Archbishop Chaput on Faith and Public Life

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A friend forwarded me this excellent article written by Archbishop Charles Caput. It’s a detailed post outlining our responsibilities as Catholic citizens.

The Archbishop begins with an anecdote that hits a little close to home.

A priest I know does a lot of spiritual direction.  Two of the men he was helping died suddenly this past year, one of a heart attack and one of a stroke.  In both cases they were relatively young men and quite successful.  In both cases they watched Fox News.  And in both cases they had gotten into the nightly habit of shouting at President Obama whenever he came on the TV.  In both cases, the wives believed – and they still believe – that politics killed their husbands.

Now that’s a true story.  And it’s a good place to begin our time together today.  Henri de Lubac, the great Jesuit theologian, once said that if heretics no longer horrify us, it’s not because we have more charity in our hearts. (i) We just find it a lot more satisfying to despise our political opponents.  We’ve transferred our passion to politics.

I don’t yell at the television – well, not every night. I do spend more time than I should on the internet. Now there are some excellent sites – like this one, of course – but the cumulative effect of reading so much about politics can be bad for both the soul and the heart. And there are times when my obsession with politics truly dispirits me.

At the same time, there is the opposite temptation to completely shut oneself off from politics. There have been times over the past few months where I have felt like completely tuning out. Despair is a terrible sin, and when it comes to politics it is easy to despair when it seems like so many things are going wrong that you can’t even keep track anymore. Yet this would be just as irresponsible as shutting out all things  except politics. Archbishop Chaput explains why we can’t exactly separate the political and religious aspects of our lives.

What all this means for our public life is this:  Catholics can live quite peacefully with the separation of Church and state, so long as the arrangement translates into real religious freedom.  But we can never accept a separation of our religious faith and moral convictions from our public ministries or our political engagement.  It’s impossible.  And even trying is evil because it forces us to live two different lives, worshiping God at home and in our churches; and worshiping the latest version of Caesar everywhere else.  That turns our private convictions into lies we tell ourselves and each other.

Later on he adds:

Third, despite these concerns, Christians still have a duty to take part in public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their faith brings them into conflict with public authority.  We can’t simply ignore or withdraw from civic affairs.  The reason is simple.  The classic civic virtues named by Cicero – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity.  Therefore, political engagement is a worthy Christian task, and public office is an honorable Christian vocation.

Read the rest of the Archbishop’s excellent article. It’s refreshing to read a cleric who can discuss these issues so unambiguously and without concern that he might be offending someone somewhere.


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  1. I find myself having a serious problem with the sin of wrath and, perhaps, the even worse sin of pride these days…I have devoted much of my free time in the last 10 years to the study of politics, psychology and human nature to add to my increasing theological background knowledge and I find myself often overly certain of my hard-studied beliefs regarding good governance (a healthy cross between Reagan and Washington would be a good start). My fiance is liberal – I love her with all my heart – but our debates frequently make me feel miserable because there is that voice in my head that says she lives a life in conflict with her faith (she is also Catholic and pretty passionate about it) and that rejects my beliefs in deed and thought. Being in a relationship with a liberal from Boston who believes, for example, that, though abortion is a negative outcome, government cannot make it illegal and take away a person’s choice to be immoral (never mind the lack of choice provided to the baby), is making me guilty of hating liberal ideas more fiercely and spending more of my time trying to find the way to reach her and move her toward conservatism and it isn’t good for my soul to stay this focused on such divisive issues.

    So I can relate somewhat to the folks who spend their time yelling at the TV talking head shows, though I don’t do this, because I have found that I can love a person for who they are, but that doing so challenges my studied beliefs in ways that lead to anger and frustration. Now, more than any other time in recent memory, politics makes everyday life difficult.

  2. Matt, I definitely can relate to what you’re going through. It’s a difficult situation, but the important thing is that you remain true to yourself. Sorry for the hackneyed cliche, but it’s really the truth in this situation.

  3. @Matt

    ” I love her with all my heart”

    Sometimes, Matt, that is not enough. You have to be true to yourself, for her and you. The fact that she is “Catholic” (so is Congresswoman Pelosi,) is not enough if she is “that” kind of Catholic. You’re a man, and unlike James Carvel, you cannot keep your mouth shut, or your mind, on things very important to you spiritually. I have found that in searching for a wife that liberal women who had an interest in me, dropped me like a hot coal when they discovered I was conservative. It amused me because it occurred early in our getting to know each other. They were so interested up until that point. So there was no emotional connection, yet. I was engaged, once, in my senior year of college, which I was putting myself through, I was 26. She was beautiful, and what passion we had for each other. But I broke off the engagement when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to trust her because so many guys wanted her and she led them on. It hurt, but I had to do that to protect myself. I never regretted my decision. You deserve a woman that has the morals and passion you have for your faith and belief in God. i see some couples in early Sunday Mass with 6 and 7 children, a teenager down to infants, so respectful of where they are, with the girls heads’ veiled, prayerful as are the boys, and I marvel at them as a family. And I look a the mother, so beautiful in her spiritual prayerful and motherly life and think how lucky that man, the husband and father, is. It reminds me of how Catholics families used to look back in the ’50s when less than 50 percent of attendants went to communion. Pray to God and listen to him as he will guide you as to what he wants you to do. Listen to him. If it is to break off the engagement, then do so. Stay together as a couple to see if that will lead to a renewed relationship where you are more on the same page as Catholics. If not, realized you saved yourself and her, and the future children, a lot of pain. I will pray for you.

  4. good post.

    i have this problem too. i sort of “cocoon” myself in conservative sources because, while i am interested in the liberal side of the argument, i get the overall gist of their ideology (Equality Uber Alles) and can predict their position on a given issue fairly accurately. also i’m not a fan of constantly being told that conservatism is bad-faith bigotry/greed, which seems to be equally shared by both the most rabid leftists as well as mainstream liberals. sure if you look hard enough you can find those on the Right who portray Obama as a kind of Muslim sleeper agent, but it’s the sort of stuff limited to comment threads on certain sites.

    i also sort of get caught up in horse-race politics, which is pointless as far as deepening intellectual understanding of issues, and at its worst leads to Frumianism where our conservative “betters” instruct us on what issues we need to become liberals on to win, as if that’s the only thing that matters.

    probably when this election is over i’ll try to cool off from politics a bit.

  5. I am reminded of a very telling analysis by the great 19th century Catholic historian, Lord Acton.

    “Civil and religious liberty are so commonly associated in people’s mouths, and are so rare in fact, that their definition is evidently as little understood as the principle of their connection. The point at which they unite, the common root from which they derive their sustenance, is the right of self-government. The modern theory, which has swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it, is the enemy of that common freedom in which religious freedom is included. It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of a limited command. Under its sway, therefore, every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws. In other words, religious profession is free, but Church government is controlled. And where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied.”

    That is why a passion for civic equality, hatred of nobility and anti-clericalism tend to go together and often coexist with a tolerance of despotism. Bonapartism was the consummation of the Revolution, not its reversal.

  6. Separation of Church and State has given us: civil divorce, legalized contraception, legalized abortion, and HHS mandate.

  7. Caution regarding the subversion of basic human rights: Correlation is not causation.

    That being said, our Constitution was made for an industrious, moral people, it may prove unsustainable given the demonstrated immorality of contemporary people.

  8. No, the problem is not separation of Church and State, but rather the State attempting to act as if it were a Church. Separation of Church and State as envisioned by the Founding Fathers has been a very good thing for all Americans, and especially for Catholics.

  9. Matt, seriously consider your situation in the light of what a future family will look and behave like – either united in all matters moral and social, or divided and contentious. I wish I had been given that counsel 22 years ago.

    Yet, as with all things, placing your trust in Him, discerning and accepting His will for you and your fiance and asking her to pray along with you for His plans for your lives to come to fruition will ensure the right outcome. Another piece of advice I wish I’d gotten back then.

  10. What a lesson, Paul. In a non political area, I must regroup. It’s about letting 7% of life become 90% of life. I believe you’ve saved lives with this piece.

  11. Archbishop Chaput:
    “Later on he adds:
    Third, despite these concerns, Christians still have a duty to take part in public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their faith brings them into conflict with public authority. We can’t simply ignore or withdraw from civic affairs. The reason is simple. The classic civic virtues named by Cicero – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. Therefore, political engagement is a worthy Christian task, and public office is an honorable Christian vocation.”

    One way is fasting and prayer.
    I saw on Etheldredasplace that a group of people who are bloggers and commentors will be fasting and praying for a new president and this country on Friday, 9/21st.
    Think Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, for returning to dignity and humanity.

  12. Thanks for your responses, all who shared their thoughts on my situation.

    I don’t have illusions that I can somehow change my fiance’s mind on everything, but the life issue is critical. I should be clear…she isn’t “that kind” of Catholic in the sense that she doesn’t live by the church’s teachings. She does. She wants t do natural family planning (as do I), she wants to get the proper Catholic marriage sacrament, she wants to be fruitful and have many children, as do I, and to raise them to be Catholic. Everything about her personal life is in line with what I’d hoped to achieve in my own or I wouldn’t have come this far in a relationship with her. Her professed political beliefs are really the only thing I worry about at this point. It leaves me wondering what a priest would say (I’ll find out in pre-cana).

  13. “No, the problem is not separation of Church and State, but rather the State attempting to act as if it were a Church. Separation of Church and State as envisioned by the Founding Fathers has been a very good thing for all Americans, and especially for Catholics.”

    Well said, Donald McClarey. When the State acts as if it were the Church, Freedom is the first casualty, for Who is being the State, when the State is being the Church? The State ceases to exist. A government Who is God is no government.

    Government as God is government without constituents. Who did government create? Government will give a person a birth certificate and citizenship and a tax bill. Government as the Church is a church without God, without Truth and without Love, for God is Truth and Love, government without parishioners, who will not be engineered by the laws of the Godless. Can government dictate to our conscience or will our conscience lead us in the path of Truth?

    Read more at: Rosary Victory

  14. Chaput’s two KIA by politics is tragic.

    The Paki that earned his “Darwin Award” at an Old Glory conflagration is farcical.

    Too bad it was a million.

  15. Separation of Church and State has given us: civil divorce, legalized contraception, legalized abortion, and HHS mandate.

    I think you have confounded the separation of Church and State with the separation of the moral teachings of the Church from the body of thought which informs public policy. You do not need to concede parastatal authority to ecclesiastics or to put tax money into the Church in order to have penal and matrimonial law which respects Christian teachings.

  16. I agree with Art Deco.

    We should conceive of the Church not so much as the institutional “Spiritual Power” alongside the “Temporal Power” of the State, but rather in terms of an evangelical presence, a “leaven,” that nurtures efforts in society ordered to the coming of God’s Kingdom.

    This is what Blondel meant, when he said that efforts “from below” to establish a just society would lead persons of good will to respect Christianity and “to find only in the spirit of the gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity.”

    This is not to argue that politics can be separated from religion, quite the contrary. As Blondel also reminds us, “one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny.” Maritain, too, declared that “the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being . . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account”

  17. Matt, here’s a thought that occurred to me and which might be helpful to you. You have probably heard, many times, the parable Christ told of the father who asked his two sons to work in his vineyard. One said “no”, but later changed his mind and went. The other said “yes,” but never went to the vineyard. Christ then asks His listeners, “Which of the two did what the father wanted?”

    In my experience, I have known people who describe themselves as pro-choice politically, but where it really counts — in their own lives and that of their families — they have acted pro-life. They had babies in difficult circumstances when they could have aborted; they have made great sacrifices to assist others who have chosen life as well. These are like the first son, whose actions spoke louder than his words. Likewise, there are cases where people say they are pro-life but give in to the temptation to abort when faced with an actual crisis. These are like the second son, whose actions didn’t measure up to his words.

    Perhaps your fiancee is someone who is pro-life in spirit though she may claim to be pro-choice politically. Of course it would be better to have both pro-life words AND actions, but action is the more important of the two, IMO.

    Also, you may need to examine more closely why your fiancee is pro-choice. Does she truly believe that women SHOULD have the right to choose abortion just as they have the right to choose to get drunk, smoke, gamble, etc.? Or does she believe that as evil as abortion is, there’s just no practical way for government to stop it without resorting to draconian police state measures (e.g. throwing pregnant women in jail), so pro-lifers would do better to focus their efforts elsewhere? If it’s the latter, while I wouldn’t embrace that point of view, I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker either.

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