Archbishop Charles Chaput’s 2008 book “Render Unto Caesar” was, in his own words “about the importance of Catholics witnessing their faith vigorously in public life – not simply as a matter of good citizenship, but also as an obligation to the Gospel.”
Now in a shorter e-book, “A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America,” there is a greater sense of urgency. Just 24 pages in length and published by Image Books in New York, it is scheduled for March 27 release and will be available through electronic booksellers.
“Our national leadership in 2012 seems deaf to matters of religious freedom abroad and unreceptive – or frankly hostile – to religious engagement here at home,” writes the Archbishop, who is not a man to mince words. “The Constitution,” he writes, “is a great achievement in ordered liberty. But it’s just an elegant scrap of paper unless people keep it alive with their convictions and lived witness.”
The Constitution is not a religious document, and unlike the Declaration of Independence, it does not mention God. Nevertheless, Archbishop Chaput maintains, God suffuses the whole constitutional enterprise, and although the founders were influenced by the Enlightenment they were also heavily influenced by the legacy of Jewish and Christian Scripture. “The American Experiment founded as a nonsectarian, democratic society which was sustained by an implicitly Christian worldview, worked well for nearly 200 years,” the Archbishop notes.
“The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past,” Archbishop Chaput writes. “And that poses a challenge for all of us as Catholics. It’s not a question of when, or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”
Quoting from recent statistics he notes roughly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians, but a quarter of all young adult Americans have no religious affiliation. Among Catholics, 31 percent of Americans say they were raised Catholic but only 24 percent now describe themselves as Catholic.
Even this number may be high, because the influx of a large number of Catholic Hispanics may well skew the statistics upward.
Archbishop Chaput writes of a new orthodoxy that is nowhere more obvious than in the treatment of religion by the news media. “Historically faith has played a large and positive role in shaping American life,” he writes. “But today’s news coverage of religion is often marked by poor reporting skills, ignorance of the subject matter, and an undercurrent of distaste for religious believers and their convictions.”
Part of the problem is within the Church itself, and Archbishop Chaput speaks about the lack of vigorous Catholic witness in public life, even beyond politics and the economy, but also to Catholic higher education.
“It’s impossible to read the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement on the nature of the contemporary Catholic university without noticing that the word faith appears nowhere in the text,” he writes. “In effect the statement is a declaration of independence from any authority outside the academic community itself.”
The issue, he tell us, is always and everywhere faith. “Do we believe in Jesus Christ or don’t we? And if we do what are we going to do about it?” The construction of a Christian culture, he writes, “Begins by lifting our own hearts up to God, without plans or reservations and letting him begin the work.”
In this relatively short wake-up call; Archbishop Chaput bolsters his argument with quotes from a variety of sources Catholics, other Christians and non-Christians. Among them are Benedict XVI, James Madison, John Courtney Murray, Jacques Maritain, Herman Melville, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, St. Augustine, John Bunyan, Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Orwell.
Absent from the Archbishop’s sources was Orwell’s contemporary, Aldous Huxley, who in Brave New World imagined a worldwide society where babies were routinely hatched via test tube, promiscuity was not just condoned it was encouraged, recreational drugs were distributed by the government as means of keeping the population complacent and religion only existing on distant reservations, preserved as a curio. Published in 1932, this was supposed to be 600 years in the future. It could be closer than we think.
“A Heart on Fire” is scheduled to be available as an e-book after March 27.