We live in a turbulent time; a time that’s similar, in some ways, to the various Reformations of 500 years ago. History, of course, doesn’t repeat itself. History is a creation of unique and unrepeatable people. So the gulf between Europe in 1521 and our circumstances today, in 2021, is huge.
But patterns of human thought and behavior do repeat themselves. The sense that we’re living through a sea change in human affairs, the anxiety and confusion that seem to infect so much of the world and penetrate even the Church—these things are historically familiar. And in such a time, a word like “obedience” can sound foolish, or even toxic. The questions that we all face demand to be answered before we commit ourselves to anyone or anything. What can we believe? How can we trust? Whom should we follow—and why? In other words, why be obedient to anything or anyone?
The virtue of obedience presumes that rightful authority exists. And it leads us to respect and comply with those who properly exercise it. Obedience has been central to my life. I was a Capuchin Franciscan long before I was a bishop, and even before I was a priest. And as a Capuchin, I took a vow of obedience. That vow is a pillar of every healthy religious community. And it plays the same role in every successful marriage. The mutual obedience of husband and wife secures the covenant of their love. We submit ourselves to the needs of the other out of love—or, if we’re having a bad day, we do it at least out of loyalty.
But Christian obedience is never a form of unthinking servility. We have brains for a reason. Christian obedience is an act of love. It’s a free gift of the self, and when obedience to authority becomes mechanical and excessive, or worse, if it serves a bad end, it crushes the spirit. All real love—and especially the love at the heart of a healthy obedience—is ordered to truth. Spouses have the duty to speak the truth to each other, charitably and respectfully, but also honestly, even when it’s unwelcome. Life in the Church is no different. When authority undermines itself with corruption, falsehood, ambiguity, brutishness, cowardice, or mismanagement, fidelity to the truth requires faithful Christians to resist and challenge it.
So why would we need the Church—any Church? Why would anyone live and die for such a creature? The answer is simple. Many of us wouldn’t and don’t. At the everyday level, many of us attach ourselves to the gospel’s message of repentance, conversion, and conforming ourselves to Jesus Christ simply as a kind of “fire insurance” for the afterlife or a pretty good ethical system dressed up in supernatural vocabulary.
But that’s not Christianity. And it’s alien to what an authentic Christian life entails. There is no such thing as a purely “cultural” Catholicism, for example. An emotional attachment to rosary beads is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t exhaust the nature or the demands of a living faith. A religion of nostalgia is the product of sentimentality. Its convictions are infinitely plastic and easily revised—as we’ve already seen in the actions of the current White House and at least 60 Catholic Democratic members of Congress.
So again, why do we need the Church? We need the Church because Jesus Christ founded her to be his witness, and to continue his work in the world. We need the Church because she’s the living body of Christ in human affairs. She’s our mother and teacher in what it really means to be a Christian. She’s the guardian of the Word of God. For Catholics, she’s our sacramental home where we find the source and summit, the joy and consolation, of our Christian life—the Eucharist. She’s the community of believers, encouraging, correcting, and supporting each other. She’s the pilgrim people of God across borders and centuries, leading the human heart to where it can finally rest in the love of its Creator. And we need the Church because she’s the living memory of our redemption, our identity, and our purpose in whatever time God gives us.
Some years ago the great Jewish scholar Yosef Yerushalmi wrote a book titled Zakhor. It’s a Hebrew word—zakhor means “remember.” The book is a reflection on the nature and importance of memory in the survival of the Jewish people, despite centuries of persecution and dispersion. Memory matters. A man with amnesia has lost the network of experiences and relationships that make him who he is. In a sense, he’s lost a part of his personhood. His identity has disappeared.
As it is with individuals, so it is with nations and peoples. And so it is with the Church. Memory is the soil out of which the present and future grow. The Jewish people survive because they remember who they are. They contribute great good to the world around them—but they also protect and treasure the things that set them apart and define them.
The point is this: Remembering the past is a form of schooling. The past can be dangerous if we use it as an escape from reality or a cage to prevent fresh thinking. But if we pursue the past honestly, the discipline of remembering that we call “history” is one long lesson in two great virtues: humility and hope. Humility, because we humans have a remarkable talent for making the same stupid mistakes again and again, century after century. And hope, because we also have the genius to recover, to rebuild, to improve our lives, to seek justice, and to create beauty. And we’re never abandoned by the God who loves us.
So allow me to close with two memories.
Exactly 500 years ago, in 1521, Martin Luther refused to recant his teachings at a very public and dramatic meeting in Germany with Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. That act, combined with Rome’s response, sealed the breakdown of Christian unity and led to centuries of bitter religious conflict and ill will.
Exactly 11 years ago, I gave a talk on the vocation of Christians in American public life. I gave that talk at the invitation of Houston Baptist University. I was a Catholic bishop, speaking at a Baptist university, in America’s evangelical heartland—and I was welcomed with more warmth, kindness, and fraternal support than I might get today from quite a few people and even some universities that consider themselves “Catholic.”
The lesson for us today is simple. The issues that still divide us as Christians—from matters of doctrine, to the nature and organization of the Church herself—are important. We can’t paper them over or pretend them away. We need to respect them. Obviously I’m a Catholic bishop, and I believe accordingly. But we now live in a world where, in so many practical ways involving marriage, family, human sexuality and purpose, as well as religious freedom, what we share as faithful Christians is more pressing than what we don’t. If we mean what we say when we call ourselves “Christians,” we can at least be obedient to Christ’s command to love each other, and to find ways to work together to serve the gospel.
The work of renewing the soul of the world is God’s, but his instrument is the Church. And the work of renewing the Church is also God’s, but he accomplishes it through us. The Church, however our various traditions might conceive and experience her, is only as pure and strong as the faith, zeal, courage, and fidelity of her people. We need to remember who we are as a people, and why we’re here—and then conform our lives to the task.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia. This text is excerpted and adapted from remarks at the 2021 Napa Institute summer conference, “All Things Made New.”
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