Archbishop of Denver Charles J. Chaput delivered a speech on Saturday reflecting on the significance of the November 2008 election. Warning that media “narratives” should not obscure truth, he blamed the indifference and complacency of many U.S. Catholics for the country’s failures on abortion, poverty and immigration issues.
He also advised Catholics to “master the language of popular culture” and to refuse to be afraid, saying “fear is the disease of our age.”
The archbishop’s comments were delivered in his keynote address at the Hands-On Conference Celebrating the Year of St. Paul, which was hosted at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Having been asked to examine what November 2008 and its aftermath can teach Catholics about American culture, the state of American Catholicism and the kind of Pauline discipleship necessary today, Archbishop Chaput said:
“November showed us that 40 years of American Catholic complacency and poor formation are bearing exactly the fruit we should have expected. Or to put it more discreetly, the November elections confirmed a trend, rather than created a new moment, in American culture.”
Noting that there was no question about President Barack Obama’s views on abortion “rights,” embryonic stem cell research and other “problematic issues,” he commented:
“Some Catholics in both political parties are deeply troubled by these issues. But too many Catholics just don’t really care. That’s the truth of it. If they cared, our political environment would be different. If 65 million Catholics really cared about their faith and cared about what it teaches, neither political party could ignore what we believe about justice for the poor, or the homeless, or immigrants, or the unborn child. If 65 million American Catholics really understood their faith, we wouldn’t need to waste each other’s time arguing about whether the legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow ‘balanced out’ or excused by three other good social policies.”
Offering a sober evaluation of the state of American Catholicism, he added:
“We need to stop over-counting our numbers, our influence, our institutions and our resources, because they’re not real. We can’t talk about following St. Paul and converting our culture until we sober up and get honest about what we’ve allowed ourselves to become. We need to stop lying to each other, to ourselves and to God by claiming to ‘personally oppose’ some homicidal evil -- but then allowing it to be legal at the same time.”
Commenting on society’s attitude towards Catholic beliefs, Archbishop Chaput said, “we have to make ourselves stupid to believe some of the things American Catholics are now expected to accept.”
“There’s nothing more empty-headed in a pluralist democracy than telling citizens to keep quiet about their beliefs. A healthy democracy requires exactly the opposite.”
Noting the 2008 presidential campaign’s “revealing” focus upon the candidates’ “narratives,” he said the campaign seemed not to involve facts, but rather “story-telling.”
“Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with story-telling -- unless the press and other news media themselves become part of the story-telling syndicate; in other words, peddlers of narratives in which facts are not told because they’re true, but rather become ‘true’ because they’re told by those who have the power to create an absorbing narrative,” the archbishop explained.
In such a state, he warned, real power does not rest with the people but with those who “shape the structure of our information.” He linked this situation with Pope Benedict’s critique of the “dictatorship of relativism.”
The archbishop also connected this relativistic spirit to St. Paul’s appearance at the Aeropagus, recounted in the Book of Acts. At the Areopagus, a prestigious place of debate for Greek philosophers, “Nearly anything was tolerated, so long as no one claimed to have an exclusive and binding claim on the truth,” the archbishop explained.
He then quoted Acts 17’s description of the Areopagite mindset: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
“It’s worth paying attention to that description. There’s no mention of truth,” he commented, noting that when St. Paul preaches the truth “he’s mocked and despised and his preaching is a failure, at least in the short term.”
“Paul’s failure at the Areopagus is a good lesson for the times we face now in America,” the archbishop said. “When Catholics start leading their daily lives without a hunger for something higher than their own ambitions or appetites, or with the idea that they can create their own truth and then baptize it with an appeal to personal conscience, they become, in practice, agnostics in their personal lives, and Sophists in their public lives. In fact, people who openly reject God or dismiss Christianity as obsolete are sometimes far more honest and far less discouraging than Catholics who claim to be faithful to the Church but directly reject her guidance by their words and actions.”
Noting that Paul mastered the language of the popular urban culture of his time and used “every technical resource, tool and environment at his disposal,” Archbishop Chaput extensively quoted Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which also discussed St. Paul at the Areopagus.
“If Paul felt so fiercely compelled to preach the Gospel -- whether ‘timely [or] untimely’ -- to a pagan world, then how should we feel today, preaching the Gospel to an apostate world?” he asked, answering that the love of Christ must “impel” Catholics forward.
“Catholics in America, at least the many good Catholics who yearn to live their faith honestly and deeply, can easily feel tempted to hopelessness,” he concluded. “It becomes very burdensome to watch so many persons who call themselves Catholic compromise their faith and submit their hearts and consciences to the Caesars of our day.”
But Archbishop Chaput closed by encouraging Christians to remember the words of Jesus:
“In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”