By Emily Stimpson
When it comes to building a culture of life through the nation's governing structures, American Catholics have been falling down on the job. That at least is the argument Denver's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput makes in his newest book, "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life." Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Archbishop Chaput about where Catholics have gone wrong, the primacy of the pro-life cause and the upcoming elections.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is the single biggest misconception plaguing Catholics about the role they are to play in the nation's political life?
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput: The biggest misconception is that a loving God is also a lax God. Or to put it another way, we like to assume that as long as we're well-intentioned, God will overlook the uglier side of our actions. But nothing in Scripture supports this. In fact, there's very little soft or indulgent sentiment anywhere in the words of Jesus.
We can certainly count on God's mercy, but we can also count on his justice. What we do -- not what we intend to do, or how gifted we are at our alibis -- creates who we are and how we will spend our eternity. God will always love us, no matter what we do. But love always tells the truth. It's always honest. So, if in our freedom, by our actions, we turn ourselves into people of excuses and the lie, then we place ourselves outside the reach of God's love.
Here's the point. Real faith has consequences, including the political kind. We can't claim to be Catholic and then ignore what our faith teaches on serious matters of human dignity, especially on a foundational issue like abortion. We need to be faithful Catholics first. If we are, then our Catholic convictions will naturally enrich our nation's public life. What we can't honestly do is separate our religious beliefs from our political choices, especially on grave issues. That's a form of self-deception.
OSV: What is at the root of so many Catholics' misunderstanding of the relationship between their personal faith and the nation's political life?
Archbishop Chaput: For many Catholics, the price of admission into mainstream American life has been to become, in effect, Protestants who go to Mass. They keep the Catholic brand name and tribal loyalty, but the content of what they believe is a mix of sentiment, nostalgia and generic good will. That's a great recipe for fitting in, but it's not what the Gospel or Catholic teaching asks from us. As Catholics, we have a duty to sanctify and humanize our country; in other words, to lead it to Jesus Christ. We can't barter away our identity and mission on the pretext of "not imposing our beliefs." That's cowardice.
OSV: What needs to happen to reverse this course?
Archbishop Chaput: Quite a lot. And there's no way to quick-fix our way out of a problem we behaved ourselves into.
We've had 40 years of bad catechesis from the mass media and 40 years of flawed example from Catholic public officials and intellectuals about how to integrate Catholic faith and American political life. In fact, many Catholics now don't even try to integrate them, except in a very generic, nonthreatening way, because of a confused worry about "the separation of Church and state." The religious incoherence of otherwise talented Catholic leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joseph Biden earlier this fall on national television testifies to the failure of an entire generation's approach to being Catholic and American.
We're citizens of heaven first. We need to be Catholic first, and we need to relearn what the word "Catholic" really means. We also need to sincerely love our country. But we do that best by being faithful Catholics above every other loyalty. Only when we recover that habit of fidelity -- and I mean each of us individually, as well as the Church as a community of believers -- will we have anything useful to say to American civic life.
OSV: How has the "seamless garment" metaphor for the Church's teachings on the sanctity of life been most commonly misunderstood?
Archbishop Chaput: It's a wonderful, very powerful metaphor. But it's also sometimes misused. In practice, people who dislike the special weight of the abortion issue in Catholic thought try to use the seamless garment to contextualize and demote abortion to just another important social issue; one among many. And of course, as the U.S. bishops said exactly 10 years ago in their pastoral letter "Living the Gospel of Life," pro-life politics needs to be about much more than just abortion. We also have pro-life obligations to the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the immigrant and the medically indigent.
But abortion is foundational. There's no way to finesse our way around it. It's the cornerstone issue because it deals with the most basic human right -- the right to life. We can't build a just society while allowing more than a million abortions a year, or even half that number. This is why "abortion reduction" strategies can sound persuasive and do have value, but they never adequately address the brutality and injustice of abortion itself, or abortion's deep wounds to women and society.
By the way, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who created the "seamless garment" argument, himself warned against abusing his imagery to equate issues that actually have very different levels of importance.
OSV: What do you say to Catholics who claim that we've lost the abortion fight; that we need to face the political reality that abortion is not going to be made illegal in this country?
Archbishop Chaput: I'd answer that I've been hearing that argument, in one shape or another, from a certain wing of the Church for more than 20 years. There's nothing new about it at all. Some Catholics -- including some clergy and Religious -- are simply embarrassed by the abortion issue. The abortion struggle gets in the way of their natural political alliances. Other Catholics finally don't agree with the Church's teaching, or really don't accept the humanity of the unborn child. Others just want a respectable way to surrender on this issue and get on with what they regard as the real work of the Church, whatever they imagine that might be. This year's election is a pretty good snapshot of all these trends.
I don't think we've lost the abortion struggle in any sense. Quite the opposite. A social conflict like abortion or racism is fundamental; it challenges the moral premises of a society and can easily go on for decades. Overturning Roe v. Wade is achievable. So are legal restrictions on abortion and legal protections for the unborn. Capitulating on these matters now -- which, in effect, is exactly the wrongheaded course being proposed by some people -- would be a failure of moral nerve.
OSV: What is the primary principle that needs to guide Catholics when they enter the voting booth this November?
Archbishop Chaput: Vote your conscience, but form your conscience in what the Church teaches, because she teaches God's truth on the word of Jesus Christ himself. You can't be a "faithful Catholic" and then ignore what the Church teaches on a vital matter of human dignity. So, however you vote, make it a vote for the sanctity of the human person -- from conception to natural death.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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