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.
Archbishop 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.
Chesterton 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 themselves—including many if not most of the Founders.
The 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.
Obviously 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 northern Africa?
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.
Two 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 epochs—the moment dividing Late Antiquity from the Early Middle Ages. I think we’re close to that same kind of moment today.
The 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 seclorum—a “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.
In 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.
There’s 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 marriage”?
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 republic—a 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.
When people don’t think their vote counts, individuals turn in on themselves, their appetites, and their private interests. This is why—not counting the presidential frenzy we go through every four years—actual 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.
Having 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 fail—a 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 gratitude—and courage.