NEW YORK — Religious believers should acknowledge that they are now “strangers” in U.S. society, in part because of their own failures, but should nevertheless work for renewal and worship God with joy, said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.
“Our job is to be the healthy cells in a society. We need to work as long as we can, as hard as we can, to nourish the good that remains in our country — and there’s a deep well of good that does remain — and to encourage the seeds of a renewal that can only come from our young people.”
Archbishop Chaput’s comments came in his Oct. 20 Erasmus Lecture, a webcast event sponsored by First Things magazine and the Institute on Religion in Public Life.
“We should hope because God loves us. And that’s more than an empty piety,” the archbishop said. “The proof of it is sitting right next to you in the friends who believe, as you do, in the goodness that still resides in American life, and who want to fight for it. In Christian belief, God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The world changed.”
“Our job is to echo his Word by helping our witness become flesh in the structures, moral imagination and bloodstream of the world around us,” he added. “If that happens, the world will change again.”
‘Strangers in a Strange Land’
The archbishop reflected on the many changes in American society. The title of his speech, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” alluded to the estrangement of religious believers who “once felt rooted in their communities” but now feel “like strangers, out of place and out of sync in the land of their birth.”
He said “the biggest failure, the biggest sadness, of so many people of my generation, including parents, educators and leaders in the Church, is our failure to pass along our faith in a compelling way to the generation now taking our place.”
“If we want to change the culture of a nation, we need to begin by taking a hard look at the thing we call our own faith. If we don’t radiate the love of God with passion and courage in the example of our daily lives, nobody else will – least of all the young people who see us most clearly and know us most intimately.”
“But the real problem in America in 2014 isn’t that we believers are foreigners. It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.”
Archbishop Chaput stressed the importance of worship and the adoration of God as more important than action.
Adoration of God
“We are a people of worship first, and action second,” he said. There is no real political action or social service “unless it flows out of the adoration of God.”
“Adoration grounds our whole being in the real reality: the fact that God is God, and man is his creation,” he said.
Christians forget at their peril that they are “in the world but not of the world,” he continued.
Citing the French writer Henri De Lubac, the archbishop said that “when the world worms its way into the life of the Church, the Church becomes not just a caricature of the world, but even worse than the world in her mediocrity and ugliness.”
Archbishop Chaput criticized several other trends in the U.S., where he said freedom is “more and more” constrained.
Freedom has been defined as the maximization of personal choice, especially through modern technology. Democracy and government has also become an expression of consumer preference, with “very little space for common meaning, classic virtue or shared purpose.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Oct. 6 refusal to hear state appeals defending marriage amendments “creates a tipping point in American public discourse,” he said. “The dismemberment of any privileged voice that biblical belief once had in our public square is just about complete.”
Destruction of Public Reason
The archbishop said that the “most disturbing” aspect of the marriage debate was “the destruction of public reason that it accomplished.”
“Emotion and sloganeering drove the argument,” he said. “People who uphold a traditional moral architecture for sexuality, marriage and family have gone in the space of just 20 years from mainstream conviction to the media equivalent of racists and bigots.”
“This is impressive. It’s also profoundly dishonest and evil, but we need to acknowledge the professional excellence of the marketing that made it happen.”
The archbishop said his “hard news” for religious believers is that the “mixed marriage of biblical and Enlightenment ideas” in America is now divorcing.
This separation will be bad, he said, because religious faith has a key role in sustaining America and moderating democracy, which otherwise lacks a higher authority.
Cut Off From the Faithful
On another note, Archbishop Chaput said that clergy sex abuse has “badly eroded” Catholics’ confidence in their own bishops, who “often deserved the resentment” because they had “wrong priorities” and tried to “protect reputations and the standing of the Church at the expense of the innocent and the suffering.”
The archbishop said this has shown a leadership “cut off” from the people it is meant to serve.
He suggested that believers should thank God for “this difficult moment” because conflict “purifies the Church” and clarifies the nature of her enemies.
He also counseled hope and rejected “the idea that we can retire to the safety of some modern equivalent of a monastery in the hills.”
“Joy is the mark of a person who’s truly found God,” he added.
Archbishop Chaput encouraged Christians to “start by returning hatred with love” and to improve their “practical, working friendships across religious and confessional lines.”
He said Catholics should encourage “the new movements and charisms in the Church,” as well as Catholic groups and intellectual institutes. They should also form families who have “the habit of listening for a priestly vocation.”
“We need parishes that are real antidotes to loneliness; real sources of mutual support, counseling, sharing and friendship — not just garrisons devoted to servicing the baptized pagan. We also need a Christian community much more receptive to Latino and other immigrants.”
Archbishop Chaput also stressed the need to serve others.
“We’re here to bear each other’s burdens; to sacrifice ourselves for the needs of others; and to live a witness of love for the God who made us — not only in our personal lives, but in all our public actions, including every one of our social, economic and political choices,” he said.
“And if that makes us strangers in a strange land, then we should praise God for the privilege.”