Despite the challenges facing the United States, Catholics and Mormons can work together — with St. Augustine as a model, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Tuesday at Brigham Young University.
“We need to wake each other up to see the world and our nation as they really are — the good along with the evil,” he said March 22. “We need to support each other in the work for religious freedom we share. We need to treat each other as friends, not enemies or strangers. We need to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.”
“It’s important for our own integrity and the integrity of our country to fight for our convictions in the public square,” he said. “Anything less is a kind of cowardice.”
The Archbishop of Philadelphia spoke at the most prominent university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are commonly known as the Mormons.
Archbishop Chaput noted that he was speaking exactly six years after Cardinal Francis George of Chicago addressed the campus when he spoke about Catholics and Mormons as partners in religious freedom. The cardinal went further, citing shared concerns like marriage, family, poverty, the harms of pornography, and the sanctity of the unborn child.
“He also acknowledged that the differences between our two religious communities are large. And that ignoring them serves neither God nor the truth,” Archbishop Chaput said. Cardinal George had said despite these differences, it is important and urgent to deepen friendship through common witness and dialogue.
Archbishop Chaput proposed St. Augustine of Hippo as a model. The North African bishop authored the first autobiography and reflected deeply on the meaning of Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was facing military and cultural collapse.
“Augustine lived and worked in the thick of his people. As a bishop, he engaged the problems of the society around him every day — even as the Roman world fell apart, and his own city came under siege,” Archbishop Chaput said.
“Our task as believers, whatever our religious tradition, is to witness our love for God and for each other in the time and place God puts us.”
Archbishop Chaput surveyed the history of U.S. Catholicism. He said that Catholics “have never entirely ‘fit’ in America,” given their small numbers and the historical dominance of Protestant and Enlightenment influence.
Historically, U.S. Catholic bishops worked to protect their largely immigrant flock from public hatred and sought to prove Catholics’ loyalty as good citizens in the American mainstream. This “zealously patriotic” attitude endured through Archbishop Chaput’s own generation.
“At its best, America is an exceptional nation,” he said. “It’s a country built on limited government, the rule of law and economic opportunity. Personal rights and liberties still actually mean something here. And our public life, while non-sectarian, is — or at least was — founded and grounded in a broadly biblical morality.”
However, Archbishop Chaput noted severe disillusionment among some Catholics. He recounted the feelings of a friend on the cultural right who “simply doesn’t believe that America, as it currently stands, is the same country he once loved.”
“The America he sees now — an America of abortion, confused sex, language police, entitlements, consumer and corporate greed, clownish politics, and government bullying of religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor — is different in kind, not merely in degree, from the nation he thought he knew,” he said.
Archbishop Chaput characterized such feelings as “harsh” but understandable. The archbishop reflected on the so-called “Benedict option.” This approach to cultural change takes inspiration from monastic founder St. Benedict. According to the archbishop, this involves “finding a way to preserve people from the most dysfunctional elements of the secular world — either by building new communities or withdrawing mentally, or even physically, from the public culture around us.”
He said this approach can be compelling and should not be dismissed as escapism.
However, St. Augustine was someone who loved the world “because he was in love with the Author of the beauty and goodness he found there.” Following his example means fulfilling duties “first to the City of God but also to the City of Man,” he said, alluding to the saint’s political categories.
“It means working with all our energy to make our nation whole and good, even as we keep our expectations modest, and even when we experience criticism and failure. And finally, it means realizing that none of us can do this work alone.”
“Augustine would tell us that the real problem with the world is bigger than climate change or abortion or poverty — or even two leading presidential candidates who seem equally distasteful — and it’s much more stubborn,” the archbishop continued. “The real problem with the world is us.”
“As Augustine said in his sermons, it’s no use complaining about the times, because we are the times. How we live shapes them.”
Archbishop Chaput noted changes in the United States across the centuries. The scale of the country has increased to 300 million people, its demography has changed, its legal theory has changed and its technology has changed. Americans’ approach to marriage, relationships and sex has also changed.
“Sexual confusion isn’t unique to our age, but the scope of it is. No society can sustain itself for long if marriage and the family fall apart on a mass scale. And that’s exactly what’s happening as we gather here today,” he said.
Members of the LDS Church were leading opponents of the redefinition of marriage. Archbishop Chaput said the U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex unions as marriages was “a legal disaster,” but part of cultural trends dating back decades.
“Americans have a deep streak of individualism, a distrust of authority and a big appetite for self-invention. As religion loses its hold on people’s behavior, all of these instincts accelerate. The trouble is that once the genie is out of the bottle, sexual freedom goes in directions and takes on shapes that nobody imagined.”
However, even setbacks and failures can create future successes “if we learn the right lessons.”
The archbishop closed his remarks by exhorting the audience to follow the unofficial motto of BYU: “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.”
“If you do that, you’ll inspire others to do the same. And you’ll discover in your own life what it means to be fully human,” he said.
“Never neglect to nourish your roots and your identity as a university grounded in faith. Faith in God is the road to life. Faith in a loving God is the light that illuminates and gives meaning to human reason and to all of life.”