Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia speaks during a press conference with a delegation from Pennsylvania at the Vatican in March 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s latest book, Strangers
in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World,
is available now from Henry Holt & Co. In anticipation of the
release of the book, CWR editor Carl E. Olson conducted the following email
interview with Philadelphia’s archbishop earlier this month.
CWR: The title of your
book is taken from a Scripture passage where Moses describes himself as a
sojourner in a foreign land. What are some fundamental ways Christians in
America need to be foreigners, or strangers, in “a strange land”?
Charles J. Chaput: The verse you mention is Exodus 2:22. I used the
King James Version of the text because of its beauty in English.
once described America as a nation that thinks it’s a Church. And that makes
sense. The Protestant roots of our country run deep. Christians played a very big
role in the nation’s founding and building. The good news is that, for most of
its history, America has been uniquely friendly to biblical faith as a force in
public life. By “uniquely” I mean that Christian belief wasn’t imposed by a
state Church from above. Instead, it flowed naturally from the people themselvesincluding
many if not most of the Founders.
not-so-good news is that times have changed. The past 60 years have transformed
almost every aspect of American life. Christians are waking up to the fact that
the country they thought they knew isn’t the country they actually live in. That’s
especially ironic for Catholics. We’ve spent the last century trying to fit in
to the American mainstream. Now that we’ve finally made it, the place is under
new and even less friendly management.
a lot of good remains in American life. Christians still play an important role
in public affairs. It’s always dangerous to give in to pessimism, and to ignore
the many signs of life in the Church and wider culture. As Pope Francis likes
to say, there are no sad saints. But we can’t start to change things for the
better until we have a realistic understanding of where we are and the problems
we face, which are serious.
CWR: There is an
overtly Augustinian current in the opening chapter of your new book. What are
some of the similarities between 21st-century America and fourth-century
Archbishop Chaput: Rome kicked out its
king, became a republic, and ended up an empire that eventually collapsed under
the weight of its own success. Draw your own conclusions.
of the highest early Roman virtues were pietas,
devotion to the gods, and pudicitia,
modesty or chastity. By Augustine’s time, all the early pagan virtues had
unraveled into excess. Augustine served as a bishop in an era of widespread
violence, economic and political crisis, the massive migration of peoples, and confusion
within the Church herself. In other words, he lived right on the hinge of
historical epochsthe moment dividing Late Antiquity from the Early Middle
Ages. I think we’re close to that same kind of moment today.
parallels between Rome and our own situation are imperfect. They’re very easy
to overstate. But they’re also hard to ignore. One of the main lessons to take
from Augustine is that no earthly power is free of sin. Nor does it last
forever. Each of us has limited time in the world. Our real citizenship is heaven.
In a culture of noise and distraction, we too easily forget that.
CWR: Two major themes
intertwine through much of the book: the constant movement of history and the
incredible impact of technology on recent generations. You note, for example,
how “the essence of technology’s spirit is becoming, not arriving”; it posits “restlessness
as a destiny.” How has technology affected our understanding of narrative,
especially about who we are as Catholics and as Americans? What can be done to
keep our tools from using us?
Archbishop Chaput: Our country was
founded by people who crossed an ocean to escape the past. Americans have never
really liked history. We experience it as a burden. It ties us to memories and
networks of obligation that limit our options. We don’t like that. Our national
seal says it all. We’re in the business of making a novus ordo secloruma “new order of the ages.” To do that we need
tools. This is one of the reasons why we’re so good at technology and so easily
dazzled by it.
a culture based on a flawed idea of individualism, “freedom” requires the right
to invent and reinvent ourselves. Any narrative that defines the individual as
part of a larger story sooner or later becomes the enemy. But that’s exactly
what Scripture and the Church do. Each of our individual lives has dignity
because God loves each of us uniquely and infinitely. But our meaning is tied
up in the role we play in a much greater sacred story continuing through time. To
the degree that technology misleads us about the amount of control we have over
our lives, focuses us on purely material things, diverts us from our larger
story, and encourages us to forget about matters of the spirit, it becomes a
weapon against humanity, not its servant.
a cure for that of course, both simple and difficult. Unplug.
CWR: In some key ways
you contradict the notion that prior to the 1960s America was a robustly
Christian country that was overrun from without, noting that America’s deep
streak of individualism and its technological innovations were essential, from
within, for the sexual revolution. How do those two things relate to another,
especially in light of the rapid and recent revolution in how Americans view “same-sex
Archbishop Chaput: Our country has
always been a mixed marriage of biblical faith and Enlightenment deism. Christians
see creation as a gift. The world and its creatures have their own inherent
purpose and dignity. Humans are stewards, not owners. But as religious practice
declines, the ground shifts. Enlightenment thinkers saw the world as raw
material to be used. It has no purpose beyond the meaning we give it. The human
will is sovereign. If that’s so, and if we apply that thinking to our
sexuality, then why wouldn’t we welcome same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and a lot more?
CWR: You mention the
French philosopher and social critic Alexis de Tocqueville several times. What
impact has he had on your understanding of the American experiment?
Archbishop Chaput: I’m a pastor, not a
scholar. A bishop’s job is helping people get to heaven, not to Washington. But
even as a pastor, knowing some Tocqueville is really useful. He understood
Americans as a people; he “got” our personality and character. Maybe because he
was an outsider looking in, he saw the strengths and weaknesses of American
life very clearly. His book Democracy in
America is still the best book ever written about our country, nearly 200
years after it first appeared.
CWR: Prior to the 2016
presidential election you were quite frank in your negative assessment of both
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, and you touch on that in the book. What are some
essential problems with the political life in America today? What can be done
to address them?
Archbishop Chaput: In some ways we’ve
gotten too big, too wealthy, and too successful to remain the nation we were meant
to be. We were founded as a republica res
publica in Latin, loosely meaning “public affair,” or commonly shared
project. The size of the country and the bureaucracy we need to run it now make
representative democracy something remote and meaningless for a lot of voters.
people don’t think their vote counts, individuals turn in on themselves, their
appetites, and their private interests. This is whynot counting the
presidential frenzy we go through every four yearsactual political involvement
by Americans is rather low. The people who end up running the country tend to
be a more or less stable leadership class drawn from certain select
backgrounds, professions, and institutions. The Trump election might or might
not put a temporary brake on that process, but it won’t change the reality in
any deep way.
said all that, this is a moment for faith and clear thinking, not whining. Politics
are important, but they always fail to feed the soul. God’s given us an
opportunity to recover our real identity as Christians in this country and the
missionary task that goes along with it. That’s where our focus needs to be.
CWR: Another central
theme in the book is a contrast between building a culture of hope and joy
while rejecting the “cult of progress.” Have we arrived, as some have insisted,
at a “post-culture wars” era? Or will we always be, in foundational ways,
involved in a struggle between vying cults, or cultures?
Archbishop Chaput: Complaining about
“culture wars” and “culture-warrior bishops” is just nonsense. It’s a technique
some people use to shut down views they don’t like. Every culture is undergoing
some form of cultural struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, all the
time. Otherwise it’s dead. We need to treat each other with charity, justice,
and mutual respect, but conflict is unavoidable. Augustine spent much of his
adulthood locked in one or another kind of conflict, but once God entered his
life, he never lost his sense of joy and hope, or his love of beauty. We need
to do the same.
CWR: In a chapter titled
“Rules for Radicals,” you argue that Jesus (rather than Saul Alinsky) is the
true radical, and that he gave us truly radical rules. What are those rules and
how do they relate to Catholics in 21st-century America?
Archbishop Chaput: They’re the
Beatitudes. And they relate to us in the 21st century in exactly the same
way they related to Jews and Gentiles in the first century. They’re not meant
as “ideals.” They’re meant to be lived.
If we try to do that, we’ll faila lot. But it’s in our trying that God will
remake us into the persons he created us to be. And when we change, the world
begins to change.
CWR: There is, I think
it is fair to say, a fair amount of frustration, concern, and even angst among
many Catholics over the state of the country and the state of the Church. How
do you think your book might encourage and help such readers?
Archbishop Chaput: I hope the book
helps readers to see the world and the challenges that we now face as they
really are, but not to stop there. I wrote
Strangers to help people see that there’s too much beauty, too much
friendship, too many examples of generous lives and unselfish love all around
us to ever become discouraged. But we’ll only find those things when we rest in
God. Augustine said that it’s no use complaining about the times, because we are the times. This is our time of
witness. So we live in a privileged moment. It’s a time not for sadness but
Related reading: “Facts”
and “values” and darkness at noon | By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM
in a Strange Land”: Chaput on Catholics weathering a sea change in American
life | By Michael J. Miller