Book Review: Archbishop of Denver, U.S.A., On Politics and Religion
Rev. Robert Imbelli
Professor of Theology
Boston College, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Catholic? Prove it!

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday, 2008, pp. 258, $21.95).

This new book by the Archbishop of Denver, Colorado, though addressed primarily to his fellow Catholics, will also serve to foster a much-needed conversation both within and outside the Church. Moreover, it appears at a particularly significant time: the eve of one of the most important presidential elections in recent American history.

The book can be read on several levels, each illuminating the other. The first level is indicated by the book's subtitle: "Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life".

Central to the author's position is that faith, though intensely and constitutively personal, is never private. Relationship with God through Jesus Christ is inseparably relationship with others in Jesus Christ, as the great judgment scene in chapter 25 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew makes abundantly clear.

But, even beyond this, biblical faith always has social and even political implications. Anyone who takes seriously the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament readily acknowledges this. And the fulfilment of revelation in Jesus Christ only intensifies the believer's vocation to foster the coming of the Kingdom in every dimension of human life.

The Catholic Church's social teaching, from Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, through to the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes, to Benedict XVI's recent Address to the United Nations, is the ongoing application of this prophetic tradition to the changing contexts of world history.

Archbishop Chaput's own conviction finds expression with these words: "The Church claims no right to dominate the secular realm. But she has every right in fact an obligation to engage secular authority and to challenge those wielding it to live the demands of justice. In this sense, the Catholic Church cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay 'out of politics'. Politics involves the exercise of power. The use of power has moral content and human consequences. And the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community (pp. 217, 218, emphasis in original).

On the other hand, there are influential voices, both in the United States and in Europe, that try to reduce religion and faith to a private preference that has no public role to play. They thereby seek to construct what one critic calls a "naked public square", thereby domesticating religion and totally secularizing the public realm.

For Archbishop Chaput such a strategy not only denatures religion, especially Catholicism, but also stands in profound contradiction with the historical uniqueness of the American "experiment in democracy". The so-called "wall of separation" between Church and State in the United States (a phrase often misleadingly invoked) was never intended to exclude the full engagement of believers in the political and civic life of the nation. And the American Constitution's injunction against the "establishment" of religion was a precious protection against the unwarranted intrusion of the State into religious affairs.

The author draws significantly upon the thought of the late theologian, John Courtney Murray, S.J., who played a considerable role at Vatican II in the elaboration of the Council's pioneering Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. Murray argued (and Chaput agrees) that the founding documents of American democracy drew upon a natural law vision that affirms universal truths about the human condition. Thus Catholics, with their commitment to the natural law tradition, have a crucial contribution to make to American public life and the political process. Indeed, how can one possibly contribute to the common good unless discussion and debate on deeply held values and moral convictions comes into play?

Moreover, the most authoritative figures in the Catholic tradition, like St. Thomas Aquinas, recognize the legitimate autonomy of the secular. "Caesar" has a legitimate claim to the loyalty and dedication of citizens. But that loyalty can never usurp the obedience and worship due to God alone.

Archbishop Chaput dedicates a moving chapter to the English Saint Thomas More, whom Pope John Paul II called "the heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians". The greatness of More lies in his courageous struggle to remain loyal to his duty to his earthly sovereign, while never compromising his ultimate dedication to the dictates of his conscience as reflective of his obedience to his heavenly King. As is well known, this integrity ultimately cost More his life, but his witness remains a powerful force and inspiration for all seeking to enlighten the social order with the light of the Gospel.

Thus the second level at which the book may be read is as an appeal to American Catholics to recover a robust and comprehensive understanding of their own faith tradition.

Too often, in the 40 years since the Council, Catholics find themselves divided by selective appeals to one or another aspect of Tradition. This tendency to choose selectively has been termed "cafeteria Catholicism" and has only been exacerbated by the growing individualism of a consumer-oriented American society. Then, instead of being a "leaven" within Society, there is the risk of an indiscriminate accommodation to contemporary culture that weakens the Church's evangelical witness.

The author issues a blunt challenge to his fellow Catholics: "As Catholics, we need to take a much tougher and more self-critical look at ourselves as believers; at the issues underlying today's erosion of Catholic identity; and at the wholesale assimilation absorption might be a better word of Catholics by American culture" (p. 184).

In effect, Archbishop Chaput is setting before his compatriots the same challenge that St. Paul posed to his fellow citizens of the Roman Empire: "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect" (Rm 12:2).

Key here is the virtue of discernment always a demanding task. Yet it would be naive not to admit that authentic discernment poses particular problems in our own day when the influence of the media is so pervasive. With all the benefits that instant communications provide, they can also, by their addiction to sound bytes, detract from the necessary reflective weighing of evidence that alone fosters insight. In addition, so much of popular media (music, cinema, video games) promotes entertainment of an escapist or violent nature, desensitizing and darkening conscience. No wonder Archbishop Chaput appeals several times to the analysis of the late cultural critic, Neil Postman, whose study bears the ominous title: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Chaput's realistic assessment of the challenge that lies before us issues in a renewed appreciation of the cost of discipleship. He invokes figures like the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the Vietnamese Catholic Bishop, later Cardinal, F. X. Nguyen Van Thuan to serve as exemplary witnesses of what a courageous following of Christ may entail. In the face of their faithful witness our propensity to facile compromises can appear as betrayal.

Finally, the ultimate criterion of life-giving discernment for a Christian can only be the Lord Jesus himself. He is the whole treasure of the Church; the gospel of life we are called to share.

The author writes: "[T]he Catholic faith is much more than a set of principles we agree to, but rather an entirely new way of life. People must see that new life being lived. They must see the joy that it brings. They must see the union of the believer with Jesus Christ (p. 190, emphasis in original).

Lastly, the third level at which the book may be read is as a reading of the Second Vatican Council. Though he does not employ the term or even treat the issue ex professo, the Archbishop clearly reads Vatican II through the lens of a "hermeneutic of reform" within the Church's millennial Tradition.

In the face of frequent appeals to the "spirit" of the Council, he forthrightly affirms: "The teaching of Vatican II exists first and foremost in the council documents themselves. No interpretation of the council has merit unless it proceeds organically from what the council actually said, and then remains true to it" (p. 112, emphasis in original).

Moreover, what the Council actually said must be understood in the context of its entire body of teaching. Thus, however important Nostra Aetate or Dignitatis Humanae may be, they must always be read in the comprehensive context provided by the four "Constitutions" the major pillars of Vatican II. Specifically, they must be read in light of the Council's Christocentric vision that receives its orientation from Lumen Gentium's confession that "Christ is the light of the nations" (n. 1) and Gaudium et Spes' joyful affirmation that "Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (n. 22).

It is, of course, true that the focus of the Council's labours was ecclesiological and that it did not devote a document specifically to Christology.

Nonetheless, the Council's vision was permeated with Christology and a "high" Christology at that. I have written elsewhere about Vatican ll's Christological "depth grammar'", how all the teaching of Vatican II must be read in light of its confession of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

I find the same persuasion expressed in Archbishop Chaput's book. He writes, for example: "We need to root the social dimension of our Catholic faith, and everything else we do, in God's love, which is the fuel for our mission of evangelization. We cannot offer Catholic social action to the men and women of the world without at the same time offering them Jesus Christ" (p. 193). Catholic mission and Catholic identity are inseparable. And they find sacramental expression in the Eucharist, the source and summit of Catholic life: Ecclesia de Eucharistia.

The Archbishop declares: "The Catholic Church is a web of relationships based on the most important relationship of all: Jesus Christ's gift of himself in the Eucharist for our salvation. None of us earns the gift of Christ's love. None of us 'deserves' the Eucharist" (p. 223).

In a final chapter the author engages some pressing pastoral issues regarding access to the Eucharist on the part of public figures who advocate positions the Church holds to be intrinsically evil, like abortion. The Archbishop's approach is both pastorally sensitive and theologically cogent. It will help bring clarity to the ongoing conversation and discernment in this delicate matter one which must be addressed for the sake of the integrity of the faith.

Archbishop Chaput has written a book that is informed, measured, civil, and pointed. It should be read, discussed, taken to heart in the United States and beyond. In many ways his message is simple, though certainly not simplistic. He puts the question forthrightly: "What needs to be done by Catholics today for their country?" and his response is equally forthright:

"The answer is: Don't lie. If we say we are Catholic, we need to prove it. America's public life needs people willing to stand alone, without apologies, for the truth of the Catholic faith and the common human values it defends" (p. 197, emphasis in original). I find here a clear echo of what the Apostle Paul said to the Ephesians as a requirement of their union in Christ. "Therefore, put away all falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members of one another" (Eph 4:25).
 


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 September 2008, page 11

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