Archbishop Charles Chaput’s latest book, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post Christian World,” will be published by Henry Holt & Co. on Feb. 21. CatholicPhilly.com presents the following interview with the archbishop on Feb 2.
“Strangers in a Strange Land” is available for pre-order at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
Read an excerpt of the book on CatholicPhilly.com.
Amazon just named Strangers in a Strange Land as one of its February “best books.” That must feel satisfying.
They named it in the category of history, which is a little odd because it’s not about the past. It’s about living our Christian faith here and now. Some of the material does deal with our country’s history. We can’t really understand our present situation without first knowing where it came from. But I’m glad Amazon likes it. It’ll be even better if ordinary readers like it, because they’re the ones who matter.
Why do a book like Strangers, and why now?
We’re living through a time of transition. It’s painful. Many people are angry and confused. That’s obvious both nationally and globally. I think the Obama years brought to fruition some cultural trends in the United States that were brewing for a long time. Some of them are distinctly unfriendly to the way Christians live their faith. That’s a shock for believers because so much of the nation’s heritage is Protestant. It’s a special shock for Catholics because we spent the last century or so trying to fit into a social environment that was skeptical of the Roman Church from the start. Now that we’ve finally arrived, the rules of the game have changed. It’s disorienting and seductive at the same time.
I wrote the book to help Catholics and other Christians understand how and why the changes in our nation’s character happened, and how we can live as good disciples in what’s become, in effect, a foreign country.
You argue that the United States is now “different in kind” as a nation, not just different in degree, from 50 or 60 years ago. What do you mean?
A country will grow and change over time just like people. That’s a natural thing. It’s a sign of health. Nations remain basically who they are as long as they stay true to their past, and as long as the process of change is more or less smooth and organic. Their identity stays intact.
For Americans, that’s no longer the case.
Over the past 60 years the changes in our economy, technology, social sciences, sexual mores, demography, legal philosophy and religious affiliation have been too deep and too rapid for the culture to easily absorb them. We’ve had one long series of disruptions. A lot of it has been creative, but the result is discontinuity. We’re now a very different country. There’s a chronic national temptation to anxiety and conflict.
The election of Donald Trump embodies what I mean. The people who love him and the people who loathe him share the same national geography, but they have completely different mental frameworks for the same space. It feels like we’re in the middle of a civil war — without bullets but it’s just as bitter; this time fought out through the media, the courts, schools, Congress and legislatures.
We’ve come to a point where the biblical moral grounding of the nation – the worldview that historically informed our public discourse, even when we failed to live up to it – is now often seen as outdated and bigoted. That’s a difference in kind from anything in our past.
That’s a tough diagnosis.
It’s realistic. The structures and appearances of our national life may seem to be the same as they’ve always been, but the internal dynamics are different.
Keep in mind that optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. Both can be forms of self-deception. We need to see the world as it really is. We can’t fix a problem until we understand clearly what and why it is. Christians are meant to be people of hope, and hope is a very different creature from optimism. The virtue of hope – Christian trust in the future, no matter how challenging our circumstances seem –is built on the virtue of faith, and faith is more than a set of doctrines, rituals and ideas. Faith flows from a personal and communal encounter with God. If we don’t have that relationship with God and fellow believers, and if we don’t constantly work to deepen it, then Christianity is just a set of humane-sounding platitudes with a religious veneer. Under pressure, it will disappear.
So what’s your advice to Catholics and other Christians?
Well, we can’t run away. There’s no place to go. And anyway, Christians are meant to be leaven in the world. St. Augustine is a great model because he lived at a hard time similar to our own. He never lost his sense of joy. He never lost his love for the beauty in the world. As a bishop, he didn’t retire to the hills. He didn’t hide from persecution or conflict. He was deeply skeptical of worldly power and politics, but he also knew they could be used to make the world better in a limited way. He stayed with his people. He encouraged them, consoled them and shared their sufferings. Most of all, he showed with the example of his own witness that actually living the Gospel, even in a hostile or indifferent world, was possible.
The takeaway is this: The Beatitudes aren’t meant as ideals. They’re meant to be practiced. The Gospel isn’t meant for the “holy.” It’s meant to be the means to holiness for every ordinary believer like you and me. Prayer, worship, the disciplines of fasting, silence, little acts of generosity and forgiveness: These things sound hopelessly small in their effect on the City of Man. But multiplied daily over a lifetime, with that lifetime then multiplied by the other lives it influences, and eventually the world can change its axis.
Augustine said that we belong to the City of God first, but we get there by passing through the City of Man. We have the duty and the privilege to make the world better because of our time in it. I wrote Strangers to help people realize that, and then do it.