A Faithfulness To The Needs Of God’s Creation — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

September 14, 2012

San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505; oil on canvas, transferred from panel; San Zaccaria, Venice Stylistically, the lighting in the San Zaccaria piece has become so soft and diffuse that it makes that in the San Giobbe appear almost raking in contrast. Bellini’s use of the oil medium had matured, and the holy figures seem to be swathed in a still, rarefied air. The San Zaccaria is considered perhaps the most beautiful and imposing of all his altarpieces, and is dated 1505.

Someone once asked me how any sensible person could choose to become a Christian because Christians have such an unhealthy desire for suffering. The best answer comes from Leon Bloy, a writer who himself chose to become a Catholic. “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist,” wrote Bloy, “and into them enters suffering, that they might have existence.” In a sense, all Christian belief is cocooned in those words. Christians have no desire to suffer. But we do understand and appreciate the power of suffering.

No one can avoid suffering. It’s the truest democratic experience. Everybody gets a piece of it. But Bloy understood, just as Viktor Frank discovered in the death camps, that we can always choose what we do with the suffering that comes our way. We have that freedom. This is why suffering breaks some people, while it breaks open others into something more than their old selves, stretching the soul to greatness.

Christians don’t like suffering any more than anyone else. They certainly don’t go looking for it. But people who believe in Jesus Christ do try to accept and use suffering as Christ did: that is, as a creative, redemptive act. Suffering lived properly is the heart’s great tutor in humility, gratitude, and understanding of others, because they too suffer. This is why Pope John Paul II once described the Bible as the “great book about suffering.” He meant that Scripture is the story of God’s willingness to suffer for humanity; the story of God’s call to each of us to join our suffering to his own in healing the evil and pain in the world.

Scripture urges us to follow the Good Samaritan who saw even a suffering stranger as his neighbor and acted to ease his wounds. Thus God’s “great book about suffering” is not only about God’s love for us — but also about our solidarity with others. The cornerstone for Christian action in the world is the Word of God itself.

Catholics believe that Scripture is the infallible Word of God. They also remember that the church teaches with the authority of Jesus by Christ’s own command, and that the church preceded the Gospels — not the other way around. The Christian community is shaped by both Scripture and Tradition. The New Testament was written in context and by members. of the ekklesia, the early Christian church. As the true Word of God, the Scriptures always stand in judgment of the present Christian community. Being faithful to God depends on whether we live our individual lives and our life in the church in accord with Scripture.

But again, the Scriptures come to us from God through the church. So an intrinsic relationship flows between Word and believing community from the very start of the Christian experience. This is the meaning of Tradition. For Catholics, Tradition is the wisdom learned from the lived experience of the church applying God’s Word to the circumstances of the day. The Word of God is foundational to Christian life. It judges Christian life. But other dimensions of Christian life also exist side by side with Scripture, notably our life together in Jesus Christ as a believing community, passed on through the centuries.

Here’s the point. We can’t reject the church and her teachings, and then simultaneously claim to be following Jesus Christ or the Scriptures. For Catholics, the believing community is the church, and without the church as the guardian of Christian life and protector of God’s Word, Christianity could never have survived. As the historian Christopher Dawson wrote, “Christianity was not merely a doctrine and a life, it was above all a society.” Without the framework of the church, “Christianity would have changed its nature in [history's} changing social environment and would have become ... a different religion."

Why is any of this important in talking about Catholics, politics, and the public square? It should be obvious. The believing community -- the church -- is how the individual believer brings the Word of God and the body of Christian wisdom most forcefully to bear on the practical affairs of the world. And that can thoroughly irritate the world and also Caesar, whether the year is AD 112, 1012, or 2012.

Catholic public engagement comes from the same religiously informed roots that gave life to the ideas and words of America's founders more than two hundred years ago. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from the distance of Nazi Germany, "American democracy is founded not upon the emancipated man but, quite the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and upon the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God." Christianity requires faith in things unseen. It points the individual person toward eternal life with God. But our salvation is worked out here and now, together as a family, in this world, through our actions toward other people. For a Christian, this world is worth struggling to make better -- precisely because God created it and loves his children who inhabit it.

Thus, it's no surprise that in the Decalogue, the first three commandments frame humanity's relationship with God. The next seven frame our relationship with each other. The desire for extending God's justice among his people, marked by the Old Testament tradition of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 or the warnings in the Book of Amos, weaves itself throughout the New Testament.

When asked to name the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and all the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40). What that love means in practice can be found in the words Jesus used to describe his true disciples: leaven in the world, salt of the earth, light to the nations. These are words of mission; a language not of good intentions but of conscious behavior.

The Epistle of James describes the meaning of discipleship best when it warns Christians to "be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (Matthew 1:22) and that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (Matthew 2:17). That message incarnates itself down through the centuries in the lives of saints, religious orders, social encyclicals, and a vast tradition of Catholic hospitals, schools, and services to the hungry, disabled, poor, homeless, and elderly.

When emperor Julian the Apostate sought to restore Roman paganism in the fourth century AD, he didn't copy Christian thought. He had contempt for what Christians believed. Instead he copied Christian hospices, orphanages, and other charitable works because of their power to witness by action. But if faith without works is dead, so too in the long run are works dead without a dynamic faith to grow and sustain them. Christians had that faith. Pagan Roman culture didn't. The rest is history.


As Catholics, how can we uncouple what we do, from what we claim to believe, without killing what we believe and lying in what we do? The answer is simple. We can't. How we act works backward on our convictions, making them stronger or smothering them under a snowfall of alibis.

To German Catholics of the politically desperate 1930s, Pope Pius XI wrote, "It is not enough to be a member of the Church of Christ; one needs to be a living member in spirit and in truth, i.e., living in the state of grace and in the presence of God, either in innocence or sincere repentance." He warned that "what is morally ..I indefensible can never contribute to the good of the people,"" and that "thousands of voices ring in your ears a [false} gospel which has not been revealed by the Father of heaven." Too few Catholics listened. In fact, far too many German Christians -- including too many church leaders -- accommodated themselves to a Caesar who took their souls along with their approval.

Parallels between Europe seventy years ago and the American landscape today may seem glib and melodramatic, or even flatly wrong. It's a fair criticism. Times change. History never really repeats itself. Each generation has its own unique set of challenges. But patterns of human thought and behavior do repeat themselves. The past, as a record of the results, is a great teacher. When John Paul II called Catholics to a purification of memory and repentance for sins of the past during the Jubilee Year 2000, he did it for an important reason. We can't preach what we don't live. The struggle with our own sinfulness never ends in this lifetime, but we must at least admit our sins, repent of them, seek the forgiveness of those we wound -- and then constantly begin again.

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "No Christian Church has a right to preach to this so-called secular age without a contrite recognition of the shortcomings of historic Christianity which tempted the modern age to disavow its Christian faith." The unbelief of the modern heart is not simply a product of human pride. It can also be what Niebuhr called a "reaction to [the] profanity” of faith lived hypocritically.

What that means for the church and individual American Catholics is this: We can choose to treat our faith as a collection of comforting pieties. We can choose to file Jesus away as a good teacher with some great, if unrealistic, ideas. Or we can choose to be real disciples, despite all our sins and admitting all our sins. In other words, we can accept Jesus for who he says he is: our redeemer, the Messiah of Israel, and the only Son of God. This is what the church has always believed. What we can’t honestly choose is continuing to select our Catholic faith from a cafeteria menu while failing at the task Christ himself gave us: a root-level transformation of ourselves and the world around us. The time for easy Christianity is over. In fact, it never really existed. We’re blessed to be rid of the illusion. We need to be more zealous in our faith, not more discreet; clearer in our convictions, not muddier; and more Catholic, not less.

The Catholic faith should take root in our hearts like the mustard seed of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 13:31; 17:20). No matter how small it begins, the mustard seed grows so strong and so large that it breaks us open and frees us to be new and different persons far better than our old selves; a source of shelter and support for others. The one thing we can’t do with a living faith is remain the same. We must either kill it or become new people because of it. Anything less is fraud. And in like manner, the church should be a mustard seed in society, transforming — not by coercion but by active witness — every fiber of a nation’s political, economic, and social life.

History reminds us that believers and their leaders are as prone to the temptations of power as anyone else. Jesus himself turned away from earthly power when Satan offered it to him on the mountain (Matthew 4:8-10) God’s kingdom is not of this world. Nothing we can do will change that. Even a good Caesar is still only Caesar.

But Christ never absolved us from resisting and healing the evil in the world, or from solidarity with the people who suffer it. Our fidelity is finally to God, but it implies a faithfulness to the needs of his creation. Like it or not, we are involved — and there is, after all, a war on (Ephesians 6:12). It’s the same conflict Tolkien meant when he wrote that “[human] wars are always lost, and The War always goes on.” It’s the same conflict C. S. Lewis meant when he wrote that “there is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” And this war goes on without rest in every age, in every nation, in every human life, in every choice, in every decision, in every action, in every public issue.

We can choose our side. We can’t choose not to choose. Not choosing is a choice.

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