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Cooperation and Conflict

August 15, 2019 (2,116 words)

Upon turning 75 a little over a month from now, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will be obliged to submit his resignation to Pope Francis. He has been a faithful bishop, a good man, and an engaging writer. No doubt he will continue to be all three, even in retirement.

Many of us here in this area will be sad to see him step down as leader of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, me included.

While I have always admired his principled stand on faith and morals, the two of us have not always seen eye-to-eye when diagnosing the root cause of our ongoing, deepening cultural malaise. (We have never met, mind you, though he has reprimanded me via email once or twice.)

In reading the text of his most recent speech, Building a culture of religious freedom, which was presented on July 9 to a group of lawyers at the Summit 2019 conference of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in Dana Point, California, I am struck by how we two are mining pretty much the same philosophical territory. Though he is, of course, much more learned and polished than I am.

I may not have fully appreciated our similarities of theme before. I may have been put off by the praise routinely lavished on the Archbishop by what used to be referred to as neo-conservative groups. (What are these groups called nowadays?)

In any event, in reading this latest speech I found myself able to avoid judging the writer by the company he keeps, and evaluate his ideas on their own merit.


what prevents Catholic principles from properly animating society?


Naturally the core Catholic principles being expressed in this speech elicit my unconditional support. Though he and I do still differ on what is preventing these principles from properly animating our society, I now imagine we could very well be the friendliest of conversationalists on the matter.

And I am just immodest enough to think I might be able to sway him somewhat, and make a dent in what I see as his unilateral acceptance of the modern pluralist state as something we Catholics have to live with, but that need not be an impediment to the practice of our faith.

(It should be noted here I have no reason to believe any other bishop in America sees this pluralist situation any differently than does my bishop.)

In the course of his speech The Most Reverend Chaput says several things that resonant with me in a special way. Such as: “There’s no automatic harmony between Christian faith and American democracy.” (Though I do take this sentiment one step further, and happen to think there is, in fact, a natural discord between Christianity and American democracy.)

And: “The eagerness of Catholics to push their way into our country’s mainstream over the past half century, and to climb the ladder of social and economic success, has done very little to Christianize American culture. But it’s done a great deal to bleach out the zeal and faith of everyday Catholics, and to weaken the power of any distinctive Catholic witness.”

Here the Archbishop comes tantalizing close to the very heart of the problem, which I believe is economic in nature. But he veers off into a partisan political example, implying it’s the Democrats who are the bad guys. While the Republicans, the audience he always seems to be addressing with these speeches, are the reliable good guys.


an unfortunate tendency that is hard to shake…


This qualifies as an unfortunate tendency he just can’t seem to shake. When he states, “Human progress means more than getting more stuff, more entitlements and more personal license” he is clearly spelling out basic Catholic anthropology. But with those last two “examples” he is obviously implicating liberals, while bypassing or downplaying the inclination of successful conservatives to revel in “more stuff.”

Thankfully, in his very next breath he rejects the liberal/conservative dialectic by stating unequivocally: “Real human progress satisfies the human hunger for solidarity and communion.”

This bouncing back-and-forth between authentic Catholic formulations and conventional American social commentary is characteristic of the entire speech.

As a writer, Archbishop Chaput strikes me as an interesting case of a prelate with an unerring grasp of Catholic anthropology, who tries too hard to reconcile that anthropology with modern political thought.

In delineating the fault lines in society, his Achilles Heel is too often relying on America’s founding ideals for ballast, as if they were some sort of grand restating of Christian principles for the modern age. This results in a measure of confusion on the part of his audience. Are our cultural problems a collective failure to live up to American ideals, or Catholic ones?

One is left wondering if perhaps His Excellency is unable to fully recognize the ramifications of his own argument. He speaks of an “Enlightenment fantasy” as a dream in which secular ideology creates a perfect world once contentious religious belief is removed from the picture. But isn’t that exactly what our most influential Founding Fathers had in mind?


not quite synthesizing the intended message…


Examples like this, of the Archbishop’s not-quite-successfully synthesizing his intended message, abound. “The deep moral problems we now face in our country didn’t happen overnight. They’ve been fed by a false understanding of freedom for decades, and they have roots in the exile of God from public consciousness.”

Exchange the word “centuries” for the word “decades” in the statement above, and now you are starting to get warm.

“Majority opinion doesn’t determine what is good and true.” Oh, my goodness, that is certainly correct. And error has no rights, as all our pre-Vatican II Popes would be only too happy to tell you.

“But one of the key assumptions of the modern secular state – the secular creation myth – is that religion is naturally prone to violence because it’s irrational and divisive. Secular, non-religious authority, on the other hand, is allegedly rational and unitive… (there is) a push by America’s elite and leadership classes to get religion out of the way. God is a competitor in forming the public will. So God must go.”

Here again Archbishop Chaput beautifully articulates the big-picture issue before us, but does his analysis an injustice by encouraging the impression this is a relatively new problem, when in fact it is hundreds of years old.

When he describes “a culture of narcissism that cocoons us in dumbed-down, bigoted news, vulgarity, distraction and noise, while methodically excluding God from the human imagination,” it may sound like he is describing the last generation or two. In reality, though, he is describing the entire modern secular age.

And from the start the United States has been the epitome of that age.

Telling us: “To work as our country’s political life was intended, America needs a special kind of citizenry: a mature, well-informed electorate of persons able to reason clearly and rule themselves prudently” – this is simply to repeat a piety conservatives continue to take pride in, even though they must realize how little we Americans – liberals and conservatives, alike – have ever been able to model reason and prudence.


conflating the Gospel with the American Experiment…


And sadly, when the Archbishop insists on referring to “American liberty,” as in “the greatest danger to American liberty…,” it’s a sign he is conflating the Gospel with the American Experiment.

To decry “a nation based on a degraded notion of liberty, on license rather than real freedom,” may sound like the familiar argument of conservative icons like Edmund Burke or John Adams, outlining the pre-requisites of a successful democracy.

But this is a quintessentially Catholic argument, with roots at least as far back as Augustine – a fact any churchman with Archbishop Chaput’s keen knowledge of history most certainly gets. But he seems unwilling to accept the mantle that is his to assume. By trading in the currency of “license rather than true freedom,” he is actually making the Catholic case against democracy.

Which is why it’s so curious for him to then state: “In real life, democracy is built on two practical pillars, cooperation and conflict. It requires both.”

Really? I confess to having missed that part of The Federalist Papers, the part where Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay take time out from their elaborate discussion of competing interests, to expound on the benefits of cooperation.

But such benefits are real, and being the sound Catholic thinker he is, The Most Reverend Chaput knows this only too well: “…people have a natural hunger for the kind of solidarity that makes all community possible.” Again, this is Catholic anthropology at its most elemental. But it should be pointed out this notion of cooperation has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, or with the American Founding.

Then in the very next sentence he identifies the reality of conflict, and illuminates the source of deep, abiding conflicts: “…because people have competing visions of what’s right and true. The more deeply they hold their convictions, the more naturally people seek to have those convictions shape society.”


there is a reason secular convictions have shaped our society…


Yes, Archbishop, I agree with this analysis. And over the course of the last two hundred years or so, while we religious believers were busy pursing our material advancement, and turning our backs on God, one small twist at a time, we, too, became secularists, for all intents and purposes. And that’s why secular convictions have come to shape our society.

To be honest, I have trouble understanding the premise of this speech. Or, for that matter, the underlying premise of much of Archbishop Chaput’s musings on our wayward culture, which he has shared with the world in a few well-regarded best-sellers. His core belief, as stated once again in this speech, is that:

“Religious believers can live quite peacefully with the separation of Church and state, so long as the arrangement translates into real freedom of religion, and not the half-starved copy of the real thing called ‘freedom of worship.’”

This distinction, which the Archbishop and many others promote and put such stock in, leaves me scratching my head every time. It seems to me it’s precisely the concept of “religious freedom” that has created the mess we believers find ourselves in today.

Religious freedom is nothing but a nefarious strategy employed by America’s elite and leadership classes – which have always had a secular mindset, from the very beginning – to achieve their desired objective of bleaching out the zeal and faith of everyday people.

Mission accomplished, wouldn’t you say?

I also find it a little late in the game to be talking about the dangers of “standing by idly while our liberty to preach and serve God in the public square is whittled away.” Whittled away? My good man, it’s been sandblasted away. We all decided a long time ago to serve mammon. Giving lip service to God at this late date makes for a sorry display, and reveals us as the hypocrites we are.

As an antidote to all this, I know His Excellency is big on everyone participating in the political process. As he reminds us again in this speech, “…Every one of our elections matter.”

Well, they would matter a lot more if we could actually vote from our religious convictions. If the public leaders we elect could create good policy based on Scripture and a moral tradition, which is founded on a belief in the unity of faith and reason, and is firmly grounded in the natural law. If the judges those leaders appoint would refer to something more substantial than our Constitution as the basis of their rulings.

And most importantly, if Christians in general and Catholics in particular, would stop accepting the me-first, trickle-down economic theories certain candidates insist on parroting, election after election.

We need a thorough re-assessment of the way our economy has been allowed to function – apart from any moral consideration – and how this singular fact has determined the kind of nation we have become.

It’s clear that approaching our cultural problems from such an unorthodox angle is outside Archbishop Chaput’s wheelhouse.

In the end, though, I do welcome and agree with the clarity of the following statement, cribbed from near the end of the Archbishop’s recent speech:

“All of us who are people of faith need to re-examine the spirit that has ruled our approach to American life for the past many decades. We need to recover our distinctive religious identifies and histories. Then we need to act on them.”

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
August 15, 2019

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