It's a commonplace to say that America, along with other Western countries, is currently experiencing a cultural--which is to say: moral--crisis. And, in some quarters at least, it's hardly less common to say this presents the Church with both a challenge and an opportunity.
The opportunity is to save America by presenting the faith as a credible option, thereby helping to make America--as our president would say--truly "great again." The challenge is that unless the Church really can do that or something like it, it is likely to suffer continuing assimilation into a secular culture deeply hostile to Catholicism, together with rapidly falling numbers and growing cultural (moral) irrelevance.
What isn't so often said, however, is that in facing up to these alternative scenarios American Catholicism suffers from a serious, internal handicap. Huge numbers of its adherents--one hesitates to say the Church itself, although in practice it amounts to that--share the values and behaviors of the crisis-ridden culture which they should be striving to bring to its senses.
To look upon these assimilated Catholics as potential "missionary disciples"--a term borrowed from Pope Francis--is like asking patients in a field hospital (the Pope's preferred metaphor for the Church) to rise from their sick beds and busy themselves healing other wounded victims of the culture war outside.
One of the great strengths of Archbishop Charles Chaput's new book Strangers in a Strange Land (Henry Holt and Company) is its grounding in clear-eyed recognition of such unpleasant facts bearing upon the current situation of Catholicism in America. That positions him to offer prescriptions without falling into the happy talk that renders many discussions of these matters unproductive or worse.
As most engaged Catholics are aware, Archbishop Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia, is an important intellectual and moral leader in the Church in America today. His new book, rich in references to the work of other contemporary thinkers of note, is a product of intelligence, integrity and courage that speaks the truth in charity.
Fundamental to it is an incisive critique of the "tyrannous logic" of liberal democracy which, starting from a exaggerated and one-dimensional emphasis on individual rights, ends by adopting and enforcing secularism's new morality.
An example: the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage followed by punitive measures aimed at florists and bakers whose consciences balk at serving gay weddings. Next up on the list of LGBT causes supported by media mouthpieces for the new morality like the New York Times and Washington Post: the transgender agenda.
As Archbishop Chaput says, religion traditionally has acted as a "brake" on the tyrannous impulses of liberal democracy. But the capitulation of liberal churches and the public policy defeats of conservative ones have lately loosed the machine of tyranny to steamroller upholders of the tradition.
In face of the resulting moral chaos, cultural assimilation weakens the ability of Catholics to be a force for stability. But the need is more urgent now than ever. Archbishop Chaput writes: "We have a duty as Catholics to study and understand the world around us. We have a duty not just to penetrate and engage it, but to convert it to Jesus Christ. That work belongs to all of us equally: clergy, laity, and religious....all share the same mission of bringing the Gospel to the world, and bringing the world to the Gospel."
Eschewing pat formulas, Strangers in a Strange Land speaks eloquently of that goal and of the obstacles to reaching it. That is much indeed.
- Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and served as communications director for the U.S. Bishops.