One of the most noteworthy recent events in the Church occurred after the Extraordinary Synod closed on October 18. On October 20, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput gave the annual Erasmus Lecture for the magazine First Things in New York. Media coverage focused almost entirely on a remark the archbishop made in passing during the Q&A about the confusion that emerged from the Synod. But don’t waste time on that – misleading – sideshow. The really important, truly lasting thing was the lecture itself.
First Things will bring it out in its own good time. For now, you can watch it here. (I myself had to – I was not in New York but en route between the Synod and a lecture of my own at Aquinas College in Nashville, a subject for another day.) It’s worth your time because the good archbishop deftly sums up and offers remedies for our dire situation as believers, which is likely to get worse. It’s simple realism for all of us, especially future priests, to be prepared for a culture that, in the next quarter century, will be “drastically different and much more unfriendly.” We will be – in large part already are – “aliens in an alien land.”
Do not think Chaput is all gloom and despair. Quite the opposite. He speaks with calmness and clarity, but also with conviction and hope. As I listened, I was reminded of the Virgin Mary’s advice to King Alfred before battle in Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?
There is always hope – but not the facile kind that really wants the consolations of unreal optimism. For Chaput, our hope lies precisely in our faith. We must be people of worship first, and action second. What he means is that mere action, unconnected to the Creator, is not true service. It’s when we go out to love and serve our neighbor – as we must – because of our love and adoration of God that we really do something. Humility and sanity flow from that deep root.
It’s impossible to sum up this rich presentation in a brief space, but perhaps the central elements involve the large sweep of recent Catholic history, which presents us with two large questions.
On the one hand, we cannot be or act as we ought unless we disentangle ourselves from our mad and increasingly threatening culture. Some characterize this as the “Benedictine option,” withdrawal from the larger world to intentional Christian communities or monastery-like enclaves of various kinds. A proper vocation for those so called; and for all of us, one way or another, it’s necessary to find a place of refuge and encouragement, beginning with the parish.
On the other hand, that is never the full Catholic ideal, since the Church’s mission is to be in, but not of, the world, to evangelize – and redeem – it. Early Christians knew that they lived in a hostile culture and had to act accordingly. For a long time, Catholics in America understood something similar, though Chaput expresses admiration for the fruitful tension between a Biblical perspective and Enlightenment views that existed for years in our history.
The Biblical part – a Protestant creation that also sheltered Catholics – has been driven out of the public square, however, so that Christians “now feel like strangers out of sync in the land of their birth.” Chaput believes that this was neither natural nor inevitable, but advanced by activists who moved into politics, media, higher education, and the judiciary. And won.
Catholics long desired, as outsiders, to be accepted by the mainstream. For too many of us, that meant that we claimed to be Catholic, perhaps attended Mass, but didn’t really believe. For Chaput, that’s why we haven’t convincingly transmitted those beliefs to another generation. As bad as our losing our sense of being “aliens” has been, it’s even worse that our children and grandchildren have no such sense.
As a bishop, Chaput also acknowledges the responsibilities of bishops for our plight – particularly in the malfeasance and nonfeasance connected with the sexual abuse crisis. Only a few years before that erupted in 2002, it was still possible to think of a coming “Catholic moment” in America (Richard John Neuhaus’ phrase). But that opportunity was lost.
So what, now, is to be done? The rapid rise of the gay “marriage” movement is “a uniquely powerful sign value” of the exclusion from the public square of not only the Biblical perspective but of public reason and argument. The mission of faith and reason, therefore, is more urgent than ever. We should thank God for this moment, says Chaput, because it requires the Church and individuals to purify themselves, even as it has clarified the nature of the opposition.
Multiple renewal movements have arisen in this country and around the world. We will face stiff resistance, perhaps even legal and financial penalties. But if we are to succeed now, we will have to meet those challenges and actually develop new initiatives and arguments that work, not merely cling to the old forms and programs that grew up in the past to deal with a different situation. When people really believe and act on that belief, it leavens the whole society. Otherwise “religion is just another form of self-medicating.”
A quite radical proposal. By comparison, says Chaput, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals – a favorite among some in our ruling class – is just “Machiavelli for people with short attention spans.” Not radical, merely the same tired grasping for power.
The Gospel is radical. The Beatitudes are radical. And if we are attacked for it, we should be glad: “for so men persecuted the prophets that were before you.”