Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver gave a talk at the John Cardinal Krol Conference in Phildelphia last weekend on Religion and the Common Good, which has been posted on the First Things web site.
When Cardinal Rigali first invited me to come to Philadelphia to talk about religion and the common good, I accepted for two simple reasons. First, I’m tired of the Church and her people being told to be quiet on public issues that urgently concern us. And second, I’m tired of Christians themselves being silent because of some misguided sense of good manners. Self-censorship is an even bigger failure than allowing ourselves to be bullied by outsiders.
Only one question really matters. Does God exist or not? If he does, that has implications for every aspect of our personal and public behavior: all of our actions, all of our choices, all of our decisions. If God exists, denying him in our public life—whether we do it explicitly like Nietzsche or implicitly by our silence—cannot serve the common good, because it amounts to worshiping the unreal in the place of the real.
He notes that the current trend of separating one’s private beliefs from one’s public actions, especially for politicians and other public leaders, is not rooted in the 1960s and Kennedy’s disavowal of being a Vatican puppet and launches into an examination of the writings of European Catholic writer George Bernanos.
Bernanos had an unblinkered vision of the “signs of the times.” Remember that, just after the Second World War, France experienced a Catholic revival. Recovering from a global conflict and the Holocaust, the world in general and France in particular seemed to turn back—briefly—to essentials. It was during that hopeful season that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave us Gaudium et Spes.
But Bernanos always saw the problems beneath the veneer. He wasn’t fooled by the apparent revival of Catholic France. And so his work is a great corrective to the myth that our moral confusion started in the 1960s. As Bernanos makes clear, our problems began with the machine age—the industrial revolution—but not simply because of machines. They were the fruit of a “de-spiritualization” that had been going on for some time.
Bernanos identifies within modern Western thought a tendency for “whistling past the graveyard”, an irrational optimism that everything will turn out for the best despite all the obstacles of crime and poverty and war. He contrasts this with the Christian virtue of hope, which “disciplines and ‘perfects’ human appetites.” It does not pave over the past and fetishize the future and progress, like modernism.
Christianity and Judaism see life very differently. For both of them, history is a place of human decision. At every moment of our lives, we’re asked to choose for good or for evil. Therefore, time has weight. It has meaning. The present is vitally important as the instant that will never come again; the moment where we are not determined by outside forces but self-determined by our free will. Our past actions make us who we are today. But each “today” also offers us another chance to change our developing history. The future is the fruit of our past and present choices, but it’s always unknown, because each successive moment presents us with a new possibility.
Place this observation alongside current debates over abortion, contraception, sexual morality, the nature of marriage, bioethics, and the rest, and you see why those of us approaching them from the Christian viewpoint can’t seem to make those approaching from the modernist viewpoint understand what we’re saying: because the very way we look at the world and our place in it is so very different.
The “common good” is more than a political slogan. It’s more than what most people think they want right now. It’s not a matter of popular consensus or majority opinion. It can’t be reduced to economic justice or social equality or better laws or civil rights, although all these things are vitally important to a healthy society.
The common good is what best serves human happiness in the light of what is real and true. That’s the heart of the matter: What is real and true? If God exists, then the more man flees from God, the less true and real man becomes. If God exists, then a society that refuses to acknowledge or publicly talk about God is suffering from a peculiar kind of insanity.
It’s a very good essay, a very clear-eyed look at our current situation and the role that religion has in securing the common good. We need to hear more of this from our priests and bishops.