Archbishop Chaput is Right: We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput joined ‘Kresta in the Afternoon’ on March 3 to discuss his new book, ‘Strangers in a Stranger Land’

Archbishop Charles Chaput is pictured with the book cover of ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’ (Sources: Joaquín Peiró Pérez/CNA; Henry Holt and Company)
Archbishop Charles Chaput is pictured with the book cover of ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’ (Sources: Joaquín Peiró Pérez/CNA; Henry Holt and Company) (photo: Screenshot)

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Kresta: Good afternoon. I am Al Kresta. Thank you for being here. Joining me right now is His Excellency Archbishop Charles Chaput. He was named Archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI. As a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation he was the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States, — the first Native American archbishop. Archbishop is the author of three books: Living the Catholic Faith, Rediscovering the Basics; Render Unto Caesar, Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life; and most recently Strangers in a Strange Land, Living the Catholic Faith in a post-Christian World. Your Excellency, thanks for joining. I appreciate it.

Chaput: Thank you, Al — and Al, by the way, how do you guys pick your theme songs? I always find them very interesting. Yours is very soothing.

Kresta: Well thank you. We pick them by whimsy.

Chaput: I guess that’s a good reason. That’s a way to do it.

Kresta: We hear things that we think will work. They need to be 30 seconds or so of instrumental, and there is a certain feel we like to have. I appreciate the attention though. I wanted to ask you — by the way, I greatly appreciate the book too — I wanted to ask you, when you use the phrase “post-Christian world”, what do you mean by that, and when did you personally first realize that you were living in a post-Christian world?

Chaput: Well first of all, the world is never really post-Christian. We believe, following the teachings of St. Paul, that everything about the created world was made in the image of Jesus by the Father through him and for him, so Christ was never absent. But in the Western world — and the United States is part of it — people having been talking about the last couple of centuries as being post-Christian, in a sense that Christian faith and Christian morality is no longer the kind of basic driving force that it was for example in the 1950s, 60s, and even 70s. And when I began to notice this, I think probably it was about the time I was ordained a priest, it became quite obvious that the world of the 1970s was very different from the world of the 1950s when I was growing up in Kansas. And it has significantly gotten more difficult for the Church to be heard, with all the noise of the opposing culture really around us. The present moment has a lot of historical precedence, and in the book I try to point out how we got from the peaceful period of the 50s through my lifetime up to now, and what are the philosophical, intellectual, and political trends that have led to this huge change.

Kresta: Well let’s go over some of those. Are all these changes ideological? In other words, are they idea-based, or are some of these changes just the result of our social experiment, living with new technologies?

Chaput: I think there are a lot of clever people in the world who have values and a plan or program different from the Gospel who very actively trying to promote a different worldview. I think if we just look at basic causes…

In the book there are two tiny little things that made a huge difference in the way we look at the world. One of them is the transistor, which is in some ways the beginning point of so much of the new technology that is so extraordinary. Every month or every two months there are huge changes on that front. It all began with a tiny, tiny transistor and what changes have happened because of that technologically.

The other tiny thing is the contraceptive birth control pill. It separated procreation from love as a possibility in the sexual act. Once you separate procreation from the other aspects of sexual encounter, all kinds of things happen. The nature of the family changes. What it means to be a father and what it means to be a mother changes. It is what has opened so much of the Western world to much more premarital sex — much more divorce, homosexual marriage, transgenderism that we are talking about these days. Those changes all have a root I think in a practical sense in the contraceptive pill. It also has its root in the intellectual trends that have been a part of our culture — since the 1930s really.

Kresta: How would you identify those intellectual trends?

Chaput: One of the things I found really interesting, that I didn’t actually know before I began to do research for the book, was the story of a gentleman by the name of Wilhelm Reich, who was an influential Austrian psychoanalyst.

Kresta: Yes! Yeah, I know him.

Chaput: Okay, you know he died in prison in Pennsylvania here in 1957. He was accused of fraud with something he was trying to sell called “sex boxes”. He was kind of making money off his theories, but what he said in the book is that if we are going to have a real revolution in the world, a real cultural upheaval, it was necessary to begin with sex, because it would change family — and he thought that the American culture was the best place for this kind of revolution to take place, because of our natural affinity here in the United States to personal development, personal change, personal self-definition. That’s kind of I think an insight that is actually true. In some sense America is much further down the path on these changes around traditional sexual morality than other parts of the Western world, although we generally think Europe would be ahead of us. In concrete ways, we embody that change much more in the United States than Europe does.

Kresta: It confuses me, because in some ways Europe we always think of as ahead of us, but when the United States does something, it seems to do it to the extreme. Abortion is a perfect example. We have much more permissive abortion laws here than a number of European countries.

Chaput: That’s right. Many more instances of people living together before they get married. We used to think the French were the only ones who did that kind of stuff. We are especially prone to this kind of activity because we are a deeply practical, pragmatic kind of people, and we have decided that we can change anything if we want to.

Kresta: You know this has been difficult on an emotional level for me. I grew up in the 1950s saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools. I was raised in the public schools seeing the United States as this beacon of liberty over against the atheistic Communists. It was a very black-and-white universe when I was growing up as a kid. Even as I got older I always thought that America had something special to offer because of our roots in liberty, and as time has gone on it seems to be that… take freedom for instance, freedom seems to be redefined these days. Freedom used to be the liberty that you were granted for the sake of conscience, so you could live out your experiment in life according to truth as best you conceived it. And now it seems to me freedom is what we talk about when we just mean people want as many options as possible to find pleasure in.

Chaput: Right, and they don’t want anyone to tell them what to do. Freedom is the ability to define ourselves — even to decide if we want to be a man or woman, despite how we are born biologically. It is what is happening. You have captured a very important point.

Kresta: It is distressing on an emotional level too, I think. I have never solved, in terms of my own life: do I just kiss off the American I used to know, and just accept the fact that I am no longer a part of this experiment? Or do I try to recover the sense of a more Christian America?

Chaput: You know, I think that is the dilemma that I have been experiencing too. Some people who have read my book think that I have decided to kiss it off and say, well it was a good experiment but things have changed and we might as well give up. But that it not really what I intend to do. As I say in the book, I think we are at a turning point, at a moment of crisis, but I think we can still do something about it.

Kresta: You used the phrase “resident aliens” to describe our status in this world. What is meant by “resident alien”?

Chaput: Well you know, it is in the Scriptures, actually. We are told that our real citizenship is in heaven. It is not here. It is important for us to live our lives in a responsible way here where we have care for our fellow citizens. Just like you, I grew up in a time when filial piety and patriotism were taught together, and our love for our country and love for our neighbor were based on the Fourth Commandment. I really do believe that is true. I think it is important for us to be patriotic and proud of the good things that our country does.

But this isn’t it. We were not made for this world. We were made to pass through it. Our future, of course, is going to depend on what we do now. This world is not irrelevant. It is the place where God wants us to work out of our selfishness into generosity and self-sacrifice. If we do that, we have the promise of the eternal citizenship in heaven, which is what life is all about now. We are strangers in a strange land. That is the way it has always been. When we get too comfortable thinking that we can make the kingdom of heaven now, we are really going to mess it up. The kingdom of heaven begins now, but it certainly isn’t completed now in any way.

Kresta: You put a great deal of emphasis on the family. The family is the domestic church. The idea that this is the way that most of us learn the faith and learn our basic morality. The family is a nursery of virtue for us. Is the attack on the family now that we see, is it ideologically designed, or is it just a result of having more and more choices?

Chaput: I think it is both. I think that maybe it is initially the result of having more and more choices. I think that people then see that family can stand in the way of what they want, and so they try to diminish the significance of family in our lives. In my writings I refer to the family as an institution between ourselves and the government. It is where we find personal security. We can’t stand against the culture, against the government, alone. We need the support of others. The family actually comes prior to the government. The government is really made up of the decisions of families, to cooperate and work together in terms of our political lives. I think family is the building block of culture, as well as the domestic church, and we need to focus our attention in terms of making sure that our families are both.

Kresta: The Synod on the Family that took place has focused Catholics attention on the family. In some ways it is disappointing that a lot of this discussion has been channeled into arguments over Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia

Chaput: Not just some of it, but most of it. What else do people talk about in terms of family life in the Church these days? That is really sad, because certainly the majority of the Holy Father’s document Amoris Laetitia, but also the majority of our discussion, wasn’t at all about that one issue. Certainly, that was the one neuralgic issue, and still is neuralgic today and is a very important issue, because the faith of the Church is at stake. Family life shouldn’t be discussed in terms of the exception. Divorce, and remarriage without an annulment, shouldn’t be the predominant notion around what family is about. That is what marriage as a failure points to, not marriage as a success.

Kresta: Do you think he had in mind very extreme situations that he was trying to urge pastoral care towards?

Chaput: That is what he actually says in the document. You might have noticed that some of the people who are commenting on it that embrace a philosophy of life that we have to deal with these situations in ways that make people who are caught up in them equal members of the Church. They seem to want to apply it to all cases of divorce and remarriage without an annulment.

Kresta: Is this going to be resolved soon?

Chaput: You know as well as I. I think that it is a really difficult situation. I think it is the most difficult situation I have faced as a bishop, and I have been a bishop for almost 30 years now. I really don’t know.

Kresta: I want to come back to the family, because we talk about what we should focus on as Christians so that we can build the Church in a way that really blesses the nation. There is the initial encounter with Christ, which is so important. There is being called and gifted and discipleship. There is the focus on the family as the domestic church. What kind of hierarchy of concerns do you have among those things?

Chaput: One of the body of information that has influenced me a lot in recent years is the research done by Christian Smith at Notre Dame University about the impact of family life on young people. Most of his research is around young adults, and their view of what it means to be a Christian and to be a member of a church. He says very clearly — and the statistics seem to clearly point this out — that family is the determining point about whether we are going to practice the Christian faith or not. Not only the family as a whole, but fathers even more than mothers. If the mother goes to church and the father doesn’t, it is more likely than not that the children will not go to church. If the father goes to church, even if the mother doesn’t, there is a more likely probability that the young people in the family will go to church. In some ways the family, the father and the mother, are the new pastors of children. They serve the role today that priests used to serve in the past. Because the church is not a central part of the life of many of our people, and even when it is, it is certainly not as influential in the broader society as it was when you and I were kids for example. Parents are more and more important than they have ever been, although they have always been the most important in our formation life as we are growing up.

Kresta: Intentional parenting is what we need.

Chaput: Exactly, and actually for them to plan out what they are going to do, not just to try to do their best but to work with others to learn the success of other parents. To work together to try to pass on the faith to their children.

Kresta: My wife and I, Sally and I, moved with (at that time) our four children to Ann Arbor to be part of a parish here, Christ the King, where we knew a number of people. We knew their commitment to the faith, and we knew that they were raising their kids in a similar way to what we were doing. I think it was the best decision we ever made as a family. I say that, because while Sally and I have been committed to the faith and involved in ministry and tried to pass this along to our kids, I don’t think the children would have been able to hear us with the clarity if we continued to live where we were, kind of isolated, without Catholic families that we were relating to. On our block, for instance, there were no other Catholic families.

Here, our children have the opportunity to hear committed adults who spoke about Jesus with enthusiasm, who believe that there is a plan to our lives and we have a moral responsibility to pursue Christ. So I think that this emphasis on the family should also have to do with where we live. The people we decide we are going to associate with. Finding Catholic families that we can be in an informal community with.

Do you know if there is any material that is being written on this, how families can come together in informal associations to strengthen one another?

Chaput: There is a book that is coming soon (if it is not out already), kind of a parallel to mine, by Rod Dreher — who spends a lot of time talking about what so many refer to today as The Benedict Option. Not referring to Pope Benedict, but to Saint Benedict. When the culture was collapsing at the end of the Roman Empire, Benedict and his brothers withdrew and lived monastic life in the country. People began to associate with the monastery, living in the vicinity of monasteries, praying together with the monks and being nourished by the center. I think the Church has always done that. Jesus himself took his disciples off to pray when he was making important decisions in their lives. We have had the custom of retreats.

Now in some ways it is more serious a matter of withdrawing. I think we should withdraw in order to return. To get strength from one another in order to go back into the world and be to the world what our souls are to the body.

Others, like Mr. Dreher himself, see the withdrawal as more permanent. We become more like the Mennonites, for example, who have a unique kind of lifestyle together, who are not very concerned about the rest of the world around them. They want to get along, but they are not particularly interested in being a part of the main line of culture. Some Catholics are talking about that, that we need to withdraw that much.

But the kind of community you are talking about is what the Church is really supposed to be about. The Church is a community of believers, whom Jesus has called together in order for us to be a good example, and receive a good example and be strengthened, so that we might be a source of life for the world.

What you are looking for, and what you have found, is what the Church is supposed to be. Unfortunately, many of our parishes are not like that. They are really just institutions, where we go and listen to Mass and then leave as soon as possible, without being engaged with the other people that are there. The reason we are there together, the reason why the Church says we should gather together every Sunday and is a serious obligation under pain of sin for Catholics, is so that we are nourished together and have the support of one another. If we don’t show up, the community is hurt and we are hurt. I just hope that the Church has a deeper sense of the importance of community. I think we need small community support, like you are talking about, even within the Church. When that happens, our faith can be strengthened. The kids that you talked about need to see other kids so that they don’t think the Christian faith is something for old folks, that isn’t related to real life at all.

Kresta: That is what we found, and we were so glad that our sons and daughters had peers who were also enthusiastic about Christ. Archbishop Chaput, thank you. I have always appreciated your leadership.

Chaput: Keep up your good work, Al.

Kresta: Thank you so much.

Chaput: God bless you.

Kresta: Archbishop Charles Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land, outstanding book. Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World — you ought to get it.