Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Archbishop Chaput on "Renewing the Mission of Catholic Charities"

Here is a long excerpt from the address of Denver's great Archbishop's to the Catholic Social Workers National Association on June 21:

"To put it another way, Catholic ministries have the duty to faithfully embody Catholic beliefs on marriage, the family, social justice, sexuality, abortion and other important issues. And if the state refuses to allow those Catholic ministries to be faithful in their services through legal or financial bullying, then as a matter of integrity, they should end their services.

That brings me to my third point, and it gives context to the other two. A new kind of America is emerging in the early 21st century, and it's likely to be much less friendly to religious faith than anything in the nation's past. And that has implications for every aspect of Catholic social ministry. G.K. Chesterton once described the United States as "a nation with the soul of a Church."1 Another British Catholic, the historian Paul Johnson, noted that America was "born Protestant," but it was never a Christian confessional state. America was something unique in modern history. It was a moral society without an established Church.

In practice, religion has always moderated that individualism. It has given the country a social conscience and a common moral compass.

America could afford to be "secular" in the best sense, precisely because its people were overwhelmingly religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation's survival. In the eyes of Adams, Washington and most of the other Founders, religion created virtuous citizens. And only virtuous citizens could sustain a country as delicately balanced in its institutions, moral instincts and laws as the United States.

As a result, for nearly two centuries, Christian thought, vocabulary and practice were the unofficial but implicit soul to every aspect of American life – including the public square. The great Jesuit scholar, Father John Courtney Murray, put it this way: "The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of 18th-century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law. The ‘man' whose rights are guaranteed in the face of law and government is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man, who had learned to know his own dignity in the school of Christian faith."[4]

The trouble is that America's religious soul – its Christian subtext – has been weakening for decades. The reasons for that erosion would need another day and another talk. But I do think we're watching the end of a very old social compact in American life: the mutual respect of civil and sacred authority, and the mutual autonomy of religion and state. That's dangerous, and here's why.

American life has always had a deep streak of unhealthy individualism, rooted not just in the Enlightenment, but also in Reformation theology. In practice, religion has always moderated that individualism. It has given the country a social conscience and a common moral compass. Religion has also played another key role. Individuals, on their own, have very little power in dealing with the state. But communities, and especially religious communities, have a great deal of power in shaping attitudes and behavior. Churches are one of those "mediating institutions," along with voluntary associations, fraternal organizations and especially the family, that stand between the power of the state and the weakness of individuals. They're crucial to the "ecology" of American life as we traditionally understand it.

And that's why, if you dislike religion or resent the Catholic Church, or just want to reshape American life into some new kind of experiment, you need to use the state to break the influence of the Church and her ministries."

The full speech is here.

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