(CNA) Changes in the nature of American society call the faithful to renew their commitment to living out their beliefs in public life, said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia.
The “America of Catholic memory is not the America of the present moment or the emerging future,” Archbishop Chaput said July 26, as he addressed the annual gathering of Catholic leaders hosted by the Napa Institute in Napa, Calif.
In response to this reality, he urged Americans to “recover our distinctive Catholic identity and history” in order to restore a proper understanding of freedom in the U.S.
The archbishop explained that America’s founders, whose “moral framework was overwhelmingly shaped by Christian faith,” welcomed the cooperation of government and religious groups in promoting society’s interests.
They realized that religion was not merely a matter of private belief or worship, but a matter of “active discipleship,” which involves “preaching, teaching, public witness and service to others,” he said.
Given that context, the founders understood religious freedom encompasses “the right of religious believers, leaders and communities to engage society and to work actively in the public square,” Archbishop Chaput said.
But a growing secularism and the loss of a moral foundation suggest that “America is becoming a very different country.”
He pointed to growing “contempt” for religious faith, as well as “government pressure on religious entities,” seen not only in the highly-publicized contraception mandate but also in attacks on the conscience rights, hiring practices and tax statuses of businesses, charities, medical workers and private citizens.
Such threats will “get worse as America’s religious character weakens,” he warned.
However, there is still an opportunity to change the culture, Archbishop Chaput said, adding that Catholics need to acknowledge “America is now mission territory.”
Change is brought about “not just by our actions, but by what we really believe – because what we believe shapes the kind of people we are,” he said. “A culture is more than what we make or do or build. A culture grows organically out of the spirit of a people – how we live, what we cherish, what we’re willing to die for.”
This change in culture will require a shift in thinking, he explained, and a realization that there is not an “automatic harmony between Christian faith and American democracy.”
“Democracy is not an end in itself,” the archbishop reminded the Catholic leaders gathered in Napa. “Majority opinion does not determine what is good and true.”
Rather, there is a need for politics rooted in virtue, he said. Catholics must stand up for what they believe, realizing that political involvement is “urgent” and will play a significant role in shaping the nation’s future.
“Democracies depend for their survival on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square,” he insisted.
Archbishop Chaput explained that the cooperation required for democracy cannot become “an excuse for compromising with grave evil” or for “standing idly by while our liberty to preach and serve God in the public square is whittled away.”
If we are not willing to work tireless to promote a culture that respects human dignity and a true freedom, “we should stop trying to fool ourselves that we really believe what we claim to believe,” he said.
There is also a need for interior renewal, allowing for silence and God in our lives, he added, explaining that this is necessary to form the prudent and reasonable electorate on which America depends.
Looking to the future of the U.S., Archbishop Chaput called on the faithful to work towards “growing” a culture of religious freedom by living out the Gospel without hesitation.
“The firmer our faith, the deeper our love, the purer our zeal for God’s will – then the stronger the house of freedom will be that rises in our own lives, and in the life of our nation,” he said.
Participants in the July 26-29 Napa Institute Conference will hear from numerous Catholic leaders on how to live as Catholics in modern-day America. The sessions aim to help them to grow in their understanding of the faith and be motivated to live and defend their beliefs in a secular culture.