Addressing a gathering of European church officials on March 4, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver warned that many contemporary Christians have reduced their faith to a convenient “form of paganism,” which cannot compete with the widespread “idolatry” of modern consumer culture.
Archbishop Chaput offered his observations at a conference in Paris honoring the late Cardinal Archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who was the Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005.
The Denver archbishop described Cardinal Lustiger as “an unsentimental realist” who dared to speak about disturbing trends in the Church and society – including a lack of faith among professed Christians, leaving a vacuum that would be filled by other “gods” such as sex and money.
“Lustiger named lukewarm Christians and superficial Christianity for what they are: a congenial form of paganism,” said Archbishop Chaput. “The Church needs a great deal more of his medicine.”
He recalled Cardinal Lustiger's prophetic warnings against “creating alibis and escaping the implications of our faith.” In a passage cited by Archbishop Chaput, the cardinal wrote that “many Christians,” through evasions and misunderstandings, had “reduced the God of the Covenant to a mere idol.”
“The main crisis of modern Christianity is not one of resources, or personnel, or marketing,” Archbishop Chaput asserted. “It is a crisis of faith. Millions of people claim to be Christian, but they don't really believe.”
“They don't study Scripture. They don't love the Church as a mother and teacher. And they settle for an inoffensive, vanilla Christianity that amounts to a system of decent social ethics.”
“This is self-delusion,” he warned, “the worst kind of phony Christianity that has no power to create hope out of suffering, to resist persecution, or to lead anyone else to God.”
Archbishop Chaput said that these weakened forms of Christian faith would not be able to compete with the many modern cults of instant gratification and success.
Cardinal Lustiger, he recalled, had “warned that one of the deepest and oldest instincts of man is idolatry.” The Denver archbishop said he sees that instinct taking on several forms today.
“There are no real atheists in America – quite the opposite,” he said. “We have a thriving free market of little gods to worship. Sex and technology have very large congregations.”
“I was especially struck,” he noted, “by Lustiger's description of the modern state 'as one of the strongest forms of idolatry that exists; it has become the most absolute substitute for God that men have been able to give themselves . . . and it is a tyrant god, feeding itself on its victims.'”
But the Archbishop of Denver said that these human tendencies, leading to the worship of objects and of oneself, could not be driven out by the mere exercise of authority.
“The Christian remedy to these idolatries,” he explained, “can never simply be coerced from the outside, by stronger statements from stronger bishops.” He quoted Cardinal Lustiger's insight that these forms of idolatry “must be exorcised from the inside … To uproot them, we must be converted in depth.”
He also indicated that Cardinal Lustiger's unique perspective was just as important for U.S. Catholics today as it was for European Catholics during his lifetime. The cardinal's work, Archbishop Chaput noted, “continues to influence our seminary formation” at Denver's St. John Vianney seminary.
“He is a Jew who discovers Jesus Christ … His mother is murdered at Auschwitz. He survives the most horrific war in history, but he refuses to hate and despair. Instead, he turns to God more deeply and gives himself to the priesthood.”
“Most of the young men I meet hunger for examples of manliness, confidence, courage and faith,” Archbishop Chaput noted. “Cardinal Lustiger's personal story is itself a catechesis – an invitation to pursue God heroically.”