Archbishop Chaput on Public Opinion

We must make sure our faith means more to us than public opinion. The public sphere so desperately needs the influence of true Christian faith.

chaputTocqueville saw public opinion as a great vulnerability for democracy. In a democracy – at least in theory – every man is his own final moral authority. But the reality is different. Men and women very soon discover how isolated and uninformed they are as individuals. In the absence of a strong religious or similar community, they tend to abdicate their thinking to public opinion, which is the closest that purely secular democracies ever come to a consensus. To the degree that public opinion can be manipulated, democratic life is subverted.

This is why the Founders saw religion as so important to the health of the public square. At its best, faith creates a stable moral framework for political discourse and morally educated citizens to conduct the nation’s work. The trouble is, no religion can survive on its utility. People don’t conform their lives to a message because it’s useful. They do it because they believe the message is true and therefore life-giving. Or they don’t do it.

My point is this: The “next 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, but it’s made in America. We can blame the mass media, or the academy, or science, or special interest groups for the environment we now face. But we Christians – including we Catholics – helped create it with our eagerness to fit in, our distractions and overconfidence, 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 is exactly the same kind of religion that Symmachus once mourned. Whatever it once was – now, it’s dead.

–Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia

Assumption College
November 10, 2011


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