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Resisting the Coca Leaves of Modern Culture

Resisting the Coca Leaves of Modern Culture

Ruminatrix

Daniel McInerny - published on 11/19/13

Archbishop Charles Chaput’s recent Mexico City address on the New Evangelization in America stresses that our cultural crisis is ultimately a product of our unsatisfied hunger for God.

In the 272 words he used in his Gettysburg Address, the 150th anniversary of which we celebrated yesterday, Abraham Lincoln encapsulated the very essence of what it means to be a citizen of the United States. We are a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We are a nation that, at our best, commits itself each day to “a new birth of freedom.” We are nation that chooses to be ruled by a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of which we commemorate on Friday, may inspire us to reflect on many things. The horror of the incident itself. The glamour of “Camelot.” The uneven record of his foreign policy. But the Kennedy I’d like to remember is the man who spoke such stirring words as these: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” 

This week’s two melancholy anniversaries remind us of certain key ideals that form not only our government but also our culture. But they also invite us to compare those ideals with the situation of our own day. Do we still honor the dead of Gettysburg by arising each day to a new birth of freedom grounded in our common and equal humanity? Do we honor Kennedy’s belief that our rights are not indulgences of the state or products of mere human fiat but gifts from the Almighty? 

Last Saturday in Mexico City there began a Vatican-sponsored conference on the New Evangelization in America, with “America” understood as including all of North, Central and South America. One of the keynotes was delivered by Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, a keynote which does a remarkable job at helping us compare our political ideals here in the United States with our present practical reality. Archbishop Chaput cited three significant ways in which our polity is falling short of its own aspirations, beginning with the scourge of poverty.

“Many of us who live in the North have no experience of poor health care, poor education, poor housing, poor sanitation, no electricity, serious corruption or mass unemployment–at least, not on the scale common to some other countries of Americ” said the archbishop.Still, “one in every six persons in my country now lives below the poverty line. And poverty always, inevitably comes with a family of other ugly issues: hunger, homelessness, street crime, domestic violence, unemployment, human trafficking.”

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Yet the archbishop also diagnosed our culture here in the U.S. as suffering from an acute “moral poverty,” a poverty “that comes from an advanced culture relentlessly focused on consuming more of everything; a culture built on satisfying the self; a culture that runs on ignoring the needs of other people. That kind of poverty, as Mother Teresa saw so well, is very much alive in my country. It’s like a parasite of the soul. It leaves us constantly eating but constantly hungry for something more–all the while starving the spirit that makes us truly human.” And this moral poverty, just like spiritual poverty, has its consequences. “It brings fear of new life, a turning away from children, confused sexuality and broken marriages. It results in greed, depression, ugliness and aggression in our popular culture, and laws without grounding in truth.”

The archbishop here echoes a theme that Pope Francis has made a dominant one of his pontificate: that material abundance is just as real a poverty as material lack. What the human spirit yearns for is not stuff but meaning. Happiness requires certain material necessities, but they are not its essence.

Drugs are the second focus of the archbishop’s critique of contemporary U.S. culture. He cites Marx’s apothegm that religion is the opiate of the people, only to reject it. The real opiate of the people, the archbishop claims, “the coco leaves of modern culture,” is “the river of consumer comforts and distractions,” drugs foremost among them, that dull our pain with a temporary experience of bogus ecstasy. The archbishop is well aware that condemning the scourges of poverty and drugs is not new. But what he wants to emphasize is that our moral poverty and our dependance on narcotics are derived from and make worse “our deeper hunger for God and our gnawing sense of obligation to so many other people.”

For the third focus of his critique of U.S. culture, Archbishop Chaput turns toward the bishops themselves. As a human being each bishop is weak and limited, and yet each has been called to lead. The challenges the archbishop cites as facing U.S. bishops are formidable, chief among them a shattered moral consensus that once was largely Christian, and lack of interior formation even among the baptized and catechized. Yet this is the culture that is hungry for the love of God, and the bishops, whatever their weaknesses, must be bold in ministering to it.  

Archbishop Chaput belongs to the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, and in his concluding remark he celebrates the Holy Cross and Jesuit missionaries that brought the greatest treasure of the “Old World” to the “New World”: the Catholic faith. In the New Evangelization, the Lord is calling us to revive the “New World,” to make it new again with the breath of the Gospel. But the biggest obstacle to this task “is the Old World that lives in our own hearts, even in those of us who are bishops, and maybe especially in some of us who are bishops: our pride, our cowardice, our lack of trust in the promises of God.”

America is at its best when it makes room in its laws and customs for the spirit that longs for God and others. This is how our freedom is given new birth each day.

Daniel McInerny is the English language editor of Aleteia. You are invited to contact him at daniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, and to follow him on Twitter @danielmcinerny.  

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