NEW YORK -- It was hard, especially when discussing faith during troubled times, for Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput to avoid the copper-tinted elephant in the national living room -- but he tried.
The leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made only one reference to Donald Trump and his victory over Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Trump's win was just another sign of painful realities in American life.
"Some of those trends, in a perverse and unintended way, helped elect President Trump. But Mr. Trump is a REACTION to, not a REVERSAL of, the current direction of the country," said Chaput. "It's a sign of our national poverty that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were so distasteful and so deeply flawed in the 2016 campaign."
The big idea at this forum -- held at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Manhattan's East Village -- was that believers cannot expect politicians to provide solutions for several decades worth of moral puzzles. The archbishop's address was built on themes from his new book, "Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World."
At some point, he said, clergy and laypeople alike will have to make hard choices about how to live faithful lives in a radically different environment.
"Nations and peoples are changing all the time. If they're not, it means they're dead," said Chaput. "America is built on change because we're a nation of immigrants -- ALL OF US. … A nation's identity breaks with the past when it changes so rapidly, deeply and in so many ways that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. I think we're very near that point as a country right now.
"Why do I say that? Here's why. In 60 years -- basically the span of my adult life -- the entire landscape of our economy, communications, legal philosophy, science and technology, demography, religious belief and sexual morality has changed. And not just changed, but changed drastically."
The 72-year-old Capuchin Franciscan friar is a key conservative voice in debates about Catholic doctrine. I have known him since the mid-1980s, when he was a pastor, campus minister and administrator in Denver. Chaput became a bishop in 1988 in South Dakota, before becoming Archbishop of Denver in 1997. Pope Benedict XVI named him Philadelphia's archbishop in 2011.
Chaput has defended Catholic teachings on topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as opposing the death penalty. He has called for compassionate efforts to help the poor, refugees and immigrants in the bluntest terms possible, such as: "If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell."
In "Strangers in a Strange Land," he argues that a major cause of today's distractions and confusion is an uncritical embrace of technology. Thus, a "central fact of modern American life is idolatry. … We worship ourselves and our tools."
To survive, and thrive, Christians must realize they are being tempted to bow to modern versions of ancient idols, said Chaput, before his speech.
Clearly, many people "worship Mammon," the god of riches, "to the point of replacing God," he said. Often a "desire for success, measured by financial success alone," causes them to become workaholics. This can cause cracks in marriages and families, "which is where so many temptations begin."
As in ancient times, many Americans worship sexuality. Chaput said it's easy to sense this while hearing confessions each week.
"It's incredible the role that pornography plays in the formation of people's lives today," he said. "I've noticed, in the past five years especially, that more women than ever before are bringing the same issue as men. … And pornography is being directed at women."
Finally, many believers are being tempted to put their trust in political power, even more than in the government itself.
"It's amazing to me the loyalty that people have to their political parties," said the archbishop. "This is true about Republicans and Democrats. It's not just one party." This is "especially true in the Northeast part of the country where … it's not my country, right or wrong, but it's my party, right or wrong."