Politics & Policy

Chaput: To Contribute to American Life, Catholics Must First Step Back from Its Culture

Archbishop Chaput with Pope Francis at Independence Hall in Philadelphia last year. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The Philadelphia archbishop reproaches ‘bourgeois, mediocre, feel-good religion.’

The Al Smith Dinner usually specializes in self-deprecating humor by the candidates, but while some of that was on display last night, both Hillary and Trump used the occasion also to try to land a few body blows.

Trump’s efforts got widely reported because the audience booed. But Hillary basically accused Trump of treason: “Now, you notice there is no teleprompter tonight, which is probably smart, because maybe you saw Donald dismantle his prompter the other day,” she said. “And I get that. They’re hard to keep up with. And I’m sure it’s harder when you’re translating from the original Russian.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan next morning decided to focus on the positive, describing some “very touching moments” in private:

“Mr. Trump turned to Secretary Clinton and said, ‘You are one tough and talented woman. This has been a good experience, this whole campaign, as tough as it’s been.’”

Clinton then turned to her opponent and said, “‘Donald, whatever happens, we need to work together afterward,’” according to Cardinal Dolan.

But the most trenchant political observations on the relationship between Catholic culture and American culture came a few days before, when Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia addressed a Bishops Symposium at Notre Dame. The speech was published at Catholicphilly.com. Read the whole thing.

Politics is only one lens, and perhaps not the most important one, through which to view and ponder this open wound in American life. Catholicism was for decades denounced and repressed as alien to America’s Protestant core. But Evangelicals and Catholics have found common ground against an increasingly hostile secular culture.

The challenge today for Catholics and other minority religions is to summon the courage to speak truth to power. “We need to speak plainly and honestly,” as Archbishop Chaput points out. “Modern bureaucratic life, even in the Church, is the enemy of candor and truth. We live in an age that thrives on the subversion of language.”

Politically speaking, Chaput connects this subversion of language to the rise of Trump. Both candidates, he says forthrightly (speaking truth to power), are a “national embarrassment, though for different reasons.”

But he asks a very important question, not only for Catholics but for all of us trying to figure out how Trump got to be one of the two nominees, and what lesson (if he loses) the Republican party should learn from this tumultuous experience. Why has Hillary Clinton had such a hard time pulling definitively ahead of Trump? The RealClearPolitics average today has Clinton up by 6 points. But today’s Rasmussen poll shows the American people disgusted almost equally with both, with Trump up 43 percent to 41 percent in a three-way race.

“Given Mr. Trump’s ugly style and the hostility he sparks in the media, Mrs. Clinton’s lead should be even wider than it is,” Chaput astutely notes. The disgust with the existing political order is strong enough to counterbalance (almost) the personal disgust with Donald Trump. “Even many people who despise what Mr. Trump stands for seem to enjoy his gift for twisting the knife in America’s leadership elite and their spirit of entitlement, embodied in the person of Hillary Clinton.”

Archbishop Chaput goes on to make one of the most succinct, blunt, and insightful assessments of how the subversion of language generally plays into the voter rebellion we are seeing play out in real time on the national stage:

Americans aren’t fools. They have a good sense of smell when things aren’t right. And one of the things wrong with our country right now is the hollowing out and retooling of all the key words in our country’s public lexicon; words like democracy, representative government, freedom, justice, due process, religious liberty and constitutional protections. The language of our politics is the same. The content of the words is different. Voting still matters. Public protest and letters to members of Congress can still have an effect. But more and more of our nation’s life is governed by executive order, judicial overreach and administrative agencies with little accountability to Congress.

People feel angry because they feel powerless. And they feel powerless because in many ways they are. . . . America’s cultural and political elites talk a lot about equality, opportunity and justice. But they behave like a privileged class with an authority based on their connections and skills. And supported by sympathetic media, they’re remaking the country into something very different from anything most of us remember or the Founders imagined.

The aftermath of this election, whomever wins, cannot be a return to business as usual for the Republican party. The rejection of Paul Ryan’s GOP establishment is deep and profound among the Republican electorate. Bloomberg Politics conducted a poll October 14–17 of Republican and lean-Republican voters, asking them who better represents their views: Paul Ryan or Donald Trump? Fifty-one percent chose Trump, 33 percent chose Ryan, and 15 percent were uncertain.

That hollowing out of democracy by culturally appropriating our hallowed words and redefining them is part of Chaput’s chief concern, which is the hollowing out of American Catholicism as a distinctive culture that can contribute to our diverse nation. The Catholic imagination in America is being culturally appropriated and transformed by secular liberalism’s contempt for the sacred and the supernatural.

Chaput remarks that “many of us Catholics are largely assimilated to, and digested by, a culture that bleaches out strong religious convictions in the name of liberal tolerance and dulls our longings for the supernatural with a river of practical atheism in the form of consumer goods.” Science and technology have become not just useful, creative tools to improve human flourishing. They’ve become godlings, and religion is demoted: “Religion can still have value in this new dispensation by helping credulous people do socially useful things. But religion isn’t ‘real’ in the same way that science and technology are real.”

And then, because Chaput is fearless and candid, he names names: “We might reflect on what assimilating has actually gained for us when Vice President Biden —  this year’s co-winner of the Laetare Medal — conducts a gay marriage, and Senator Kaine lectures us all on how the Church needs to change and what kind of new creature she needs to become.”

Democracy has what Chaput calls “monist” impulses. It’s central conceit, that “we’re born as autonomous, self-creating individuals who need to be protected from, and made equal with, each other,” is “simply not true.” We are equally beloved by God who made us, but in a thousand other ways we are not equal. Because equality is not true, in the secular sense, the anxiety created by our knowledge of our own inequalities “leads to the peculiar progressive impulse to master and realign reality to conform to human desire, whereas the Christian masters and realigns his desires to conform to and improve reality.” He continues:

To put it another way, quite a few of us American Catholics have worked our way into a leadership class that the rest of the country both envies and resents. And the price of our entry has been the transfer of our real loyalties and convictions from the old Church of our baptism to the new “Church” of our ambitions and appetites. People like Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Kennedy, Joe Biden and Tim Kaine are not anomalies. They’re part of a very large crowd that cuts across all professions and both major political parties.

In the largest sense, they include people like me.

Few of us, Chaput reminds his fellow bishops, live every day as if we really believe the most important things: “that eternity is real, that together we have a mission the world depends on, and that our lives have consequences that transcend time. Francis radiated all these things during his time in Philadelphia.”

“If men and women are really made for heroism and glory, made to stand in the presence of the living God, they can never be satisfied with bourgeois, mediocre, feel-good religion,” Chaput adds.

#related#For Pope Francis Catholics, Mary is the ultimate model, as Chaput understands her. She is the mother of mercy, ever open and obedient to God, our consolation in sorrow and suffering, but she is also something else: “A friend emailed me a copy of a manuscript illustration from the 13th century,” Chaput writes. “It’s a picture of Mary punching the devil in the nose. She doesn’t rebuke him. She doesn’t enter into a dialogue with him. She punches the devil in the nose.”

To thrive, and even possibly to survive, American Catholicism is going to have to re-imagine itself as something different and separate from mainstream American culture. Then, perhaps, we can speak truth to power — not suck up to power, not whine about power, not submit to power — but contribute to a pluralistic America the gift of our diversity.


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