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Strangers in a Strange Land


Archbishop Charles J. Chaput; Henry Holt and Company, New York; 2017

Reviewed by CNS

“WE are passing through a revolution of sorts in America,” says Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

Following such upheavals in the nation’s moral life as the “normalisation of pornography, premarital sex, divorce (and) transgenderism”, the 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalise same-sex marriage was “a symbolic overthrow of traditional Catholic sexual morality”, he says.

It was to help Catholics understand such changes, the archbishop said, that he wrote his new book, Strangers in A Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.

“I was thinking about the confusion that exists in the lives of so many people, even ordinary, everyday Catholics who love the Church and who love our country here in the United States, but at the same time have a sense that something is wrong and they really don’t know what it’s about,” he told Catholic News Service during a phone interview on March 17.

For example, he said, “expressing concern about the change in the meaning of marriage is considered to be old-fashioned or retrogressive or bigoted and that leads people to be afraid to even talk about it”.

Archbishop Chaput, 72, draws a contrast between contemporary society and the simpler America he knew in his childhood during the 1940s and 1950s.

“In today’s world, we treat people with disabilities much better than they did when I was a young man,” he said.

“Society is very conscious about their rights and we even rearrange the structures of our buildings to help people with physical disabilities.”

On the other hand, “we have a technology that has kept most people with Down syndrome from being born, because the disability is detected early, and technology has done that, and we decide to eliminate those people” through abortion, he said.

“It’s a symbol of how we’ve at the same time progressed and at the same time regressed,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Chaput identifies the contraceptive pill and the transistor as key inventions of the last century that led to many of the cultural changes he outlines in his book.

The pill “was very tiny but led to huge changes in our perception of the meaning of human sexuality, which affects the way we think about family”, and the transistor, found in most electronic devices, led to all kinds of new technologies that challenged Christian living in various ways, he said.

“The disruption of family life” through new communications technologies, for instance, had led to a situation where “parents don’t know how to influence their kids, or are so busy they don’t have time for each other”, he said.

The archbishop attributes America’s emphasis on the supreme importance of the individual as a contributing factor to the collapse of a Christian moral consensus in the country.

Individualism was “one of the weaknesses of American culture”, he said.

“We don’t focus enough on history or on community, and that gets in the way of us being serious about those who’ve thought before us.”

For example, “I don’t see a whole lot of generosity on the part of the new leadership class in the United States,” he said.

Millennials seemed “focused on making money and having great success and being elite, and I don’t see a lot of focus on the common good”.

The appropriate Catholic response to the cultural situation in the United States, “where the basic assumptions of Christianity and Catholicism are questioned by everyone”, was to “live the Gospel in a radical kind of way”, Archbishop Chaput said.

Writing toward the end of the book, the archbishop calls for Christians to engage in political debates in the public square, but also to “build the communities, the friendships, and the places in which we joyfully live out our faith”.

Rather than a naive and emotion-based optimism, “the driving force in terms of facing the future for Christians is always the virtue of hope”, Archbishop Chaput said.

“Hope is energy built on conviction that the future is in God’s hands and God wants us to be very much a part of creating that future – we are kind of the instruments for the future.”


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