Being a Faithful Witness in a Post-Christian World

Archbishop Charles Chaput Discusses Strangers in a Strange Land

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (photo: EWTN/Jeffrey Bruno)

In his nearly six years as archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput — just as he did as archbishop of Denver for 14 years and as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, nine years before that — has steadfastly maintained his primary role as a pastor and a teacher of the faith. In his many writings, he has also emerged as one of American Catholicism’s keenest observers of culture.

Two of his books, Living the Catholic Faith and Render Unto Caesar, looked at what it means to be a Catholic in the 21st century and being a public witness to the Catholic faith, respectively. His latest book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, has just been published by Henry Holt. (Father C.J. McCloskey reviews his book here.)

Archbishop Chaput discussed his new book in a recent email interview with the Register.


Your new book, Strangers in a Strange Land, is a play on the title of a classic work of science fiction by Robert Heinlein. What’s your message in choosing this title?

I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that question, so congratulations. You’re the first. Actually, the title has nothing to do with the Heinlein novel. Heinlein and I both borrowed the line from Exodus 2:22 in the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV text of that passage may not be the most accurate translation, but it’s the most beautiful in English.


Is there an underlying thread that connects your three books: Strangers in a Strange Land, Render Unto Caesar and Living the Catholic Faith?

The main job of a bishop is to be a pastor; to help people make sense of the world and actually live their faith in a practical way, whatever their vocation or circumstances. That’s what I’ve tried to do in each of my books. Strangers needed more attention to the details of research than the previous two books, but I still wrote it for everyday Catholics, not scholars.


You say in the book that the U.S. isn’t as far gone as Europe as a post-Christian society. What are earmarks of that decay in the U.S.? What can individual Catholics do to stem the tide?

I don’t like that word “decay” because it sounds like a cliché, and clichés, even if they’re true, can be substitutes for clear thinking. What’s true is this: American culture has serious problems dealing with sex, and in some ways — patterns of marital breakup and family breakdown, with negative consequences for children — we’re actually worse than many European societies.

Americans are more religious than Europeans. That’s a fact. And couples and families that actively practice their faith have a high degree of stability. That’s also a fact. But American religion also has a deeply individualist streak that results in a demand for personal happiness, right here, right now.

If a marriage doesn’t satisfy or gets too difficult, it becomes disposable. This sounds implausible, but it’s not. Americans are caught between our Puritan Calvinist roots and a very big appetite for self-invention and consumer satisfaction.


You write that changes “in the country’s sexual, religious, technological, demographic and economic fabric” make it impossible for America to be the way it once was. How has technology facilitated the sea change? What do we do about our technological entrenchment?

Up to 30% of all data transferred daily on the internet is pornography-related. Let that sink in for a minute. Technology completely transforms how we do business, how we communicate, how we learn and think, and there’s no way to “uninvent” the tools we now rely on.

That doesn’t mean we’re powerless. At a minimum, we can discipline ourselves to unplug for a while each day to recover our interior silence. That’s harder than it sounds, but it’s doable. More importantly and urgently, we need to begin actively helping our families to find ways to develop a healthy skepticism toward, and detachment from, the cocoon of noise and distraction that now envelops us. There’s no way around the need to simply turn off the noise. That’s not a long-term solution, but at least it clears the head so people can think.


You argue that “the habits of thought that have traditionally guided the Church are inadequate to the very different pastoral terrain American Catholics will face in the next 10 to 20 years.” What’s an example of this problem, and how have you tried to address this tendency in your own pastoral work?

We have a lot of brick-and-mortar infrastructure that’s rapidly aging. It can’t be maintained. The people and resources to do it just aren’t there anymore. If we put the bulk of our energy and ingenuity into keeping alive buildings and ministries that no longer work, we squander the vital resources we still have. That’s not a strategy. It’s just flying on autopilot until the fuel runs out.

Every bishop should be part radical and part museum curator. What we need is the vision to imagine the life of the Church differently without abandoning the essentials of our faith, the lessons of the past and the achievements of earlier generations that we have a duty to steward and pass along. It’s a difficult set of tasks to balance, but we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done.


You write, “We need to prepare for the likelihood of a smaller, poorer Church. But even more, we need to ensure that in the years ahead she is a more vigorous, more believing, more explicitly missionary Church.” How do we grapple with such changes without flying the flag of surrender? In other words, how do we remain hopeful?

Discomfort and suffering are not always bad. They clarify what we really hold to be true. Believers still have a vast amount of liberty in this country, and talk of “persecution” very quickly can sound like melodrama. But we’d be foolish not to be concerned by the direction of our laws and politics. We need to work and fight — peacefully and legally — to protect the freedom of the Church in every way we can. At the same time, we should never be afraid of the future. Christians have spent a lot of our history under pressure, on the margins or in the catacombs. We’re still here, because God’s still here.


How would you answer this important question you pose in your book: “What does it mean to be the ‘people of God’ today, in a distracted and unbelieving age?”

It means understanding that we’re never saved in isolation. Each of us is unrepeatable. We each have a unique Christian dignity and irreplaceable role to play. But our identity is tied up in a network of faith and relationships that began long before us and will continue long after us. We’re part of a much larger and very beautiful story, and we need to rediscover the joy in that.


In your book, you quote Dostoyevsky’s observation about the spiritual power of beauty: “Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.” What does the author mean?

Beauty is subversive in the best sense. It catches the heart by surprise. It sneaks past all our skepticism and fatigue and lifts us out of ourselves. At its best, it awakens our taste for goodness and truth and ennobles what it means to be human. That’s why the devil hates beauty, deforms and poisons it, and why Dostoyevsky was exactly right.  


You warn against our tendency to “cut Lucifer out of the ecology of salvation.” What’s at stake?

If we don’t believe in the reality of the devil, the cross ultimately has no meaning and the Gospel is just a collection of pious advice. Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified because he was an irritating life coach. He died because our eternity, which meant breaking the power of Satan, depended on his sacrifice.


What Lenten practices or reflections do you suggest to help us recognize that we indeed are “Strangers in a Strange Land”?

It’s very simple. Read, study and pray over the beatitudes every day. Those are the real “rules for radicals.” They’re the keys to a revolution of love.

The mother church of the first diocese of the United States continues to inspire and teach, 200 years later.

The Past Is Prologue

A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: The Baltimore Basilica’s bicentennial highlights just how far Catholics have come and just how much we have to lose if we don’t robustly practice the faith and actively defend our religious freedom.