In a recent story about Tuesday’s release of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s e-book, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, the Philadelphia Inquirer called it an “e-lamentation.” It’s really a challenge to today’s Catholics who, Chaput says, share the blame for the moral and spiritual weakness of our country. “We … helped shape it with our eagerness to fit in,” Chaput writes, “our distractions and overconfidence, and our own lukewarm faith.” And while Philadelphia’s top priest never mentions any candidates by name, he makes reference to the importance of this election year. Chaput isn’t just calling out his congregation; he’s issuing a political and societal call to arms. Consider his choice of quote from Father John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit theologian who wrote this in 1940: “In view of the fact that American culture is built on the negation of all that Christianity stands for, it would seem that our first step toward the construction of a Christian culture should be the destruction of the existing one. In the presence of Frankenstein, one does not reach for baptismal water, but for a bludgeon.”
That’s some tough talk, and in the course of Chaput’s compact essay, he smartly and eloquently states his case for what he sees as a growing sense of religious intolerance in this country, stoked by an ill-informed and biased media and a populace that’s turned its collective back on faith. He writes of “the inhuman parody we call ‘modern American culture’” and “sexual minorities [who] now routinely use the state’s power and friendly mass media to break down traditional definitions of marriage and family.” Chaput wistfully remembers the good old days, “when the word gay had more connection to joy than sexual identity.”
Having grown up as a Catholic, I understand that one might look at the state of our nation and feel like we’re re-living the last days of the Roman Empire. I also fully agree—as I imagine most Americans would—that religious expression is essential to “the identity of the American experiment.” But the Catholic Church’s concerns reach far beyond the freedom to worship God or spread the good word or to steer us away from Snooki’s best-selling book and toward the Bible. The church wants to outlaw abortions. It opposes gay marriage. A condom is considered an anti-Catholic tool, even in places where AIDS and incidents of rape are at epidemic levels. For all the uproar over President Obama’s proposed birth-control mandate as a threat to religious expression, hard-line Catholics intend to do precisely the same thing when it comes to everyone else’s rights.
Chaput, the church and its lobbyists want to shape this country to fit their morality. The oppressed—if you believe that’s what Catholics in America have become—intend to be the oppressors. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has orchestrated a cover-up of child sexual abuse that spans the globe and reaches all the way up to the Pope himself. As we hear the horror stories in our own back yard, like those of disgraced Archbishop Ryan principal Charles Newman, and read grim daily testimony from the trial of Msgr. William Lynn and Rev. James Brennan, it seems an awfully curious time to declare the way the rest of us live to be “inhuman.”
As you can probably guess, I don’t make weekly appearances at mass. My doubts about the church as an organization began as a child, when I attended CCD classes at my suburban parish. My father, who was an altar boy at All Saints in Bridesburg, would sometimes ask me about stories from the Bible. I’d usually look at him with a blank stare—instead of scripture, we were taught how to be a good friend, and made Christmas ornaments out of cotton and popsicle sticks. I received my first communion and was confirmed. But even then, I felt a disconnect between what I listened to on Sundays and what I saw, as the donation baskets made more and more rounds, and every church seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, despite a downturn in attendance. As I grew older, I couldn’t reconcile the Vatican’s positions on contraception, premarital sex, and the rights of women and gays. For me, the Bible—much like the Constitution—has become twisted by those who warp its meaning to fit their worldviews. I can get behind the Ten Commandments—God was pretty clear with those. But if there’s a higher power that would condemn a woman in South Africa for using the Pill when it’s been estimated that a rape occurs every 26 seconds there, or a loving same-sex couple who want to get hitched and maybe even adopt a parentless child, then count me out.
That’s where Chaput draws the line. I know some wonderful church-going Catholics who are among the most moral and honorable people you’d ever meet. They also happen to have gay friends and wouldn’t think to ban their kids from using birth control. According to Chaput, those same people are the “lukewarm” witnesses who have helped create this amoral mess he says we’re in. Chaput trumpets the need for better Catholic higher education and “more young adults on fire for Jesus Christ” (another curious position, in light of the recent attempts to close Catholic schools across the city). I can’t help but wonder if his intent is to create more Rick Santorums to set the White House aflame with God’s will.
Near the end of A Heart on Fire, Chaput bemoans the fact that while 31 percent of Americans say they were raised in the faith, less than 24 percent describe themselves as Catholics today. Based on what he’s preaching, he doesn’t want the Frankenstein’s monsters like me back in the pews. If you’re not anti-gay, anti-abortion, and politically aligned with politicians like Santorum, he probably doesn’t want you, either.