In his latest book, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” (Henry Holt and Company, $26), Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput assesses with his typical clarity the bewildering situation for committed American Catholics living in the world created by the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, legalizing same-sex marriage.
As a biting analysis of the current culture, what makes Archbishop Chaput’s book unique is his approach as a pastor and teacher of the faith.
Archbishop Chaput traces the evolution of “a moral hole in our culture created by the collapse of a Protestant consensus.” While that consensus generally pushed Catholics to the margins, it also provided a moral environment in which Catholic values were able to flourish. The sad irony, according to Archbishop Chaput, is that because of their fixation on “fitting in,” Catholics have found themselves unable to fill the vacuum. This has been devastating both for the Church and the country.
He writes, “The reason the Christian faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young people is that — too often — it didn’t really matter to us. Not enough to shape our lives. Not enough for us to suffer for it. As Catholic Christians, we may have come to a point today where we feel like foreigners in our own country — ‘strangers in a strange land,’ in the beautiful English of the King James Bible (Ex 2:22). But the deeper problem in America isn’t that we believers are ‘foreigners.’ It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.”
The chapters dealing with specific cultural concerns form the center of the book. They are brutally honest in describing the ruins of a culture. “Love among the Eloi,” “Nothing but the Truth,” “Darkness at Noon,” — these chapters are powerful analyses of the hypocrisy, idolatry and desperate need for sensual gratification which characterize the United States today.
While some may accuse Archbishop Chaput of being too pessimistic, they cannot claim that this book is without hope. St. Augustine stands out as a major example of hope in “Strangers.” As someone who lived in the waning days of antiquity, Augustine resonates powerfully today. The grandeur of Rome had been corroding for so long that by the time the barbarians arrived there was almost nothing left to destroy. And yet, Augustine can speak confidently about the victory of what he calls the City of God without demonizing the City of Man.
In Book II of “The City of God,” Augustine reflects on the work of Cicero. Cicero quotes an old maxim: “Ancient morality and the men of old fixed firm the Roman state.” Cicero goes on to say that the morality of that society has passed away, such that “we retain the name of a commonwealth, but we have lost the reality long ago: and this was not through any misfortune, but through our own misdemeanors.” Cicero’s remark — and what Augustine says in response — may just as well have been written yesterday: “Those who praise the state of Rome in the time of ‘ancient morality and the men of old’ should ask themselves whether real justice flourished in that city, or whether, it may be, it was not even then a living reality in men’s behavior, but merely a fancy picture.”
Augustine’s diagnosis of Rome is similar to Archbishop Chaput’s description of America. Like Rome, the United States has contributed much to humanity. At its best, America is a great country. But without the leaven of the Gospel, it cannot support the weight of its citizens’ collective appetites.
The anonymous second-century Letter to Diognetus is a guide for living the Gospel in a society that scoffs at it. It describes what Pope Francis calls “missionary discipleship.”
“They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land,” Archbishop Chaput writes. “They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.”
This radical action based on love for Jesus Christ is the call of every Christian and exactly the kind of life that attracts others. That is how disciples evangelize among the ruins.
Eric Banecker is a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.