Christians have always been “Resident Aliens,” the title of the first chapter of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s new book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World. But “we [Americans] live in a country very different from that of the past. … People who hold a classic understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family have gone in just twenty years from pillars of mainstream conviction to the media equivalent of racists and bigots.” How are Christians to cope with this “sea change in American public life”?
Since the publication of his previous, widely acclaimed book on faith and American society, Render Unto Caesar (2008, second revised edition 2012), the archbishop of Philadelphia hosted the 2015 World Meeting of Families and participated in both Synods on the Family. He is in a unique position to examine the interface between Catholic faith and morals, on the one hand, and today’s aggressively secular American society on the other.
The book’s second chapter “revisits the America we thought we knew…, along with the ideals and virtues it embodied.” The Founding Fathers of the United States of America drew “from the Enlightenment’s trust in man’s ability to create good institutions. And they built on a biblical sense of justice in rejecting oppression.” Alexis de Tocqueville, whose insights as a Frenchman visiting early-19th century America are quoted often, noted that the new nation was “the product of two perfectly distinct elements…the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” Chaput identifies various components in the American system of government (republicanism, constitutionalism, natural law, and cultural tradition) and chronicles the stages by which Catholic immigrants to the United States gained full acceptance in American society.
After this short historical review, the author explains in Chapters 3 through 7 where the American experiment is now in the 21st century and how it got there. With striking examples he shows that the social trust of less than two generations ago is irretrievably gone. He points to early factors that started to undermine the successful and seemingly monolithic national culture of post-World-War-II America: rapid technological advances—especially in communication—the Vietnam War, the development of the birth control pill (and the resulting sexual revolution), radical feminism. Members of the most privileged generation in history, the Baby Boomers, became cultural revolutionaries, and now their grandchildren are growing up. “And that those new young adults and teens think and do will make the next America,” Chaput writes.
Chapter 4 tellingly contrasts the Judeo-Christian belief in the goodness and purposefulness of creation with the secular belief in progress. Chapter 5 looks at American customs of marriage and cohabitation, childrearing and divorce, sexual identity and gender ideology. “As the scholar Augusto Del Noce observed decades ago, the sexual revolution, for all its talk of freedom, has a distinctly totalitarian undercurrent,” the archbishop points out. He adds this indictment: “The crime of the modern sexual regime is that it robs Eros of its meaning and love of its grandeur. It’s a lie. It’s a theft. It makes us small and ignoble.” True personal fulfillment and the survival of society depend on taming and channeling Eros to serve the purpose for which it was created; “Our wholeness, our integrity, depends on the health of our friendship with God.”
Chapter 6 charts the malaise that has spread through society along with the politically correct notion that truth is merely personal and relative. The religion of the marketplace (the almighty dollar), corrosive political correctness, the numbing of consciences, and the decline of trusted institutions are some of the results. Chapter 7 draws on the book After Virtue by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre to demonstrate how moral confusion asserts itself, gradually but inexorably, as the Western world becomes post-Christian.
Yet there is hope (Chapter 8)—not the slogan, but the supernatural virtue. Chaput defines it and describes its practical effects with the help of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the encyclical Spe Salvi by Pope Benedict XVI. Detailed discussions of the Beatitudes (Chapter 9), scriptural images and parables (Chapter 10), and the second-century Letter to Diognetus (Chapter 11) on the position of the early Christians in a pagan society help the reader to understand how a life of faith is possible and beneficial, even in a hostile environment.
The final chapter highlights the beauty of creation and the nobility of the human person. It ends on the encouraging note that every individual life matters and that personal Christian witness can be simple and still effective.
Strangers in a Strange Land is a thought-provoking depiction of a complex contemporary scene. As he fills in his canvas, the author cites a wide variety of sources: magisterial documents and Church Fathers (especially Augustine), historical figures, contemporary ethicists and social scientists, and even poets. Yet throughout the book Chaput is much more than a cultural commentator; he is a pastor instructing souls. Although his message is challenging, the tone is always civil, conversational rather than controversial, and never preachy. In a non-academic way, with remarkable clarity and gentle wit, the author offers remedial lessons in Catholic morality and social doctrine for generations of poorly catechized Americans.
In a February 2 interview, Archbishop Chaput observed:
We’re living through a time of transition. It’s painful. Many people are angry and confused. That’s obvious both nationally and globally. I think the Obama years brought to fruition some cultural trends in the United States that were brewing for a long time. Some of them are distinctly unfriendly to the way Christians live their faith. … It’s a special shock for Catholics because we spent the last century or so trying to fit into a social environment that was skeptical of the Roman Church from the start. Now that we’ve finally arrived, the rules of the game have changed.
As though to remind readers that the rules of Catholicism have not changed, the author dedicated this book to his Capuchin confrere, “mentor and friend,” the late Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., who taught moral theology for years and published books and articles on that subject.
The year 2016 demonstrated conclusively that America is not about to stop getting stranger anytime soon. All the more reason, then, to read, ponder and enjoy Strangers in a Strange Land.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017), hardback, xiv + 273 pp.
Related reading: “‘Facts’ and ‘values’ and darkness at noon”: An excerpt from Archbishop Chaput’s new book Strangers in a Strange Land