Strangers in a Strange Land
Living the Catholic Faith
in a Post-Christian World
By Charles J. Chaput
Henry Holt. 288 pp. $26
Christopher C. Roberts
Mayor Kenney is not known as a theologian. He is a self-described detached Catholic. But take him as representative of some locals who are reflexively hostile to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. Kenney tweets, for example, that Pope Francis "is freaking awesome" but Chaput's attempts to interpret Francis are "not Christian."
In other words, Francis = social justice = good and Chaput = traditional doctrine = bad.
But on the occasion of Chaput's new book, Strangers in a Strange Land, I'd like to make the case that it's time to rethink the math and give Chaput another chance.
Chaput is no shrinking violet on social justice. He is helping to hold President Trump to account on immigration issues, which matter to him personally. As Chaput has said several times: "Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don't help the poor, we're going to go to hell. Period. There's just no doubt about it."
Meanwhile, the pope can speak very clearly on the doctrinal side. Francis has repeatedly warned that "today there is a world war to destroy marriage. Today there are ideological colonizations which destroy, not with weapons, but with ideas. Therefore, there is a need to defend ourselves."
What's happening here? The pope and the archbishop are clearly different. Yet, somehow, they both throw a monkey wrench into comfortable typecasting.
Here's where Chaput's new book is so helpful. It's a bracing theological analysis of contemporary culture. For those looking to understand how Catholicism transcends liberal and conservative stereotypes, Chaput is a teaching bishop with something substantive to say.
"The identity of man cannot be separated from the God who made him," Chaput explains. He traces how the first three of the Ten Commandments (duties to God) underwrite and guarantee the last seven (duties to our neighbors). Serving God and serving our neighbors are interlocking parts of the same package.
Why does the refugee deserve a haven? Why isn't pornography harmless? Because that man struggling across the border, and that woman debased on your screen, are both made in the image of God. That's Catholic morality. Catholic pastors are obliged to resist all dehumanizing pressure to the contrary, which is why Chaput has a vocation to write like this.
Chaput wrote the book in part because of Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that recently made same-sex marriage legal nationally. Buried in that decision is the idea that marriage is essentially flexible and can be redefined according to our preferences. But, as Chaput counters, by making "husband and wife, mother and father" optional categories for a family, we've enshrined in law that there are no natural limits to the family, only negotiated legal ones.
Chaput sees in Obergefell a question our tech-oriented consumer culture would rather avoid: "The debate over same-sex marriage and transgender rights disguises a much more basic struggle over truth. . . . [I]s there any higher truth determining what a human person is, and how human beings should live, beyond what we ourselves make or choose to describe as human?" If we can remake human identity and morality at will, what substance does the word human really have? In Catholic terms, if we make our feelings sovereign, how are we still accountable to the transcendent image of God?
Chaput is not saying these questions have easy answers. He insists that everyone needs to give and receive love. But not every love needs to be sexualized, not every friendship is the same as marriage, and Catholics can't just go with the cultural flow when other principles are also at stake. Ideas have consequences, and ideas are interconnected to other ideas.
Chaput notes that "roughly half of all American Catholic teens now lose their Catholic identity before they turn thirty," and he doesn't think it's a temporary pendulum swing. The book argues that for Catholics to be faithful in "the next America," we have to embrace our status as a minority creatively, like Jews in a gentile world, or like Václav Havel and other dissenters who sacrificed to resist communism.
Chaput gives a chapter to the second-century Letter to Diognetus, an epistle written for Christians when pagan Rome seemed destined to dominate forever. The letter says Catholics need to hold firm to their convictions, but without retreating into a fortress.
Being committed to our neighbors, and also to our faith, is a sometime subtle and double-edged aspiration. Perhaps it's no wonder Chaput is so often misunderstood.
Catholic philosophy and theology can penetrate more deeply than the standard political labels. For those who want to think carefully about the ideas shaping our culture, Chaput's book is indispensable.
Christopher C. Roberts is this year's theologian-in-residence at the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. He is also one of the founders of Martin Saints Classical High School, a Catholic school that will open in September.