Thursday, March 3, 2011

Archbishop Chaput on Catholic Engagement in Politics

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado recently gave an address to a gathering in Fargo North Dakota. The subject was "Render Unto Caesar revisited" (which references his most recent book, Render Unto Caesar, pertaining to Catholics' obligation to engage in the political process). The full text of his Fargo speech can be found here, but I would like to highlight a few points below...
The Archbishop urges all Catholics to embrace their individual calling as missionaries in society. This means bringing our faith into the public square personally and politically, pointing out sin where sin exists, and calling others to repentance and a new life in Christ. As Chaput puts it:
"The most urgent need for the Church in our day is a rebirth of faith and missionary spirit in her people.  But that will never happen, and it can’t ever happen, until each one of us rediscovers the apostolic mandate that came with our own baptism. We need to be the men and women Jesus calls us to be – his friends and disciples – and we need to call other Catholics, who are lukewarm in their faith, to the same kind of zeal. If we can begin that renewal together as a Church, through the grace of Jesus Christ, then God can achieve anything through us.
So if we are to truly transform the culture we must actively live an authentic faith and call others to do the same. Referencing Pope Benedict's visit to the U. S., Archbishop Chaput gives concrete examples of how to present this authentic Catholic witness:
"Benedict reminded American Catholics that we need to use our numbers and influence to enter into the public square in an active way.  He called us to bring Christian hope to the public debate, to be clear and united in our Catholic presence in society, and to be a leaven in our nation’s public life.

"So how do we do that?  We do it by informing our lives and our choices with a few simple facts.

"Here's the first fact.  George Orwell said the one of biggest dangers for modern democratic life is dishonest political language.  Dishonest language leads to dishonest politics – which then leads to bad public policy and bad laws.  We need to speak plainly and act in a spirit of truth.  We also need to demand the same behavior from candidates and elected officials.

"Here's the second fact.  “Catholic” is a word that has real meaning.  We don't control or invent that meaning as individuals.  We inherit it from the Gospel and the experience of the Church over the centuries.  Nobody forces us to be Catholic.  We can choose to be something else.  But if we choose to call ourselves Catholic, then that word has consequences for what we believe and how we act.  We can't truthfully claim to be Catholic and then act like we're not.

"Here's the third fact.  Being Catholic is a bit like being married.  We have a relationship with the Church and with Jesus Christ that's very similar to being a spouse.  This has consequences.  If a man says he loves his wife, his wife will want to see the evidence of that love in his actions – in other words, in his fidelity.  The same applies to our relationship with God.  If we say we're Catholic, we need to show it by our love for the Church, and by our fidelity to what she teaches.  Otherwise we're just fooling ourselves, because God certainly won't be fooled.

"Here's the fourth fact.  Each of us needs to follow his or her own conscience.  But conscience doesn't emerge from a vacuum.  It's not a matter of personal opinion or preference.   If our conscience has the habit of telling us what we want to hear about inconvenient issues, then we have a badly formed conscience.  Conscience is the voice of God's truth in our hearts, and it should usually make us uncomfortable, because none of us is yet a saint.  The way we get a healthy conscience is by submitting it to the will of God; and the way we find God's will is by opening our hearts to the guidance of the Church that Jesus left us for our salvation.  If we find ourselves disagreeing as Catholics with the teaching of our Church on a serious matter – well, we're wrong, and the Church is right.  It's that simple.

"Here's the fifth fact, and I’ll pose it as a question.  How do we make good political choices when so many different issues are so important?  The first principle of Christian social thought is this:  Don't intentionally kill the innocent, and don't collude in allowing anybody else to do it.  Again, as I said a few moments ago, the right to life undergirds every other human right.  The reason the abortion issue is so foundational to a healthy society is not because Catholics love little babies – although we certainly do – but because revoking the unborn child’s right to life makes every other human right politically contingent.

"Here's fact Number Six, and it's the central theme of everything I tried to say in my 2008 book Render Unto Caesar.  We're better citizens when we're more faithful Catholics.  The greatest gift we can give to our nation is the witness of our moral integrity.  We need to be willing to suffer for what we know, as Catholic Christians, to be true about the purpose of human society and the sanctity of the human person.  The more faithfully “Catholic” we are in our choices, actions and convictions, the more truly we will contribute to the moral and political life of our nation."
This Catholic witness to the culture then must begin as a personal commitment but it extends into the realm of politics. While the Archbishop correctly states that the Catholic Church officially endorses no political party, he also insists that lay Catholics have a duty to work within the parties to affect political change. Bishops and priests are obliged to stay out of politics in any direct sense. Chaput even admits that his own political activism as a young priest in the 70's was "a mistake." However, lay Catholics, he urges, should be "politically engaged in a vigorous way." 
"I believe that Catholic leadership in the secular world belongs to laypeople, not to clergy or religious.  The visible role of the priest in public affairs – if by 'public' affairs we mean political affairs -- should normally be pretty small...

"...The problem is that the Church teaches moral truth, and truth has obligations for human behavior – including the social, economic and political kind.  The Church is never mainly a political organism.  But her witness for justice always and unavoidably has political consequences.  And here's an obvious example of what I mean:  Killing unborn children is a form of homicide.  It’s a profound attack on human dignity, because all other rights depend on the right to life.  It’s not the only important issue facing our country.  We have other vital issues, from immigration reform to the war in Afghanistan to the problems with our economy.  But abortion is the foundational issue at this moment in our nation’s history.  We can’t evade or ignore it.  Cooperating in abortion or quietly tolerating it is a grave evil.  We can incrementally seek to restrict and eliminate abortion, but we can never accept it as a so-called 'right.'  And if that truth inconveniences one or another political candidate -- well that’s their choice and their problem.  It’s not the fault of the Church.

"The job of Catholic laypeople is to change the thinking of their political parties and leaders with the tools of their Catholic faith.  Laypeople should be the leaven of Jesus Christ in the public square...."
So it is the primary responsibility of lay Catholics to bring the faith to bear on political issues. But Archbishop Chaput acknowledges that we do face many challenges. Among the many cultural forces out there that fight against the Truth of Catholic witness is the media, as Chaput clearly states:
"...[T]he news media, despite their claims of impartiality, and despite the good work they often do accomplish, are just as prone to prejudice, ignorance, bad craftsmanship and tribalism as any other profession.  But unlike other professions, the press has constitutional protections.  It also has real power in shaping how we think, what we think about and what we like, dislike and ignore.  America’s media, including its news media, are the greatest catechetical syndicate in history.  And if that kind of power doesn’t make us uneasy, it should at least make us alert.
We have a habit in this country of calling our news media 'the fourth estate.'  Very few of the people I ask seem to know why.  So it’s worth explaining.

"Over the past 200 years, the role of the press in democratic societies has grown sharply.  The power of the press led the 19th century poet Oscar Wilde to write that,

'In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody -- was it [Edmund] Burke? -- called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time, no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three . . . We are dominated by journalism.'

"Oscar Wilde was not exactly a model of Christian piety.  But he had the gift of very keen insight.  We should think about what he said.  When the press portrays itself as the 'tribune of the people,' ensuring the honesty of the other major institutions in our society through relentless critical scrutiny – then we need to ask the question, who scrutinizes the press?  Who keeps our news media honest?  Who holds them accountable for humiliating one political candidate while fawning over another?  Nobody elected Brian Williams as the NBC news anchor.  And readers can’t impeach the editor of The New York Times – though some people I know would find that a happy thought.

"What we can do is refuse to be stupid.  We can decline to be sandbagged by our news establishment into thinking that 'marriage' for homosexual partners is inevitable, or an obligation of social justice.  Or that Islam and Christianity lead to pretty much the same conclusions about freedom, society and the nature of the human person, when they clearly don't.  Or that the abortion issue is somehow 'settled' when thousands of unborn children continue to be legally killed every day."
The Press certainly has an anti-Christian/anti-Catholic bias. But I can't help noting that one of the two major political parties has a similar bias. When we think of issues like abortion, marriage, family, and traditional values, it seems clear that one party is more hostile than the other when it comes to authentic Catholic teaching in these areas. Archbishop Chaput admits that as a member of the clergy he is unable to endorse one party over the other. But he also says: "The first principle of Christian social thought is this:  Don't intentionally kill the innocent, and don't collude in allowing anybody else to do it...the right to life undergirds every other human right.  The reason the abortion issue is so foundational to a healthy society is not because Catholics love little babies – although we certainly do – but because revoking the unborn child’s right to life makes every other human right politically contingent."

So I would ask: which party is guilty of this great injustice?

Chaput also admits: "We have other vital issues, from immigration reform to the war in Afghanistan to the problems with our economy.  But abortion is the foundational issue at this moment in our nation’s history.  We can’t evade or ignore it.  Cooperating in abortion or quietly tolerating it is a grave evil.  We can incrementally seek to restrict and eliminate abortion, but we can never accept it as a so-called 'right.'"

Catholics may fairly disagree on these "other vital issues," but not on this "foundational issue." To do so would be a "grave evil," and one would need a proportionate reason to support a party or a candidate that denies this basic Truth. I can think of no proportionate reason.
Archbishop Chaput has rightly removed himself from passing any public judgment on political parties or candidates. It is not his role to do so. And so, as a Catholic layman who is "politically engaged in a vigorous way" I will say that the Democratic Party is no political home for a faithful Catholic. This is my own opinion (I do not pretend to speak for Archbishop Chaput or the catholic Church in general), but I believe that this is the most logical conclusion one can arrive at given the present political circumstances.

I will allow the Archbishop the final word:
"What makes the Christian faith convincing in any age is the zeal of everyday Christians. The health of the Church depends directly on the spirit of her people.  So we need to be more than simply honest or diligent or even faithful Christians.  We need to be carried away by our love for God, our love for the Church and our love for the Catholic faith."

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