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Being Human in an Age of Unbelief by Archbishop Chaput – Part I

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2012/04/12 at 8:11 PM

+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.,Archbishop of Philadelphia, Penn for Life, University of Pennsylvania

In getting ready for tonight, Charles Gray asked me to keep two things in mind. First, he asked me to remember that we have a mixed audience here in Houston Hall, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Second, he asked me to explain what Catholics mean when we talk about the “sanctity” of human life, and why the Church deals with issues like abortion so vigorously in the public square.

As it turns out, most of my sources tonight are not Catholic. That shouldn’t be surprising. Catholics have no monopoly on respect for human dignity. Catholics do have a very long tradition of thinking about the nature of the human person and society, and I’ll be glad to talk about that in my remarks. But I’d like to begin by setting the proper framework for our discussion, which needs to be broader than abortion.

Last year I had the good fortune to read Eric Metaxas’ wonderful book, Bonhoeffer. It’s a biography of the great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve quoted Bonhoeffer’s work many times over the years. The reason is simple. I admire him. He could have been a professor. Instead he chose to be a pastor. He could have had a sterling academic career of lecturing about his ideas and his faith. Instead he chose to put them into action and to immerse himself in people’s lives. He was a man not of “values” in the meager modern sense, but of virtues in the classical and religious sense — the virtues of justice, courage and love, all grounded in the deep virtue of faith in a loving God.

The Third Reich hanged Bonhoeffer for his resistance activities just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War. Today we see him – rightly — as one of the great moral witnesses of the last century; a man who fought for the good, in the face of very grave evil, at the cost of his life.

Another great moral witness of the 20th century was the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who began as an atheist but ended as a Russian Orthodox. His history of The Gulag Archipelago, in its indictment of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and the brutality of Soviet repression that grew naturally from their thought, is a masterpiece of modern literature.

Like Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn wrote from direct experience of imprisonment and organized inhumanity. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn survived the war, survived years in prison camps and was eventually exiled to the West. And that’s where his story gets useful for our purposes tonight.

In 1978, four years after Solzhenitsyn left Russia, Harvard University asked him to speak to its graduating students. What Harvard may have expected was praise for Western abundance, freedom and diversity. What it got was very different.

Solzhenitsyn began by noting that Harvard’s motto is Veritas. This is the Latin word for “truth.” Then he added that “truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Then he spent the next 6,000 words saying what nobody wanted to hear. He methodically criticized Western cowardice and self-indulgence; the vanity and weakness of America’s intellectual classes; the “tilt of freedom in the direction of evil;” the right of people “not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense [and] vain talk” by the mass media; a pervasive Western atmosphere of legalism and moral mediocrity; and the rise of a destructive individualism that now forces decent people “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

Some of Solzhenitsyn’s hard words came from his suffering. Some flowed from loneliness for his own country. But while Solzhenitsyn was harsh in his comments at Harvard, he was also accurate in at least some of what he said. Speaking of his Russian homeland he said, “After suffering decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer” than anything offered by the practical atheism now common in the West.

The reason for the problems of the West, said Solzhenitsyn, is found “at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past [several] centuries.” Our culture has fallen away from our own biblically informed heritage. We’ve lost the foundation for our moral vocabulary. This loss has starved our spirit, debased our sense of any higher purpose to life, and destroyed our ability to defend or even to explain any special dignity we assigned to the human person in the past.i

Now I’ve said all of this to give a context for four simple points I’d like to share. I’ll be brief. Then we can discuss them together.

Here’s my first point. We remember Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn and other men and women like them because of their moral witness. But the whole idea of “moral witness” comes from the assumption that good and evil are real, and that certain basic truths about humanity don’t change. These truths are knowable and worth defending. One of these truths is the notion of man’s special dignity as a creature of reason and will. Man is part of nature, but also distinct from it.

The philosopher Hans Jonas said that three things have distinguished human life from other animal experience since early prehistory: the tool, the image and the grave.ii The tool imposes man’s knowledge and will onto nature. The image – man’s paintings and other art – projects his imagination. It implies a sense of beauty and memory, and a desire to express them. But the greatest difference between humans and other animals is the grave. Only man buries his dead. Only man knows his own mortality. And knowing that he will die, only man can ask where he came from, what his life means and what comes after it.

The grave then is an expression of reverence and hope. When Christians and other people of good will talk about “the dignity of the human person” and “the sanctity of human life,” they’re putting into words what we all instinctively know – and have known for a very long time. Unique in nature, and unlike any other creature, something elevated and sacred in men and women demands our special respect. When we violate that human dignity, we do evil. When we serve it, we do good. And therein lies one of many ironies.

We live in a society that speaks persuasively about protecting the environment and rescuing species on the brink of extinction. But then it tolerates the killing of unborn children and the abuse of human fetal tissue as lab material.

Being Human in an Age of Unbelief by Archbishop Chaput – Part II

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2012/04/12 at 11:11 AM

This leads me to my second point. The University of Pennsylvania is one our country’s premier research universities. That’s a great gift to the Philadelphia community. It’s also a great privilege for all of you as students, especially those specializing in the sciences.

Science and technology have expanded human horizons and improved human life in vital ways over the last century. They’ve also, at times, done the opposite. Part of a good education is learning the skill of appropriate skepticism. And that skepticism, that healthy wariness, should apply even to the methods and claims of science and technology. When a distinguished and thoroughly secular scholar like Neil Postman writes that “the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living” – then we need to be concerned.iii

There’s a proverb worth remembering here: “To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.” If modern man is scientific man, technology is his hammer. But every problem isn’t a nail. Knowledge without the virtues of wisdom, prudence and, above all, humility to guide it is not just unhelpful. It’s dangerous. Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – which some of us probably know from the Mickey Mouse cartoon based on it — sticks in our memories for a reason. We’re never as smart as we think we are, and we have a bad track record when it comes to preventing the worst uses of our own best discoveries.

Science involves the study of the material world. But human beings are more than the sum of their material processes. Trying to explain the human person with thinking that excludes the reality of the spiritual, the dignity of the religious and the possibility of God simply cripples both the scientist and the subject being studied – man himself. To put it another way, we can destroy what we mean by humanity while claiming, and even intending, to serve it.

We might wisely remember one other fact about science. Writer Eric Cohen observed that “From the beginning, science was driven both by democratic pity and aristocratic guile, by the promise to help humanity and the desire to be free from the constraints of the common man, with his many myths and superstitions and taboos.”iv In other words, scientists too often have a divided heart: a sincere desire to serve man’s knowledge, and a sincere disdain for what they see as the moral and religious delusions of real men and women. If this doesn’t make us just a little bit uneasy, it should. Both faith and science claim to teach with a special kind of authority. One of the differences is this. Most religious believers accept, at least in theory, that they’ll be judged by the God of justice for their actions. For science, God is absent from the courtroom.

This leads to my third point. God is also absent from the U.S. Constitution – but not because he’s unwelcome. In effect, God suffused the whole constitutional enterprise. Nearly all the Founders were religious believers, and some were quite devout. Theirwritings are heavily influenced by biblical language, morality and thought.  America could afford to be secular in the best sense, precisely because its people were so religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation’s survival. In his Farewell Address, Washington famously stressed that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” for political prosperity. He added thatm“reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” For John Adams, John Jay, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Carroll, George Washington and most of the other Founders – including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — 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.Here’s my purpose in mentioning this. The American Founders presumed the existence of natural law and natural rights. These rights are inalienable and guaranteed by a Creator; by “nature’s God,” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Such ideas may be out of fashion in much of legal theory today. But these same ideas are very much alive in the way we actually reason and behave in our daily lives.

Most of us here tonight believe that we have basic rights that come with the special dignity of being human. These rights are inherent to human nature. They’re part of who we are. Nobody can take them away. But if there is no Creator, and nothing fundamental and unchangeable about human nature, and if “nature’s God” is kicked out of the conversation, then our rights become the product of social convention. And social conventions can change. So can the definition of who is and who isn’t “human.”

The irony is that modern liberal democracy needs religion more than religion needs modern liberal democracy. American public life needs a framework friendly to religious belief because it can’t support its moral claims about freedom and rights with rational and secular arguments alone. In fact, to the degree that it encourages a culture of unbelief, liberal democracy undermines its own grounding. It causes its own decline by destroying the public square’s moral coherence.

Being Human in an Age of Unbelief by Archbishop Chaput – Part III

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2012/04/12 at 9:11 AM

That leads to my fourth and final point. The prolife movement needs to be understood and respected for what it is: part of a much larger, consistent and morally worthy vision of the dignity of the human person. You don’t need to be Christian or even religious to  be “prolife.” Common sense alone is enough to make a reasonable person uneasy about what actually happens in an abortion. The natural reaction, the sane and healthy response, is repugnance.

What makes abortion so grievous is the intimacy of the violence and the innocence of the victim. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and remember this is the same Lutheran pastor who helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and gave his life trying to overthrow Hitler – wrote that the “destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”vi

Bonhoeffer’s words embody Christian belief about the sanctity of human life present from the earliest years of the Church. Rejection of abortion and infanticide was one of the key factors that set the early Christians apart from the pagan world. From the Didache in the First Century through the Early Fathers of the Church, down to our own day, Catholics – and until well into the 20th century all other Christians — have always seen abortion as gravely evil. As Bonhoeffer points out, arguing about whether abortion is homicide or only something close to homicide is irrelevant. In the Christian view of human dignity, intentionally killing a developing human life is always inexcusable and always gravely wrong.

Working against abortion doesn’t license us to ignore the needs of the homeless or the poor, the elderly or the immigrant. It doesn’t absolve us from supporting women who find themselves pregnant or abandoned. In Catholic belief, all human life, no matter how wounded, flawed, young or old, is sacred because it comes from God. The dignity of a human life and its right to exist are guaranteed by God. Catholic teaching on abortion and sexuality is part of the same integral vision of the human person that fuels Catholic teaching on economic justice, racism, war and peace.

These issues don’t all have the same content. They don’t all have the same weight. All of them are important, but some are more foundational than others. Without a right to life, all other rights are contingent. The heart of the matter is what Solzhenitsyn implied in his Harvard comments. Society is not just a collection of sovereign individuals with appetites moderated by the state. It’s a community of interdependent persons and communities of persons; persons who have human obligations to one another, along with their human rights. One of those obligations is to not intentionally kill the innocent. The two pillars of Catholic social teaching are respect for the sanctity of the individual and service to the common good. Abortion violates both.

In the American tradition, people have a right to bring their beliefs to bear on every social, economic and political problem facing their community. For Christians, that’s not just a privilege. It’s not just a right. It’s a demand of the Gospel. Obviously, we have an obligation to respect the dignity of other people. We’re always bound to treat other people with charity and justice. But that good will can never be an excuse for our own silence.

Believers can’t be silent in public life and be faithful to Jesus Christ at the same time. Actively witnessing to our convictions and advancing what we believe about key moral issues in public life is not “coercion.” It’s honesty. It’s an act of truth-telling. It’s vital,to the health of every democracy. And again, it’s also a duty — not only of our religious faith, but also of our citizenship.

The University of Pennsylvania’s motto, as most of you know, is Leges sine moribus vanae. It means “Laws without morals are useless.” All law has moral content. It’s an expression of what we “ought” to do. Therefore law teaches as well as regulates. Law always involves the imposition of somebody’s judgments about morality on everyone else. That’s the nature of law. But I think the meaning of Penn’s motto goes deeper than just trying to translate beliefs into legislation. Good laws can help make a nation more human; more just; more noble. But ultimately even good laws are useless if they govern a people who, by their choices, make themselves venal and callous, foolish and self-absorbed.

It’s important for our own integrity and the integrity of our country to fight for our prolife convictions in the public square. Anything less is a kind of cowardice. But it’s even more important to live what it means to be genuinely human and “prolife” by our actions – fidelity to God, love for spouse and children; loyalty to friends; generosity to the poor; honesty and mercy in dealing with others; trust in the goodness of people; discipline and humility in demanding the most from ourselves.

These things sound like pieties, and that’s all they are — until we try to live them. Then their cost and their difficulty remind us that we create a culture of life in the measure that we give our lives to others. The deepest kind of revolution never comes from violence.

Even politics, important as it is, is a poor tool for changing human hearts. Nations change when people change. And people change through the witness of other people –people like each of you here tonight. You make the future. You build it stone by stone with the choices you make. So choose life. Defend its dignity and witness its meaning and hope to others. And if you do, you’ll discover in your own life what it means to be fully human.

i Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, June 8, 1978

ii Hans Jonas, “Tool, Image and Grave: On What is Beyond the Animal in Man,” 1985

iii Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage Books/Random House, New York 1993; p. xii

iv Eric Cohen, In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology, Encounter Books, New York, 2008;

p. 15

v  See Colgate University political scientist Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and

Politics in the Fallen World, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2001; p xii and throughout

vi Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Macmillan, New York 1978; p. 175-176

Ages of Christendom

In 13 History on 2011/10/21 at 11:11 PM

The Ages of Christendom

In his lecture, the “Six Ages of Christendom” Christopher Dawson delineates the distinctive marks that characterize each stage during which it predominated.  One noted characteristic that all have in common is that one problem has been resolved, another arises.  The life of the Church like that of humans, is a form of constant warfare on many fronts.

Characterizing the Apostolic Age was the reality that “the new born Church was faced almost at once with a change of a more revolutionary character than she ever had to meet subsequently – that is to say- the extension of the apostolate from a Jewish to a Gentile environment and the incorporation in the new society of the great body of new converts drawn from the anonymous mass society of the great cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world from Antioch to Rome itself.”

Having successfully integrated itself into the “dominant urban Roman-Hellenistic culture” the Church created a new Christian literature, both Greek and Latin.  It laid the foundations of a new Christian art, and above all, it created a new society which existed alongside of the established order of society and to some extent replaced it.  There is perhaps no other example of a similar development of which we possess such a full historical record, and apart from its religious significance, it is also of great sociological interest, since the primitive Church was not a mere sectarian cult-organization but a real society with a strong sense of citizenship and a highly developed hierarchical order.”

The second age of Christendom is clearly recognized as beginning with the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the impact on the Byzantine Empire and the factor of the  alliance between Church and State.  From this time until the Muslim tsunami, this period, known as the Age of the Fathers, had “an internal unity and coherence….as the classical age of Christian thought and the fountainhead of theological wisdom.  The Fathers were not systematic theologians in the same sense as St. Thomas Aquinas and the great theologians of later periods.  But they formed the mind of the Church and determined the norms of theological thought that were followed by the theologians of the Christian world in later centuries.  In this way, the three great Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa remain the classical exponents of Eastern Orthodox theology, while St. John Chrysostom was the classical exponent of Scripture, while in the West St. Augustine was the seminal and creative mind which molded the theological thought of the West, while St. Jerome laid the foundations of the Western tradition of Biblical and historical scholarship.”

This article is limited to considering the first two ages of Christendom.  The quotations are made with permission from an authorized copy of the Christopher Dawson manuscript, the original of which is held by the Department of Special Collections, O’Shanghnessy-Frey Library, University of St. Thomas.

See also: Dawson/Recommended Reading List in this same category (Book Corner) 

The 800-Pound Gorilla

In 08 Musings by Jack Reagan on 2011/08/06 at 7:49 PM

The Western World (North America and Europe) is awash with all types of philosophies competing for dominance and control.  Vying for attention are relativism, hedonism, environmentalism, skepticism, nihilism and least that many more.  One of these false philosophies seems to have taken the lead because it really includes many others under it’s umbrella.  Its name is Secularism, the philosophy that tries to exclude God and  religion from any meaningful  role in human life.  Historians offer different dates and causes for the rise of this false set of ideas, but I suggest that secularism began in the Garden of Eden with the conversation between Satan and Eve.  This was the first attempt to show that God was a minor figure in the human drama, that His commands were mere suggestions, that you could get away with ignoring them and that, in fact, by getting rid of God man could become like  God.  Satan was the first secularist, and this tells us the real origin of this set of beliefs.

Secularism has several features.  The first is a basic animosity toward religion in general and Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular.  It is atheistic and/or agnostic (meaning we can’t really know anything about God . . . if there is one).  Religion, therefore, has no place in public life, no place in government, no place in education or law.  If one must have religion, keep it to yourself.  Whenever religion attempts to raise a voice in the public arena, it is to be crushed if at all possible . . . call the ACLU and have some judge declare that the “offended” atheists should prevail over the majority who espouse religious sentiment.

Secondly, this false philosophy endorses total personal freedom in the matter of morals “as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”  Thus, under this umbrella we find liberal and radical feminists who support abortion, and the homosexual rights groups that are succeeding in making the deviant acceptable or at least tolerated.  Moral laws based on religion are to be rejected.  After all, if there is no God, how can there be divine moral laws? As one might expect, those who champion freedom from moral laws generally have sexual laws in mind.  There can be no agency that has any authority to regulate moral law.  (If a civil law happens to be the same as a religious law, the civil law will be accepted because it comes from “true” authority.)  The new standard for personal morality is: “If I like it, it’s moral; if I don’t like it, it’s immoral.”  Or, “You have your morals, I have mine.”  When asked what he thought of the “new morality”, the famed English convert to Catholicism, G.K. Chesterton, replied, “It is neither new nor moral; it’s just our old friend sin.”  How true!

The third feature is the absolute toleration of anyone’s immorality and unquestioned acceptance of any stupid or illogical idea that comes down the pike.  “Who are you to say I am wrong?”  The secularist world easily tolerates contradictions.  Abortion is good; abortion is bad.  No problem; the secularists accepts both.  (The fact that accepting contradictions violates a basic principle of correct thinking, does not seem to occur to such people).  Tolerance trumps logic anytime.  Needless to say, there is one group to which this sacrosanct rule of tolerance does not apply . . . Christians.  Their “crazy” ideas cannot be tolerated; only the “crazy” ideas espoused by the secularist are acceptable.

Secularism is thriving in the U.S. and Europe.  The Constitution of the European Union contains not a single reference to anything religious.  There seems to be no force capable of diminishing its ongoing thrust because the secularists control the organs of power.

The media of every type is grossly biased against religion, traditional morality and its ideas.  Christians are usually depicted as dumb, hypocritical and prejudiced.

The élite colleges, universities and law schools are  teaching secularism.  One professor, a Catholic, who was teaching a course of Catholicism, said at the appropriate point in the course that Catholicism believes that homosexual activity is immoral.  The homosexual crowd managed to get him fired (these are, by the way, same people who preach tolerance); however, the backlash was so great that the professor was reinstated.

Government at all levels has become increasingly non-religious.  The current administration endorses many activities that used to be called sins: Abortion, partial-birth abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gay rights and many more.

Our Lord said to measure results and effects to know the value and nature of a cause.  Philosophies come and go.  Yes, they do, but they also leave their mark.  Nazism was a  false philosophy that certainly left its mark and left behind millions of graves.  So also, Communism.  Secularism, when successful, leaves behind ultimately unworkable societies because it is a philosophy that runs counter to human nature. It does not fit human psychology and the aspirations built into man by the Creator.  Whether you believe in a Creator or not, remember this: Simply believing something to be a certain way does not make it so.  Objective reality does not change to fit an error in belief.

And how have we fared after several decades of the celebrated “sexual freedom”?  50,000,000 babies killed because they were inconvenient to someone, never before seen rates of sexual diseases, the psychological and philosophical contradiction of same-sex marriage, easy divorce, child abuse, a significant rise in crime rates, rejection of authority by too many people.  Have there been some positive effects of this “sexual freedom”?  Can’t think of any!

Secularism has also impacted Christians, a very broad term used in the US that includes the Christmas-Easter attendees and the truly devout.  Statistically, Christians have fallen for the secularist’s line in large numbers.  There is little difference between the beliefs of secularists and the behavior of many Christians.  “Just our old friend, sin” making a reappearance.

Eve didn’t realize that her friendly snake was actually an 800-pound gorilla in disguise.  Secularism is  Satan’s latest disguise.  Eve thought she could do business with Satan, and we know what happened.  We can enjoy all kinds of false and silly beliefs about God, but bear in mind that He does not change Himself to fit human beliefs or errors.  God is God, and it is man who must change to conform to Him.

Otherwise, that 800-pound gorilla . . .