|Interview With Archbishop Charles Chaput
By Karna Swanson
DENVER, Colorado, 22 AUG. 2008 (ZENIT)
Not only does religion have a
place in the public square, a democracy needs the input of religious
morals and convictions to remain healthy and strong, says the archbishop
Taking religion out of play, adds Archbishop Charles Chaput, author of
"Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs
in Political Life," is the fastest way to destroy a democracy.
In this interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Chaput talks about the ideas
put forth in his book on Catholics and politics, and comments on what he
thinks are the important issues facing voters this November.
Q: Catholicism in the public square in the United States has had a long
and complicated journey, and you say that Catholics have a lot to offer
the political process, but that more often than not they keep their
beliefs and convictions separate from their political actions. Why is
Archbishop Chaput: Catholics have always been a minority in the United
States, and prejudice against Catholics in this country has always been
real, even before the founding. Sometimes the bias has been indirect and
genteel. Just as often it has taken more vulgar forms of economic and
political discrimination, and media bigotry. Either way, prejudice
always fuels the appetite of a minority to fit in, to achieve and to
assimilate, and American Catholics have done that extraordinarily well
in fact, too well.
In the name of being good citizens, a lot of Catholics have bought into
a very mistaken idea of the “separation of Church and state.” American
Catholics have always supported the principle of keeping religious and
civil authority distinct.
Nobody wants a theocracy, and much of the media hand-wringing about the
specter of “Christian fundamentalism” is really just a particularly
offensive scare tactic. The Church doesn’t presume to run the state. We
also don’t want the state interfering with our religious beliefs and
— which, candidly, is a much bigger problem today.
Separating Church and state does not mean separating faith and political
issues. Real pluralism requires a healthy conflict of ideas. In fact,
the best way to kill a democracy is for people to remove their religious
and moral convictions from their political decision-making. If people
really believe something, they’ll always act on it as a matter of
conscience. Otherwise they’re just lying to themselves. So the idea of
forcing religion out of public policy debates is not only unwise, it’s
Q: A chapter of the book was dedicated to St. Thomas More. In the same
chapter you mention John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the
United States. What is the fundamental difference between these two
Catholic political leaders?
Archbishop Chaput: As I say in the book, we should be wary of drawing
too close a parallel between More’s situation and the problems facing
American public officials. But More and his friend John Fisher stay so
vivid in our memories for a reason. They kept their integrity at the
cost of everything they had, including their lives. They put God before
As for Kennedy, we need to remember the context of his 1960 campaign.
Kennedy had plenty of talent and courage, but he also had to overcome
200 years of ingrained Protestant suspicion.
Unfortunately, in easing those Protestant fears, he created a new and
very flawed Catholic model of separating public service from private
conviction. He was acting in good will, and of course he couldn’t see
— but he did a great deal of damage. Over the past 40 years, his
example has guided every Catholic public official who is “personally
opposed” to some grave evil, but won’t do anything about it. We’re still
suffering the effects.
Q: You also note that the new media culture has created a new
environment for public debate in which a "serious marketplace of ideas"
is replaced by sound bites. How can faithful Catholic politicians
operate in this environment?
Archbishop Chaput: There’s no easy answer to that. American Catholics
need to take a much more critical attitude toward the mass media,
including the news industry. Many very good people work in journalism,
for example. But the picture of reality reported by the news media is
always colored by at least three things: the technology of the medium,
the need to make a profit and the bias of the organization.
What we see and hear in political reporting is often a dumbed-down
version of the facts. Individual citizens need to be alert to how the
media shape public appetites and mold our opinions. And Catholic
political officials need to learn how to use the media
honestly, of course
and not be used by them.
Q: Did you hope the book, which was published months ahead of the
presidential elections in the United States, would impact the election
process in some way?
Archbishop Chaput: Actually, I finished the text in July last year and
made final revisions last November. I wanted the book to appear in March
this year to put some space between it and the campaign season. But the
publisher makes those decisions.
It’s not my intention, in the book or anywhere else, to tell people how
to vote. I don’t endorse candidates, I don’t use code language to get
people to like or dislike any political party. That’s not the job of a
People need to vote their conscience. But “conscience” doesn’t
miraculously appear out of nothing; it’s not a matter of personal
opinion or private preference. Conscience is always grounded in truth
bigger than ourselves. People who claim to be Catholic need to be honest
with themselves and with the believing community. They need to really
act “Catholic” in private and in public, and that includes the way they
make their political choices. And it’s very much the job of a pastor to
teach Catholics their faith and to encourage them to apply it.
Q: In this election year there seems to be more talk of "wider" social
issues that Catholics should consider when voting. How do you see this
trend? And what do you see as the biggest issues facing Catholic voters
Archbishop Chaput: The moral witness of the Church doesn’t change,
whether it’s an election year or not. We face a lot of very important
issues this fall: the economy, immigration reform, the war in Iraq.
These are urgent and compelling, but they can’t be used as an excuse to
ignore the unborn child.
No matter how much we want to cover it over with talk about “wider
social issues,” the abortion struggle remains the foundational social
issue of our time. There’s no way of wriggling around the profits, the
brutality and the injustice of abortion with pious language or
theatrical gestures. Abortion is legalized homicide. It has to stop.
Every other right depends on the right to life.
Q: The book is written mainly for a U.S. audience as it directly speaks
of the Church in the United States. What could an international audience
take away from the book?
Archbishop Chaput: All Catholics, wherever they live, whatever their
country, need to remember that we’re citizens of heaven first. That’s
our home. We serve our nation in this world best by living our Catholic
faith fully and authentically, and bringing our Catholic witness for
human dignity vigorously into our nation’s political life.
We need to stop being embarrassed to speak and work for the truth. We
can be disciples, or we can be cowards. In today’s world, there’s no
room for anything else. We need to choose.