Almost fifty years ago, the writings on religious pluralism of an American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, helped the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to draft a Declaration on Religious Liberty in a world where millions of Christians were being ruled by officially atheistic regimes.
On March 23, 2012, hundreds of citizens gathered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to participate in a Rally for Religious Freedom, in protest of the U.S. Government’s Health and Human Services Department mandate that compels institutions and individuals to pay for insurance coverage of contraception and abortion despite their conscientious objections.
The United States used to be such a staunch defender and beacon of religious freedom. What happened?!
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., who now serves as Archbishop of Philadelphia, incisively explains many of the reasons for this paradox in a new e-book entitled A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, published by Image Books (a division of Random House, Inc.).
The author neatly captures the fundamental tension in the American religious scene by contrasting the courage and pioneering spirit of the Christians who first came to these shores and the skepticism of their materialistic descendants just a few generations later (symbolized respectively by Bunyan’s perennial classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and satirical portrayals of Protestantism in short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne).
Nowadays the skeptics seem to have commandeered the megaphones. Chaput writes:
Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are two key pillars of our country’s identity. But more than sixty years ago, the writer George Orwell saw something curious emerging in the character of modern journalism—an erosion of free thought and expression unique to democratic societies.
Archbishop Chaput notes the widespread ignorance of and indifference to organized religion among the so-called “knowledge classes” today, but he does not complain. Instead, as a pastor, he probes the responsibility of American Catholics themselves in the present state of affairs. “Instead of Catholics converting the culture, the culture too often bleached out the apostolic zeal in Catholics while leaving the brand label intact.”
In a curious, looking-glass sort of passage, the author describes Symmachus, one of the last remaining pagans in Rome, writing to the Christian emperor to argue that the sacred fire should be restored at the Altar to the goddess of Victory in the Roman Senate. His request was denied: what good are rituals when the fire of conviction has gone out? The sobering point is that “Christians may soon find themselves in the same place Symmachus once did—arguing from the margins” of society.
Chaput prescribes two remedies for the anemic role of Christians in public life. One is personal soul-searching on the part of Catholic citizens. The other is a return to the fullness of the Catholic heritage.
Catholic higher education is heir to the greatest intellectual, moral and cultural patrimony in human history. It has a deeply satisfying answer to who and why man is. It’s beautiful because it’s true. It has nothing to be embarrassed about and every reason to be on fire with confidence and apostolic zeal. We only defeat ourselves—and we certainly don’t serve God—if we allow ourselves to ever think otherwise.
The Capuchin Friar has read widely in United States history and current events and proved to be an articulate observer of contemporary culture and Church-state relations in Render Unto Caesar, published in 2008. A chapter from that earlier book is included as a supplement to the new e-book, and it has lost none of its freshness or relevance.
The profound, unapologetic and timely reflections of Archbishop Chaput are required reading for Catholics who are concerned about what sort of America they will leave for future generations.