Archive for the ‘Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’ Category


Fire Upon the Earth — Charles J. Chaput

October 15, 2013
Reubens, The Entombment of Christ Flemish, about 1612. Peter Paul Rubens depicted the moment after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection when Christ is placed into the tomb. He is being supported by those closest to him in life: John the Evangelist, in a brilliant red robe, bears the weight of Christ; Mary Magdalene cries in the background; while Mary, the mother of James the Younger and Joseph, bows her head in sorrow. Mary, the mother of Christ, cradles his head and looks heavenward for divine intercession. The Entombment was meant to make the viewer's religious experience personal and encourage the faithful to imagine the physical horror of Christ's Crucifixion. Christ's tortured features confront the viewer, and our attention is focused on his corpse, sacrifice, and suffering. Wounds are openly displayed: blood flows from the gaping laceration in Christ's side and the puncture wounds on his hands. Rubens contrasted the living and the dead by juxtaposing the lifeless body and green-tinged skin of Christ with the healthy complexion of St. John.

Reubens, The Entombment of Christ Flemish, about 1612. Peter Paul Rubens depicted the moment after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection when Christ is placed into the tomb. He is being supported by those closest to him in life: John the Evangelist, in a brilliant red robe, bears the weight of Christ; Mary Magdalene cries in the background; while Mary, the mother of James the Younger and Joseph, bows her head in sorrow. Mary, the mother of Christ, cradles his head and looks heavenward for divine intercession. The Entombment was meant to make the viewer’s religious experience personal and encourage the faithful to imagine the physical horror of Christ’s Crucifixion. Christ’s tortured features confront the viewer, and our attention is focused on his corpse, sacrifice, and suffering. Wounds are openly displayed: blood flows from the gaping laceration in Christ’s side and the puncture wounds on his hands. Rubens contrasted the living and the dead by juxtaposing the lifeless body and green-tinged skin of Christ with the healthy complexion of St. John.

These remarks from Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., the Archbishop of Philadelphia, were delivered the evening of October 1 at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary as part of a Year of Faith discussion series. A reblog from First Things.


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks the first words of his adult ministry not to his family or to his friends — but to his adversary, Satan, in the desert. He says,“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry with these first words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

My goal tonight is to speak about personal conversion and the new evangelization, through the lens of the Year of Faith. And I’d like to do that in three steps. First, I’ll revisit what a “year of faith” is, and why Pope Benedict felt we needed one. Second, I’ll talk about Pope Francis and the new spirit he brings to witnessing our faith as a Church. And third and most important, I’ll speak about what we need to do, and how we need to live, going forward — in other words, how we might share our faith so fully and joyfully that we truly become God’s lumen gentium, God’s “light to the nations.”

Before we start though, I want to go back to those two verses from Matthew and Mark, because they frame our whole discussion tonight.

This is the verse from Matthew: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In the Gospel, when Jesus says these words, he’s ravenous from forty days in the desert. But he’s speaking with the devil here about a great deal more than bread. Men and women need food and shelter to survive. These things are basic to their dignity. But they need God to be fully alive. Human beings are more than a bundle of appetites. Our longings go beyond what we can see and touch and taste. We were made for God. And material answers to questions of the soul can never be more than a narcotic. The proof is all around us. So much of the suffering in modern American life — we see it every day — can be traced to our misdirected desires, and the distractions we use to feed them. We look for joy and purpose in things that can never give us either.

Here’s the verse from Mark: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. This is one of the key moments in all of Scripture. Jesus comes out of the desert on fire with the presence of his Father. He calls on us to wake up from the darkness in our lives. He speaks with passion and urgency. And that’s how we need to hear his words, because time matters. Time is the only thing in life we truly own, and none of us has more than a little of it. God is near. The kingdom is coming. What we do right now to prepare for it — tonight, tomorrow, and for however long God gives us in the world — has consequences not only for ourselves, but for the people we touch with our lives.

The kingdom of God is at hand. God’s kingdom builds on two foundation stones in the human heart: repentance and belief. Repentance makes us new, and it makes us sane. It makes us new because it gives us a chance to begin again by healing the evil we’ve done. It makes us sane because it’s an act of humility and truth telling. It forces us to look honestly at who we are, how we’ve failed, and the people we’ve wounded. And belief — specifically belief in the gospel, belief in the “good news,” because that’s what the Old English word “god-spell” means — gives us the ability to hope that despite all our failures, despite our insignificance and sins, the greatness of God’s love can reach down and redeem even us. We have a future, we have meaning, we have hope for something more than this life, because we belong to a people that God calls his own and loves without limits. And he proves his love with the sacrifice of his own son.

That brings us to the first step in our talk tonight:

What A “Year Of Faith” Is, And Why Pope Benedict Felt We Needed One
Benedict announced the current Year of Faith in his apostolic letter Porta Fidei, or “Door of Faith.” The Year began on October 11, 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It ends next month on the Solemnity of Christ the King.

A Year of Faith is a time set aside by the Church to focus on the meaning of our baptism — in other words, who we are, what we believe, and how we’re called to act as a Christian community. Pope Paul VI announced the last Year of Faith in 1967, hoping to heal the ambiguity and turmoil in the Church that followed Vatican II. That was a turbulent time. And yet, despite the confusion of the ’60s, Paul led a Church that still had a strong memory of her own unity and purpose. The Church pursued her mission in a developed world that was still broadly influenced by a Christian moral vision and vocabulary.

Times have changed over the past five decades. In many ways, the challenges facing the Church in the world, and the fractures even within her own house, have grown more difficult. In Pope Benedict’s words, we now live in a world marked by “a profound crisis of faith.” And this fact shaped the course of his entire pontificate.

In Porta Fidei, Benedict listed three reasons for calling a Year of Faith. He hoped Christians would be led to profess the faith more fully and with conviction; to deepen their encounter with Jesus Christ in the Liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, and to witness the faith more credibly by the example of their lives. He stressed that “A Christian may never think of belief as a private act. Faith [involves] choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with him.” Therefore faith, “precisely because it is a free act, also demands social responsibility for what one believes.”

Above all, in living the Year of Faith, Benedict wanted the Church and her pastors to recover the courage and zeal “to lead people out of the desert toward the place of life,” toward the God who gives us life in abundance.

Now those are beautiful words. We need to take them to heart. The image of man’s “crisis of faith” as a desert is a powerful one, and true. But if surgeons have just saved your child from cancer, it can be very hard to see the modern world as wounded or empty of meaning. Vatican II understood this clearly in describing the modern age as a patchwork of light and shadow. There’s enormous beauty and good in the world. Humanity has achieved great things. We have a right to take joy and pride in them.

But just as we can often learn the right lessons from a failure, we can also learn the wrong lessons from success. Rich or poor, mighty or weak, every one of us is mortal. Every one of us will die. And so will every one of the people we love. It’s profoundly rational to ask what our lives mean; to acknowledge the limits of our reasoning and senses; and to hope for and seek something more than this life. But these questions — so urgent, so fundamental — are exactly the ones modern life buries under a mudflow of distractions and narcotics.

One of the conceits of our age is the idea that reason and science have banished superstition and brought a new era of light to human affairs. Faith, sin, heaven, hell, God and grace — these are throwback ideas to a dark age of supernatural mumbo jumbo and witch burnings, doomed to the dustbin of history. In effect, this is the atheist version of a creation myth. It’s a sunny theory. And for people who imagine themselves as materialists, it can be very comforting.

But it’s false. As scholars like Christian Smith and many others have shown, there’s really no such thing as an “unbeliever.” We all put our faith in something. In fact, we all believe in things we can’t see or prove every day, including the premises we use to organize our understanding of reality. Science operates off first principles — in other words, assumptions about the nature of reality — that can never be proven by science itself.

The cultural power of science comes from its ability to explain many of the observable workings of reality, and also from the technology it creates, which can be very useful in humanity’s service. The trouble is that scientists are also directly or indirectly responsible for Sarin gas, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the technology that murdered six million Jews and the “morning after” abortion pill. Both of the great murder ideologies of the last century — Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism — based their claims to legitimacy on science. More human beings were gassed, starved, aborted, burned, or shot in the name of genetic and racial hygiene, or the laws of history, or scientific materialism in the twentieth century than died in all the previous nineteen centuries of religious conflict and persecution combined.

Some years ago Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that the “new dark ages [are] already upon us” — a darkness brought on not by religion, but by the vanity, moral confusion and failure of the Enlightenment. The key difference between the sixth century and our own, said McIntyre, is that this time “[the] barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this [fact] that constitutes part of our predicament.”

MacIntyre’s words may explain a lot about the framework of Catholic thought over the past two hundred years. The Church is a global community. But her heartland for centuries has been Europe. Issues in Europe and the developed world have tended to mold her agenda. Quite apart from the mistakes and sins of her own leaders, the Church in Europe in the years since the Enlightenment has faced constant pressure from revolutionary violence, intellectual contempt, ideological atheism, idolatry of the nation state, two disastrous world wars, and mass genocides. And Catholic attempts to hold on to the Church’s privileges have often made conflicts worse.

Today a new and even more effective atheism — the practical atheism of an advanced but morally empty liberal consumer culture — is pushing the Church to society’s margins. This, on a European continent that owes much of its identity and history to the Christian faith. And we can see some of the same trends now in Canada and the United States.

Obviously I’m using a very broad brush here. There’s no way to squeeze a couple of centuries of Church life into a few sentences. But thinking like this has helped me imagine what God may hope for us in the leadership of our new universal pastor and bishop of Rome. And that brings us to the second step in my talk tonight:

Pope Francis And The New Spirit He Brings To Witnessing Our Faith As A Church
Pope Francis issued his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei or “Light of Faith,” in June — just three months after his installation. Benedict clearly helped shape the text. But Popes don’t put their names on major teaching documents unless they believe in the content. So in seeking to understand Francis, it’s worth hearing some of his words from Lumen Fidei.

Here’s a passage. “Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call . . . The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustain it in being.”

Here’s another. “Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers . . . Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: It comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed.”

Here’s a third. “In the Bible, the heart is the core of the human person, where all his or her different dimensions intersect: body and spirit, interiority and openness to the world and to others, intellect, will and affectivity . . . Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love.”

And here’s a fourth and final passage. “[Love] requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time . . . [And if] love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable.”

My point is this: Anyone hoping for — or worried about — a break by Pope Francis from Catholic teaching on matters of substance is going to be mistaken. At the same time, the tone of this pontificate will certainly be distinct from anything in the past century. Pope Francis has been formed by experiences very unlike the factors that shaped John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

Francis said shortly after his election that the cardinals had chosen a bishop of Rome from the “[far] end of the world.” Argentina may be the most European of Latin American countries, but Pope Francis’ world as a priest and bishop has been the global South, the problems that wound it and the poor who inhabit it.

Last Sunday’s reading from the Book of Amos (6:1, 4-7) — “Woe to the complacent in Zion, lying on beds of ivory” — would resonate with this Pope in a uniquely vivid way. So would the Gospel reading from Luke (16:19-31) about the Rich Man and Lazarus. In other words, Pope Francis comes to the moral and cultural struggles of the Church in the North from a different perspective.

A lot of commentators have already analyzed the recent La Civilta Cattolica interview with Pope Francis. I wrote about it myself last week. I won’t revisit what I said here. But I do want to highlight some words in the interview that struck me as a clue to the way his Pope thinks about the future. The interviewer asked Pope Francis about the relationship between the “ancient” Churches of the developed world, the global North, and the “young” Churches of the developing world, including the global South. The Holy Father answered this way:

The young Catholic Churches, as they grow, develop a synthesis of faith, culture and life, and so it is a synthesis different from the one developed by the ancient Churches. For me, the relationship between the ancient Catholic Churches and the young ones is similar to the relationship between young and elderly people in a society. They build the future, the young ones with their strength and the others with their wisdom. You always run some risks, of course. The younger Churches are likely to feel self-sufficient; the ancient ones are likely to want to impose on the younger Churches their cultural models. But we build the future together.

How that future will play out is unclear. It holds opportunity and risk; ambiguity and hope. But God is in charge. God will guide his Church. And God will fill this holy man who is our Pope with the wisdom to lead us well.

That brings us to the third and last step in these thoughts tonight:

What We As Catholics Need To Do, And How We Need To Live, In The Years Ahead
I think we make a mistake when we identify the “new evangelization” too closely with techniques or technologies or programs. It’s true that using the new means of communication to advance the Gospel is important. We just founded the Cardinal John Foley Chair in social communications here at the seminary. And I’m glad we did. Today’s mass media are reshaping society. They influence how we think, what we buy and how we live. We need to understand the language and master the tools of the modern world. Through them, with God’s help, we can do a better job of bringing Jesus Christ to our people, and our people to Jesus Christ.

But the main instrument of the new evangelization is the same as the old evangelization. It’s you and me. There’s no way around those words: Repent and believe in the gospel. The world will change only when you change, when we change, because hearts are won by personal witness. And we can’t share what we don’t have.

The words and habits of religion are easy. We can sometimes use them to fool ourselves. We need to drill down below the counterfeit Christianity so many of us prefer into the substance of who we are and what we really treasure. We need to let God transform us from the inside out, and conversion requires humility, patience and love. It requires letting go of the desire to vindicate ourselves at the expense of others. So much of modern life, even in the Church, is laced with a spirit of anger. And anger is an addiction as intense and as toxic as crack.

Pharisees come in all shapes and sizes, left and right. We need to be different. As Pope Francis said in his La Civilta Cattolica interview, the Church needs to be more than “a nest protecting our mediocrity.” We prove or disprove what we claim to believe by the zeal and joy of our lives. What we need to do in the years ahead is what God has always asked us to do: forgive each other; encourage each other; protect the weak; serve the needy; raise the young in virtue; speak with courage; and work for the truth without ceasing — always in a spirit of love.

There’s a passage in The Confessions where St. Augustine writes “My weight is my love.” For Augustine, the more our hearts burn with the love of God, the more the heat of that love carries us upward into his presence. And I think this is exactly what Jesus means in the Gospel of Luke, when he says “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.” A world on fire with the love of God is a world redeemed; a world lifted up on the heat of that love into the arms of God.

The reason the world has paused for Pope Francis — if only for a little while — is that so many people sense in him something more than himself; not just God’s truth and God’s justice, but God’s tenderness. It’s the tenderness Charles Peguy captured in his poem “God’s Dream,” where God says:

[From] those who share my dreams
I ask a little patience,
a little humor,
some small courage,
and a listening heart –
I will do the rest.

Then they will risk,
and wonder at their daring;
run — and marvel at their speed;
build — and stand in awe of the beauty of their building . . .

So come now –
Be content.
It is my dream you dream,
my house you build,
my caring you witness,
my love you share.

And this is the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter is God’s love. It always has been. It always will be. So as we draw to the close of this Year of Faith, may God turn our hearts to him, and make us a “fire upon the earth” — a fire that lifts up his creation in love.


Truthiness And Catholicism – Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

September 21, 2012

The roots of truthiness? “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’”

Stephen Colbert, the youngest of eleven children from an Irish Catholic family, created one of the shrewdest political satire television shows in recent years, The Colbert Report.

In his first appearance, Colbert launched the show’s trademark word: truthiness. He put it this way:

Now I’m sure some of the word police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist, constantly telling us what is or isn’t true; or what did or didn’t happen. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart … The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.

Speaking out of character about modern political debate, Colbert later said: “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything … I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?” He added: “Truthiness is, `What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

People laugh because Colbert is right. Once upon a time, words had weight. Now they float. In the past, Americans understood equality as something basic that we all share before God and the law. Now it means that almost everyone feels anointed to have his or her views taken seriously, no matter how unfettered by fact, logic, civility, or common sense. Unfortunately, experience teaches the opposite. Some ideas are bad. Some opinions are foolish. Some feelings are vindictive. And some people lie. The American genius for marketing, however, is a neutral skill. It can sell sand in a desert, and cigarettes just as artfully as vitamins. So it becomes very important for citizens to think their politics, not feel them; to examine the language of public discourse for what the words really mean.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell observed that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” Writing at the close of a world war that killed more than 30 million people, Orwell warned that the deliberate abuse of language had played a big role in the political collapse the world then suffered. If Joseph Stalin could claim to be a “democrat,” the word meant nothing at all; or even worse, the opposite of its original meaning. Orwell argued that, in the modern era, political language has become mainly a tool to obscure or defend the indefensible.

Orwell knew that words have power because they convey meaning. Words shape our thinking, which shapes our actions. Dishonest public debate with its misuse of words leads to bad laws and dangerous politics. When. the meaning of a word is subverted, it acts like a virus.

It infects other words and ideas. It spreads the habit of adjusting the facts and what they mean to serve predetermined political ends. In a different age, we called this lying. Now we call it spin. But whatever we name it, voter cynicism and a weaker democratic life are the result.

Massaging the facts to get elected — what candidates call “framing the issues” — is hardly new to American politics. It goes with the messiness of an open society. This is why George Washington and other founders spoke so forcefully about the need for a literate, educated citizenry. Democratic life depends on a people with the reasoning skills to see through the chicanery that often goes with political debate.

The new mass media that shape our views, however, have much more power than in the past. Americans now spend large parts of the day watching television, listening to the radio, or exploring the Internet. More books than ever are in print, but serious reading has declined.

This has political implications. Just as the American idea of human rights depends on a vocabulary shaped historically by religion, so does our political process depend on an ability to judge and reason shaped by the printed word and the culture it helped create. Reading cultivates the skills of abstract thought, mental acuity, and attention to the logical structure of a sentence. At its best, reading breeds an appropriately critical mind; that is, a mind able to sustain focus, judge information, imagine alternatives, and choose logically. It’s no accident that Tocqueville noticed two striking qualities about the newly independent Americans: their religious practice and their love of the printed word.

This doesn’t mean that electronic media are bad. In any case,, we can’t avoid them. But it does mean that we need to develop what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence” as we experience them. In other words, we should know how the media work, and especially how they work on us. The “eloquence” of the new electronic media is their entertainment effect: their stress on brevity, energy, variety, emotion, and visual imagery. We need to remember that the form of information is part of its content. As Neil Postman once observed, every new. information medium is “not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience.” The new media breed and feed an audience — including voters — with little patience for complexity or sustained debate.

This is exactly the opposite of early American civic literacy. In the postcolonial years, most ordinary people not only could read and did read but eagerly joined in political debate. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, they already knew that an educated citizenry wanted to read and debate them. A culture like this forms minds that can retain and weigh large amounts of conceptual information; minds able to follow arguments — even dense and abstract ones.

In an electronic culture, vast chunks of incoming in formation have no importance at all. They simply gum up our ability to distinguish and rank issues. Politics tends to dumb down into what Christopher Lasch called “ideological gestures.” A serious marketplace of ideas, a place where opposing views get fairly debated and the best course of action emerges as the winner, simply can’t survive in a climate ruled by the sound bite. “The problem,” Neil Postman wrote, “is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” Crime, war, public humiliation, sexual intimacy, pain, and political leadership — much of our experience of these things comes from watching them on network shows. We begin to judge their value by how prevalent they are on television and how well they hold our attention there.

The new media have two other key flaws. First, in their immersive effect, they obscure the large amounts of important information they don’t communicate. The need for brevity creates an artificial need for simplicity. Facts that don’t fit within the forms or appetites of the media often get ignored. But the real world, including human motives, is a huge and tangled place. Thus, despite a modern tidal wave of certain kinds of data, we actually live in what Bill McKibben famously described as an UnEnlightenment, an age of missing information.’

Second, in their persuasive effect, the new media instruct the public on how to think and what they need. Some of this subtle tutoring can be funny, especially in advertising. It led Neil Postman to see American television commercials as a form of “religious parables, organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, [television commercials] put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven.

They also suggest what are the roots of evil, and what are the obligations of the holy. George Orwell put it more bluntly when he equated consumer advertising with “the banging of a spoon in a swill bucket,” but the point is that selling a product, an idea, or a political candidate requires much the same skill set. Even major print-news organizations, while paying lip service to fairness, tend to frame complex stories in a streamlined and ideologically loaded way.

When Orwell wrote his 1946 essay on the political debasement of language, he spoke to a culture that was still largely typographic; that had been formed by the mental disciplines of print. The English language today has vastly more power because of the new technologies that carry it. Those same tools make it easier to mislead, confuse, and lie to citizens, and then coach them to smile while they’re being robbed.


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Lewis Carroll wrote those words more than a century ago in Through the Looking Glass, but Humpty Dumpty might do very well in public office today. Dissembling in political life is now a national habit. Mass media tools make it easy. If we love our country — and we have that duty as citizens – we must try to recover and insist on the real meaning of our public vocabulary. Truth, pluralism, consensus, choice, the common good, democracy, conscience, love, equal rights, tolerance — all of these words are now routinely misused in public debate to serve selfish or destructive ends.

Pluralism is a demographic fact. Nothing more. It is not a philosophy or ideology or secular cult. It does not imply that all ideas and religious beliefs are equally valid, because they’re not. We live in a diverse country. That requires us to treat each other with respect. This makes sense both morally and pragmatically. But “pluralism” does not require us to mute our convictions. Nor does it ever excuse us from speaking and acting to advance our beliefs about justice and the common good in public. Catholics who use “pluralism” as an alibi for their public inaction suffer from what the early church described as dypsychia. In other words, they’re ruled by two conflicting spirits. They may speak like disciples, but their unwillingness to act paralyzes their words.

Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it’s a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. The roots of this word are revealing. Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or sustain,” and tollere, which means “to lift up.” It implies bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It’s actually a negative idea. And it is not a Christian virtue.

Catholics have the duty not to “tolerate” other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task. Justice, charity, mercy, courage, wisdom — these are Christian virtues; but not tolerance. Prudence too is a vital Christian virtue, the “right rudder of reason,” but not when we use it as a cover for political cowardice. Real Christian virtues flow from an understanding of truth, unchanging and rooted in God, that exists and obligates us whether we like it or not. The pragmatic social truce we call “tolerance” has no such grounding.

In like manner, building a consensus around laws and policies is usually a worthy goal. But whether such a consensus is good or evil depends on the content of the specific laws and policies. A consensus — which simply means the “agreement of the people” — is never a source of truth. It says nothing at all about whether a policy is good or a law is evil. In fact, a consensus is often wrong. A great many unjust wars and bad leaders have been very popular.

And this leads us to another brutalized word, democracy, which couples the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power). Switzerland and North Korea both claim to be democracies. The latter’s official name is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. In the United States, however, democracy means “majority rule by the citizens through representative, constitutional government.” American democracy does not ask its citizens to put aside their deeply held moral and religious beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it requires exactly the opposite. People are fallible. The majority of voters can be uninformed or biased or simply wrong. Thus, to survive, American democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the public square — legally, ethically, and nonviolently, but forcefully and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the nation’s health.

Other key words in our political conversation suffer from the same vocabulary drift. Choice is worthless — in fact, it’s a form of idolatry — if all the choices are meaningless or bad. Our basic rights don’t emerge or exist in a vacuum. They come to us as endowments from our Creator, and we have obligations that go along with them. Community is more than a collection of persons with the same appetites or complaints. A real community requires mutual respect, a shared past and future, and submission to each other’s needs based on common beliefs and principles. It is not an elegant name for an interest group.

Nor is the common good merely the sum of what most people want right now. The “common good” is that which constitutes the best source of justice and happiness for a community and its members in the light of truth. In the mind of the Second Vatican Council, it includes all those conditions of social life that enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve their true fulfillment (GS 74). This “true fulfillment” presumes that external, fundamental truths about human nature and meaning preexist us. We don’t invent those truths.

Finally conscience, as Cardinal Newman once said, “has rights because it has duties.” In Newman’s words, “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” As Catholics, we must act according to our conscience. But we should also remember that we all have great skill at self-deception when it suits us. Conscience is never merely a matter of personal preference or opinion. Nor is it a self-esteem coach. It is a gift of God; the strong, still, uncomfortably honest voice in- side us that speaks the truth if we let it. In fact, to continue with Newman,

the more a person tries to obey his conscience, the more he gets alarmed with himself for obeying it so imperfectly … But next, while he grows in self-knowledge, he also understands more and more clearly that the voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing of mercy in its tone. It is severe and even stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment. It suggests to him a future judgment; it does not tell him how he can avoid it.

Conscience has the task of telling us the hard truth about our actions. The church has the task of expressing God’s love and leading us to salvation. For Catholics, “conscience” demands a mind and heart well formed in the truth of Jesus Christ. And these come foremost through the teaching of the Catholic faith. Obviously, faith is not a mathematical equation. People often face difficult issues in daily life. Some Catholics may find themselves sincerely unable, in conscience, to accept a point of Catholic teaching. When that happens, the test of a believer’s honesty is his humility; that is, his willingness to put the matter to real prayer and the seriousness of his effort to accept the wisdom of the church and follow her guidance. If after this effort he still cannot reconcile himself with the teaching of the church, he must do what he believes to be right, because ultimately, every Catholic must follow his or her conscience.

At the same time, we should remember that honest private decisions — the kind that come from hard self-examination — are very different from the organized, premeditated, public rejection of Catholic belief by persons who use their Catholic identity to attack what the Catholic faith holds as true.

Organized dissent in the name of “conscience,” especially in a media age that celebrates almost anyone who challenges authority, very easily — and much too conveniently — lends itself to vanity and evasion. It tribalizes Catholic life by turning the church into a battleground for interest groups and personal ego. In fact, one of the saddest qualities of the current American Catholic scene is that, when it comes to the meaning of Catholic, quite a few of us are Lewis Carroll fans without knowing it.

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.’”


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.


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.


A God Who Loved The World — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

September 12, 2012

The spiritual Christology of St. Anselm and his monastic contemporaries led to a view of Jesus as a “helping friend”, as well as the Lord.

Man’s Search For Meaning is one of the most widely read books of the last century. But nobody should be surprised. Asked about his book’s enormous success, Viktor Frankl answered that he didn’t see it as a personal achievement. Instead, he felt it was testimony to the misery of our age. If millions of people seek out a book, he said, whose very title promises to deal with the question of life’s meaning, then it must be a question “that burns under their fingernails.”

Much of Frankl’s book is autobiographical. It deals with his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi death camps during World War II. Over the course of his ordeal, he watched some physically strong men give up and die while other, much weaker men survived. The difference, he discovered, is this: When a man believes that he has a future, when he believes in a reason to go on living, he is much more likely to survive. When he doesn’t, he dies.

For Frankl, a moment came, marching in the snow with other prisoners, cursed and kicked by guards, when he remembered the image of his wife with a clarity “more luminous than the sun that was beginning to rise.” A thought occurred to him for the first time in his life: that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.” And in that instant, “I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Frankl’s words seem to have a special weight for Catholics. Christianity, more than any other religion, orders itself around love. Both John Paul II and. Benedict XVI lived through the same Nazi era that Frankl did. Rather than lose their faith, both men found it more deeply. Like Frankl, both men chose to anchor their lives in love rather than in hate. As a result, John Paul II — the child of a nation crushed by two totalitarian regimes in a row — could still preach that love is the “fundamental and innate vocation” of every human being. This vocation (or “calling,” from the Latin verb vocare) is the heart of the Christian faith. Catholics believe that each human life has a unique but interrelated meaning. We are created by the God who is the source of love itself; a God who loved the world so fiercely that he sent his only Son to redeem it.

In other words, we were made by Love, to receive love ourselves, and to show love to others. That’s why we’re here. That’s our purpose. And it has very practical consequences — including the political kind.

The Christian mission in the world comes from the nature of God himself. Catholics believe in one God. But he is a God in three Persons sharing one nature. This belief is not just an exercise in theology. It’s central to Catholic life. It gives a framework to all Christian thought and action. For Catholics, God is a living community of love — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and in creating us, God intends us to take part in that community of mutual giving. All of Christian life comes down to sharing in the exchange of love within the heart of the Trinity and then offering that love to others in our relationships.

For Christians, reality is grounded in both unity and plurality. Personhood, whether we mean the Persons of the Trinity or our human person, is always bound up with relationship. God is eternal and unchanging, but he is not static. Within the life of the Trinity, there are the Trinitarian missions of the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the love between Father and Son — and all human beings have a mission in the world that reflects that divine love and takes part in that exchange.

Of course, these are nice ideas. Anyone can give them a pious nod. Even many Catholics mouth the word love without a clue to what it really implies. This is why so much of modern Christian life seems like a bad version of a mediocre Beatles song rather than the morning of Pentecost. For a Christian, love is not simply an emotion. Feelings pass. They’re fickle, and they often lie. Real love is an act of the will; a sustained choice that proves itself not just by what we say but by what we do.

A man may claim he loves his wife. His wife will want to see the evidence. In like manner, we can talk about God all we please, but God will not be fooled. Jesus told the story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46)  for a reason. Saying we’re Catholic does not mean we are, except in the thinnest sense. Relationships have consequences in actions. Otherwise, they’re just empty words.

Our relationship with God is no exception. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter answers yes, it’s no surprise that Jesus immediately follows up with: “Then feed my sheep” (John 21:17). God loves us always. We can choose to ignore that. All of the damned do. But if we claim to love him, it’s an “if/then” kind of deal, with obligations of conduct and personal honesty just like any good marriage or friendship.

The twist in loving God is that it’s not .a standard “I, Thou” affair. It turns out to be an “I, Thou — and everybody else” kind of arrangement. Christian faith is not just vertical. It’s also horizontal. Since God created all human persons and guarantees their dignity by his Fatherhood. we have family duties to one another. That applies especially within the ekklesia — the community of believers we call the church — but it extends to the whole world. This means our faith has social as well as personal implications. And those social implications include the civil dimension of our shared life; in other words, the content of our politics.

For Christians, love is a small word that relentlessly unpacks into a lot of other words: truth, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, charity, courage, justice. These are action words, all of them, including truth, because in accepting Jesus Christ, the Gospel says that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free (John 8:32) — not comfortable; not respected; but free in the real sense of the word: able to see and do what’s right. This freedom is meant to be used in the service of others. Working for justice is an obligation of Christian freedom. Saint Augustine wrote that the state not governed by justice is no more than a gang of thieves. Thus, it’s here, in the search for justice, that the Catholic citizen engages the political world because, as Benedict XVI says, “justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics.” In fact, the just ordering of society and the state “is the central responsibility of politics.”

Christians in general and Catholics in particular do not, and should not, seek to “force” their religious beliefs on society. But working to form the public conscience is not coercion any more than teaching the difference between poison and a steak is a form of bullying. Actively witnessing to and advancing what we believe to be true about key moral issues in public life is not “coercion.” It’s honesty. And it’s also a duty — not only of faith but of citizenship.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously claimed that God is dead, and we have killed him. He despised Christianity as a slave morality. But he had an oddly divided view of Christ himself: admiring Jesus for his genius and strength; but at the same time reviling him for choosing to be the receptacle of other people’s sins:

Nietzsche was wrong about the real nature of Christian faith, but we do need to consider what he said. Jesus accepted every measure of suffering on the cross. He did it freely. He chose it. The Father made this sacrifice for us through his Son because he loves us. There is nothing weak or cowardly or life-denying about that kind of radical love — and any parent who has suffered along with a dying child instinctively knows it. The question we need to ask ourselves, if we call ourselves Christians today, is this: Do we really want to follow Jesus Christ and love as he did, or is it just too inconvenient? We can choose differently. We can choose the kind of routine, self-absorbed, halfhearted, anesthetic Christianity for which Nietzsche had such. contempt. It’s certainly easier. It also costs less.


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