Two millennia into the Christian era, the niceness of Christians is on the way to becoming the biggest threat to Christianity. “I came to cast fire upon the earth,” Jesus famously said. The characteristic gesture of our religiosity may be the limp handshake of peace.
“God doesn’t need ‘nice’ Christians,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes in Living the Catholic Faith. The archbishop of Denver is not nice. On the evidence of this splendid little book, he is a zealous believer with an apostolic heart.
Living the Catholic Faith is a summary of the Catholic Christian way of life (the way Catholics ought to live, not the way many of us really do live — halfheartedly enacting torpid sensuality and tepid belief). It also embodies a cultural critique and a shrewd analysis of the situation of the Church. It is fresh and provocative in all three respects — an excellent volume to place in the hands of open-minded Catholics turned off by the false promises of liberal religion.
The book is grounded both in serious reflection and in an unusually wide variety of sources in popular and high culture. A typical page carries quotes — all of them to the point — from Woody Allen, a Ghanaian proverb, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Karl Barth, and the second-century Letter to Diognetus. The author wishes to communicate with his audience but not talk down to it.
Archbishop Chaput is in tune with the renewal envisaged by Vatican II and with those two still-dynamic documents of the council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which together provide much of his conceptual framework. But he is realistic about abuses perpetrated in the name of renewal and, especially, about the Church’s less-than-successful attempts to enter into dialogue with the world.
Pope John XXIII, the archbishop writes, “opened the windows of the Church to the modern world…. John Paul II has had the much more difficult task of encouraging the world to open its windows to the Church…. Our dialogue with the world has been largely one-sided. The secular world hasn’t been particularly interested in what the Church has to say.”
What can be done about it? The greatest service the Church can render to the world, he argues, is to preach Christian truth. In this light, he adds, Catholics need constantly to ask themselves, “Are we an accommodated Church? Have we assimilated too well?”
Often, of course, the answer is yes. In Glasgow not long ago, the youth ministry office sought to draw the “hip, young crowd” with a program called “Naked,” marketed, according to one news report, by a poster featuring “a semi-naked person.” Glasgow is hardly alone. Jacques Maritain called this sort of thing “kneeling to the world.” It is an effort to engage the secular entirely on its terms, in the belief that if the world and the Church disagree, the world must be right. The results often would be funny if they weren’t rather sad.
“The day is gone when American Catholics could feel safe with the instincts of our public culture,” Archbishop Chaput declares. To illustrate his argument, he tells the stories of two movies, Film A and Film B.
Film A is about a loving husband whose young wife contracts a painful, incurable disease. He helps her kill herself and is tried for homicide, but is acquitted because the court recognizes the rightness of his deed. Film B is about a kindly abortionist whose protégé at first reacts against his work but eventually comes to admire him. Both movies are calculated attacks on Judeo-Christian morality.
Then comes the kicker. Film B is The Cider House Rules, an American flick of a few years back; Michael Caine won an Oscar for his role as the abortionist. Film A is I Accuse, produced in Germany in 1941 as propaganda for the Nazi euthanasia campaign. “I don’t mean that we’re becoming Nazis,” Archbishop Chaput says. “We can lose our soul in a uniquely American way by being selfish and pragmatic, by being faithless in our commitments, and by twisting our freedom into the right to do whatever we want.”
His prescriptions for living the faith in this toxic cultural environment are traditional ones. As such, they sound radical in the context of American Catholicism today. “The most important single thing any of us can do to grow in Christ, reform our hearts, renew the Church, and change the world is simply this: Go back to Confession, regularly and sincerely. Forgive and seek forgiveness. Everything else will follow,” he says. Reflect on it, and you’ll see why he’s right.
Another plank in his platform is even more of a challenge: Return to that “prophetic” document Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical condemning contraception, and embrace it as the life-giving truth about sexuality, marriage, parenting, and the human person.
Hardly likely, you say? Archbishop Chaput is bullish:
Today we have an opportunity that comes only once in many decades. In 1968, Paul VI told the truth about married love…. The irony is that the people who dismissed Church teaching in the 1960s soon discovered that they had subverted their own ability to pass anything along to their children. The result is that the Church now must evangelize a world of their children’s children — adolescents and young adults raised in moral confusion, often unaware of their own moral heritage, who hunger for meaning, community, and love with real substance.
For all its challenges, this is a tremendous new moment of possibility for the Church.
Here is an eloquent, authentically pastoral voice. If enough such voices were raised, what Archbishop Chaput says might come true. For that to happen, though, it would help if more of us joined him in an exercise described at the conclusion of this book. “At the end of every day we need to ask ourselves this simple question: I have paid one day of my life to do what I did today. Was it worth it?”
Living the Catholic Faith: A Return to the Basics
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., Servant Publications, 159 pages, $10.99
This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.