Benedict Leadership Award

On March 3rd, 2022 Archbishop Chaput was awarded the Benedict Leadership Award.

You can read his address below.

+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Benedict Leadership Institute, 3.3.22

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered an important fact. If you survive long enough without saying or doing too many stupid things, people start mistaking that for wisdom and give you awards. So I don’t have any illusions about earning the honor you’ve given me tonight. But I am very grateful to be here.

I’ve admired Belmont Abbey College for a very long time, both for its academic excellence and its courage. I spoke here in 2009 — exactly13 years ago — at a moment when the college faced intense bullying from the Obama administration. And what I said then applies even more forcefully tonight:

“It’s one of the great ironies of the moment that tiny Belmont Abbey [College] would have the courage to challenge Caesar over its right to be faithfully Catholic in its policies, while so many other American Catholics seem eager to give Caesar honors . . . One of the deepest truths of the human predicament is this: If you stand up to evil, you may lose. But if you don’t stand up, you will lose. Belmont Abbey [College], to its very great credit, has the character to stand up and defend its right to be Catholic.”

Caesar hasn’t changed, and neither has his appetite. Contempt for religious faith has been growing in America’s leadership classes for many decades, as scholars like Christian Smith and Christopher Lasch have shown. But in recent years, government pressure on religious entities has hardened. It involves interfering with the conscience rights of medical providers, private employers, and individual citizens. And it includes attacks on the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities, hospitals, and other ministries. These attacks are real. They’re happening now. And they’ll get worse as America’s religious character weakens.

This is all happening, by the way, when our current political leaders seem to be a curious mix of arrogance and vindictiveness at home, and incompetence abroad. We’ve turned abortion into a kind of sacred right. We’ve lost control of our southern border. We’re obsessed with pronouns and confused sexuality. Parents are identified as domestic terrorists. Self-described Catholic public leaders act with astonishing hypocrisy. And meanwhile, Russia and China — as we’ve seen with brutal clarity in Ukraine and Hong Kong, and may very soon see in Taiwan — quite accurately perceive us as weak, distracted, and bumbling. If I overstate these problems, it’s not by much. We’re a hegemon in decline, and other countries can sense it.

So what does all this mean for us as Catholics and citizens?

Our traditional political system presumes a civil society that pre-exists and stands outside the full control of the state. In the American model, the state is meant to be modest in scope and constrained by checks and balances. Mediating institutions like the family, Churches, and fraternal organizations feed the life of the civic community. They stand between the individual and the state. And when they recede, the state fills the vacuum they leave. Protecting these mediating institutions is therefore vital to our political freedom. The state rarely fears individuals, because alone, individuals have little power. They can be isolated or ignored. But organized communities are a different matter. They can resist. And they can’t be ignored.

This is why, for example, if you want to rewrite the American story into a very different kind of social experiment, the Catholic Church is such an annoying problem. She’s a very big community. She has strong beliefs. And she has an authority structure that’s very hard to break — the kind that seems to survive every prejudice and persecution; even the mediocrity and worst sins of her own leaders.

As Catholics, most of us have a deep love for our country. But this is not our final home. There is no automatic harmony between Christian faith and American democracy. For all of its strengths, democracy has the potential for its own peculiar and very powerful kind of tyranny. In the words of the political philosopher Robert Kraynak, democracy advances “the forces of mass culture which lower the tone of society . . . by lowering the aims of life from classical beauty, heroic virtues and otherworldly transcendence to the pursuits of work, material consumption and entertainment.” This inevitably tends to “[reduce] human life to a one-dimensional materialism and [an] animal existence that undermines human dignity and eventually leads to the ‘abolition of man’.”

To put it another way: The right to pursue one’s happiness does not include a right to excuse or ignore evil in ourselves or anyone else. When we divorce our politics from a grounding in virtue and truth, we transform our country from a living moral organism into a kind of golem of legal machinery without a soul.

Happiness, real happiness, is tied to wisdom, and wisdom grows out of risk and suffering; the beauty and hard edges of experiencing the real world. It’s never the result of commerce. We can’t own happiness. We can’t buy it. It’s also never solitary. Happiness needs other people. The joy of a young mother is linked to the gift of life she makes to a new and unrepeatable soul in the act of birth; to the pain and effort she experiences in bearing her child. Happiness is either created and shared with others here and now, or remembered as moments shared with others in the past. This is why, even as he was beaten and starved in a Nazi death camp, the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl could know happiness and the interior freedom it brings when he remembered the love of his wife.

Comfort is a different thing. It’s the emollient we place between ourselves and the facts of everyday life. It’s our insulation. Our analgesic. The world can be nasty and unforgiving. Nobody wants to be cold in the winter when we can be warm; or hungry when we can eat steak. Comfort isn’t a bad thing in its proper place. But comfort becomes “happiness” in only one circumstance: when we provide it to another person; when we ease someone else’s suffering or burden.

America in 2022 has become a consumer culture that runs on the marketing, sale, purchase, and consumption of comfort. We like and want comfort because we’re creatures with bodies that experience pleasure and pain, but we long for happiness. And down deep we all know which is which, and which is more important. We were made for something more than anesthetics. This is why a culture of pleasure and indulgence, a culture focused mainly on the pursuit of material well-being, is never really a culture of joy. Comfort is about the self, about making things easier or escaping inconvenience. And when it’s the main dinner course of a life and a civilization, it first dulls the appetite for happiness and then replaces it altogether.

My point here is simple. A consumer culture diminishes hardship, but it also lowers our horizons to the here and now. Comfort is a costly habit to feed and a demanding habit to maintain. As that great French theologian and fragrance expert, Coco Chanel, once said, the best things in life are free; the second-best things are very, very expensive. The greater a man’s need for comfort, the more he has to lose, the greater his fear of losing it, and the more firmly cemented he is to this world and its uncertainties.

Thus a culture committed to, and organized around, the pursuit of things that make a life comfortable can never really value nobility, honor, courage, or magnanimity — the qualities that distinguish us as human — because these very different things demand self-denial, and risk, and a belief in something or Someone greater than ourselves. Comfort lived as a guiding appetite produces mediocrity. It sedates the soul. The result is a disinterest in, or a resentment of, any higher purpose to life as an unwanted distraction — or worse, an intrusion. It’s useful to compare this kind of spiritual enfeeblement with the current Chinese slogan “996.” Large segments of China’s defense, software, and other key industries operate on the principle of “996” — work begins at nine in the morning and ends at nine in the evening, six days a week, every week. And all of it serves an explicitly higher purpose: building the power and prestige of the nation. The words “weakness” and “decline” are absent from the current Chinese vocabulary.

The lesson is obvious: Worship of the self and its comforts, and worship of the state and its prestige, are both forms of idolatry. But it doesn’t take a genius to know which is more compelling and more powerful.

So what do we do about our situation? The only way to create new life in any culture is to live our lives ruled by convictions greater than ourselves and shared with people we know and love. It’s a path that’s very simple and very hard at the same time. But it’s the only way to make a revolution that matters.

When young people ask me how to change the world, I tell them to love each other, get married, stay faithful to one another, have lots of children, and raise those children to be men and women of Christian character. Faith is a seed. It doesn’t flower overnight. It takes time and love and effort. Money is important, but it’s never the most important thing. The future belongs to people with children, not with things. Things rust and break. But every child is a universe of possibility that reaches into eternity, connecting our memories and our hopes in a sign of God’s love across the generations. That’s what matters. The soul of a child is forever.

If you want to see the face of Europe in 100 years, for example, look to the faces of young Muslim immigrants. Islam has a future because Islam believes in children. Without a transcendent faith that makes life worth living, there’s no reason to bear children. And where there are no children, there’s no imagination, no reason to sacrifice, and no future. At least six of Europe’s most recent and prominent national leaders had no children at all. Their world will end with them. It’s hard to avoid a sense that much of Europe is already dead or dying, and nothing prevents us from doing the same.

The America we now see emerging — an America ignorant or cynical toward religion in general and Christianity in particular — shouldn’t really surprise anyone. It’s a new America, made in America. We Christians — including we Catholics — helped create it with our eagerness to fit in, our distractions, and our own lukewarm faith.

Too many people who claim to be Christian simply don’t know Jesus Christ. They don’t really believe in the Gospels. They feel embarrassed by their religion and vaguely out of step with the times. They may keep their religion for comfort value. Or they may adjust it to fit their doubts. But it doesn’t reshape their lives because it isn’t real. And because it isn’t real, it has no transforming effect on their personal behavior, no social force, and few public consequences. That sort of faith, whatever it once was, is now dead.

So again, having said all this, what can believers, and especially Catholic believers, do about it?

Here’s a simple fact: We make history, not the other way around. We’re not victims or the helpless creatures of inevitable historical forces. Nothing in this world is inevitable except the victory of Jesus Christ, and that includes what history finally says about the character of the nation we call America. During my years as a bishop, I’ve met thousands – and I mean many, many thousands — of young adults on fire for Jesus Christ and deeply committed to their Catholic faith. But they need encouragement, formation, education, and leadership. And this is why Belmont Abbey College and other institutions like it are so vitally important.

If we reread the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement on the nature of the contemporary Catholic university, we’ll notice that the word “faith” appears nowhere in the text. In effect, the statement is a declaration of independence from any authority outside the academic community itself. This might make some sense for a secular institution. But it’s odd for any scholarly community committed to serving both faith and reason; and it creates real problems of honesty for any school wishing to cast itself as part of a living Catholic tradition.

The easing away of Catholic universities and colleges from their Catholic identity can have various causes. But a common factor is the discomfort too many Catholics feel with a scholarly tradition that can be made to seem shabby and primitive in an age of scientific doubt.

This is the worst sort of falsehood — the kind that steals a treasury of wisdom, imagination, and hope from emerging Catholic leaders.

The genius of authentically Catholic higher education is the schooling it gives in the mutual dependency of faith and reason. At its best, it refuses to separate intellectual and moral formation because they are inextricably linked. It gives primacy to the disciplines that guide the formation of a holistic view of reality — philosophy and theology. It aids in the creation of a Christian culture and explains what such a culture means for human thriving. It offers a coherent anthropology that treats the human being as a whole, and actually gives meaning to the words “human dignity” instead of turning them into a slogan for the latest version of selfish individualism or grievance politics. It offers an immersion in the virtues, and an appreciation of humanity’s material and spiritual realities — the visible and invisible world — all of which get their life from belief in Jesus Christ. 

Catholic higher education is heir to the greatest intellectual, moral, and cultural patrimony in human history. It has a deeply satisfying answer to who and why man is. It’s beautiful because it’s true. It has nothing to be embarrassed about and every reason to be on fire with confidence and apostolic zeal. We only defeat ourselves — and we certainly don’t serve God — if we allow ourselves to ever think otherwise.

St. Benedict — the patron of this institute and this college — embodies the Catholic ideal of personal holiness lived in a community of virtue; and the integration of faith and life at the very highest level. If we do not know and love Jesus Christ, and commit our lives to him, and act on what we claim to believe, everything else is empty. But if we do, so much else is possible – including the conversion of at least some of the world around us. The only question that finally matters to any of us is the one Jesus posed to his apostles: “Who do you say I am?” Everything depends on the answer. Faith leads in one direction; the lack of it in quite another. But the issue is always faith – always and everywhere, whether we’re scholars or doctors or priests or lawyers or mechanics. Do we really believe in Jesus Christ, or don’t we? And if we do, what are we going to do about it?

The vocation of a Catholic college is to feed the soul as well as the mind; to offer a vision of men and women made whole by the love of God, the knowledge of creation, and the reality of things unseen; to see the beauty of the world in the light of eternity; to recapture the nobility of the human story, and the dignity of the human person This is the work that sets fire to a young person’s heart. It starts the only kind of revolution that really changes anything: a revolution of love. Jesus said, I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.

The task we share here tonight is to help Jesus kindle that blaze, and then use all our strength, every ounce of our energy, to help it grow.