The Deacon's Bench

A nice blogger friend sent this my way last week, and I finally got around to reading it. Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput on politics, priests, laity and a lot of other important things. It’s just superb:

Catholic leadership in the secular world belongs to laypeople, not to clergy or religious. The visible role of the priest in public affairs—if by public affairs we mean political affairs—should normally be pretty small.

It’s very dangerous for the Church to identify with one political party. It’s not my business to tell people to vote for John McCain or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And while I worked for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign as a volunteer when I was a young, I don’t think any Catholic should feel comfortable today in either major political party—Democrat or Republican.

But that doesn’t really get us off the hook, does it? The problem is that the Church teaches moral truth, and truth has obligations for human behavior—including the social, economic, and political kind. The Church is never mainly a political organism, but her witness for justice always has political consequences. For example, killing unborn children is a form of homicide. It’s a profound attack on human dignity, because all other rights depend on the right to life. It’s not the only important issue facing our country. But it is the foundational one at this moment in our nation’s history. We can’t ignore it. Cooperating in abortion or quietly tolerating it is a grave evil. We can incrementally seek to restrict and eliminate abortion, but we can never accept it as a so-called right. And if that truth inconveniences one or another political candidate, well, that’s their problem. It’s not the fault of the Church.

It is the job of Catholic laypeople to change the thinking of their political party and their political leaders with the tools of their Catholic faith. But it is the job of priests to give people those tools—to form Catholic laypeople to think and act as disciples of Jesus Christ, in a manner guided by the teaching of the Church. Just as Catholic laypeople should be the leaven of Jesus Christ in the public square, so we priests need to be the leaven of Jesus Christ in lives of our people.

As priests we know that, during the Easter season, the Church invites us to reflect on the Acts of the Apostles in a special way. It’s important to remember that the title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles—not the Good Intentions, or the Excellent Plans, or the Plausible Alibis of the Apostles, but their Acts. Words are important. Actions are more important. Christ said he loved us. Then he died to prove it. He said he would rise from the dead and give us new life. Then he really did it. And when the first Apostles said they believed in Jesus Christ, they acted like they meant it, because they did—and then they proved it by turning the world upside down with the gospel.

A handful of simple and imperfect men made the greatest revolution in history—a global revolution of God’s love. And Christ, through his Church, ordained you and me to follow in their footsteps and do exactly the same thing. So a reading from Acts is always the first reading on each day of the Easter season—the season of new life.

The focus of these readings is typically the preaching of St. Peter, and Peter always preaches about the Resurrection. But the Resurrection isn’t only the content of Peter’s preaching; it’s also the means or energy of his preaching and his whole ministry. Clarence Jordan, a Protestant minister, once said, “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away Church.”

Of course, we know that Jesus rose physically from the dead, and the grave really was empty. But Jordan was making an important point. What makes the Christian faith convincing today is a “carried-away Church,” and if this is true about the Church, it’s also true about the priesthood—without which there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church. The health of the Church depends directly on the spirit of her priests. So priests need to be more than simply honest or diligent or even faithful. We need to be carried away by our love for God, our love for the Church, and our love for the Catholic faith.

A feature of many priestly lives these days is an attitude toward the Church that could be called “pastoral despair.” In one sense, it’s a good thing to be tempted by despair about the Church, or at least by despondency, because that’s a sign that our hearts are unsettled and longing for something more. If we aren’t in some ways disappointed in ourselves and in the Church, disappointed in how our Catholic people live their faith, then it’s probably a sign that we’ve made peace with the current situation. And that’s never good.

Because of Easter, however, we’re not permitted real despair. Just recently, I attended the ordination of Bishop Gerald Dino of the Byzantine Eparchy of Van Nuys. During his episcopal ordination ceremony, at many points the community sang, “Christ is risen from the dead! By death He trampled death; and to those in the tombs He granted life!” What a wonderful way to capture the Easter spirit. Yes, we should grieve for the Church; that’s a sign of our love. But as St. Paul says, “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” We learn from the Resurrection accounts in Scripture that we should not look for the Risen Lord among the dead but among the living.

We have hope because it is the risen Christ who has willed that his Church be the principal form of his visible presence in the world. We know with confidence that in the Church, God—as in Christ—is reconciling the world to himself. We need to remember this because sometimes we priests become cynical. We know ourselves too well. We sometimes don’t really believe that God can do anything new in us. We accommodate to sin and failure and death. But Easter reminds us that any despair or despondency we have should be turned away because “Jesus trampled death, and to those in the tombs He grants life.”

We’ve been talking about the “new evangelization” for more than twenty years in the Church, as if it were some kind of magic platitude. Now we know what it means. And yes, the latest Pew Research Center data are very unsettling—but also very valuable. They show us exactly how fluid, weak, and unreliable “American Catholic identity” has become. The place of the Catholic Church in the United States is much more precarious than we like to think, and the large number of people that self-identify as Catholics nationally is seriously misleading. In fact, we—and by “we,” I mean Catholic leaders in my generation especially—have done a bad job of forming and keeping our people. We’ve been deeply naive about the congeniality of American culture toward Catholic belief. In general, sacramental practice and Mass attendance are declining, and young people are not stepping up to take leadership in the Church in the way their parents and grandparents did. Plenty of exceptions do exist, but overall the picture is not good.

This national softening trend applies especially in places like Colorado and other western states, where the Church is young and the environment is very secular. But it’s happening here in Rhode Island and everywhere else. There’s more hostility to the Catholic Church in more state assemblies today than at any time in the past eighty years, and the clergy sex-abuse scandal is only one of the reasons why, and often not even the most important reason. Nor will the influx of Latinos into our country automatically renew or sustain the Church. The data show that Latinos in the United States abandon the Catholic Church at about the same rate as every other ethn
ic group. The secularizing fallout of American political and consumer culture, along with the cafeteria effect of so many religious choices, undermines the Catholic roots of Latinos.

That means we need to think of the Church in America as a missionary church, and each of us priests as a missionary priest. We’ve probably known this all along, but now it has an immediate, practical urgency. Catholic demography is changing. So is our political environment. Additionally, we can’t count on the continued financial health of the Church in our country if our active Catholic base diminishes over the next generation—which is quite possible and already happening.

Of course, we need to balance these concerns with our strengths. Compared to the Church elsewhere in the world, our priests, parishes, diocesan programs, renewal communities, finances, and patterns of religious practice are quite strong. The Church here is healthier, with more energy and better leadership at many different levels, than nearly anywhere else in the world. So we have the freedom to do something about our problems. But we need to be realists. The conflicts facing the U.S. Church over the past decade, external and internal—from the abortion issue to immigration to war and peace to marriage and family life—will probably continue for the foreseeable future. These struggles will require an example of leadership to sustain our people and draw others to the Church. And that example has to start with our priests.

Read on to see what he has to say. It’s sensational.

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