Archbishop Chaput on religion and the common good

Archbishop Chaput on religion and the common good

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.

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
2 comments
  • “If God exists, then a society that refuses to acknowledge or publicly talk about God is suffering from a peculiar kind of insanity.”

    Strange to come across this quote from Archbishop Chaput tonight as I have just finished watching “Tom and Viv,” a film dealing with the tumultuous relationship of T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne, who suffered from mental illness.  At one point in the film, a consulting psychiatrist states that Vivienne has what he terms “moral insanity” in which her intellectual capacities are still quite intact. [The film grossly errored in that as tht term went out of use forty years earlier].

    Nevertheless, the term struck me, not as a clinical diagnosis, but really as a moral or ontological condition that is afflicting so many of our seemingly intelligent citizens now.  It is literally impossible, for example, to think of abortion, or the sexual degradations that are now rampant and praised as normative without considering if a form of madness has not struck our society. 

    A madness, like to many madnesses, that is slyly used by amoral politicians of a liberal bent to put forth all kinds of rights on behalf of people who are either quite morally ill or manipulated by social forces that induce them towards evil acts like abortion.  And hence, we get Planned Parenthood and its foundational and governmental support for what amounts to feticide if not actual infanticide.  And almost an entire leadership of the Democratic Party to support that.

    Ttoday there is also a news item about a coalition of so-called religious spokesmen arguing on behalf of the right of abortion—I believe, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights or some such oxymoron.  To make such an assertion in the name of God is either to be total fools, lunatics, or utter blasphemers.  And to prove Archbishop Chaput quite correct in his assessment.

  • Our faith is so much a part of our personal identity that to take it away would make us strangers to ourselves.  If I’m not Catholic, I don’t know who I am.  All of my decisions and choices made at each moment of every day are grounded in my belief in God and in Jesus Christ.  So you’re right, we can’t speak to the secularists because we are speaking from a different set of assumptions about what reality is.

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