There are days when I almost give into despair. When I read stories like this, I think all is lost. Humanity is not worth a bucket of warm spit.
Thankfully, good men like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia beg to differ. Today at Public Discourse, Chaput offers his thoughts on how culture can be saved, and the answer is Christianity. (Please read the entire piece; it is worth every moment of your busy day.)
Chaput begins by stating the basic facts of natural law, and how good human law must stand on this. He reminds us that, without natural law, “human rights have no teeth.” Rights separated from natural law become “inhuman.” Chaput recalls another basic of political and legal philosophy: laws are meant to help us be good. They may restrict us, but only in positive ways. They create justice, peace and ultimately freedom. He then discusses the argument that one should not force one’s morality on anyone else.
We often hear the claim that we shouldn’t press for laws that impose our morality on others. But no one really believes that kind of argument, because it makes no sense. In practice, all law involves imposing certain moral claims on other people. Persons who support permissive abortion or same-sex unions, for example, are very comfortable in coercing the public through the courts and lawmaking process. As Christians we should be equally comfortable—and even more zealous—in defending the human person and advancing human dignity through legislative and judicial means.
That said, the American Jesuit thinker John Courtney Murray rightly warned that if we try to give everything that’s morally good the force of the law, people will sooner or later start to think that whatever is legal is also moral. In other words, laws can’t solve all our moral problems. Rather, Murray concludes, laws should seek “to establish and maintain only that minimum of actualized morality that is necessary for the healthy functioning of the social order.” Beyond this, a nation must look to other, non-legal institutions in civil society to maintain its moral standards.
Then, Chaput brings us to the heart of the matter: “The law can’t teach effectively without the support of a surrounding moral culture, because law arises from that culture.” Culture precedes law and politics. If culture is cruel or sadistic or hyper-sexualized or vapid or corrupt, so too law and politics. Of course, the opposite is true: if culture is good and wholesome and beautiful, then law and politics shall follow.
Where does this leave us as Christians?
As in every other age, we’re called to preach Jesus Christ to our fellow citizens. We need to learn for ourselves and be ready to teach others the truth about the human person, the objective foundation of morality in the natural law. We need to fight to keep our human laws obedient to that deeper law. And we need to remind people of the truths they’ve forgotten, the truths on which our society is founded. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote,
A culture and a nation that cuts itself off from the great ethical and religious forces of its own history, commits suicide. The cultivation of essential moral insights, preserving and protecting these as a common possession but without imposing them by force, seems to be one condition for the continued existence of freedom in the face of all [of today’s] nihilisms and their totalitarian consequences. It is here that I see the public task of the Christian churches in today’s world. It accords with the nature of the Church that [she] is separated from the state and that [her] faith may not be imposed by the state but is based on convictions that are freely arrived at.
Chaput does not want this to be a philosophical debate or discussion. He wants Christians to do something, and the sooner the better. Build communities, schools, churches, clubs, families that lead people towards holiness. Our goal should not be to save our culture, but to be holy, to be good, to be moral, to be who God created us to be. This and only this will create a culture that moves us from despair to hope, from nihilism to faith, hope and charity. Our work is to redeem ourselves, our families, our communities, our culture.
AS THE YOUNGEST-EVER OP-ED COLUMNIST FOR The New York Times, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. In Bad Religion he offers a masterful and forceful account of how American Christianity has lost its way—and why it threatens to take American society with it. In a world populated by “pray and grow rich” gospels and Christian cults of self-esteem, Ross Douthat argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion; nor is it intolerant secularism. Rather, it’s bad religion. Conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses. In a brilliant and provocative story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, Douthat explores how bad religion has crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.