The Catholic Thing
Response to Symmachus Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 26 March 2012

You know we’ve come to a significant point in the history of the Catholic Church in America when leading bishops begin to be as visible in public life as are politicians. (You might also say it’s about damn time.) Cardinal Francis George in Chicago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York, and Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia: each of these men has often engaged the larger culture with reminders – sometimes gentle, sometimes severe – that America is inching towards the precarious edge of a moral precipice.

If this were 1776 (when, in fact, America had no Catholic bishops), you may imagine a John Carroll, say, (who’d become America’s first bishop in 1789) publishing a classic broadside attack against the forces of secularism and anti-Catholicism then upsetting the young nation’s psyche. The typical broadside was a big one-sheet jeremiad tacked to a tree or pasted to a wall. And it was meant to discomfit the king or a royal governor or some portion of the populace and to be a call to action among the faithful – religious or political.

These days you may post your thoughts on the Internet, which is why just about every American churchman has a website (or contributes a column to one). And so Archbishop Chaput has produced a 6,000-word web-only essay, A Heart on Fire: Catholic witness and the next America, that will be available for download beginning tomorrow (it may be pre-ordered now; the cost is 99¢). [NOTE: You don’t need a Kindle reader; you can simply download free Kindle software to your computer.]

But this modern broadside is characterized more by love than anger – its intentions evangelical, not political, although it’s far from advocating political disengagement.

     John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Archbishop Chaput’s analysis is based in part on the prophetic 1940 lectures of John Courtney Murray, published posthumously as a single essay, “The Construction of a Christian Culture.” That essay is a plea for recognition that at the heart of the American experiment are “the intrinsic dignity of human nature; the spiritual freedom of the human soul; its equality as a soul with others of its kind; and its superiority to all that does not share its spirituality.” In another word: religion.

This is far from being theocratic, although liberal secularists may read it to be so. It’s akin to the Zen story of the fry who asks a wise old fish: “What is this ‘sea’ everybody’s talking about?” And the old fish explains that the sea is all around, in essence: the alpha and the omega. The fry protests: “But I don’t see it.” Father Murray’s argument is that Christian faith is the sea from which America’s ethos emerged and the nation risks ruin if it ceases to see that sea as its source.       

Archbishop Chaput particularizes the point, noting the attacks upon faith made in mainstream media (and recently taken up with true hostility by “our national leadership”), and he writes:

The truth, as scripture reminds us, will make us free. But the truth of a situation and what we find today in our news media are often very different things. In seeking truth as citizens, we need to hold our news media to the same skeptical, demanding standards they apply to everyone else. We forget that at our peril – especially in an election year.

This suggests that what’s to come later in A Heart on Fire will be charged with righteous anger, possibly to the point even of being incendiary about the presidency of Barack Obama and those infamous HHS mandates. But these are never mentioned, per se; neither are abortion nor contraception. On my first reading, this disappointed me. I’m among those who’d like to see some “Catholic” activists and politicians barred from Communion, if not actually expelled from the faith: bell, book, and candle.

         Charles Joseph Chaput, O.F.M, Cap

Of course, that’s uncharitable – more “incinerate a heart” than “heart on fire.” As Archbishop Chaput writes, “dismantling the inhuman parody we call ‘modern American culture’ begins not with violence but with the conversion of our own hearts.” Christian witness is always and everywhere a call to embrace the transforming power of Christ’s love, and doing so in this world more likely leads to personal martyrdom than political triumph.

He tells the story of a letter written in the fourth century to the new Christian emperor of Rome (Valentinian) by the pagan prefect, Symmachus, who pled with the emperor to restore an altar to the goddess Victory that had stood for centuries in the senate. Symmachus called for tolerance: let the old gods and the one God dwell together harmoniously at the altar, as pagans and Christians should do in the city. The emperor said no, in part because of the spirited defense of Christianity made by Saint Ambrose, who made clear that the one true God banishes all false gods.

So now America seems hell-bent upon abandoning the unifying Judeo-Christian emphasis on virtue for a kind of chaotic neo paganism. Who’s to blame? The usual suspects, of course. But then . . .

Too many people who claim to be Christian simply don’t know Jesus Christ. They don’t really believe the Gospel. They feel embarrassed by their religion and vaguely out of step with the times. . . .That sort of faith is exactly the same kind of religion that Symmachus once mourned. Whatever it once was, now it’s dead.

Yet Archbishop Chaput is not pessimistic. And he explains why. And we are blessed to have him (and Cardinals George and Dolan) leading us into “the next America.” God does provide. 

Download A Heart on Fire. It’s the best buck you’ll spend in 2012.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and a senior fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute. A former Literary Editor of National Review, he is the author of six books and is a board member of Aid to the Church in Need, USA.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Scotty Ellis, March 26, 2012
Yet paganism didn't die a "natural" death - that is to say, its more zealous inheritors during the fourth century didn't simply give up paganism in favor of Christianity on their own as a matter of conscience. A targeted persecution was mounted by the Christians, who were finally able to turn their new-found imperial favor into a chance for revenge against the pagans who had once persecuted them. Peoples' places of worship were locked up, stripped, and sometimes destroyed, and harsh punishments imposed on those who continued their old faith. Whatever Christianity's decline in our current situation, it is due to voluntary and (for the most part) uncoerced - people are leaving Christianity because they feel it to be wrong, incomplete, or inadequate. Christianity must do a better job presenting to the broader culture why these sentiments are wrong in order to turn the tide.
written by Tony Esolen, March 26, 2012
Apparently their living in a sewer or a bombed-out moral chaos or anti-cities of anonymity and loneliness isn't sufficient?
written by Sue, March 26, 2012
" I’m among those who’d like to see some “Catholic” activists and politicians barred from Communion...of course, that's uncharitable..."

No it's charitable to admonish the sinner, and Pope Benedict has recently exhorted us to do just that.

Pseudo-conservative Catholics alignment with Murray, "Catholics for Obama", and Catholics for Obamacare are part of the problem, not the solution.
The ideology of "Health Care for All" has led us to the brink of bankruptcy, both economic and moral. Those who are steering us towards totalitarianism
are all too cognizant that the way to manipulate an electorate is to dangle entitlements and sentimentalism in equal portions.
written by Denverite, March 26, 2012
God bless Abp. Chaput. May his faithful witness and presentation of the faith be celebrated, engaged, and widely read - and may it bear fruit.

Thank you Mr. Miner. I'll spend the 'buck' and be far richer for it!

Every Catholic should read his Excellency's book from several years back, "Render Unto Caesar."

Let us live the Faith joyfully, and defend HMC vigorously, with charity, not for our own benefit, but for the good of our children and grandchildren.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.
written by Lee Gilbert, March 26, 2012
Archbishop Chaput's approach is very welcome. Lamentably, however, the bulletin insert provided by the USCCB to the parishes of the United States to counter the HHS mandate evinces little understanding of the very nature of the struggle in which we are engaged. If our consciences are threatened, then we are in a spiritual war, a war for our souls, not a political war. Our struggle, then, is not with flesh and blood- with the HHS, with Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama, with the “Culture of Death,” with the mainstream mass media- but with the principalities and powers of darkness (Eph 6:12). How is it, then, that within this bulletin insert there is not one word about prayer, about fasting, about storming Heaven? *

The insert quotes Thomas Jefferson, the Federal Register, Cardinals Dolan and Wuerl, Archbishop Broglio. There is not one word of Scripture. For deliverance from this draconian decree we should look to our senators and representatives and be sure to write them. In sum, the battle is not the Lord’s, but ours and it is to be waged politically. We have decided to fight the enemy on his own ground and on his own terms. With this kind of leadership, defeat is certain, and not only on this issue.
written by Louise, March 26, 2012
" I’m among those who’d like to see some “Catholic” activists and politicians barred from Communion...of course, that's uncharitable..."

It may be uncharitable, but in the meantime, unborn infants are dying by the thousands every day because Catholics holding political office refuse to accept Catholic teaching, and some red hats have an unrealistic understanding of their ability to change the minds of those pro-abortion Catholic politicians by sweet talk and teaching. By their refusal to act, these red hats proclaim to the world at large that the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ is not really serious about loving the vulnerable, the weak, and the poor. Their failure to act is a kind of abuse of power where the innocent die and the guilty go free.
written by Manfred, March 26, 2012
On Friday, March 23rd, my wife and I drove to Trenton, NJ to lend witness to a Right to Religious Freedom rally at one of the 140 sites across the nation. The speakers were both Catholic and Evangelical with the Evangelicals being the more incisive and effective. The reason for this, in my opinion. is the Evangelicals boasted they did not take any Federal money for their few colleges and hospitals and therefore politicians, whether Catholic or not, HAD NEVER BEEN THEIR BUSINESS PARTNERS. That is why Abp. Dolan and eight NY bishops met with Gov. Cuomo in April, 2011 to discuss aid to parochial schools, and Cuomo's living with a woman out of wedlock and his soon to vote position on "same sex marriage" were never discussed. He was their "partner", after all. He was writing the check. No one will be excommunicated. The American church (sic) is truly a scheme to employ perverts and chuckleheads. There is simply no other way to explain it.
written by Matt, March 26, 2012
Read at our Sunday Mass...

Pennsylvania's Bishops Call Day of Prayer, Fasting, Abstinence for Religious Liberty

"Recognizing the efficacy of prayer and fasting as well as the challenges we face in overcoming the recent attack on our religious freedom, we, the Bishops of Pennsylvania, request that all Catholics dedicate the regular Lenten Friday practice of prayer and abstinence as well as the additional practice of fasting on Friday, March 30, to the
preservation of religious liberty."

written by MaxIII, March 27, 2012
Cardinal Francis George should have been forced to resign over his disgraceful and inexcusable handling of his priest and serial child rapist Daniel McCormack. Cardinal Dolan decided to barely lift a finger against New York's "gay marriage" bill, or even be in his diocese in New York on the day of the vote. His excuse? He said he didn't believe it would pass so he didn't see the point of being there. Archbishop Chaput however continues to shine as one of the brightest points of light of the ecclesiastical firmament.

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