American Catholics should embrace losing.
It’s not as if we haven’t had ample opportunity over the last several years. We should know by now that U.S. Catholics often find ourselves among the least respected groups in modern society, particularly for our “backwards” views on marriage, sexuality and life issues. True, we have certainly come a long way from our roots as immigrants battling white nativist sentiments. We have gone on to achieve remarkable influence in government, education, and healthcare.
Despite all this success, it seems as though not a year goes by without a grievous and demoralizing public scandal. We find ourselves rightly berated for our hypocrisy and attachment to political ideologies that are inconsistent with the Gospel. The more we try to win and make friends, the more we find ourselves in last place. When will we begin to focus on the only race that matters?
Archbishop Charles Chaput says that “God never loses.” But the fact is he did lose—in the world’s estimation. St. Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). There is no wisdom in death; there is no victory in being crucified. As the future Pope Benedict XVI asked in God Is Near Us, “Did Jesus fail? Well, he certainly was not successful in the same sense as Caesar or Alexander the Great. From the worldly point of view, he did fail in the first instance: he died almost abandoned; he was condemned on account of his preaching.”
It is Christ who transforms his “failure” by his act of infinite love, but this victory over death is not one the world will always see, recognize, accept or understand. We have the witness of the martyrs—perhaps the ultimate losers—over two millennia to demonstrate this. Because of Christ’s love, we can now say that the only victory Christians can aspire to is our own defeat, when we lay down our lives, our advantage, our privilege—our everything—for the sake of others and for the sake of the Gospel. Benedict continues, “When, today, we look at past history, then we have to say that it is not the Church of successful people that we find impressive… Rather what strengthens our faith, what remains constant, what gives us hope, is the Church of the suffering.”
When Jesus told us to “take up your cross,” he did not mean for us to wear it as a badge of honor, as if Christ’s death was a trophy to lord over others. It is a reminder that we are strongest when we are weakest (2 Corinthians 12:10) and that it is God, not us, working through our humble acts of love to transform our world. Said another way, true victory does not pass through the utter humiliation of the cross and on to worldly success. Rather, it dwells with the cross and must remain there in order for us to continue sharing in Christ’s domination over death and sin in daily life. The cross is not a boot camp. It is the way.
Conversely, Chaput wants us to believe that the way has been paved by men like William Barr. “Throughout my life,” Chaput reflected, “the men and women I’ve most admired have all had the same qualities: a thinking Catholic brain, a character of substance, and a moral spine. General Barr has all three. As an added bonus, he’s disliked by all the right people. I want to thank the various and interesting critics of General Barr for confirming me in that judgment.” The picture he paints is of the Christian hero as a philosophizing strongman, admired perhaps less for displaying the Christian virtues than for thinking the right thoughts and being disliked by the people we want nothing to do with.
That Chaput’s celebration of the “Christian identity” of “the most powerful nation in history” comes on the occasion of honoring Attorney General William Barr is yet another example of choosing “winning” over losing. For those who are paying attention, Barr has notoriously overseen the restarting of federal executions after decades; the award ceremony this week was bookended by two federal executions. His very public actions place him in direct contravention of Church teaching on the death penalty. The striking policy shift earned the rebuke of the USCCB, which pointed out that in the few months since the federal death penalty was reinstated, more federal executions have been carried out than in the 60 years prior.
In the course of offering praise for the Attorney General, Chaput reflected on the address of Pope Benedict XVI in Freiburg, Germany in 2011. Chaput quotes Benedict: “the Son of God . . . took flesh and became man, not merely to confirm the world in its worldliness and to be its companion, leaving it to carry on just as it is, but in order to change it.” And yet, this is the only thing Chaput’s article and Benedict’s speech have in common. Both would clearly state that faith changes us and changes the world, but Chaput apparently believes that this change can be measured by worldly standards, whereas Benedict believes this is a distraction from our mission of evangelization.
Archbishop Chaput seems to predict a worldly triumph when he writes,
His Church can never lose when we, as her sons and daughters, remember our history, our Christian identity, and our mission to speak God’s truth with love. We’re here to change the world in the name of Jesus Christ. And the people in this room have the talent and the influence to do it, by helping to shape the course of the most powerful nation in history.
But almost as if in response, Benedict says,
As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself.
In short, Benedict’s humble yet transcendent reflection on the nature of the relationship of the Church with secular authority and power—a topic he returned to repeatedly throughout his years as a public thinker and as pope—is reduced by Chaput to an endorsement for Christians to change the world through the political victory of the Church. Chaput’s conflation of Christian victory and political advantage is truly disturbing. The two are never synonymous and in fact are frequently in opposition to each other. History bears this out. When they are identified with one another, as Pope Benedict observed in the same speech, “the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world.”
One of the many kinds of challenges Benedict identifies but Chaput seems to completely ignore are the challenges “from within” that do not pertain to purity or simplicity but to authenticity and what Benedict identifies as “detachment.” Benedict does not consider “losing” by the world’s standards to be a threat to the Church’s mission, but a “profound liberation.” He recalls that in the past when the Church has been forced to set aside worldliness, material goods, and influence, it has embraced worldly poverty and in so doing “her missionary activity regained credibility.” This detachment from worldliness is essential to the integrity of the Church and to her witness. In short, to keep the faith, we must embrace our status as losers. Benedict continues:
History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world.
Can Archbishop Chaput’s honoring of Barr be a clearer example of our failure as Catholics to set aside the pursuit of political power for the sake of the Gospel? When Catholics are defined by—or even celebrated for—the enemies we have made along the way, that means we have drifted from Jesus’ hard teaching to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. As Benedict concludes, “It is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness.” Catholics are losers. This is a good thing, because it can orient us to what is true and good in the world—namely, the power of God’s love that transformed his greatest defeat into mankind’s greatest victory.