Chaput: The Terrain and Challenge U.S. Christians Face

VATICAN CITY, October 17, 2018 (CNA) -- The following interview with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia was conducted Oct. 16 by Adam Sosnowski and will be released in Poland on Oct. 24 by the Polish Catholic magazine Miesicznik Wpis (wydawnictwo Bialy Kruk). It is published here with permission.

BIALY KRUK:  What is the reason for the decrease of faith in the Western world? What can the Church do about it?

ARCHBISHOP CHAPUT:  There’s no single reason for the decline. Many different factors shaped the problem.  

The two World Wars, the rise of murder ideologies like Communism and National Socialism, the immense savagery and loss of life starting in1914 – all these traumas deeply wounded the Western psyche. The pride of the early the 20th century produced the despair we have in the early 21st. We hide that despair under a blanket of noise and distraction and consumer appetites. But it’s very real. The idea of a loving God seems implausible today for many people not because of something wicked God has done, but because of the evil we ourselves have done without God stopping us.

Augusto Del Noce, the late Italian philosopher, described our situation best in his essay, “Technological Civilization and Christianity.” It’s worth reading. As “postmoderns,” we’ve tried to overcome our despair with science and technology, and they produce many good things. But they also focus us radically on this world and away from the supernatural. As a result, man’s religious dimension, our sense of the transcendent, slowly dries up and disappears. Technological civilization doesn’t persecute religion, at least not directly. It doesn’t need to. It makes God irrelevant.

The Church will survive and continue her mission. But to do that, she first needs to acknowledge that the culture she helped create now has no use for her -- and why. As a Church, we don’t yet see reality clearly and critically enough. For example, the current synod’s instrumentum laboris (IL) talks about young people and the effects of social media and the “digital continent.” But it has no grasp of the deeper dynamics of technology that Del Noce names.  

The IL is a collection of dense social science data with very little evangelical zeal. It speaks constantly about accompaniment, which is important, but it has almost no confident teaching.  It can’t and won’t convert anybody. Hopefully, the synod fathers will fix this.

How should the Church handle its current abuse crisis? - What is the condition of the Church in the United States right now? - How much damage has been done with the recent scandal involving Cardinal McCarrick?

The Church is the United States is still strong compared to Catholic life in nearly every other “developed” country. We have good resources, many good young clergy and lay leaders, vigorous renewal movements, and plenty of thriving parishes. But we’re losing the young. That’s a huge challenge for the future. The scandal triggered by Archbishop McCarrick has done great damage, especially to the credibility of bishops. The only way we can repair that is by being absolutely transparent and honest about the scope of the abuse problem and our efforts to address it.

How much truth is there in the accusations of Archbishop Vigano?

That’s a matter for the Holy See to address. It’s above my area of responsibility and beyond my knowledge.  

Is the heritage of Saint John Paul II still alive in the Church? Is he remembered in the US?  Do we need this heritage?

John Paul’s legacy is very much alive in the United States. His visit to Denver and World Youth Day in 1993 shaped the faith of an entire generation. Some of his encyclicals are masterworks of intellect and faith. We need his kind of Christianity – a combination of courage, zeal for Jesus Christ, rigorous intelligence, and sincere belief – now more than ever.  

Karol Wojtyla’s commitment to human dignity, to the unborn and the sacredness of all life, and his theology of the body – all these things still resonate deeply with American Catholics.

How can one counter the anti-clericalism present in today’s culture and in the media? What should the Church do about this? What about laymen?

The only way to counter it is by living differently; by practicing what we claim to believe. There’s no quick fix. We’re a family of faith, not a religious General Motors, and we need to act like it. Priests, for example, are not little godlings. They’re sinners like everyone else. We’re all equal – laypeople, religious and clergy – in the Sacrament of Baptism. But, as in any family, we all have different tasks. Priests have the duty to shepherd and teach, to serve the needs of their people, to lead as pastors, and most all, to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments. The glue that holds the whole enterprise together is love. If we don’t respect and love each other, and show it by our behavior, everything falls apart.

What might the synod change in Church doctrine or in the interpretation of the doctrine?

No synod has the authority to change core Christian teachings; nor does any Pope. In matters of interpretation, the unstated struggle in the 2018 synod revolves around Catholic sexual morality. As one young female youth minister put it: Underneath all its social science data and verbiage, the instrumentum laboris is finally, very quietly, about sex. It’s especially odd that the word “chastity” appears almost nowhere in the IL text.  Humanae vitae and the theology of the body are completely absent.

Should the synod have been canceled?

I think the timing is inopportune. Rescheduling it for a later date probably would have been wise, but the Holy Father makes those decisions. The planning for a synod is very complicated and difficult to change.

Is it really necessary to tackle the LGBT issue at the synod and mention it in official documents?

There’s nothing wrong with addressing the issue. Quite the opposite, it’s a natural matter for discussion – so long as Catholic teaching on human sexuality is faithfully explained and reconfirmed without compromise or ambiguity. And that’s exactly where elements of the IL are regrettably weak. “LGBT” should never be used in a Church document to describe people. The Church has never identified persons by their sexual appetites, or reduced them to their sexual inclinations. “LBGT” may be acceptable in describing issues, but not people.

The traditional understanding of the family is under heavy attack. What does the situation look like in the States?  What part does the gender ideology play in this?

I’ll refer back to Del Noce here: Gender ideology is simply an expression of the technological mindset and its bias toward treating all matter, including the body, as raw material for the human will. It presumes a definition of the “human person” very different from anything in Christian belief. Gender ideology treats the body as an instrument to be upgraded, or clay to be manipulated. In contrast, Christian faith sees the body, not as some kind of “wetware” or clay capsule, but as integral and essential to who we are. God became man to redeem human flesh, not to render it meaningless.

The family, by its nature, is carnal and fertile. A man and a woman become one flesh. New life results. It’s beautiful, it’s mysterious, but it’s not efficient. To a certain kind of modern mindset, that inefficiency is offensive. 

At the heart of gender ideology is a resentment of the weakness and limitations of the body. At the heart of today’s attacks on the family is a hatred of the mutual dependence that families demand and the love within a family that seals it tight as a unit. In the end, all of today’s sexual aberrations and dysfunctions boil down to a rejection of creation; for the natural order as it is.

This is the terrain and the challenge Christians face today in the United States.

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