Archbishop Chaput: President Obama and the challenge for US Catholics

Archbishop Chaput: President Obama and the challenge for US Catholics

Archbishop Charles Chaput

The following are extracts from Archbishop Charles Chaput's public lecture on how Catholics should live out their faith in the public square. The lecture was given on 23 February 2009 at the campus of the University of Toronto, Canada.

After giving a sketch of the basic principles set out his latest book Render Unto Caesar (available from Freedom Publishing), Archbishop Chaput assessed the situation of the Church in the public square following the election of Barack Obama as US President.

Three weeks before last November's election, I wrote the following words: 'I believe that Senator Obama, whatever his other talents, is the most committed 'abortion-rights' presidential candidate of either major party since the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973. [T]he party platform Senator Obama runs on this year is not only aggressively 'pro-choice;' it has also removed any suggestion that killing an unborn child might be a regrettable thing. On the question of homicide against the unborn child - and let's remember that the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer explicitly called abortion 'murder' - the Democratic platform that emerged from Denver in August 2008 is clearly anti-life.'

I like clarity, and there's a reason why. I think modern life, including life in the Church, suffers from a phoney unwillingness to offend that poses as prudence and good manners, but too often turns out to be cowardice. Human beings owe each other respect and appropriate courtesy. But we also owe each other the truth - which means candour.

Bad laws

Catholics - and I mean here mainly American Catholics - need to remember four simple things in the months ahead.

First, all political leaders draw their authority from God. We owe no leader any submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil. In fact, we have the duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life, both by our words and our non-violent actions. The truest respect we can show to civil authority is the witness of our Catholic faith and our moral convictions, without excuses or apologies.

Second, in democracies, we elect public servants, not messiahs. It's worth recalling that despite two ugly wars, an unpopular Republican president, a fractured Republican party, the support of most of the American news media, and massively out-spending his opponent, our new president actually trailed in the election polls the week before the economic meltdown. This subtracts nothing from the legitimacy of his office. It also takes nothing away from our obligation to respect the president's leadership.

But it does place some of today's talk about a 'new American mandate' in perspective. Americans, including many Catholics, elected a gifted man to fix an economic crisis. That's the mandate. They gave nobody a mandate to retool American culture on the issues of marriage and the family, sexuality, bioethics, religion in public life and abortion.

That retooling could easily happen, and it clearly will happen - but only if Catholics and other religious believers allow it. It's instructive to note that the one lesson many activists on the American cultural left learned from their loss in the 2004 election - and then applied in 2008 - was how to use a religious vocabulary while ignoring some of the key beliefs and values that religious people actually hold dear.

Here's the third thing to remember. It doesn't matter what we claim to believe if we're unwilling to act on our beliefs. What we say about our Catholic faith is the easy part. What we do with it shapes who we really are. Many good Catholics voted for President Obama. Many voted for Senator McCain. Both parties have plenty of decent people in their ranks.

But when we hear that 54 percent of American Catholics voted for President Obama last November, and that this somehow shows a sea change in their social thinking, we can reasonably ask: How many of them practise their faith on a regular basis? And when we do that, we learn that most practising Catholics actually voted for Senator McCain.

Here's the fourth and final thing to remember, and there's no easy way to say it. The Church in the United States has done a poor job of forming the faith and conscience of Catholics for more than 40 years. And now we're harvesting the results - in the public square, in our families and in the confusion of our personal lives. I could name many good people and programs that seem to disprove what I just said. But I could name many more that do prove it, and some of them work in Washington.

Litmus test

The problem with mistakes in our past is that they compound themselves geometrically into the future unless we face them and fix them.

Every new election cycle I hear from unhappy, self-described Catholics who complain that abortion is too much of a litmus test. But isn't that exactly what it should be? One of the defining things that set early Christians apart from the pagan culture around them was their respect for human life; and specifically their rejection of abortion and infanticide. We can't be Catholic and be evasive or indulgent about the killing of unborn life.

We can't claim to be 'Catholic' and 'pro-choice' at the same time without owning the responsibility for where the choice leads - to a dead unborn child.

We can't build a just society with the blood of unborn children. The right to life is the foundation of every other human right - and if we ignore it, sooner or later every other right becomes politically contingent.

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