Response to Symmachus Print
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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