Charles Chaput retired as Philadelphia’s archbishop exactly one year ago, and for him at least, it’s been a quiet and very private twelve months. Private, but not unproductive. Henry Holt Ltd, an imprint of Macmillan, will publish his latest book – Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living – on March 16. The reader will find in its pages Chaput’s most memorable and moving work; but then, along with many others, I helped with the research as the archbishop completed his drafts. So a review is better left to different voices.
There are three brief passages from his forthcoming book that are, nonetheless, worth sharing here and especially now. He writes:
As a young bishop decades ago, I spent hours reading anything I could about leadership. People deserve good leaders. Great leaders seem to be born with special skills, and are therefore rare. But most persons have at least some seeds of leadership in their character; seeds that need just a little courage, wisdom, desire, and self-mastery to grow.
A good leader knows his strengths and cultivates them. He also knows his weaknesses. He enlists and acknowledges good cooperators to achieve what he can’t do alone. He also accepts the demands that leadership puts on him: protecting the people in his care; putting their needs above his own; guiding them; giving them reasons for hope; and speaking with honesty. Honesty is the most unwelcome quality in a leader when the news is bad. But it always ranks among the most respected virtues of leadership. Honesty is humanity’s anchor to reality.
For too many of us, freedom no longer means the ability to know, to choose, and to do what’s morally right; rather, it means what the scholar D.C. Schindler described as “freedom from reality” itself. It’s a freedom literally “diabolical” in the sense of the original Greek roots of the word: dia (between) and ballo (throw), meaning roughly to split apart or divide. As a result, we relentlessly try to reimagine the world to suit our desires, and then coerce others into believing our delusions.
Truth is to the human soul as water is to a desert. It gives life. It also, as Someone famous once said (Jn 8:32), makes us free. Courage and honesty are the pillars that sustain a culture of truth; they enable a freedom grounded in reality. Their absence produces the opposite. This is why, despite the current administration’s pious calls for unity and a return to America’s best ideals, what we actually now have is a political culture of systematic lying and unreality, driven by a will to power.
Anyone doubting the mendacity of our new leaders and their herd immunity to the virus otherwise known as fact, need only watch health assistant secretary nominee Dr. Rachel (formerly “Richard”) Levine’s performance when recently questioned by Sen. Rand Paul.
It’s a sign of our times that Paul (himself a physician), not Levine, was subsequently trashed by mainstream media for asking “offensive” and “ignorant” questions about genital mutilation of children perceived as gender-confused; the approved language, it turns out, is “gender-affirming health care.” In other words, gender-transitioning a minor is no more a form of child sex abuse than abortion is a form of killing the unborn. Both are positive goods.
Reality, like biology, is now malleable – even erasable. On the day I wrote this column, the word “Richard” appeared nowhere in Levine’s Wikipedia bio entry, even as a residue of personal history. What we make ourselves forget, in effect, never existed.
Americans have always been a practical people. Sensible persons in flyover country – i.e., those darkling colonies outside Carthage on the Potomac and the DC/Boston corridor – will be tempted to shrug this nuttiness off as a kind of self-hypnosis, certain to run its course and collapse. That’s a mistake. If the last century taught any lesson, it’s that poisonous ideas can have astonishing durability and a bitterly high cost in suffering. They also spread and mutate unless they’re stopped. And stopping them requires people of courage and honesty.
Which brings us to a third and final passage from Chaput’s Things:
Cowardice is very good at hiding behind prudence. Too often we twist ourselves to suit what we think is approved behavior or thought. We muffle our beliefs to avoid being the targets of contempt. Over time, a legitimate exercise of prudence can degrade into a habit that soils the soul. No person of integrity betrays his or her convictions; mouthing lies we know to be lies murders us inwardly. Even silence, which is sometimes prudent, can poison our integrity if it becomes a standard way to avoid the consequences of what we claim to believe. Jesus urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love can never involve accepting or joining in the evil of others. The self-love proper for a Christian includes the love of personal honor, the kind that comes from living with integrity in a world that would have us betray our convictions.
In my years working for Archbishop Chaput, I discovered both the quality of his character and his appetite for films. He’s seen hundreds. Among his favorites, understandably, is A Man for All Seasons, based on the play by Robert Bolt. Yet as Bolt himself said, he wrote his play not as an argument for truth, but in defense of personal conscience, whatever a person’s beliefs.
The real Thomas More would have found Bolt’s reasoning incomprehensible. More believed in the existence of truth – not just “my” truth or “your” truth, but the truth, God’s universal and enduring truth – regardless of our personal opinions. For More, that truth resides with unique beauty and authority in the Catholic Church, and we owe her teachings our loyalty, without reservations, if we claim to be Catholic. Which is why he died for her, and why his fidelity remains a model for us in every season: the good, the bad. . .
And our own. Something to remember in the days ahead.