Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from an address given by Archbishop Chaput at St. Francis De Sales Seminary, Milwaukee, on April 4, 2022.
Old age has enormous value for its experience and prudent counsel — but not for command. The final years of the John Paul II pontificate were painful to watch. There’s no reason why even the papacy should be a life sentence. And likewise in the secular world — quite apart from all of their other deficiencies — the very last thing we need as a nation is another four years of Joe Biden or Donald Trump. They’re simply too old. And that’s dangerous.
The world has always been a dangerous place. But it’s especially so now. We’re living through a kind of global, cultural re-formation that hasn’t been seen, at least here in the civilization we call “the West,” since Luther and moveable type, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment. We can’t afford sclerotic leaders — and that applies to every form of public leadership, both political and religious. Age diminishes the willingness to sacrifice, to risk, to see things clearly, and to face conflict. And in a time of unavoidable conflict, ambiguity and feebleness are toxic.
Because there are, in fact, “things worth dying for.”
Here’s an example. There’s a reason that military service has always fallen most heavily on young people, and especially on young men. They have the strength, the passion, and the willingness to risk their lives for something greater than themselves. In the real world, the world where bad ideas and grand ideologies can have lethal consequences, very few things are actually worth dying for. The list is short: our families, the friends we love, our personal honor and integrity, and most obviously our faith in Jesus Christ.
But we also need to add one more entry to the list: the nation.
Here’s why I mention it: For the past century, the people of Ukraine have undergone an extraordinary series of crucifixions: a Soviet invasion in 1917 followed by a civil war; a genocidal starvation campaign by Josef Stalin; ferocious repression of their churches; mass deportations; a German invasion during World War II; more repression by the Soviets; a bitter guerrilla war against the Soviets that stretched into the 1950s; the 2014 seizure of the Crimea by Russia; and now another a full-scale and unprovoked Russian invasion.
What we’ve been witnessing in Ukraine over the past six weeks is a people defending their heritage and homeland who are willing to die in the process; a people with a long record of dispossession and suffering on a scale never experienced by our own country. No war is ever entirely pure or good in its execution. But a people fighting for their national survival; dying if necessary for the things they love about the land they call home — those people are worthy of our admiration and support.
They also offer us the kind of witness that forces us to examine our own nation, and ourselves. And in some ways, the comparison isn’t a happy one.
We Americans take great pride in the framework of our founding. And rightly so. The Founders created a culture of law, liberty, and hope for a better future, unique in history, grounded in personal responsibility, and shaped by the marriage of biblical morality and Enlightenment thought. The Founding was far from perfect. Tolerance for slavery was its worst stain. And the treatment of Native peoples — people like my Potawatomi ancestors, originally from here in Wisconsin — was anything but kind. But on the balance, the success of the American experiment speaks to the basic goodness of its origins.
That’s our national creation myth. But it’s a true myth; a myth made real by the work and sacrifices of generations of Americans. The question is whether we can sustain it; whether the myth can remain true. And that leads to two other questions: If human lives are precious — and of course, they are — is it worth risking them for a nation increasingly defined by sexual dysfunction, compulsive consumerism, indifference or hostility to religious faith, and corporations that interfere with a people’s legitimate public discourse? When, if ever, is a cancel culture worth dying for? At what point does it deserve a prompt and ill-attended funeral?
One of the things wrong with our country right now is the hollowing out and retooling of all the key words in our country’s public lexicon; words like democracy, representative government, freedom, justice, due process, religious liberty and constitutional protections. The language of our politics sounds familiar. But the content of the words is different. Voting still matters. Public protest and letters to members of Congress can still have an effect. But more and more of our nation’s life is governed by executive order, judicial overreach, media and corporate interference, and administrative agencies with little accountability to Congress.
A man my age — unless he’s been asleep most of his life — gets very good at naming and explaining problems, and why certain things won’t work in fixing them. But the same experiences that make him good at analysis, can blind him to new ideas and solutions. The Church always needs reform and renewal, pursued with fidelity and trust instead of fear. T
If we want to reclaim who we are as a Church, if we want to renew the Catholic imagination and be leaven in the world, we need to begin by unplugging our hearts from the assumptions of a culture that still seems familiar but is no longer really “ours.” It’s a moment for courage and candor, but it’s hardly the first of its kind.
This isn’t a dark time unless we make it so. We’re simply back again in the night before the Resurrection. The night passes. And we already know how the story ends; we just need to imprint it on our hearts. Gratitude is the beginning of joy. This is a moment of privilege and opportunity, not defeat. Reverence for the past is a good thing, but clinging to structures and assumptions that no longer have life is not. We’ve been given the gift of being part of God’s work to rebuild — and build better — the witness of his Church in the world. So let’s pray for each other, and thank God for each other; and lift up our hearts to pursue the mission, and create the future, that God intends.