Chaput: Increased Government Due to Collapse of Civil Society in America

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Photo:  Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia speaks Nov. 10 during the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (Credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller.)

NEW YORK – Archbishop Charles Chaput offered a critical assessment of the increased role of government in response to the collapse of civil society during a speech at Villanova University on Thursday. The archbishop of Philadelphia said that he believes the United States of America is more divided and conflicted at present than at any other moment since the 1960s.

“We now have a Donald Trump, at least in part, because we had a Barack Obama. Mr. Trump is a reaction,” said Chaput. “He’s a gift from the people who felt, or more accurately knew, that they were treated as stupid and irrelevant by both wings of our political leadership class in the last election cycle…And the responsibility for that surprise is shared by both our national parties.”

Chaput’s remarks on “Things to Come: Faith, State and Society in a New World,” were delivered during the inaugural Religion and Public Life Lecture for the Matthew J. Ryan Center and served as a wide-ranging probe of modern American life.

“There’s no healing without a good diagnosis,” said Chaput. “If we claim that we need the Church as a source of healing and hope, then we need to show what our culture’s illness is, and why.”

Chaput praised capitalism for improving standards of living and lifting millions out of poverty, but warned that a consumer market economy “tends to commodify everything and recast all relationships as transactional.”

“In practice, it depersonalizes a culture by commercializing many of our routine human interactions. It also very easily breeds a practical atheism by revolving our lives around the desire and consumption of new things,” he cautioned.

Taking stock of the rapid changes in communications, science, technology, medicine, and American economic and legal systems during his own lifetime, Chaput said change in itself is healthy but the nation should not forsake its roots.

“Our country is built on change because we’re a nation of immigrants,” he said, adding, “a nation’s identity fractures when it changes so rapidly, so deeply and in so many ways, that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together.”

He went on to note that in recent decades civil society has fractured and that consequently, “more government will intrude to keep order and fill in the cracks.”

Chaput said in his assessment, the Obama administration may have been the most influential government since Franklin Roosevelt, but said that while Roosevelt focused on economic and administrative matters, the Obama White House sought to influence the “nature of our daily life.”

He went on to cite data showing the rise in Americans who identify as an atheist or agnostic and said “the Obama presidency embodied the same, more secular spirit,” evidenced by what he described as a lack of respect for religious liberty.

Chaput said that many Americans seem to be distracted and are unaware of how quickly things have changed and invoked Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work Democracy in America which highlighted America’s strong belief in God as a binding authority for public and civil life.

He lamented that the organizing authority of a belief in God is quickly diminishing.

“God’s authority ensures human freedom,” he said. “If our faith in him is weakened or destroyed as a source of authority, we’ll look for another master.”

In a nod to recent internal ecclesial debates over whether there can be paradigm shifts within the Church – a phrase that has been hotly contested after Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, described Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, as a paradigm shift in the Church’s understanding of family life – Chaput said no.

“There are no new paradigms; no new hermeneutical principles; no revolutions in thought; and no possible concordats with the world and its alibis, that can the erase the radicalism and liberating beauty of Christian anthropology,” he maintained.

Chaput said that the Church must stand by its teachings on “the nature of our sexuality, expressed in the complementarity of male and female, and ordered to new life and mutual support,” and through that witness direct the world to a deeper understanding of human freedom.

According to Chaput, the Church’s teachings, lived out by “the power of personal witness,” is the only proper response to a rapidly changing country and world.

“If we’re willing to listen, the Church has lots of good reasons why people should believe in God, and in Jesus Christ, and in the beauty and urgency of her own mission,” he said.