Must-Read: Catholics and Our American Culture

“Social issues.” It’s a squishy, equivocal term suited to a mentality ill at ease with the hard-edged implications of “moral issues” and “morality.” What implications? That there are definite moral truths that show some things to be always and everywhere wrong and deserving of condemnation. Not what the “social issues” mindset cares to hear.

There’s some helpful thinking on this subject in a new book by an archbishop that I want to recommend. But before getting to that, let me do a little scene-setting.

Much of the debate about social issues, moral truth, and the like has focused so far in this election year on Rick Santorum and his run for the Republican presidential nomination. Think what you will about Santorum’s candidacy, he stirred up a hornets’ nest. A typical reaction from the secular left comes from a Washington Post columnist named Lisa Miller, who, in a state of extreme exasperation, delivered this wisdom:

“ ‘You can’t go home again,’ Thomas Wolfe said. Modernity is here, with all its progress and imperfections, and no matter how hard they pray, Santorum and his flock will never be able to turn back time.”

Leaving aside the appositeness of using the title of a novel published 72 years ago to argue that there’s no looking back, Ms. Miller has a point. It’s the point typically made by liberal pundits who wish to tell us their particular take on modernity is the only correct one—and if you don’t like it, lump it.

But there’s a different way of thinking. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, gave it an ironic twist when he said, “Truth is like a threshing-machine; tender sensibilities must keep out of the way.” Note that bothersome word: truth.

The quote is the lead-in to A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, a new e-book by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. (Published by Image Books, it’s available from and Barnes and Noble.) This is a feisty manifesto by an admired leader of the Church.

One of its surprises is the recovery of largely forgotten essay by Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., “The Construction of a Christian Culture,” based on lectures delivered in 1940. Father Murray is usually recalled as a kind of precursor of progressive Catholicism for his advocacy of religious liberty against Church conservatives. Here, though, he’s saying something very different: “American culture…is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world.”

“It’s most striking characteristic,” he writes, “is its profound materialism….It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.”

And this, Archbishop Chaput pointedly remarks, is the “American mainstream” of which all too many American Catholics have rushed to become part in the decades since John Courtney Murray wrote.

During this time, the dominant American culture has turned from secular to secularist, while efficiently secularizing its adherents, Catholics included. “Instead of Catholics converting the culture,” the archbishop laments, “the culture too often bleached out the apostolic zeal in Catholics while leaving the brand label intact.” Here’s the triumph of Ms. Miller’s “modernity …with all its progress and imperfections” that writers like her tell us to accept, no questions allowed.

Archbishop Chaput doesn’t buy it. And if American Catholics do buy it, he warns—as very many have—then Catholicism is finished as a significant cultural factor in the debate on moral values and much else.

Catholics have important choices to make about the future of the Church. A Heart on Fire can help us make them.

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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