Christians’ lack of faith and cowardice are the primary obstacles to Christian culture at a time when unbelief is the spirit-destroying “state religion” of the modern world, Archbishop Charles Chaput has told a gathering of academics. He urged personal repentance and witness as the path to cultural renewal.
The Archbishop of Denver delivered his remarks on Sunday in Baltimore to the annual convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, which awarded him the organization’s Cardinal O'Boyle Award.
He told the scholars that their task is to strengthen their zeal in advancing the Gospel, their courage in struggling against sin, and their “candor in naming good and evil.” He advised them to use their God-given skills to strengthen this spirit in each other, their students, and their colleagues.
“If you do only that, but do it well, then God will do the rest,” Archbishop Chaput declared.
Comparing American Catholics to the ancient Israelites who “forgot their faith because they weren’t taught,” he said that if Catholics no longer know their faith or their obligations, “we leaders, parents and teachers have no one to blame but ourselves.”
His general remarks focused upon the “construction” of Christian culture and the state of American society.
Noting the 70th anniversary of theologian Fr. John Courtney Murray’s college talks on Christian culture, the archbishop cited Murray’s belief that there is a “profound religious truth” at the base of democracy: the “intrinsic dignity” of human nature and the “spiritual freedom” of the human soul.
Fr. Murray, a Jesuit whose thought was influential at the Second Vatican Council, said the task of constructing a culture is “essentially spiritual” and all man’s cultural effort is at root an effort to submit to “the truth and the beauty and the good that is outside him” in order to conform his soul to an “ordered harmony.”
While these thoughts are true and beautiful, Archbishop Chaput continued, “they bear little likeness to our real culture in 2010.”
Briefly summarizing “what’s gone strange with America,” the archbishop said that listing and complaining about problems achieves little.
“And more importantly, as Murray would say, it isn’t a Christian response,” he continued, suggesting that the missionary obligations of Christians include renewing their country’s ideals.
The archbishop noted the influences of the United States’ Protestant and Enlightenment roots. Catholics were largely absent from the American founding and have “always been strangers in a strange land.”
He also recalled the influence of the Roman Empire on early American colonists, saying that despite Rome’s flaws the Roman virtues of piety, austerity, courage, justice and self-mastery were “revered” by the American Founders.
“As with Rome, the fruits of American power now surround us. But success has always its cost in personal and national illusions. As a people, we seem to become more foreign to our origins every year.”
A healthy civic life depends on “permanent virtues” rooted in God and not self-developed “values,” he continued.
Citing St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis and the political philosophers Leszek Kolakowski and J.L. Talmon, Archbishop Chaput warned that the self-evident truths spoken of in the Declaration of Independence are “not at all self-evident to the modern intellectual world.” Democracy too can become totalitarian.
“Unbelief – whether deliberate and ideological, or lazy and pragmatic – is the state religion of the modern world,” he commented. “The fruit of that orthodoxy is a compression and destruction of the human spirit, and a society without higher purpose. This is the logic of the choices that America is already making. But they can be unmade. And they can be redeemed.”
For Fr. Murray, he told the scholars, “there is no real ‘humanism’ without the cross of Jesus Christ. And dismantling the inhuman parody we call ‘modern American culture’ begins not with violence but with the conversion of our own hearts.”
“The central problem in constructing a Christian culture is our lack of faith and the cowardice it produces,” the archbishop stated. “We need to admit this. And then we need to submit ourselves to a path of repentance and change, and unselfish witness to others.”
He recounted his reaction to the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto by leading Protestant and Catholic thinkers about pro-life issues, marriage and religious freedom. He took the document as a caution that a certain kind of America he and many others knew “no longer exists.”
Nonetheless, he urged the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars to look to Christ to renew themselves and their country:
“Sunday is the day we celebrate the Risen Christ, the real source of our freedom and joy. Christian faith in the Risen Jesus converted an empire. It changed the course of history and gave meaning to entire civilization. And in the Risen Christ, I believe God is now calling us, starting with those of us here today, to do the same.”