18 March 2017
Three recent books are energizing conservative-minded Roman Catholics and other Christians these days. The theme in all three is the end of Christian America. One of my traditionalist friends called them to my attention, hoping to lure me away from my “dangerous liberal thinking.”
I guess a variety of viewpoints has always been with us; and I really do respect other opinions. I do not agree with the authors of these three books, however, because they propose solutions to some genuine American problems that are either unhelpfully narrow-minded or simply utopian fantasies.
On the other hand, out of fairness to my friend who brought them to my attention, I guess one could indeed use these books for a very healthy and effective discussion about what it means to be a truly contemporary Christian…..as well as a contemporary American, deeply concerned about religion, values, and morality in today’s USA.
I begin with Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.
Archbishop Chaput offers a strongly negative critique of contemporary U.S. society. I suspect many readers who page through his book will shake their heads in agreement, as they read his lamentations that the United States has now been conquered by a secularist, pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed worldview that leaves little place for Jesus or traditional morality. Telltale signs of America’s “post-Christian” decadence, according to the Archbishop, are divorce, contraception, abortion, materialism, an invasive Obama-generated government, and gay marriage.
Considering my own religious tradition that has long valued the voice of the People of God, and thinking about the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the first red light about this book started flashing for me, when I saw Philadelphia’s Archbishop asserting that “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths.” An alternative fact?
Archbishop Chaput has Native American roots but, very frankly, political and ecclesiastical barrel vision. He says the U.S. press is much too hostile toward President Trump; and he praises Mr. Trump and his administration for their pro-life concerns. (It seems clear to me that the Trump administration’s pro-life concerns terminate once a fetus becomes a self-breathing human being in need of nurture, shelter, and education… but then I don’t want to be overly political.) Philadelphia’s Archbishop is critical of Pope Francis as well. Here he shares the concerns of the American Cardinal Raymond Burke. They both suspect Francis is not being faithful to Catholic orthodoxy and fear he is spreading doctrinal confusion in the church. Chaput, for sure, has no confusion. He has instructed pastoral ministers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to NOT allow communion for divorced and remarried or cohabiting couples (unless they can demonstrate that they are not having sex!); and he believes children of same-sex couples should not be allowed to attend Catholic schools. Very pro-life? When it comes to contraception, the Archbishop believes the widespread use of contraceptives has now subverted the purpose of human sexuality and has led to conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality. He is concerned as well about an exaggerated feminism which, he says, has actively contributed to women’s dehumanization.
The good old days. Archbishop Chaput has often said he longs for the 1950s. He would like to retreat to a (highly romanticized) time when everything was clear. Men and women were clear about their identities. Sex was for procreation. The church was clear about its teachings and Catholics were obedient to clearly demonstrated church authority. I suspect the Archbishop is indeed a stranger in his own strangely perceived environment.
A second Catholic author is sounding the trumpet for his own kind of strong retreat from today’s American malaise. A professor at Providence College, Anthony Esolen is widely promoting his book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. In Esolen’s eyes, the United States is a cultural nightmare. I resonate with his concern about a commitment to truth; and I fear with him that America’s most powerful institutions—including the government—are becoming mass producers of deceit. I understand as well what he means when he says “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” I do not agree, however, with his assessment of our contemporary United States. The situation is hardly as dark and decadent as he would have us believe.
I do not agree with Esolen that our public schools are failures beyond repair and must be replaced by private schools. Nor do I agree with him that most of our universities have become complete failures. In fact, I find it more than disconcerting that the handful of universities, he holds up as stellar examples for our emulation, are rigidly fundamentalist and lean far to the right politically.
Somewhat like Archbishop Chaput, Anthony Esolen would like to return to the good old days of Western Civilization, to a time before the sexual revolution when, as he emphasizes, people truly understood what sex was about and “men were men and women were women.” Yes I do understand what some call the glory days of Western Civilization. I speak Latin and Greek, and I know and appreciate the philosophical, literary, and artistic traditions in our cultural DNA. I do not however want to return to some kind of late medieval world view with its exaggerated patriarchy, misogyny, religious narrow mindedness, and its great ignorance about psychology and ongoing human development and understanding.
Now to the third book my friend recommended to bring me back to the straight and narrow: The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. In his life (he is 50 years old) he has already had quite a personal religious journey. He began life as a Methodist. Later became a Roman Catholic. He dropped out of the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal. Curiously he says that sexual abuse is not due to pedophilia but rather to a network of gay priests which he calls the Lavender Mafia. I think he is wrong here on both counts. Pedophilia does not spring from homosexuality and the Lavender Mafia is pure fantasy. After being a Roman Catholic, Dreher next joined Eastern Orthodoxy.
Journalist Dreher has strong conservative credentials. He is a former publications director for the John Templeton Foundation and currently senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. His view of contemporary America is totally apocalyptic. In his own words, he describes it this way: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”
The solution for believers? The only way to escape apocalyptic destruction, according to Dreher, is for Christians to drop out of American society and create and live in their own subgroups like Benedictine monks. Not everyone of course can run off to a monastery. (I would suggest as well that Dreher has a misconception about Benedictine monastic spirituality and mission.)
My major concern, however, at the end the of this week’s reflection, is that the author of the Benedict Option misunderstands the Incarnation and what Jesus was all about. Jesus did not run away from his contemporary socio-cultural environment. He plunged in. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. He understood the signs of the times. He lived in a Rome dominated society much more troubling and far more inhumane than contemporary America.
What Jesus did, of course, is now our contemporary Christian challenge.
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