Reclaiming Liberty: Archbishop Chaput’s speech, “Building a Culture of Religious Freedom”

Though it barely made the whirligig of national and international news on Friday, Archbishop Charles Chaput offered a major address on the state of Catholicism within the American republic.  It is a speech that demands consideration, study, and widespread dissemination.  It is, simply put, one of the finest speeches delivered by a Roman Catholic on North American soil.

Three things jumped out at me immediately as I read the speech (well, actually, I was driving across Texas; my wife read it to me): 1) its strength of character and conviction; 2) its intellectual depth; 3) and its willingness to challenge basic American Catholic assumptions.  A fourth thing hit me as well, but I’ll save this until later.

Here’s the transcript of the speech.

None of this, I suppose, should be surprising.  Chaput is probably one of the best bishops in the world, and his intellect and soul should convince even the most ardent anti-Catholic (yes, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and atheists, I’m writing toward, near, and to you) that the Church is built upon something stronger than mere superstition.

In his address delivered at the Napa Institute, Chaput stated:

Time and again, Catholics have proven their love of our nation with their talent, hard work, and blood. So if the bishops of the United States ever find themselves opposed, in a fundamental way, to the spirit of our country, the fault won’t lie with our bishops. It will lie with political and cultural leaders who turned our country into something it was never meant to be.

And, again:

Americans have always been a religious people. They still are. Roughly 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians. Millions of Americans take their faith seriously. Millions act on it accordingly. Religious practice remains high. That’s the good news. But there’s also bad news. In our courts, in our lawmaking, in our popular entertainment, and even in the way many of us live our daily lives, America is steadily growing more secular. Mainline churches are losing ground. Many of our young people spurn Christianity. Many of our young adults lack any coherent moral formation. Even many Christians who do practice their religion follow a kind of easy, self-designed gospel that led author Ross Douthat to call us a “nation of heretics.”1 Taken together, these facts suggest an American future very different from anything in our nation’s past.

Considering the last twelve years of American political life, it’s hard not to take Chaput’s words to heart.  A recap of the insanity of American life is worth thinking about, especially as the America I knew growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Kansas vanished on September 11, 2001.  The Patriot Act–remember when we were promised it was temporary–has been renewed and renewed and renewed and renewed.  Add the TSA, NDAA, and other strange and alien laws (some from Congress and more from the executive) to the mix, and we can see that the last two administrations have either enacted, sponsored, or ignored more abuses of civil liberties than any other presidents of the last 100 years.

The one exception, of course, is Franklin Roosevelt.  His theft and concentration of Japanese Americans into camps with executive order 9066 is certainly one of the lowest low points of recent history.

Add, yet again, the fact that our presidents can now call in air blockades on sovereign countries wihtout consent of Congress, and the power of the executive (in gross contrast to what even the most ardent supporter of executive power, Alexander Hamilton, envisioned) seems nearly complete.

Every time we have turned a blind eye–willfully or not–to an abuse of power and a denigration of the human person, we have contributed to the situation in which we now find ourselves.  Frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  Did any person really believe that President Obama would diminish the power that he inherited from previous executives?  Like every other person (almost) in history, he’s inherited, consolidated, and built.

Now that the government has gotten away with the denial of basic and natural rights of its citizens, it will continue to erode the protection afforded by communities such as the Roman Catholic Church.

Chaput warns that we are entering a new era as American Roman Catholics.  Another bishop said fairly recently that the time of martyrdom in the “free” world is most likely returning.  And, the bishop of bishops, BXVI, has stated directly and indirectly that we must expect a much smaller Catholic Church in the not so distant future.

This leads me to the fourth thing that struck me as I read Archbishop Chaput’s fine speech.  In every way, the speech is a spiritual call to arms.

We might very well be past the point of no return (with apologies to Kansas).  But, even if we are, we are not released from our obligations to fight for the dignity and the liberty of the individual person.

We should never forget the words of John Paul the Second.  To paraphrase: each person is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom.  No person and certainly no government has the right to deny what God has granted.



  • Kathryn Hanley

    Excellent quotes from his homily! The directness and challenge are refreshing, as is the delicate balance of the need for coherent agreement as well as dissidence. :)

  • BenM

    This speech, in a lot of ways, could be considered a Cliffs Notes version of Abp. Chaput’s book, “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.” If anyone appreciated the power and insight condensed into the speech he gave, I would highly recommend the fully fleshed out message available in the book.

    • Brad Birzer

      Thanks much, Ben! Just ordered for $3 from ABEBOOKS. Didn’t know about this.



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