Navigating the troubled waters of relativism

A review of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's new book

David Uebbing serves as the Chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver.

American society is experiencing profound cultural shifts, creating times of great uncertainty, especially for Christians and Catholics. In “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput offers a road map for understanding our nation’s roots, the cultural forces that have shaped it into what it is today, and reflections on living with hope in an Post-Christian society.

The intellectual scope of Archbishop Chaput’s book is impressive. Over the course of 12 chapters he leads the reader in an examination of the philosophical and moral underpinnings of our nation, analyzes the warped anthropology caused by the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, explains the impact of these seismic shifts on our modern culture, and then offers his well-known brand of unflinchingly honest advice to Christians for living their faith in a hostile environment.

“Strangers in a Strange Land” is a tour de force of scholarly thought on the development of Western society. Readers encounter a tapestry of insights woven together from intellects as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political theorist Pierre Manent, St. Augustine, Benedict XVI, Alasdair MacIntyre, Saul Alinsky and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Suffice it to say, Chaput’s latest book is not a light read, but it is a necessary read for all who are striving to understand the challenges Christians face and will face in the coming years.

Archbishop Chaput begins his insights on America’s founding by stating, “Americans hate thinking about the past. Unfortunately, we need to.” This is the case, he says, because “We can’t understand the present or plan for the future without knowing the past through the eyes of those who made it. For the American founding, there’s no way to scrub either Christianity or its skeptics out of the nation’s genetic code.”

And yet, he notes, these faith-filled beginnings are “infinitely fragile.” Archbishop Chaput proves this by recounting how technological advances, the introduction of the birth control pill, the Vietnam War and the efforts of radical feminists quickly unraveled family ties and social cohesion.

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In Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s new book, the former bishop of Denver explores how to navigate through a relativistic culture as a Catholic in the modern world.

For those that think it’s possible to return to Mayberry, the Philadelphia archbishop tells it plainly, “America can’t be the way it once was. … changes in the country’s sexual, religious, technological, demographic and economic fabric make that impossible.” The appetites and behaviors of the United States have been fundamentally altered by these changes, he argues.

For those of us in the Archdiocese of Denver who have had the blessing of knowing Archbishop Chaput, it comes as no surprise that his candidly honest assessment of the state of our culture is accompanied by a reflection on Christian hope.

He asks his readers, “How can we live in joy, and serve the common good as leaven, in a culture that no longer shares what we believe?” This question carries a special gravity because the secular culture has detached what it means to be a man from God and is aimlessly seeking answers.

Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Archbishop Chaput answers his question by saying that believing Catholics and Christians must be a “conscious minority” that adds to the common good. We must fight a culture of lies by consciously living the truth instead of merely talking about it.

In the end, Archbishop Chaput’s guidance for our Post-Christian culture is fittingly humble. “We’re here to bear one another’s burdens, to sacrifice ourselves for the needs of others, and to live a witness of Christian love … Every such life is the seed of dozens of others and begins a renewal of the world,” he writes.

For those concerned about the present and future of American society, “Strangers in a Strange Land” is a must-read that will leave you thinking and praying long after you’ve finished it.

Click here to see purchasing options for “Strangers in a Strange Land.”

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.