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Archbishop Chaput on the Common Good

4/29/2007 - 1:30 PM PST

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"More Than a Political Slogan"

WYNNEWOOD, Pennsylvania, APRIL 29, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the lecture presented April 21 by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver at the conference "Promoting and Protecting the Common Good."

The conference was held at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, and organized by the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology. It is printed here with the permission of the Krol Chair.

The speech was also published on the Web site of First Things.

* * *

Religion and the Common Good

Sooner or later, every teacher hears the same old joke about the philosophy student and his dad.

The dad asks, "Son, what are you going to do with that goofy degree?" And the son says, "I'm going to open a philosophy shop and make big money selling ideas." I smile every time I hear it, because nobody yet has figured out how to get rich off the Sartre or Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche franchise. Or that's what I thought until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend of mine came back from a local bookstore with a bag full of Nietzsche's Will to Power Bars.

You'll remember that Nietzsche first claimed that God was dead. Then he went insane. Then he argued that he was God himself. Now he has his own candy bar. In fact, the wrapper not only claims to be filled with "chocolaty goodness," but also to be "the official nutritional supplement of the superman." Unfortunately, the wrapper also urges us to "think beyond good and evil," so I'm not sure it's telling the truth.

The company that makes these candy bars is the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. It was started by a couple of academics who couldn't get a job. The guild also makes a Franz Kafka finger puppet and a "Here's Looking at Euclid" T-shirt. It also makes the Karl Marx Little Thinker beanie doll, and Impeachmints, the anti-George Bush breath sweetener. In the words of the company founders, "It turned out that making smart, funny things proved to be almost as satisfying as probing eternal questions.... [And] although we still contemplate truth and justice, it is our enduring goal to fulfill the materialistic desires of the funny and sophisticated everywhere."

I don't know if Nietzsche himself would endorse these bars. Given his mental state at the end of his life, I'm not sure he'd care. But he did have a ruthless sense of humor. Nietzsche might enjoy the fact that he's exactly the kind of thinker young college men now quote to impress young college women. He has some of the same rebel appeal that Milton gave to Lucifer and Goethe gave to Mephistopheles. He's bold. He's radical. And the fact that he also went mad adds just the right touch of drama. In other words, he makes a great cultural icon for Americans to eat as a candy bar, because most Americans will never read a word of what he actually said.

The trouble is, once upon a time, some people in Germany did read him. And they did take him seriously. And they acted on what he said. Ideas have consequences. When Nietzsche asks us on the back of a Will to Power candy bar, "Is man merely a mistake of God's, or God merely a mistake of man?" we Americans can swallow our chocolate along with our Starbuck's and grin at the irony from the comfort of 2007. Sixty years ago, no one would have gotten the joke. There was nothing funny about the Holocaust. Ideas have consequences.

That brings us to our topic. When Cardinal Justin Rigali first invited me to talk about religion and the common good some months ago, I accepted for two simple reasons. First, I'm tired of the Church and her people being told to be quiet on public issues that urgently concern us. And second, I'm tired of Catholics themselves being silent because of some misguided sense of good manners. Self-censorship is an even bigger sin than allowing ourselves to be bullied by outsiders.

Only one question really matters. Does God exist or not? If he does, that has implications for every aspect of our personal and public behavior: all of our actions, all of our choices, all of our decisions. If God exists, denying him in our public life -- whether we do it explicitly like Nietzsche or implicitly by our silence -- cannot serve the common good because it amounts to worshiping the unreal in the place of the real.

Religious believers built this country. Christians played a leading role in that work. This is a fact, not an opinion. Our entire framework of human rights is based on a religious understanding of the dignity of the human person as a child of his or her Creator. Nietzsche once said that "convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." But that's false. Not even he believed that, or he couldn't have written a single book.

In fact, the opposite is often true. ...

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