"We're Better Americans by Being More Truly Catholic"
NEW YORK, 3 NOV. 2007 (ZENIT)
Here is the address Archbishop Charles
Chaput of Denver delivered Oct. 26 at St. John's University School of
Law in Queens, New York. The talked is titled "Church and State Today:
What Belongs to Caesar, and What Doesn't."
* * *
I always enjoy being with friends like tonight because I can leave my
Kevlar vest in Denver. I do a lot of speaking, and while most of the
people I meet are wonderful folks, not everyone is always happy to hear
what I have to say.
In fact, one of the distinguishing marks of debate both outside and
within the Church over the last 40 years is how uncivil the
disagreements have become. Being a faithful Catholic leader today
whether you're a layperson or clergy
isn't easy. It requires real skill, and in that regard, I've admired the
great ability and good will of Bishop Murphy for many years. So it's a
special pleasure to be with him tonight. New York's Cardinal Edward Egan
is another leader who's given extraordinary and sometimes difficult
service to the Church.
I'm not really surprised by the environment in our country or in our
Church because Msgr. George Kelly saw it coming 30 years ago. I read his
great book, "The Battle for the American Church," as a young Capuchin
priest when it first came out in 1979. I remember being struck
immediately by George's very Irish combination of candor, scrappiness,
clarity, intelligence and also finally charity
because everything he wrote and said and did was always motivated by his
love for the Church.
I also remember George's sense of humor, which was vivid and healthy,
and which probably kept him so generous and sane. He was a man's man and
a priest's priest
and his commitment to Catholic family life, Catholic education and
Catholic scholarship has remained with me as an example throughout my
priesthood. George and I became friends through our mutual friend Father
Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., and after I became a bishop in South Dakota,
he would often call me or write me with his advice
and I was always happy to get it, because it was always very good. So
I'm grateful for a chance to acknowledge my debt to him.
We have a full evening, so I'll be very brief. I want to quickly sketch
for you the picture of an anonymous culture. But everything I'm about to
tell you comes from the factual record.
This society is advanced in the sciences and the arts. It has a complex
economy and a strong military. It includes many different religions,
although religion tends to be a private affair or a matter of civic
This particular society also has big problems. Among them is that
fertility rates remain below replacement levels. There aren't enough
children being born to replenish the current adult population and to do
the work needed to keep society going. The government offers incentives
to encourage people to have more babies. But nothing seems to work.
Promiscuity is common and accepted. So are bisexuality and
homosexuality. So is prostitution. Birth control and abortion are legal,
widely practiced, and justified by society's leading intellectuals.
Every now and then, a lawmaker introduces a measure to promote marriage,
arguing that the health and future of society depend on stable families.
These measures typically go nowhere.
Ok. What society am I talking about? Our own country, of course, would
broadly fit this description. But I'm not talking about us.
I've just outlined the conditions of the Mediterranean world at the time
of Christ. We tend to idealize the ancients, to look back at Greece and
Rome as an age of extraordinary achievements. And of course, it was. But
it had another side as well.
We don't usually think of Plato and Aristotle endorsing abortion or
infanticide as state policy. But they did. Hippocrates, the great
medical pioneer, also famously created an abortion kit that included
sharp blades for cutting up the fetus and a hook for ripping it from the
womb. We rarely connect that with his Hippocratic Oath. But some years
ago, archeologists discovered the remains of what appeared to be a
Roman-era abortion or infanticide "clinic." It was a sewer filled with
the bones of more than 100 infants.
If you haven't done so already, I'd encourage you to pick up a little
book written about 10 years ago, "The Rise of Christianity" by the
Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark. You'll find all of this history
in its pages and more.
But what does ancient Rome have to do with my topic tonight, the
relationship of Church and state today?
Let me explain it this way: People often say we're living at a
"post-Christian" moment. That's supposed to describe the fact that
Western nations have abandoned or greatly downplayed their Christian
heritage in recent decades. But our "post-Christian" moment actually
looks a lot like the pre-Christian moment. The signs of our times in the
morally, intellectually, spiritually and even demographically
are uncomfortably similar to the signs in the world at the time of the
Drawing lessons from history is a subjective business. There's always
the risk of oversimplifying.
But I do believe that the challenges we face as American Catholics today
are very much like those faced by the first Christians. And it might
help to have a little perspective on how they went about evangelizing
their culture. They did such a good job that within 400 years
Christianity was the world's dominant religion and the foundation of
Western civilization. If we can learn from that history, the more easily
God will work through us to spark a new evangelization.
I'm not a historian or a sociologist, so I'll leave it to others to
fully evaluate Rodney Stark's work. But Stark does address a couple of
key questions: How did Christianity succeed? How was it able to
accomplish so much so fast? Stark is not only a social scientist, but
also a self-described agnostic. So he has no interest in talking about
God's will or the workings of the Holy Spirit. He focuses only on facts
he can verify.
Stark concludes that Christian success flowed from two things: first,
Christian doctrine, and second, people being faithful to that doctrine.
Stark writes: "An essential factor in the [Christian] religion's success
was what Christians believed. ... And it was the way those doctrines
took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and
individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity."
Let's put it in less academic terms: The Church, through the Apostles
and their successors, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People
believed in the Gospel. But they weren't just agreeing to a set of
ideas. Believing in the Gospel meant changing their whole way of
thinking and living. It was a radical transformation. So radical they
couldn't go on living like the people around them anymore.
Stark shows that one of the key areas in which Christians rejected the
culture around them was marriage and the family. From the start, to be a
Christian meant believing that sex and marriage were sacred. From the
start, to be a Christian meant rejecting abortion, infanticide, birth
control, divorce, homosexual activity and marital infidelity
all those things widely practiced by their Roman neighbors.
Athenagoras, a Christian layman, told the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the
year A.D. 176 that abortion was "murder" and that those involved would
have to "give an account to God." And he told the emperor the reason
why: "For we regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and
therefore an object of God's care."
As this audience already knows, Christian reverence for the unborn child
is no medieval development. It comes from the very beginnings of our
faith. The early Church had no debates over politicians and communion.
There wasn't any need. No persons who tolerated or promoted abortion
would have dared to approach the Eucharistic table, let alone dared to
call themselves true Christians.
And here's why: The early Christians understood that they were the
offspring of a new worldwide family of God. They saw the culture around
them as a culture of death, a society that was slowly extinguishing
itself. In fact, when you read early Christian literature, practices
like adultery and abortion are often described as part of "the way of
death" or the "way of the [devil]."
There's an interesting line in a Second Century apologetic work written
by Minucius Felix. He was a Roman lawyer and a convert. He's talking
about a birth-control drug that works as an abortifacient. He describes
its effects this way: "There are women who swallow drugs to stifle in
their own womb the beginnings" of a person to be.
That's what the first Christians saw around them in their world. They
believed the world was snuffing out its own future. It was stifling
future generations before they could come to be. It was slowly killing
Since we see similar signs in our own day, we need to find the courage
those first Christians had in challenging their culture. We need to
believe not only what they believed. We need to believe those things
with the same deep fervor.
The early Christians staked their lives on the belief that God is our
Father. They respected Caesar, but they didn't confuse him with God, and
they put God first. They believed the Church is our mother. They
believed their bishops and priests were spiritual fathers and that
through the sacraments they were made children of God, or "partakers of
the divine nature," as Peter said.
It's time for all of us who claim to be "Catholic" to recover our
Catholic identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and missionaries of his
Church. In the long run, we serve our country best by remembering that
we're citizens of heaven first. We're better Americans by being more
and the reason why, is that unless we live our Catholic faith
authentically, with our whole heart and our whole strength, we have
nothing worthwhile to bring to the public debates that will determine
the course of our nation.
Pluralism in a democracy doesn't mean shutting up about inconvenient
issues. It means speaking up
respectfully, in a spirit of justice and charity, but also vigorously
and without apologies. Jesus said that we will know the truth, and the
truth will make us free. He didn't say anything about our being popular
with worldly authority once we have that freedom. In the end, if we want
our lives to be fruitful, we need to know ourselves as God intends us to
as his witnesses on earth, not just in our private behavior, but in our
public actions, including our social, economic and political choices.
If pagan Rome could be won for Jesus Christ, surely we can do the same
in our own world. What it takes is the zeal and courage to live what we
claim to believe. All of us here tonight already have that desire in our
hearts. So let's pray for each other, and encourage each other, and get
down to the Lord's work.