential questions of human existence, man’s relation to the divine, and the proper relationship between men, because the answers to these questions could have bearing on eternal life. But, of course, curtailment of this freedom is of particular concern to religious believers attempting to live out their faith in the current environment.
Today’s Christian thinkers are of different minds about how best to respond to the challenges to religious freedom and how to live out an authentic Christian life in spite of them. Broadly speaking, there is a debate about whether it is better for Christians in an increasingly post-Christian culture to engage more in politics and the public square or to retreat to some degree from participation in broader society and refocus on building authentic community among themselves. R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, takes the former position in his recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Writer Rod Dreher, who popularized the concept of the “Benedict option,” has argued most prominently for the latter view.
These matters are at the center of a lecture series at Notre Dame, arguably the nation’s most prominent Catholic university. The series, sponsored by Notre Dame’s Tocqueville Program, got underway Thursday with a lecture given by the Reverend Charles J. Chaput, who has served as archbishop of Philadelphia since 2011.
Chaput’s talk, entitled “Sex, Family, and the Liberty of the Church: Authentic Freedom in Our Emancipated Age,” sought to articulate the essential role American Christians should play in redeeming today’s political culture. For him, that mission ought to be guided by the belief that the goal of human life is to achieve eternal fulfillment in heaven: He began by quoting Léon Bloy, a French Catholic convert, who said that, in the end, the only thing in life that matters is to be a saint. The pursuit of saintliness and eternal life might seem far removed from this year’s election, but that, Chaput warned, is not an excuse for Christians to disengage.
“The major parties have never, at the same time, offered two such deeply flawed presidential candidates,” Chaput said, calling both Trump and Clinton “very bad news” for our country. But he said that, despite this bleak landscape, Christians are not allowed the “luxury of cynicism.”
“If Christians leave the public square,” Chaput said, “other people with much worse intentions won’t. The surest way to make the country suffer is to not contest them in public debate and in the voting booth.” What is necessary, he said, is that Christians become a different kind of people, virtuous citizens who renew society rather than simply wring their hands in despair over the ugly choice November presents.
Chaput emphasized that politics is an important mechanism for bringing truth to others, despite the fact that Christians are supposed to be in the world but not of the world: “Our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man,” said Chaput, alluding to St. Augustine’s famous formulation. “While we’re on the road, we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it. One of the ways we do that, however imperfectly, is through politics.”
#share#Chaput sees many of society’s current problems as caused by a tragic misunderstanding of human sexuality. The archbishop argued that the debilitated state of the family in the U.S. stems from the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, at the root of which was a deeply flawed view of liberty. This vision has created “a dysfunctional culture of frustrated and wounded people increasingly incapable of permanent commitments, self-sacrifice, and sustained intimacy, and unwilling to face the reality of their own problems.”
‘If Christians leave the public square,’ Chaput said, ‘other people with much worse intentions won’t.’
To illustrate further what this flawed view of liberty looks like, Chaput cited Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous “mystery of human life” passage from the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in 1992: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” According to the archbishop, this is “the perfect manifesto of a liberal democratic fantasy: the sovereign, self-creating self. But it’s a lie. It’s the very opposite of real Christian freedom. And to the degree we excuse or cooperate with it, we make ourselves liars.”
Rejecting this view of human freedom as an autonomous self-creation is the job of any serious Christian who wishes to transform today’s culture and heal those who suffer as the result of having adopted the sexual revolution’s view of the human person, Chaput contended. Such an agenda must begin with the issue of abortion:
Abortion poisons everything. There can never be anything “progressive” in killing an unborn child, or standing aside tolerantly while others do it. In every abortion, an innocent life always dies. This is why no equivalence can ever exist between the intentional killing involved in abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia on the one hand and issues like homelessness, the death penalty, and anti-poverty policy on the other. Again, all of these issues are important. But trying to reason or imply them into having the same moral weight is a debasement of Christian thought.
Chaput reiterated that only adherence to the truth about human sexuality will set human beings free, and thus Christians have a responsibility to advocate a proper vision of the human person for the sake of individuals and a free society. People incapable of governing their appetites are not free, he said. As Americans become less free and can no longer rule themselves, the government grows more powerful, and it steps in to rule them instead, a situation predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient Democracy in America.
“It was great to have the archbishop on campus, because he has been a fantastic witness to the truth, particularly on the issues that matter so much at this point in time in America,” Matt Connell, a sophomore at Notre Dame, told National Review after the lecture. “He reminded us that living in faith will lead us to true freedom and served as an inspiration to defend the truth in our words and actions.”
#related#Vincent Phillip Muñoz, a professor of political science at Notre Dame and director of the Tocqueville Program, said he knew immediately that he wanted to invite Chaput as the inaugural lecturer for this religious-liberty event. “The archbishop is a man of great learning, a pastor of great compassion, and a faithful servant of the Church,” Muñoz told National Review. “Times of great difficulty reveal the man. No leader of the American Church has spoken more forcefully or fearlessly in defense of religious freedom than Archbishop Chaput.”
Chaput’s lecture provides a beneficial roadmap for religious believers concerned about the future of religious freedom in a challenging political climate. By living a virtuous life in the public square and adhering to the truth about freedom and the human person, individual Christians can, and must, redeem the culture from within.