Three cheers for Philadelphia’s RC Archbishop Charles Chaput, who does not deliver the usual happy-clappy mush that we’re used to from religious leaders at his level, but rather tells American Catholics (and the rest of us) the truth about our time and place. Excerpt:
But there’s a flaw in the American gene code. The Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray named it more than seventy years ago. Murray said that America is simultaneously a land “of immense material comfort” and “immense suffering of a peculiarly soul-destroying kind”—a nation driven by the anxiety for money and the fear of life without it.
From its founding, America has always been a paradox: a country of fierce individualism and hunger for material success, tempered by widespread Christian faith and community. If the churches decline, selfishness and greed rise—which is exactly what’s happened in the United States since the end of the Second World War.
Father Murray, writing in the mid-twentieth-century, hoped that Catholics would provide a Christian soul to American life in a way that Protestants no longer could. We know how that turned out. Notre Dame social researcher Christian Smith and his colleagues have tracked in great detail the spiritual lives of today’s young adults and teenagers. The results are sobering. So are the implications for Catholic life in the decades ahead.
The real religion of vast numbers of American young people is a kind of fuzzy moral niceness, with an easy, undemanding God on duty to make people feel happy whenever they need him. It’s what Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” To put it in the words of a young woman from Maryland, “[Faith is] just whatever makes you feel good about you.”
This is the legacy that my generation has left to the Church in the United States. For all practical purposes, American Catholics are no different from everybody else in their views, their appetites, and their behaviors. This isn’t what the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it began its work fifty years ago. It’s not what the council meant by reform. Left to itself, the life of the Church in my country is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.
Unfortunately, what happens in my country affects everyone else. The developed nations lead not just through the “hard power” of military, economic, and political strength. They also lead through the “soft power” of their mass media; media that tell us what to desire; whom to believe; what qualifies as news; and when to laugh. The developed world creates the appetites, aspirations, and dreams of the planet. And those dreams—even today—bear the stamp “Made in America.”
From the outside, the Church in my country often looks strong. We have buildings and ministries and programs—but these are misleading. Catholic life is weakening from the inside. The pace of that weakening increases as young people detach from Catholic culture. My own city of Philadelphia is a prime example of how this is already happening.
Read the whole thing. Chaput is not a pessimist about this stuff, as you’ll see; he is a realist. It will be interesting to see what kind of religious leaders emerge to guide our post-Christian culture into whatever is coming next. Will they be sauve qui peut fire-and-brimstoners? Will they be Happy-Clappys who insist, against all evidence, that we are living in the best of all possible times for Christianity? Or will they be like Chaput: hopeful but undeceived about the times and their challenges?