Archbishop Charles Chaput Challenges Catholics
to be Catholic in public life and in the voting booth

Book Review, Render Unto Caesar, Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, DoubleDay, 2008

by Phil Sevilla

Let’s start with gold medal quotes from the Archbishop Chaput’s book, Render unto Caesar:

A republic of self-absorbed compromises with Volvos and good alibis is probably not what the founders had in mind when they gambled their lives on the Revolution.” (p. 214)

"The majority of voters can be uninformed or biased or simply wrong. Thus, to survive, American democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the public square - legally, ethically, and nonviolently, but forcefully and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the nation's health."(p.147)

“The argument that pursuing our Catholic beliefs vigorously in public affairs could lead to a fundamentalist theocracy or a Christian Taliban is dishonest at its root. For one thing, it’s bad history.” (p.214)

These quotes represent the general theme the Archbishop draws out over 233 pages. It’s difficult to put the book down once you get to chapter two, titled “Men Without Chests”. How’s that for an attention grabber? The book flows well, in extremely readable, straight-forward prose and I would speculate that’s exactly how the Archbishop wanted this work to come across, to be widely read by citizens of all ages and walks of life, not only Catholics.

 Archbishop Chaput must have thought about this book for some time. His speech given almost a year ago at St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, New York, drew on similar themes. The title of his talk there was "Church and State Today: What Belongs to Caesar, and What Doesn't." The good Archbishop is certainly setting a high bar within the American hierarchy with this timely publication. In print and in bookstores barely three months before the 2008 national elections, surely one of the Archbishop’s objectives was to get this book out into the hands of American Catholics in time for what is shaping up to be a white-knuckled, nail-biting election, at least at the presidential level.

While Archbishop Chaput is no Johnny-come-lately to the subject of the cultural wars in America, the ever widening chasm  between faith and a culture which has grown more coarsened, vulgar, and profane as the post-60s sexual revolution decades go by has been  measured and recorded  by other Jeremiahs in the clergy going on for over forty years now. We’ve seen admirable efforts by stalwart churchmen like John Cardinal O’Connor of New York , Father Paul Marx, founder of Human Life International, Monsignor George Kelly, and Bishop John Myers (of  Peoria then when he wrote the great pastoral letter in 1990 titled, The Obligations of Catholics and the Rights of Unborn Children) to name a few, who (some as early as the 1960s and 1970s) were manning the watchtowers and wildly ringing the bells warning that the barbarians not only breached the walls but were overrunning the elitist institutions in academia, journalism and mass media, government, and industry.

Let’s not forget the great 20th century Florence-born Catholic theologian, Dr. Deitrich von Hildebrand, who narrowly escaped the Nazi dragnet before escaping Germany. In Trojan Horse in the City of God, he wrote in 1967 addressing opposing traditionalist and progressive forces rending asunder unity within the post-conciliar Church:  ”One can be progressive and a Catholic but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith. The idea of a progressive Catholic in this sense is an oxymoron, a ‘contradictio in adjecto.’” 

The Archbishop asks in one chapter of Render unto Caesar, “What Went Wrong?” He does a masterful job, in this writer’s opinion, dissecting but avoiding overstating the powerful post-WWII forces, especially politics and social sciences that “invaded the church’s understanding of herself”, a  time when “aggiornamento”, a welcoming Church’s  accommodation of the modern world was thought by many to be the road to a hopeful future for better relations between church and state.  

Chemical contraception introduced in 1960 exploded like a grenade dividing and scattering theologians in the Church, some who jumped the gun before the Pope and the papal commission completed their studies on the moral issues surrounding the pill. This pseudo-magisterial cadre of theologians declared their approval in a full paged ad in the New York Times and attempted to force their increasingly popular though erroneous opinion on the Pope. Pope Paul VI declared in 1968 that the pill was immoral and envisioned a future of devastated marriages and widespread immorality and illegitimacy. He was proven right.

Archbishop Chaput’s book is not a polemical piece in search of villains to pillory and cast into the darkest corner of Gehenna. Rather the Archbishop explores the lives of noble men of courage and character to inspire us to become great and excellent Catholics today. You will enjoy reading his vignettes about St. Thomas More, Emperor Constantine, Martin Luther King, even concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, who found as a brutalized prisoner of the Nazis, the sublime meaning of human life: “’I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret than human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.’”

In the context of this chapter on the meaning of life, Archbishop Chaput exhorts Catholics to engage the world, dismissing the idea that asking “Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs amounts to telling them to be barren; to behave as if they were neutered.” I totally agree. I would add that for Catholics to withdraw our voices from the public square for fear (let’s be honest) of endangering the Church’s tax exempt status or invite public criticism and scorn would be tantamount to Catholics withdrawing  into our own Catholic ghettos. This is unacceptable especially if we voluntarily put on the shackles ourselves.  But there are real threats, aren’t there? I recently watched on the popular Hannity and Colmes TV talk show, former Minnesota Governor and professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, snarl that pastors should have no part in influencing their congregations to vote one way or another or their tax-exempt status should be revoked if they do! Now considering the source, we don’t need to overreact but what was shocking was Catholic Hannity had nothing to say to refute the implied threat to our religious liberties.

There’s a great story in the chapter, Constantine’s Children, about New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel (1935-1964) who excommunicated prominent Catholics, a Judge, political writer, and a community organizer for publicly opposing and defying the Church’s laudable leadership role in ending discrimination and segregation in parochial schools in the South during the 1950s.

In contrast to Archbishop Rummel in the ‘50s, Archbishop Raymond Burke’s experience has been very different. His forthright, authoritative and unambiguous public stand on pro-abortion politicians has garnered widespread criticism and scorn. What are we to make of this? According to Archbishop Chaput, “Catholics, in seeking to live their faith, can’t follow convenience.” Reality in America and the body politic today is such that “in recent American politics, the line that divides “prophetic witness’ from ‘violating the separation of church and state’ usually depends on who draws the line, who gets offended – and by what issue. The line wanders conveniently.”

As Catholics we all owe Archbishop Charles Chaput a debt of gratitude, our respect and appreciation for helping us understand the spiritual and temporal consequences of our responsibilities and obligations as citizens and as members of the universal Church. To whom? Firstly, to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and, secondly, to our neighbor. He emphasizes that if we “really believe that the Gospel is true, we need to embody it in our private lives and our public choices.” So true. responsibility and obligation of Catholic voters?  In the Archbishop’s words:

“We sin if we support ‘pro-choice’ candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so – that is, grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn.” (p. 230)

Father John Corapi, S.O.L.T., puts it in similar stark and urgent terms:

 “We share in the good and evil of those we place in office. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, although ‘sin is a personal act, we have a respon-sibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them.”

We’ll let Archbishop Chaput have the last words to help cut through the confusion many Catholics seem to fall into nowadays. Decisions are not always easy to make:

“Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices:  to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all.”

Whatever we do, according to the Archbishop: “We need to keep fighting. Otherwise we become what the Word of God has such disgust for: salt that has lost its flavor.”

I’d like to get a copy of Render Unto Caesar to everyone I know. Every Catholic should inform his conscience in all matters of his private and public life and seriously consider the consequences of complacency, ambivalence, obstinacy, and downright ignorance. Choosing to be ignorant and turning a blind eye or deaf ear to the truth or just simply rejecting it is all too common today. Harsh words, but it’s true. Calling yourself an ardent, practicing Catholic when you willfully support the murder of unborn children and same sex marriage is an astounding example of hubris of the worst kind, much worse than lukewarmness, a terrible state of the soul. (Rev 3:16) In the words of the Archbishop, “Saying you’re Catholic and then rejecting Catholic teaching is dishonest; it shows a lack of personal integrity.” Thank you, Archbishop Chaput for calling us to be better Catholics and better citizens.

(Phil Sevilla is the Executive Director of Project Defending Life, a pro-life ministry in Albuquerque, NM, and the President of New Mexicans for a Moral and Constitutional Government, a 501(c)(4) non-profit educational organization.  Visit website:

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