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Engaging The World — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

September 13, 2012

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens, 1515

A FRIEND OF mine tells a story from the 1950s. His parents were driving from New York to Texas with his younger sister and himself to visit family. They stopped on a Sunday morning in a small town in Alabama to get gas. His father asked the station attendant where they could find a local Catholic church. “No Catholic church here,” shrugged the attendant. “No Catholics in the county.” His father paid for the gas, they pulled out of the gas station, turned the corner, and there, half a block down the street, was the local Catholic parish.

Many Catholics have grown up in recent decades with no memory of the often vulgar and sometimes violent anti-Catholicism that pervades American history. Anti-Catholic bigotry in the United States traces itself back to the country’s original Protestant roots. Fortunately, much of the old, religiously based anti-Catholicism has softened since the 1950s, and some of this change surely flows from Catholic ecumenical and reform efforts since Vatican II. Over the past forty years, Catholics and other committed Christians have found that they have much more in common, and much more to feel commonly uneasy about in the wider culture, than in the past. This is a good thing.

Anti-Catholicism has not gone away, though. It has only shifted its shape. The new anti-Catholicism is a kind of background radiation to daily life created by America’s secularized leadership classes: the media, the academy, and political action groups. Some of the bigotry is very direct. It worries publicly about the Catholic faith of U.S. Supreme Court justices. Or it lobbies the internal revenue service to attack the tax status of Catholic organizations that teach an inconvenient public message.

But a lot of the new bigotry simply involves a steady stress on Catholic sins while turning a blind eye to Catholic vitality. It also includes a great many pious lectures about not imposing Catholic beliefs on society. In reality, the new anti-Catholicism often masks a resentment of any faithful Christian social engagement. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church in the United States makes an ideal target for critics of religion in the public square because we’re larger and better organized than most other Christian communities. And thanks to habits of mind created by the “old” anti-Catholicism, Catholics are easier to caricature.

In a democracy, people disagree. It’s a natural part of the process, but disagreement can easily create resentment. And when people act together in community, resentment of their ideas can fester into hatred of who they are. The reason is simple. It’s usually easy to ignore individuals, but communities are another matter. When organized and focused communities — like the Catholic Church — are pressing for what they believe, they are much stronger and much harder to ignore than are individuals.

What many critics dislike most about the Catholic Church is not her message, which they can always choose to dismiss, but her institutional coherence in pursuing her message, which is much harder to push aside. And yet, the church is neither a religious version of General Motors nor a “political” organism; the political consequences of her message are a by-product of her moral teachings.

The church — both as a community and as an “institution” — is vital to Catholic life. Catholics believe that the church is the Body of Christ, the community of believers formed by the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus’ work until he returns. The church is a family of different but equal people, gathered in a hierarchy of authority with Christ as the head and a mission to sanctify the world. The church is also, in a sense, a person — our mother and teacher; the spouse of Christ. This is why Catholics so often refer to the church as a “she.” The community of faith is essentially feminine — not passive or weak, but fertile with new life. Mary cooperated with God in making his Word incarnate. In the same way the church, in following Christ, creates new life in the world through the faith and works of her children.

The church engages the world in two ways: through the life of each individual believer and through the common action of believers working together. Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matters. There’s no special headquarters staff that handles the action side of the Gospel. That task belongs to all of us. Baptism, for Catholics, does not simply wash away sin. It also incorporates the baptized person into a new life; and part of that new life is a mandate to act; to be God’s agent in the world. Laypeople, clergy, and religious all have different tasks within the community of faith. Everybody, however, shares the basic mission: bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ.

Laypeople have the special task of evangelizing the secular world. And this makes sense. Most Catholics — the vast majority — are laypeople. They have jobs, friends, and families. They can witness Jesus Christ on a daily basis, silently or out loud, directly or indirectly, by their words and actions. If we look for opportunities to share our faith with others, God always provides them. This is why self-described Catholics who live so anonymously that no one knows about their faith, Catholics who fail to prove by their actions what they claim to believe with their tongue, aren’t really living as “Catholics” at all.

It’s also why asking Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs amounts to telling them to be barren; to behave as if they were neutered. Nothing could be more alien to the meaning of baptism. The Christian idea of witness, which comes from the Greek word martyr, isn’t limited to a bloody death in the arena for the faith. All Christians have the command to be a martyr in the public arena — to live a life of conscious witness wherever God places them, no matter how insignificant it seems and whether or not they ever see the results.

Years ago I read a story about an Englishwoman named Mabel. She had two sons. It’s not clear what first drew her to the Gospel, but she became a Christian shortly after her husband died in the 1890s. She was devoted to her new faith. Every Sunday she would make the long walk with her sons to an Anglican church. Then one Sunday they tried a different place of worship: a Catholic church in a poor area of Birmingham. Mabel already had an interest in things Catholic. She asked for instruction. She then entered the Catholic Church.

Mabel’s Catholic conversion angered her family. Her father was outraged. Her brother-in-law ended the little financial help he had been giving her since she became a widow. Her dead husband’s family rejected her. She and her sons slipped into poverty. Mabel’s health collapsed. Despite this, she remained zealously committed to her Catholic faith and taught it to both her sons. Several years later, she fell into a diabetes-induced coma and died. She entrusted her boys to the guardianship of a friend, a local Catholic priest, who deepened their faith throughout their upbringing.’

Very few people remember Mabel and her story. But a great many people remember at least one of her sons: J. R. R. Tolkien. In a letter to a Jesuit friend many years later, Tolkien wrote: “All my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded” on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” He added, “[My Catholic faith has] nourished me and taught me all the little that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it.”

That’s not a bad epitaph for any Christian life. It also reminds us that real discipleship always has a cost. We can’t follow Jesus Christ without sharing in his cross. That requires humility and courage because it can hurt. Quite a few people in the modern world dismiss Christ: some quietly; some with loud derision; and if they hate him, they will also hate his church and his followers — at least the ones who seek to follow him in their actions as well as their words.

The word disciple, after all, comes from the Latin word meaning learner, student, or pupil. A good student learns from and emulates his or her teacher. Discipleship demands more than reading about the Catholic faith or admiring the life of Jesus. Christ didn’t ask for our approval or agreement. He doesn’t need either. He asked us to follow him — radically, with all we have, and without caveats or reservations.

Following Christ means paying the same price out of love for others that Jesus paid to redeem us. Following Christ means working for justice in civil society in the light of Christian truth; it means treating the persons we meet every day with charity. Christ’s call to follow him applies to each of us as individual believers. It also applies to the whole community we call the church.

As the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison in 1944, “I’ve come to know more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity … I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.” We remember Bonhoeffer for his books like Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. But we remember him even more for another reason. He paid the cost of his discipleship personally. He was hanged by the Third Reich in 1945 for his part in resistance activities.

We Christians are in the world but not of the world. We belong to God, and our home is heaven. But we’re here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. The work belongs to us. Nobody will do it for us. And the idea that we can accomplish it without engaging in a hands-on way the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind, and the root causes that sustain injustice in our country is a delusion.

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