What ought to be the response of Catholic believers to the rise of militant secularism in the West that is seeking to exile Christian faith from relevance, cultural history, and the public square? Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, perhaps the most prophetic of all U.S. Catholic Church leaders on Church-state issues, gave a profound answer to that question on August 24 in a speech before Church lawyers in Slovakia.
Against the backdrop of the Slovakian Church’s 50 years of suffering under Nazi and Soviet regimes that brutally repressed and mercilessly massacred many of the country’s faithful, Archbishop Chaput examined what happens when a society tries to order itself as if God did not exist and when those who do believe in God fail adequately to resist this secularizing trend. He called upon Catholics in the West to recognize the signs of the times and not to be caught asleep as a dictatorship of practical atheism seeks to “repudiate the Christian roots and soul of our civilization.” His analysis, sobering at times, needs not just to be read but studied by all those who care about the future of the Church, the future of our country and the survival of western civilization.
Archbishop Chaput began by reviewing a brief history of what helped to make the United States of America historically great and free in contrast to the bloodshed that bathed many parts of Europe after the Enlightenment: the positive role of faith in American culture. America, he stressed, was established as a non-sectarian state, but one in which faith was expected and fostered as a pre-requisite for a free society. Contrary to the opinions of revisionist secularist historians today, the founding fathers had “no desire for a radically secularized public life,” Archbishop Chaput stated. “They had no intent to lock religion away from public affairs. On the contrary, they wanted to guarantee citizens the freedom to live their faith publicly and vigorously, and to bring their religious convictions to bear on the building of a just society.”
The danger today is, he continued, that in both the U.S. and in Europe, “we face an aggressively secular political vision and a consumerist economic model that result — in practice, if not in explicit intent — in a new kind of state-encouraged atheism. To put it another way: The Enlightenment-derived worldview that gave rise to the great murder ideologies of the last century remains very much alive. Its language is softer, its intentions seem kinder, and its face is friendlier. But its underlying impulse hasn’t changed — that is, the dream of building a society apart from God.” He said that their vision “presumes a frankly ‘post-Christian’ world ruled by rationality, technology and good social engineering. Religion has a place in this worldview, but only as an individual lifestyle accessory. People are free to worship and believe whatever they want, so long as they keep their beliefs to themselves and do not presume to intrude their religious idiosyncrasies on the workings of government, the economy, or culture.”
Despite the “rhetoric of enlightened, secular tolerance,” government agencies in the United States, he explained, “now increasingly seek to dictate how Church ministries should operate, and to force them into practices that would destroy their Catholic identity. Efforts have been made to discourage or criminalize the expression of certain Catholic beliefs as ‘hate speech.’ Our courts and legislatures now routinely take actions that undermine marriage and family life, and seek to scrub our public life of Christian symbolism and signs of influence. In Europe, we see similar trends, although marked by a more open contempt for Christianity.” He drew stark conclusions from these trends: “These are not the actions of governments that see the Catholic Church as a valued partner in their plans for the 21st century. Quite the opposite: these events suggest an emerging, systematic discrimination against the Church that now seems inevitable.”
How are believers to respond to this attempt to organize western societies without God? Archbishop Chaput suggested that believers must learn from “the Catholicism of resistance” demonstrated by the Slovakian Church in response to a half-century of repression by atheistic totalitarian regimes. That resistance was seen above all in responding to the culture of the lie —the rampant lying in practice that was a staple of communism as well the anthropological mendacity and propaganda at the basis of atheistic “inhuman humanism”— with the truth. Archbishop Chaput said we need to be guided practically by Jesus’ words “the truth will make you free” as well as by Vaclav Havel’s application of those words to “live within the truth.” For Christians, living within the truth, Archbishop Chaput says, means living according to Jesus Christ, “proclaiming the truth of the Christian Gospel, not only by our words but by our example. It means living every day and every moment from the unshakeable conviction that God lives, and that his love is the motive force of human history and the engine of every authentic human life. It means believing that the truths of the Creed are worth suffering and dying for. Living within the truth also means telling the truth and calling things by their right names. And that means exposing the lies by which some men try to force others to live.” Archbishop Chaput got very specific about “two of the biggest lies in the world today” and says that believers must work hard to expose their falsity.
The first big lie is that “Christianity was of relatively minor importance in the development of the West.” The Denver prelate said that the history of the Church and Western Christianity are being pushed down an Orwellian memory hole, sometimes out of an attempt to promote peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic society, but often in order to “marginalize Christians and neutralize the Church’s public witness.” He said that we need to “name and fight this lie,” because our societies in the West “are Christian by birth and their survival depends on the endurance of Christian values,” especially values like the belief in individual rights that precede the state and the balance of powers. “The defense of Western ideals is the only protection that we and our neighbors have,” he warned, “against a descent into new forms of repression, whether it be at the hands of extremist Islam or secularist technocrats.”
That leads to the second big lie that might be identified and opposed: that Western values and institutions “can be sustained without a grounding in Christian moral principles.” Modern secularists are pushing relativism — the idea that there is no unchanging truth — as the “civil religion and public philosophy of the West.” This may seem superficially appealing within the context of a pluralistic society, but in practice, he added, “without a belief in fixed moral principles and transcendent truths, our political institutions and language become instruments in the service of a new barbarism.”
That is seen above all, Archbishop Chaput noted, in the crime of abortion, which he called “the foundational injustice” and “crucial issue” of our age. “The right to life is the foundation of every other human right. If that right is not inviolate, then no right can be guaranteed.” He said that the widespread acceptance of abortion in the West “shows us that without a grounding in God or a higher truth, our democratic institutions can very easily become weapons against our own human dignity, [through] a form of intimate violence that clothes itself in democracy [wherein] the will to power of the strong is given the force of law to kill the weak.” That despotism of might-makes-right is “where we are heading in the West today,” he warned, and needs to be resisted, as the Slovaks resisted the totalitarians of the nazist and communist murder regimes.
This resistance, he added, must come not just from “Church professionals” but from “every serious believer.” The whole Church is called to imitate the Slovakian heroes of the faith and become a “believing community of resistance.” Such a community, he said, will call things by their true names, “really believe what we say we believe,” and be willing to prove God is real by the witness of their lives in the midst of a world that is on the verge of forgetting him. “The renewal of the West depends overwhelmingly,” he concluded, on Christian families, parishes and dioceses beginning to live out this faithful communal resistance in the truth.
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