Speaking to a crowd of some 700 people gathered in Garden Grove, California, for the Orange County Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. decried the growing exclusion of religion from the public square, and called for a shift in perspective regarding the place of religious believers in a democratic society.
The prayer breakfast, which was modeled on a similar event held in Washington D.C., is an effort to fulfill Pope John Paul II’s call for a “new Evangelization.” The event began with the praying of the Rosary and a Mass, followed by breakfast and Archbishop Chaput’s address.
The archbishop, who is well known for providing a strong Catholic voice on important moral issues such as abortion, homosexual marriage, immigration, and the death penalty, said that in recent years people in both major American political parties have wrongly tried to blame the conflicts in American public life on the active participation of religious believers.
The argument against the participation of religious believers, Chaput said, is that “religion is so powerful and so personal that whenever it enters public life in an organized way, it divides people. It repels. It polarizes. It oversimplifies complex issues. It creates bitterness. It invites extremism. And finally it violates the spirit of the Constitution by muddling up the separation of Church and state that keeps Americans from sliding into intolerance.”
“The same argument,” he said, “goes on to claim that, once they’re free from the burden of religious interference, mature citizens and leaders can engage in reasoned discourse, putting aside superstition and private obsessions to choose the best course for the widest public. Because the state is above moral and religious tribalism, it can best guarantee the rights of everyone. Therefore a fully secularized public square would be the adulthood of the American Experiment.”
However, he pointed out, there are key differences between non-sectarian public institutions and a secularist ideology. No Christian, Chaput said, should want to live under the tyranny of a secularist ideology. “Whenever you hear loud fretting sparked by an irrational fear of an Established Church, somebody’s trying to force religious believers and communities out of the public discussion of issues.”
“Secularism isn’t really morally neutral. It’s actively destructive…It ignores the most basic questions of social purpose and personal meaning by writing them off as private idiosyncrasies,” the archbishop said.
Americans are, “losing the Founders’ perspective on the meaning of our shared public life,” Chaput added. “Certain beliefs have always held Americans together as a people.”
“We have wealth and power and free time and choices and toys -- but we no longer see clearly who we are,” he lamented.
Decline of ideas
“Americans are a blessed people,” Chaput said, offering a list of social, economic, and recreational advantages, which Americans enjoy.
However, he noted, there are a growing number of disadvantages and inequalities. “We face a decline of ideas and public service; growing moral ambiguity; a spirit of entitlement with rights exalted over responsibilities; a cult of personal consumption; and a civic vocabulary that seems to get more brutish and more confused every year,” the archbishop said.
Words, the prelate said, are a powerful tool, which can “form or deform the human conscience.”
While words like “tolerance” and “consensus” are important democratic principles, the archbishop noted, “but they aren’t Christian virtues, and they should never take priority over other words like charity, justice, faith and truth, either in our personal lives or in our public choices.”
After pointing out other words which are misused in contemporary society - words such as “choice,” “pluralism,” and “community” - the archbishop turned to the word “democracy.”
“Democracy,” Chaput said, “does not mean putting aside our religious and moral beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it demands exactly the opposite. Democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the public square – legally, ethically and non-violently, but forcefully and without apology.”
“Democracy is not God. Only God is God. Even democracy stands under the judgment of God and God’s truths about human purpose and dignity,” he added.
According to the archbishop, the confusion in language has lead to several harmful trends in the United States, including an unhealthy individualism, increased cynicism toward public life and service, and a decline in democratic involvement.
Such a loss of perspective can be witnessed in modern America’s approach to Christmas, Chaput said.
The archbishop noted that as Christmas approaches it has become readily apparent that many in the world have lost the proper meaning of Christmas.
“Good will, joy, peace, harmony, the giving of gifts” are all, “beautiful and holy things,” he said. But, “Joy is not generic. Good will needs a reason. We don’t suddenly become generous because the radio plays ‘Jingle Bells.’”
“Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ,” he said. It is about the birth of the Savior, who came, “because God loves us.”
“Christmas is a feast of love, but its God’s love first that makes it possible. Christmas begins our deliverance from sin and death…That’s why we celebrate Christmas, and it’s the best and only reason the human heart needs.”
The Orange County Catholic Prayer Breakfast is organized by The Magis Institute, an association of Catholic business leaders and clergy, which aims to develop spiritual and intellectual resources which enable lay Catholic business leaders to aid the Roman Catholic Church in transforming the culture.
The full text of Archbishop Chaput's talk can be found at the Archdiocese of Denver website, here: www.archden.org