Working Paper No. 09-21:
Putting the World Back Together? Recovering Faithful Citizenship in a Postmodern Age

Author(s):

Harry Hutchison

Date Posted: March 2009

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Abstract:

Archbishop Chaput's book, Render Unto Caesar, signifies the continuation of ethical an impressive and persistent debate about what it means to be Catholic and how Catholics should live out the teachings of the Church in political life in our postmodern society. Render Unto Caesar provides evidence that America's identity and future are endangered by trends reifying radical human autonomy and choice. New threats surface in the form of legislation and judicial interpretations permitting choices that were once considered criminal to be accepted. This trend has been accompanied, if not facilitated, by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have contributed greatly to the privatization of religion. In light of the emergence of such trends, and given the likelihood that some Catholics, guided by an ongoing process of assimilation, have failed to contest adequately these developments, Archbishop Chaput offers a splendid reply to Aristotle and Professors Scaperlanda and Collett's dense interrogation: how ought we to live together. Such questions are complex because the acceleration of trends favoring individual singularity in our own age signals that many humans prefer to distance themselves from a community and a tradition representing shared values. Instead of accepting the real world of human history they see themselves as an abstract instance of the human species, an autonomous being that remains the epicenter of the universe.

Against this inclination, and venturing to engage a nation that is exemplified by a diversity of incommensurable values and world-views, Charles Chaput stresses the special responsibility of Catholic public officials in sorting out the good and calls upon all Catholics to refrain from self-censorship regarding issues that ought to concern them. But in a postmodern society, the inevitable effect of modern liberalism is that some will view religion as "a private eccentricity" rather than as a central and formative element of the nation. This viewpoint is commonplace because giving religious voices space in the public square as a singularly important aspect of a believer's life locks in both society and individuality to the past from which modern liberalism seeks to deliver us. While Render Unto Caesar provides a laudable foundation that might enable Catholics to properly influence America's ongoing debate about public policy, the common good and the nation's identity, such a foundation must confront the insistent demands of modern liberalism, and the likelihood that Catholics themselves have been incubated in, and have accepted as normative, a process of equivocation and self-censorship. Given this outcome, the likelihood that American Catholics will surrender to Archbishop Chaput's persuasive intuition is remote.