‘Believers don’t have the luxury of despair,” Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes in his new book, released today, Strangers in a Strange Land. “Our task as Christians,” he writes, “is to be healthy cells in society. We need to work as long as we can, in whatever way we can, to nourish the good in our country and to encourage the seeds of renewal that can enliven our young people.” The archbishop, a Capuchin Franciscan, talks about the book and some of the challenges of today in an interview with National Review Online.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Can we really be holy in this world today? Must we be?
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput: Of course we can be holy. The book talks about the challenges we now face as American Christians — and yes, they’re serious — because if we’re not willing to face and understand our real circumstances, we can’t begin to change them. But the whole point of writing Strangers was to lead people through those challenges to claim the joy and hope of a life in Jesus Christ. If the book is about anything, it’s about why we can trust in God’s love for us.
If we think of holiness as a kind of Mount Everest of virtue, we’ll never start to climb. But as Christians, we’re all called to holiness. It’s always within our reach if we’re serious about pursuing it. The word “holy” comes from the Hebrew word qodesh, which doesn’t mean pious; it means “separate” or “other than.” The pursuit of holiness is the everyday work of separating ourselves from the distractions and addictions in the world that pull us away from God. In that sense, just turning off the television noise box can be the seed of holiness.
Lopez: “The special voice that biblical belief once had in our public square is now absent.” Could that and should that ever be recovered in a “post-Christian” world?
Archbishop Chaput: As I say toward the end of the book, there’s really no such thing as a “post-Christian” world as long as the Gospel lives in our hearts and shapes our actions. All nations grow, flourish, and eventually pass away. Sometimes they can be renewed, and sometimes not. Our country is no different. We’re only responsible for our own choices and behaviors, and for how we influence our families, friends, and the people we encounter.
The better that we live as Christians, the more others will discover Jesus Christ. That’s the only way to renew or convert a culture over time.
Lopez: Why is the difference between optimism and hope so important? How do you encourage people in hope without veering into very annoying and unhelpful Pollyanna-ish territory? And where does a Christian start if he is genuinely struggling with despair right about now?
Archbishop Chaput: Georges Bernanos described hope as “despair overcome.” That sounds like a scary definition but it’s exactly right. Christianity isn’t a fairytale. It’s a religion for realists. Life has tragic elements. Suffering and death can’t be avoided. They have no adequate worldly explanation, and that leads many people to the cynicism and meaninglessness that seem to permeate so much of the developed world. Only faith in a loving God can offer us a foundation for hope. We can only have trust and confidence in the future if we believe in a God who guides human affairs and loves each of us personally as a Father.
On the other hand, Bernanos described optimism as “whistling past the graveyard.” Optimism can be a kind of self-hypnosis. Things don’t always turn out for the better. There are no historical forces that guarantee human progress or ensure that tomorrow will be better than today. People are free. They can do good or evil with their freedom. The future is never really predictable or predetermined, except in the very long term of God’s will. So Christian joy and hope have no necessary connection with being an optimist.
Lopez: Some of the issues that you bring up in the book — such as same-sex marriage and gender change — are so intimate and painful. How do you talk about these without hurting people more deeply, keeping them further away from the Church? This seems to be something that concerns Pope Francis greatly. And you, too?
Archbishop Chaput: The truth can have sharp edges, which is why St. Paul tells us to speak the truth with love. Always, always with love. Using the truth to bully or humiliate other people is never excusable. But that doesn’t absolve us from speaking and teaching the truth, even when truth is rejected as a form of “hatred.”
Lopez: Why do you write about Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals in the book? Did you worry that it would feed into caricatures painting you as a conservative in the days of a liberal pope? Is it your hope and prayer that you both transcend such labels, and all Christian people do, too?
Archbishop Chaput: Labels suggest division where there often isn’t any. Is Pope Francis “liberal” when he talks about the reality of the devil or speaks against gender ideology? Because he does both with some frequency. Is the Church in Philadelphia “conservative” in her social-service and educational ministries? Because both are very extensive and help tens of thousands of immigrants, homeless, and poor every year. Catholic social and moral teaching is one organic body of belief. Different pastors stress different elements according to the needs of their people, but it’s one organic body of belief.
I used the example of Saul Alinsky in the book because he influenced the development of so many of today’s social activists and leaders. But in the end, he’s not radical enough. The Beatitudes are radical. They go to the root of changing human behavior. Alinsky’s work is just a warmed-over version of Machiavelli with the same, very old appetite for getting and keeping power, whatever it takes.
Lopez: Do people misunderstand what Pope Francis has to say about mercy?
Archbishop Chaput: We tend to forget that John Paul II made mercy a key theme of his pontificate. There’s nothing radically new or different in Francis’s understanding of mercy. Read Romano Guardini on justice and mercy. Guardini is useful because his work shaped so much of Francis’s thinking. Nothing fundamental has changed.
Lopez: You say in the book that “our task as Christians” is to be “healthy cells in society.” When the Church in the U.S. is closing schools and parishes and dealing with the moral fog and misery of priest sex-abuse scandals, are we in the position to be those “healthy cells”? Are we remotely healthy?
Archbishop Chaput: The issues you mention are very painful, especially since American Catholics have felt comfortable and accepted in the United States for decades. But we’ve seen many worse times than now in the life of the Church. The Church is growing, suffering, and contracting in different ways and in different places all the time. We defeat ourselves by wringing our hands. We can’t allow ourselves to be crippled by our failures. God has always done extraordinary things with poor clay. That includes us.
Lopez: You write, “Instead of helping the poor, we go shopping. Instead of spending meaningful time with our families and friends, we look for videos on the Internet. We cocoon ourselves in a web of narcotics, from entertainment to self-help gurus to chemicals. We wrap ourselves in cheap comforts and empty slogans, and because there are never enough of them, we constantly look for more. We enjoy getting angry about problems that we can’t solve, and we overlook the child who wants us to watch her dance, or the woman on the street corner asking for food.”
What are we called to do about the woman on the street corner asking for food? For a woman alone — or with young children — what is she to do when she’s approached by a man asking for money, maybe a little aggressively? What’s the truly Christian response to these situations for those of us living in cities?
Archbishop Chaput: The Gospel calls us to be generous, just, and merciful. It doesn’t tell us to be reckless or stupid with our safety or our resources. God gave us common sense. We need to apply that common sense as best we can in each of those particular circumstances, always in light of the Gospel.
Lopez: How might we rededicate ourselves to the Beatitudes and that “reform of our own hearts” that you say is so essential? Today? This Lent?
Archbishop Chaput: Actually reading the Beatitudes and praying over them on a daily basis during Lent would be a great place to start. We can’t quick-fix our way out of habits and problems we behaved ourselves into. The only way to change ourselves is to compare our hearts and our actions each day with the words Jesus spoke in his Sermon on the Mount. It sounds like a small thing to do, and it is. But “easy” — not so much.
Lopez: You do talk in the book about movements in the Church. Are there some movements that can be more helpful than others right now, or do they all have their roles? Have any been particularly helpful to the life of the Church in Philadelphia since you’ve been there? To you, personally? Can different movements learn a bit from one another and share with the broader Church?
Archbishop Chaput: All of the new charisms, movements, and communities in the Church have their weaknesses and failures, as well as their strengths. They’ll never replace our parishes. But they do serve the same vital purpose of renewal that the great religious orders served in earlier centuries. So they need to be encouraged. My personal experience of the Neo-Catechumenal Way, the Sodalitium Christiane Vitae, Communion and Liberation, and other groups has been very positive. They’ve done wonderful work in the dioceses where I’ve served. At their best, they add a great deal to the life of the wider Church.
Lopez: Did Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. in 2015 — and to your archdiocese of Philadelphia — have an enduring effect? Should it still? Are there parts of that visit that we ought to revisit, such as the results of the World Meeting of Families?
Archbishop Chaput: It can take years after a massive event like the World Meeting of Families to see its lasting effect. A year or two after Denver’s World Youth Day in 1993, nothing seemed to have changed. But a decade later, everything was different: a completely reinvigorated Church. It all depends on how deeply our people take the pope’s support for marriage and families to heart. We’re doing everything we can to make that happen.
Lopez: What’s your prayer for the president and all of those in elected office, especially regarding current and future civic engagement and political leadership?
Archbishop Chaput: We’re at a dangerous moment in our national history. The Word of God obligates us — not just encourages, but obligates us — to respect and pray for our leaders. That means all of our leaders, from the White House down. We need to oppose bad policies and laws, but we need to do that peacefully and legally. If we don’t, we’re ensuring a continuous cycle of resentment and revenge that will lead in an ugly direction. People on both sides of today’s political divide have deep convictions and very long memories. If we can’t be civil with one another, the alternative very quickly will be violence. We’re already seeing it happen.
Lopez: You quote Augustine a lot in the book. Why is he so important, and how can he best help Catholics in America in a particular way today?
Archbishop Chaput: Augustine lived in an age of confusion and change very like our own. It was a kind of hinge-point between historical epochs, a time filled with both possibility and anxiety. And yet he never lost his sense of joy and hope, his love for the beauty of creation, or his gratitude for God’s gift of life. If we want to have the same inner freedom, and we certainly need it today, Augustine is the model for our time.