Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, New York City, Feb. 27, 2017
Our theme tonight is “faith in the future.” Christians are a people of hope. Pope Francis warns us – I think very wisely – that we need to embody the joy of the Gospel. We need to live in a way that draws others to Jesus Christ with a spirit of energy and freedom.
That’s why pessimism is such a dangerous thing. It can poison entire lives.
But being a realist is not the same as being a pessimist. Optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. Each can be misleading because both God and the devil are full of surprises. The virtue of hope is a trust in the future, based on our faith in a loving God; a God who loves us personally and unrepeatably as a Father. And that love endures forever, even when our lives and the world around us seem to be in turmoil.
Hope is not optimism. There’s a line in the King James Version of the Book of Job, where Job — even in the worst of his suffering – says this about God: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” That’s the virtue of hope.
There’s an immense amount of beauty and good in the world. There’s a deep well of goodness in our own country. We should take pride in that. We should never ignore or underestimate it. The future is never predetermined except in the very long framework of God’s design. Humans are creatures of intellect and free will. Therefore we make the future, because as Augustine said, we are the times. And that’s good news, because it means that nations can recover from their problems and failures. They can renew their best virtues and strengths.
But it also means that they can change their nature in a darker way. They can become an obstacle to life rather than its guardian. I wrote Strangers in a Strange Land to help Catholics and other Christians understand that. But more importantly, I hope the book helps people realize that we can live a Christian life of hope and joy even in a culture that often seems alien and unwelcoming to the faith we believe.
The background to Strangers is simple. With President Obama’s election in 2008, I think something deeper than just a routine change of administrations occurred. A generational and cultural shift came to power in a very self-confident White House. That became obvious in 2011, when the White House declined to continue defending the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key elements of the same law in its bizarrely-reasoned Windsor decision. And the 2015 Obergefell decision by the same Supreme Court then legalized same-sex marriage and simply confirmed trends in our national life that had been growing for many years.
Some of those trends, in a perverse and unintended way, helped elect President Trump. But Mr. Trump is a reaction to, not a reversal of, the current direction of the country. It’s a sign of our national poverty that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were so distasteful and so deeply flawed in the 2016 campaign.
So that’s the seed of why we’re here tonight. Looking back over the past nine years, I think the Obama White House was the most momentous presidency we’ve had since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. But Roosevelt dealt mainly with the economic and administrative structure of the country’s affairs. The Obama White House seemed to go much deeper in seeking to shape the nature of our daily life, on issues ranging from religious liberty to transgender rights. And these issues of course, and others like them, are not morally neutral in the light of Catholic belief.
Nations and peoples are changing all the time. If they’re not, it means they’re dead. America is built on change because we’re a nation of immigrants – all of us. Change is natural. It’s also healthy as long as nations remain continuous in some organic way with their past. A nation’s identity breaks with the past when it changes so rapidly, deeply and in so many ways that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. I think we’re very near that point as a country right now.
Why do I say that? Here’s why. In 60 years — basically the span of my adult life — the entire landscape of our economy, communications, legal philosophy, science and technology, demography, religious belief, and sexual morality has changed; and not just changed, but changed drastically. There’s no way to “un-know” what we’ve learned or experienced, even if we wanted to.
A lot of the changes have been good. Today’s medical progress is just one of many examples. But it’s also true that the changes have caused a deep dislocation in the American sense of stability, security, purpose and self. And that has consequences. Americans who self-identify as atheist, agnostic or having no religious affiliation at all went from 16 percent of the population in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014, barely seven years.
That has political and legal implications because religious freedom — as the nation has traditionally understood it — can’t be a major concern for people who have no religious faith. And human rights, without a permanent grounding in God or some higher moral order, are really just a matter of public consensus and government largesse, dressed up in pious language about human dignity.
I could go on like this for a long time. It’s all in the book. The point is: What do we do about it? The biggest issue we face as Catholics in a seemingly “post-Christian” world is this: How do we live with joy and hope in a culture that’s losing its biblical leaven and pulling itself away from Christian faith and the Word of God?
We Americans are “fixers.” Our first instinct when facing a problem is always to do something practical. It’s part of our Puritan Calvinist DNA. And some things really are worth doing, because they really do help.
When Pope Francis tells us to streamline and reduce the cost of annulments, that’s a simple, practical step in Church life that can have a big effect on many Catholics in irregular unions.
Pastors and bishops are constantly under siege by the demands of administration. Sharing some of that practical leadership with gifted laypeople is an obviously good thing. It allows priests to be priests first and CEOs second.
In Philadelphia we have a wonderful group of lay business leaders who formed a “Faith in the Future Foundation” and an “Independence Mission Schools” non-profit, and they do extraordinary work building the resources to sustain Catholic education — especially for the poor.
And some excellent books and websites have been developed about intentional discipleship and the practical steps people can take to build or renew a vigorous parish life. Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell and the “Amazing Parish” project are just two examples, but there are many more. These are valuable tools, and they’re well worth using.
But in a larger sense, none of these things really solves our deeper problem, which isn’t a lack of resources or personnel or strategic plans, but a weakness of faith and a failure of imagination.
The Church in the United States has a huge infrastructure of aging brick and mortar. It was built in a different age, for different needs. We no longer have the resources to maintain it, even if that were pastorally wise – which too often, it’s not. The realities we’ll face as a Church in the next 20 years will be very different from, and much more challenging than, anything in our past. And I think we often lack the courage and ingenuity to deal with it.
So what’s the answer? Again, please buy and read my book so my publisher doesn’t get angry with me. But I can close with a couple of simple facts.
The reason today’s new movements, charisms and communities in the Church are so popular — and at their best, so successful — is simple. It’s the same reason saints like Dominic and Francis renewed the Christian Church in their own medieval time. They put flesh on the meaning of the Gospel with the witness of their lives.
Today’s new movements provide a reason to believe, the personal and family friendships to sustain that belief, and the ongoing direction and support needed for real Christian missionary zeal. And that’s decisive, because American culture, for all its great virtues and advantages, isolates each one of us in our individual appetites and anxieties. It fills our material needs while it too often starves the soul.
When you write a book, you can go on and on, for pages and chapters, about what we need to do to change the world. But in the end it’s very simple; simple but also very hard. Plans, programs, policies and committees: All these things have their place in the life of the Church and in her renewal for the future. But the heart of the matter in every life, in every age, never changes.
It’s whether we’re willing to unplug from the world’s seductions and distractions, and actually live the Beatitudes, or at least to try, instead of just revering them as beautiful ideals. We need to live the words of Jesus Christ that we all claim to believe.
In the end, that’s the real and most important message in Strangers in a Strange Land.