Why We're HereCHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP.
Man's Search for Meaning is one of the most widely read books of the last century. But nobody should be surprised.
Asked about his book's enormous success, Viktor Frankl answered that he didn't see it as a personal achievement. Instead, he felt it was testimony to the misery of our age. If millions of people seek out a book, he said, whose very title promises to deal with the question of life's meaning, then it must be a question "that burns under their fingernails."'
Much of Frankl's book is autobiographical. It deals with his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi death camps during World War II. Over the course of his ordeal, he watched some physically strong men give up and die while other, much weaker men survived. The difference, he discovered, is this: When a man believes that he has a future, when he believes in a reason to go on living, he is much more likely to survive. When he doesn't, he dies.
For Frankl, a moment came, marching in the snow with other prisoners, cursed and kicked by guards, when he remembered the image of his wife with a clarity "more luminous than the sun that was beginning to rise." A thought occurred to him for the first time in his life: "that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire." And in that instant, "I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love."
Frankl's words seem to have a special weight for Catholics. Christianity, more than any other religion, orders itself around love. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI lived through the same Nazi era that Frankl did. Rather than lose their faith, both men found it more deeply. Like Frankl, both men chose to anchor their lives in love rather than in hate. As a result, John Paul II – the child of a nation crushed by two totalitarian regimes in a row – could still preach that love is the "fundamental and innate vocation" of every human being. This vocation (or "calling," from the Latin verb vocare) is the heart of the Christian faith. Catholics believe that each human life has a unique but interrelated meaning. We are created by the God who is the source of love itself; a God who loved the world so fiercely that he sent his only Son to redeem it.
In other words, we were made by Love, to receive love ourselves, and to show love to others. That's why we're here. That's our purpose. And it has very practical consequences – including the political kind.
The Christian mission in the world comes from the nature of God himself. Catholics believe in one God. But he is a God in three Persons sharing one nature. This belief is not just an exercise in theology. It's central to Catholic life. It gives a framework to all Christian thought and action. For Catholics, God is a living community of love – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and in creating us, God intends us to take part in that community of mutual giving. All of Christian life comes down to sharing in the exchange of love within the heart of the Trinity and then offering that love to others in our relationships.
For Christians, reality is grounded in both unity and plurality. Personhood, whether we mean the Persons of the Trinity or our human person, is always bound up with relationship. God is eternal and unchanging, but he is not static. Within the life of the Trinity, there are the Trinitarian missions of the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the love between Father and Son – and all human beings have a mission in the world that reflects that divine love and takes part in that exchange.
Of course, these are nice ideas. Anyone can give them a pious nod. Even many Catholics mouth the word love without a clue to what it really implies. This is why so much of modern Christian life seems like a bad version of a mediocre Beatles song rather than the morning of Pentecost. For a Christian, love is not simply an emotion. Feelings pass. They're fickle, and they often lie. Real love is an act of the will; a sustained choice that proves itself not just by what we say but by what we do.
A man may claim he loves his wife. His wife will want to see the evidence. In like manner, we can talk about God all we please, but God will not be fooled. Jesus told the story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) for a reason. Saying we're Catholic does not mean we are, except in the thinnest sense. Relationships have consequences in actions. Otherwise, they're just empty words. Our relationship with God is no exception. When Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and Peter answers yes, it's no surprise that Jesus immediately follows up with: "Then feed my sheep" ( John 21:17). God loves us always. We can choose to ignore that. All of the damned do. But if we claim to love him, it's an "if/then" kind of deal, with obligations of conduct and personal honesty just like any good marriage or friendship.
The twist in loving God is that it's not a standard "I, Thou" affair. It turns out to be an "I, Thou – and everybody else" kind of arrangement. Christian faith is not just vertical. It's also horizontal. Since God created all human persons and guarantees their dignity by his Fatherhood, we have family duties to one another. That applies especially within the ekklesia – the community of believers we call the church – but it extends to the whole world. This means our faith has social as well as personal implications. And those social implications include the civil dimension of our shared life; in other words, the content of our politics.
For Christians, love is a small word that relentlessly unpacks into a lot of other words: truth, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, charity, courage, justice. These are action words, all of them, including truth, because in accepting Jesus Christ, the Gospel says that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free ( John 8:32) – not comfortable; not respected; but free in the real sense of the word: able to see and do what's right. This freedom is meant to be used in the service of others. Working for justice is an obligation of Christian freedom. Saint Augustine wrote that the state not governed by justice is no more than a gang of thieves. Thus, it's here, in the search for justice, that the Catholic citizen engages the political world because, as Benedict XVI says, "justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics." In fact, the just ordering of society and the state "is the central responsibility of politics."
Christians in general and Catholics in particular do not, and should not, seek to "force" their religious beliefs on society. But working to form the public conscience is not coercion any more than teaching the difference between poison and a steak is a form of bullying. Actively witnessing to and advancing what we believe to be true about key moral issues in public life is not "coercion." It's honesty. And it's also a duty – not only of faith but of citizenship.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously claimed that God is dead, and we have killed him. He despised Christianity as a slave morality. But he had an oddly divided view of Christ himself: admiring Jesus for his genius and strength; but at the same time reviling him for choosing to be the receptacle of other people's sins.
Nietzsche was wrong about the real nature of Christian faith, but we do need to consider what he said. Jesus accepted every measure of suffering on the cross. He did it freely. He chose it. The Father made this sacrifice for us through his Son because he loves us. There is nothing weak or cowardly or life-denying about that kind of radical love – and any parent who has suffered along with a dying child instinctively knows it. The question we need to ask ourselves, if we call ourselves Christians today, is this: Do we really want to follow Jesus Christ and love as he did, or is it just too inconvenient? We can choose differently. We can choose the kind of routine, self-absorbed, halfhearted, anesthetic Christianity for which Nietzsche had such contempt. It's certainly easier. It also costs less.
A friend of mine tells a story from the 1950s. His parents were driving from New York to Texas with his younger sister and himself to visit family. They stopped on a Sunday morning in a small town in Alabama to get gas. His father asked the station attendant where they could find a local Catholic church. "No Catholic church here," shrugged the attendant. "No Catholics in the county." His father paid for the gas, they pulled out of the gas station, turned the corner, and there, half a block down the street, was the local Catholic parish.
Many Catholics have grown up in recent decades with no memory of the often vulgar and sometimes violent anti-Catholicism that pervades American history. Anti- Catholic bigotry in the United States traces itself back to the country's original Protestant roots. Fortunately, much of the old, religiously based anti-Catholicism has softened since the 1950s, and some of this change surely flows from Catholic ecumenical and reform efforts since Vatican II. Over the past forty years, Catholics and other committed Christians have found that they have much more in common, and much more to feel commonly uneasy about in the wider culture, than in the past. This is a good thing.
Anti-Catholicism has not gone away, though. It has only shifted its shape. The new anti-Catholicism is a kind of background radiation to daily life created by America's secularized leadership classes: the media, the academy, and political action groups. Some of the bigotry is very direct. It worries publicly about the Catholic faith of U.S. Supreme Court justices. Or it lobbies the Internal Revenue Service to attack the tax status of Catholic organizations that teach an inconvenient public message.
But a lot of the new bigotry simply involves a steady stress on Catholic sins while turning a blind eye to Catholic vitality. It also includes a great many pious lectures about not imposing Catholic beliefs on society. In reality, the new anti-Catholicism often masks a resentment of any faithful Christian social engagement. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church in the United States makes an ideal target for critics of religion in the public square because we're larger and better organized than most other Christian communities. And thanks to habits of mind created by the "old" anti-Catholicism, Catholics are easier to caricature.
In a democracy, people disagree. It's a natural part of the process, but disagreement can easily create resentment. And when people act together in community, resentment of their ideas can fester into hatred of who they are. The reason is simple. It's usually easy to ignore individuals, but communities are another matter. When organized and focused communities – like the Catholic Church – are pressing for what they believe, they are much stronger and much harder to ignore than are individuals.
What many critics dislike most about the Catholic Church is not her message, which they can always choose to dismiss, but her institutional coherence in pursuing her message, which is much harder to push aside. And yet the church is neither a religious version of General Motors nor a "political" organism; the political consequences of her message are a by-product of her moral teachings.
The church – both as a community and as an "institution" – is vital to Catholic life. Catholics believe that the church is the Body of Christ, the community of believers formed by the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus' work until he returns. The church is a family of different but equal people, gathered in a hierarchy of authority with Christ as the head and a mission to sanctify the world. The church is also, in a sense, a person – our mother and teacher; the spouse of Christ. This is why Catholics so often refer to the church as a "she." The community of faith is essentially feminine – not passive or weak, but fertile with new life. Mary cooperated with God in making his Word incarnate. In the same way the church, in following Christ, creates new life in the world through the faith and works of her children.
The church engages the world in two ways: through the life of each individual believer and through the common action of believers working together. Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matters. There's no special headquarters staff that handles the action side of the Gospel. That task belongs to all of us. Baptism, for Catholics, does not simply wash away sin. It also incorporates the baptized person into a new life; and part of that new life is a mandate to act; to be God's agent in the world. Laypeople, clergy, and religious all have different tasks within the community of faith. Everybody, however, shares the basic mission: bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ.
Laypeople have the special task of evangelizing the secular world. And this makes sense. Most Catholics – the vast majority – are laypeople. They have jobs, friends, and families. They can witness Jesus Christ on a daily basis, silently or out loud, directly or indirectly, by their words and actions. If we look for opportunities to share our faith with others, God always provides them. This is why self-described Catholics who live so anonymously that no one knows about their faith, Catholics who fail to prove by their actions what they claim to believe with their tongue, aren't really living as "Catholics" at all.
It's also why asking Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs amounts to telling them to be barren; to behave as if they were neutered. Nothing could be more alien to the meaning of baptism. The Christian idea of witness, which comes from the Greek word martyr, isn't limited to a bloody death in the arena for the faith. All Christians have the command to be a martyr in the public arena – to live a life of conscious witness wherever God places them, no matter how insignificant it seems and whether or not they ever see the results.
Years ago I read a story about an Englishwoman named Mabel. She had two sons. It's not clear what first drew her to the Gospel, but she became a Christian shortly after her husband died in the 1890s. She was devoted to her new faith. Every Sunday she would make the long walk with her sons to an Anglican church. Then one Sunday they tried a different place of worship: a Catholic church in a poor area of Birmingham. Mabel already had an interest in things Catholic. She asked for instruction. She then entered the Catholic Church.
Mabel's Catholic conversion angered her family. Her father was outraged. Her brother-in-law ended the little financial help he had been giving her since she became a widow. Her dead husband's family rejected her. She and her sons slipped into poverty. Mabel's health collapsed. Despite this, she remained zealously committed to her Catholic faith and taught it to both her sons. Several years later, she fell into a diabetes-induced coma and died. She entrusted her boys to the guardianship of a friend, a local Catholic priest, who deepened their faith throughout their upbringing.
Very few people remember Mabel and her story. But a great many people remember at least one of her sons: J. R. R. Tolkien. In a letter to a Jesuit friend many years later, Tolkien wrote: "All my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded" on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." He added, "[My Catholic faith has) nourished me and taught me all the little that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it."
That's not a bad epitaph for any Christian life. It also reminds us that real discipleship always has a cost. We can't follow Jesus Christ without sharing in his cross. That requires humility and courage because it can hurt. Quite a few people in the modern world dismiss Christ: some quietly; some with loud derision; and if they hate him, they will also hate his church and his followers – at least the ones who seek to follow him in their actions as well as their words.
The word disciple, after all, comes from the Latin word meaning learner, student, or pupil. A good student learns from and emulates his or her teacher. Discipleship demands more than reading about the Catholic faith or admiring the life of Jesus. Christ didn't ask for our approval or agreement. He doesn't need either. He asked us to follow him – radically, with all we have, and without caveats or reservations.
Following Christ means paying the same price out of love for others that Jesus paid to redeem us. Following Christ means working for justice in civil society in the light of Christian truth; it means treating the persons we meet every day with charity. Christ's call to follow him applies to each of us as individual believers. It also applies to the whole community we call the church.
As the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison in 1944, "I've come to know more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity . . . I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection."' We remember Bonhoeffer for his books like Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. But we remember him even more for another reason. He paid the cost of his discipleship personally. He was hanged by the Third Reich in 1945 for his part in resistance activities.
We Christians are in the world but not of the world. We belong to God, and our home is heaven. But we're here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. The work belongs to us. Nobody will do it for us. And the idea that we can accomplish it without engaging in a hands-on way the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind, and the root causes that sustain injustice in our country is a delusion.
Someone once asked me how any sensible person could choose to become a Christian because Christians have such an unhealthy desire for suffering. The best answer comes from Leon Bloy, a writer who himself chose to become a Catholic. "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist," wrote Bloy, "and into them enters suffering, that they might have existence." In a sense, all Christian belief is cocooned in those words. Christians have no desire to suffer. But we do understand and appreciate the power of suffering. No one can avoid suffering. It's the truest democratic experience. Everybody gets a piece of it. But Bloy understood, just as Viktor Frankl discovered in the death camps, that we can always choose what we do with the suffering that comes our way. We have that freedom. This is why suffering breaks some people, while it breaks open others into something more than their old selves, stretching the soul to greatness.
Christians don't like suffering any more than anyone else. They certainly don't go looking for it. But people who believe in Jesus Christ do try to accept and use suffering as Christ did: that is, as a creative, redemptive act. Suffering lived properly is the heart's great tutor in humility, gratitude, and understanding of others, because they too suffer. This is why Pope John Paul II once described the Bible as the "great book about suffering." He meant that Scripture is the story of God's willingness to suffer for humanity; the story of God's call to each of us to join our suffering to his own in healing the evil and pain in the world. Scripture urges us to follow the Good Samaritan who saw even a suffering stranger as his neighbor and acted to ease his wounds. Thus God's "great book about suffering" is not only about God's love for us – but also about our solidarity with others. The cornerstone for Christian action in the world is the Word of God itself.
Catholics believe that Scripture is the infallible Word of God. They also remember that the church teaches with the authority of Jesus by Christ's own command, and that the church preceded the Gospels – not the other way around. The Christian community is shaped by both Scripture and Tradition. The New Testament was written in context and by members of the ekklesia, the early Christian church. As the true Word of God, the Scriptures always stand in judgment of the present Christian community. Being faithful to God depends on whether we live our individual lives and our life in the church in accord with Scripture.
But again, the Scriptures come to us from God through the church. So an intrinsic relationship flows between Word and believing community from the very start of the Christian experience. This is the meaning of Tradition. For Catholics, Tradition is the wisdom learned from the lived experience of the church applying God's Word to the circumstances of the day. The Word of God is foundational to Christian life. It judges Christian life. But other dimensions of Christian life also exist side by side with Scripture, notably our life together in Jesus Christ as a believing community, passed on through the centuries.
Here's the point. We can't reject the church and her teachings, and then simultaneously claim to be following Jesus Christ or the Scriptures. For Catholics, the believing community is the church, and without the church as the guardian of Christian life and protector of God's Word, Christianity could never have survived. As the historian Christopher Dawson wrote, "Christianity was not merely a doctrine and a life, it was above all a society." Without the framework of the church, "Christianity would have changed its nature in [history's] changing social environment and would have become . . . a different religion."
Why is any of this important in talking about Catholics, politics, and the public square? It should be obvious. The believing community – the church – is how the individual believer brings the Word of God and the body of Christian wisdom most forcefully to bear on the practical affairs of the world. And that can thoroughly irritate the world and also Caesar, whether the year is AD 112, 1012, or 2012.
Catholic public engagement comes from the same religiously informed roots that gave life to the ideas and words of America's founders more than two hundred years ago. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from the distance of Nazi Germany, "American democracy is founded not upon the emancipated man but, quite the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and upon the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God." Christianity requires faith in things unseen. It points the individual person toward eternal life with God. But our salvation is worked out here and now, together as a family, in this world, through our actions toward other people. For a Christian, this world is worth struggling to make better – precisely because God created it and loves his children who inhabit it.
Thus, it's no surprise that in the Decalogue, the first three commandments frame humanity's relationship with God. The next seven frame our relationship with each other. The desire for extending God's justice among his people, marked by the Old Testament tradition of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 or the warnings in the Book of Amos, weaves itself throughout the New Testament. When asked to name the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and all the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40). What that love means in practice can be found in the words Jesus used to describe his true disciples: leaven in the world, salt of the earth, light to the nations. These are words of mission; a language not of good intentions but of conscious behavior.
The Epistle of James describes the meaning of discipleship best when it warns Christians to "be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (1:22) and that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:17). That message incarnates itself down through the centuries in the lives of saints, religious orders, social encyclicals, and a vast tradition of Catholic hospitals, schools, and services to the hungry, disabled, poor, homeless, and elderly. When emperor Julian the Apostate sought to restore Roman paganism in the fourth century AD, he didn't copy Christian thought. He had contempt for what Christians believed. Instead he copied Christian hospices, orphanages, and other charitable works because of their power to witness by action. But if faith without works is dead, so too in the long run are works dead without a dynamic faith to grow and sustain them. Christians had that faith. Pagan Roman culture didn't. The rest is history.
As Catholics, how can we uncouple what we do, from what we claim to believe, without killing what we believe and lying in what we do? The answer is simple. We can't. How we act works backward on our convictions, making them stronger or smothering them under a snowfall of alibis.
To German Catholics of the politically desperate 1930s, Pope Pius XI wrote, "It is not enough to be a member of the Church of Christ; one needs to be a living member in spirit and in truth, i.e., living in the state of grace and in the presence of God, either in innocence or sincere repentance." He warned that "what is morally indefensible can never contribute to the good of the people," and that "thousands of voices ring in your ears a [false] gospel which has not been revealed by the Father of heaven." Too few Catholics listened. In fact, far too many German Christians – including too many church leaders – accommodated themselves to a Caesar who took their souls along with their approval.
Parallels between Europe seventy years ago and the American landscape today may seem glib and melodramatic, or even flatly wrong. It's a fair criticism. Times change. History never really repeats itself. Each generation has its own unique set of challenges. But patterns of human thought and behavior do repeat themselves. The past, as a record of the results, is a great teacher. When John Paul II called Catholics to a purification of memory and repentance for sins of the past during the Jubilee Year 2000, he did it for an important reason. We can't preach what we don't live. The struggle with our own sinfulness never ends in this lifetime, but we must at least admit our sins, repent of them, seek the forgiveness of those we wound – and then constantly begin again.
As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "No Christian Church has a right to preach to this so-called secular age without a contrite recognition of the shortcomings of historic Christianity which tempted the modern age to disavow its Christian faith." The unbelief of the modern heart is not simply a product of human pride. It can also be what Niebuhr called a "reaction to [the] profanity" of faith lived hypocritically.
What that means for the church and individual American Catholics is this: We can choose to treat our faith as a collection of comforting pieties. We can choose to file Jesus away as a good teacher with some great, if unrealistic, ideas. Or we can choose to be real disciples, despite all our sins and admitting all our sins. In other words, we can accept Jesus for who he says he is: our redeemer, the Messiah of Israel, and the only Son of God. This is what the church has always believed. What we can't honestly choose is continuing to select our Catholic faith from a cafeteria menu while failing at the task Christ himself gave us: a root-level transformation of ourselves and the world around us. The time for easy Christianity is over. In fact, it never really existed. We're blessed to be rid of the illusion. We need to be more zealous in our faith, not more discreet; clearer in our convictions, not muddier; and more Catholic, not less.
The Catholic faith should take root in our hearts like the mustard seed of Jesus' parables (Matthew 13:31; 17:20). No matter how small it begins, the mustard seed grows so strong and so large that it breaks us open and frees us to be new and different persons far better than our old selves; a source of shelter and support for others. The one thing we can't do with a living faith is remain the same. We must either kill it or become new people because of it. Anything less is fraud. And in like manner, the church should be a mustard seed in society, transforming – not by coercion but by active witness – every fiber of a nation's political, economic, and social life.
History reminds us that believers and their leaders are as prone to the temptations of power as anyone else. Jesus himself turned away from earthly power when Satan offered it to him on the mountain (Matthew 4:8-10). God's kingdom is not of this world. Nothing we can do will change that. Even a good Caesar is still only Caesar.
But Christ never absolved us from resisting and healing the evil in the world, or from solidarity with the people who suffer it. Our fidelity is finally to God, but it implies a faithfulness to the needs of his creation. Like it or not, we are involved – and there is, after all, a war on (Ephesians 6:12). It's the same conflict Tolkien meant when he wrote that "[human] wars are always lost, and The War always goes on." It's the same conflict C. S. Lewis meant when he wrote that "there is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan." And this war goes on without rest in every age, in every nation, in every human life, in every choice, in every decision, in every action, in every public issue.
We can choose our side. We can't choose not to choose. Not choosing is a choice.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. "Why We're Here." chapter three of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008): 34-54.
Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2008 Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
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