How Catholics can help rebuild Christian culture

How Catholics can help rebuild Christian culture

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop Chaput's Melbourne address

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, was a keynote speaker at the National Catholic Family Gathering, Melbourne, on 29 April 2000. The following is an abridged text of his address.

Families are bound together, not just by emotion, but by blood. And in our case - the family we call the Church - it is the blood of Jesus Christ. We are all redeemed by His blood, and therefore we are all in the Gospel vocation together: deacons, religious, laypeople, priests and bishops. We all have the task of bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ.

That means treating each other with the affection and obedience to the truth which flow naturally from love. That means supporting each other - each according to his or her own unique vocation - in the work of converting the world. Priests need to be better priests. Married couples need to be better married couples. Both need to encourage and reinforce the vocation of each other.

Today, in the United States, only one in four families can be described as intact and "traditional" - in other words, two parents, single income, with children living at home. This kind of family, which is more or less the classic Christian model of a family, has declined by nearly half in less than 30 years.

Meanwhile, the percentage of children living with single parents has quadrupled since 1972. Out-of-wedlock births are far more common than three decades ago. Divorce is much more widely accepted. And unmarried couples with no children make up one-third of all American households - in fact, they are now the largest single category of US households.

The results are not surprising. Wounded families make a wounded culture. In fact, for more than a decade, research by Judith Wallerstein, Sara McLanahan, Barbara Defoe Whitehead and others has clearly shown that easy divorce and so- called "diverse" forms of family structure just do not work.

Step-parent and single-parent families in the United States do not reinforce the social fabric. Rather, they unintentionally weaken it - and they have a long-term effect.

Children from broken families find it harder to build permanent marriages themselves. They have a tougher time excelling at school; avoiding crime; finding intimacy in relationships; and holding steady employment. And the list of problems goes on.

None of this information is new. None of it is secret. The only remarkable thing is how little positive effect it has had on the unravelling of American family culture. The evidence has not changed anything. In other words: We know better - but too few people seem to care. And when people do care, they cannot agree on what to do about it.

At the same time, the legal definition of marriage continues to be challenged - as with the homosexual "civil unions," which our State of Vermont recently approved.

Christian instincts

The lesson here is quite simple. The day is gone when Catholics in the United States could count on the Christian instincts of our public culture. We still think of ourselves as a more or less Christian people; more that 90 percent of Americans still pray and describe themselves as believing in God; and American church attendance is still very high by Western standards.

But the content of our experience has changed a lot. We claim to be more "spiritual" - but less formally religious. God, as The New York Times reported in 1997, has become "decentralised" because the "new breed of worshipper [looks] beyond the religious institution for a do-it-yourself solution."

What this means is that communities of faith - which have the solidarity and resources to turn their moral beliefs into public influence - are slowly being replaced by unconnected individuals with looser spiritual yearnings, individuals who "want to reshape religion for themselves" and who experience God in a narrowly crafted, private way.

As a result, the power which traditional Christian belief always had in shaping American culture is fading. And with it goes the trust Americans once had that our civil environment would be at least neutral - if not friendly - to our faith.

How do we change that? How do we build a civilisation of love? First of all, by doing what we are doing right now - building friendships across borders between our local Churches. That is important, and I hope it continues beyond today.

We are on the brink of a world culture whether we like it or not, and we'll either preach Jesus Christ and teach the Catholic faith to the world together - or we shall fail separately.

Without the Church, there is no witness of Jesus Christ in the world. That is why Our Lord created her - the Church is Christ's bride, who continues his mission here and now. But without the Eucharist, there is no Church, because the eucharist is the source of our life as a Christian community. And without the priest, there is no Eucharist, because the priest is the minister specially called by God and ordained to act in persona Christi - "in the person of Christ" - not just in the Eucharist and the other sacraments, but also in preaching the Gospel. That is why we need priests so urgently.

Now, that is the formula, the chemistry of Catholic life. But there is a piece missing. What is it? It is obvious. Without faithful Catholic families, there are no priests. Without faithful Catholic married couples who are open to new life; who create loving homes; who nourish their children with the sacraments and the Word of God; who create in their sons and daughters a zeal for Jesus Christ - without these faithful laypeople, we can forget about vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

Why? Because God's call to the priesthood will very rarely be heard by a young man, unless his heart has been cultivated by the faith of his parents.

We do not have a "vocations crisis." We have a hearing problem. God is calling plenty of young men to the priesthood and plenty of young women to religious life. But they do not answer because they cannot hear; or they are afraid; or they do not recognise God's voice. And that is because all of us, in a way, have forgotten our primary vocation to be missionaries, beginning within the family itself.

Now obviously, God created families to be much more than "priest factories." Families have the much larger mission of being a leaven of the Gospel in the wider world. In fact, each of us in this room today is a missionary. There are no exceptions. Evangelising is not something we can simply delegate away to priests and nuns. It does not work like that.

The Second Vatican Council says the same thing in Ad Gentes, its Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity. The Council Fathers write that "the obligation of spreading the faith falls individually on every disciple of Christ ... the whole Church is missionary, and the work of evangelisation [is] the fundamental task of the people of God ... all the faithful have an obligation to collaborate in the expansion and spread of [Christ's] body."

Christian life

If you are like families in my own diocese, many of you are struggling just to meet the demands of everyday life. Raising a family is heroic work. I know. I was in one. I helped turn my mother's hair white. So for most of you, God is not calling you to move to Zimbabwe with your Bible. But you still have the duty to preach Jesus Christ to the world. How do you do that?

Here is the clue, and it comes again from Vatican II's Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity: " ... let everyone be aware that the primary and most important contribution he [or she] can make to the spread of the faith is to lead a profound Christian life."

In other words, living the Gospel ardently where you are, is missionary. Living the teachings of the Church joyfully and loyally in the specific circumstances of your life, is missionary.

I recommend the following four documents to read and pray over.

First, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In Latin, the title is Gaudium et Spes. It means "Joy and Hope," and it comes from the first line of the document: "The joy and hope, the grief and anguish, of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish, of the followers of Christ as well." If you are looking for a manifesto for your life as a Catholic - this is it.

Gaudium et Spes is not a "good" read ... it is a wonderful read. But for our purposes, try to focus on Nos. 47-52, which deal especially with the dignity of marriage and the family.

The council says that "the well- being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life" (47). When you look at so many of the problems in Western societies, the truth of this passage becomes pretty obvious.

The second document builds on the first. Read John Paul II's apostolic exhortation from 1981, On the Family - Familiaris Consortio is the Latin title. It describes marriage as the beginning and basis of human society. It describes the family as the first and vital cell of society. And it also shows why the family cannot be an enclave and cannot avoid an active role in humanising and Christianising civil culture.

The Pope writes, "It is from the family that citizens come to birth, and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself." In other words, the family is powerful. The family drives those issues which are most intimate to civil society. Therefore, any attempt to "redefine" family, or to disconnect the family from the social regulation of pornography, abortion, homosexual behavior and similar issues will inevitably hurt civil society.

The third document builds on the other two. In his 1994 Letter to Families, John Paul II writes, "how indispensable is the witness of all families who live their vocation day by day [and] how urgent it is for families to pray." Why? Because "the family is the centre and the heart of the civilisation of love [and] only if the truth about freedom and the communion of persons in marriage and the family can regain its splendour, will the building of the civilisation of love truly begin."

The fourth and final document is The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World - Christifideles Laici in Latin. It sounds awkward, but I think this is one of the best written and most important Church documents of the century. It is a kind of constitution on the dignity, nature and need for lay leadership in the Church and especially in the world.

Basic role

Listen to this extract: "The lay faithful's duty to society primarily begins in marriage and the family ... It is above all the lay faithful's duty to make the family aware of its identity as the primary social nucleus, and its basic role in society, so it might itself become always a more active and responsible place for proper growth and proper participation in social life. In such a way, the family can and must require from all, beginning with public authority, the respect for those rights which in saving the family, will save society itself."

It is easy sometimes to read the headlines in our newspapers and be tempted to lose faith in the basic goodness of people. But that is a mistake. There are many in our countries who are decent and honourable. They are worth the struggle to win them for Jesus Christ.

We have done a great job over the last three decades arguing about what is supposed to be wrong with the Church and her teaching.

But we have done a pretty poor job of being grateful for the Church as God's gift to us - a mother who guides us, corrects us and comforts us out of love, for the sake of our own salvation.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.