My first conversation with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
happened over dinner at a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant in South Dakota in late 1990. He was the bishop of Rapid City; I was working for Catholic Answers
and had been invited to conduct a weekend apologetics conference there. From that first meeting, I could tell immediately that I was in the presence of a truly excellent bishop.
“Bishop Charles,” as all the Catholics I met that weekend called him with proud affection, personified “down to earth.” He was not merely being polite; he clearly was interested and engaged with those around him, listening thoughtfully and offering insights, advice, and the occasional funny anecdote with an easy joviality that put people at ease, while always maintaining the dignity of his role as shepherd of the flock.
I was impressed with Bishop Charles’s humility; his palpable love for Christ and the Church; his quiet, understated wisdom; and his obvious pastoral dedication to the spiritual and physical wellbeing of his flock. I’ve met many bishops over the years, and I knew from that very first conversation with him that I was in the presence of not just a good bishop, but a great man.
A few years later, Bishop Charles became Archbishop Charles Chaput when, on March 18, 1997, he was appointed the new archbishop of Denver. I can recall the profound disappointment among my Catholic friends in South Dakota, all of whom were truly sad to be losing their beloved bishop; and yet, at the same time, they were joyful for the Catholics of Denver, knowing what a great gift they were receiving.
As the years passed, I have watched Archbishop Chaput’s pastoral ministry with great interest. My intuitive perception of him in 1990– that he is a good bishop and a great man — was continuously reaffirmed, especially by his courageous, outspoken leadership on critical life and family issues that form the front lines of today’s culture wars.
But although Archbishop Chaput is an adroit and effective leader in the cause of proclaiming and upholding Truth, he always manages to engage his opponents with charity and respect, never talking down to people nor becoming rancorous with them, even when they do not respond in kind. His love for Jesus Christ shines through his words and actions as genuine charity for all those around him, including those who oppose the teachings of the Church.
In a recent interview
, when asked if he ever became frustrated by the current cultural landscape and the public’s seeming indifference to society’s collapse, he responded in his usual forthright and courageous manner:
It seems human history has been a series of times of us not taking the warning signs seriously. I think the reading for the first Sunday of Lent this year is the story of Noah and the flood. They were eating and drinking and carrying on and the flood came. They just weren’t willing to take the warnings that God sends us and I think it is true about our time that we are not taking the situation concerning the Church and the world seriously now. . . . I don’t know what we can do about it except to be persistent in our preaching and in our continuing to give the warning and that God bring fruit from that if He chooses. We shouldn’t give up.
More recently, as a way to further his commitment
to preaching the truth to a world that is not inclined to listen, Archbishop Chaput authored the best-selling book Render Unto Caesar,
in which he lays out a masterful blueprint for “serving the nation by living our Catholic beliefs in political life.”
In one chapter, titled “Men without Chests,” he offers this sobering insight into our cultural predicament, the result of the widespread tendency to ignore God’s laws in favor of secularism:
A truly secularized United States would be a country without a soul; a nation with a hole in its chest. Such a state could not stand above tribalism in public affairs. It would become a tool of the strongest tribe. American belief in the sanctity of individual rights depends on a God who guarantees those rights and to whom the state is subordinate and responsible. And this view is not an opinion. It is the historical fact that provided the foundation for the rest of our public life.
“Secularism,” he continues,
is a cult — the kind of rigid separationism where the state treats religion as a scary and unstable guest — hollows out the core of what it means to be human. It treats the most important part of life, the moral and religious, as a private quirk. It starves a nation’s spirit. And it has never been a natural step toward democratic maturity. The rise of American secularism did not occur by chance. It didn’t happen inevitably as a result of modern progress. As . . . scholars have chronicled, it came about through the intentional political struggle of secularizing activists in education, science, the media, and the law.
Of course, turnabout is fair play. Believers can push back.
Here we see the beauty of Archbishop Chaput’s strategy for “serving the nation by living our Catholic beliefs in political life”: He shows us how to “push back” without being pushy; how to engage the political process while avoiding the extremes of politicizing our religious beliefs and turning our politics into a religion. In short, as the title of his book quotes Our Lord’s teaching, we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.
St. Paul echoes this theme in Romans 13:7: “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
As everyone who takes his faith seriously knows, being a faithful Catholic amid the tumult and temptations of the modern world is challenging enough. But to be a courageous Catholic — the kind that Archbishop Charles exemplifies so vividly — requires an unswerving commitment to always and everywhere “speak the truth in love.” I thank the Lord with all my heart for this good bishop’s good example.