I recently had the privilege of recording an hour-long conversation with Archbishop Charles Chaput, reflecting on the current condition of America. It was a friendly Catholic-Protestant dialogue on matters as diverse as the theology of the body, pornography, and personhood. The touchstone for our discussion was the archbishop’s new book, Strangers in a Strange Land.
I am sure his book will enjoy a wide readership among orthodox Roman Catholics. I am just as confident that its unabashed Catholic orthodoxy will merit the usual criticism from those Catholic progressives who somehow manage to combine liberal Protestantism’s distaste for dogma with a newly-minted ultramontanism that would even make Cardinal Manning turn in his grave. But I believe it is a book that Protestants should read as well.
Archbishop Chaput is a key figure at this moment. He is a senior churchman who is resolute in his practical application of his Catholic faith. That resoluteness is vital for all who love freedom of religion—which depends in America on the Roman Catholic Church holding the line on key ethical positions. If Rome crumbles, we will all suffer the political consequences. We need to support those leading churchmen who are prepared to take the hard stands. (Though as the archbishop once said to me, it is never difficult to do the right thing, merely very exhausting.)
But Archbishop Chaput is also an engaged thinker and writer, with a gift for bringing his learning lightly to the page so that important and complicated topics are made clear and accessible. In this book, he offers both an analysis of how we have come to the cultural and political situation in which we now find ourselves, and hope for the future. Not hope of the naïve variety, which overestimates the outward strength of Christianity—but hope that sees in the Christian tradition the means for regrouping and rebuilding in the wake of the moral devastation we are witnessing.
There are too many strands to his argument to give a full account here, but it is clear that the archbishop sees the sexual revolution as central to our current situation. He is surely correct in this, and his identification of Wilhelm Reich as the key ideologue is important, as is his use of Augusto Del Noce, perhaps the most important modern philosopher whom Protestants have never heard of. Way back in 1970, before anyone was even talking about it, Del Noce predicted gay marriage as the point upon which religious freedom would founder. The archbishop also draws constructively on Alasdair Macintyre, emphasizing that our culture has lost any coherent basis upon which to debate and adjudicate matters of public policy.
Yet the archbishop is no prophet of doom. As a committed pessimist, I was decidedly rebuked by his claim that pessimism is not an option for Christians, and that cynicism and despair are the besetting sins of our age. Hope is a virtue. Realism is appropriate. Pessimism and its counterpart, optimism, are irrelevant and illegitimate for Christians.
The archbishop offers not just critique, but also positive proposals. One of the most moving sections discusses the way in which the sexual revolution and the overweening arrogance of science have destroyed the mystery of life and reduced sex to a casual recreation. He declares, “The crime of the modern sexual regime is that it robs Eros of its meaning and love of its grandeur.”
He presses home how we Christians have too often allowed the sexual revolution to shape our own thinking, by way of naïve negation. Here, for example, is one of the most profound statements I have ever read on the issue of purity, one that both brings the biblical concept into sharp focus and reminds us of how we have let secular sex trump Christian thinking:
Given the hypersexualized nature of today’s culture, when we think of purity, we usually think of sexual purity. And thinking of purity, we typically focus on abstinence. So purity somehow transforms into not experiencing a thing we want to experience. This is a distortion. Purity is about wholeness or integrity. It means that the body, mind, heart, and soul are rightly ordered toward God. Every element of who we are is doing its part to bring us to union with God, which is our ultimate happiness. Given the strength of the sexual desires we all feel, rightly acting on those desires is a key part of maintaining purity. For single people and celibates, … it means offering those desires up to God and seeking to channel them in our love and service for others.
In a world where sex permeates everything and where the dominant Reichian myth, preached with demonic plausibility by every movie, sitcom, and soap opera, is that sexual activity is what constitutes true existence, the place of single, celibate Christians is set to be a significant pastoral issue. Sound teaching on positive purity is thus both vital and—to be really countercultural—beautiful. Recent, ugly nonsense about those who supposedly cannot refrain from sinful sexual relations is pastoral cruelty disguised as kindness. The voice of Archbishop Chaput, by contrast, strikes a welcome and profound note of clarity and true compassion.
There is much more to this book. It is both profound and provocative. And, while unabashedly Roman Catholic, it is, to adapt a phrase from Henry VIII, a book for me and all Protestants to read.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.