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Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver on his book Render Unto Caesar, about faith and politics.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

HH: A special couple of hours straight ahead, very important hours in this, a very political year, because I’m going to be talking about politics and faith with someone who has thought deeply about them, and written a brand new book about them. I’m pleased, honored, actually, to have Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the Archdiocese of Denver join me. His brand new book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving The Nation By Living Our Catholic Beliefs And Political Life. It’s linked at Archbishop, welcome, it’s great to have you.

CC: Thank you, Hugh, I’m grateful to be on the show. I’m happy to talk to you and your listeners.

HH: Well, I want to start by sort of centering them in who you are. The faithful in Denver, and even those who are not Catholic in Denver and Colorado, and your old Diocese of South Dakota will know you, Archbishop. But can you give us a little bit of biography?

CC: Well, I’m a Kansan by birth, born there 63 years ago, and of course, been a Catholic all my life, and wanted to be a priest from the time I remember. I entered the seminary early in life, in high school, actually, and eventually joined the Capuchin Franciscan order, which is one of the branches of the order founded by St. Francis of Assisi. And after being formed to be a Capuchin Friar and a priest, was in ministry teaching in the seminary, helping run the religious order I belong to, pastor in a parish, eventually head of the order that I belong to, and then was made bishop of Rapid City twenty years ago, and came to Denver nine years after that, eleven years ago, and I’ve been here as the Archbishop of Denver for the last eleven years. My family is from a rural Kansas family. On my mother’s side, I’m Potawatomi Indian, which people find very interesting, and my dad’s side, mostly French Canadian.

HH: Where do the Potawatomis originally hail from, Archibishop?

CC: I think the first historical contact with people from Europe was the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. But eventually, they moved all over that part of the country, and my ancestors were moved by the federal government from Southern Indiana to Northeastern Kansas, and that’s where our reservation is today.

HH: And which seminary did you attend? St. Joseph’s?

CC: No, I attended a Capuchin seminary in Victoria, Kansas called St. Fidelis, and then I went back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh in a place called Herman, Pennsylvania. It was St. Fidelis College Seminary, and then Annapolis, Maryland for my noviciate and my theology at Capuchin College in Washington, D.C.

HH: You didn’t anywhere along the line become a Steelers fan, did you?

CC: I did.

HH: You see, this is very, very unfortunate.

CC: I’m secretly still a Steelers fan even though I live in Denver. I shouldn’t be saying that publicly, but you know, I was there when they won all their Super Bowls, and it’s hard not to be attracted to that kind of spirit and energy.

HH: But as a man of God, weren’t you dismayed by their cheating?

CC: (laughing) Oh, I am dismayed by cheating everywhere.

HH: I’ll put that aside. Archbishop, to start this off as well, I’m fascinated by your book. I have now read it cover to cover twice…

CC: Well, thank you very much.

HH: And Render Unto Caesar really needs to get out there. But I also want to put the context around it in terms of the Church which you lead right now, of which you are part of the leadership broadly. How is the Catholic Church doing in the Diocese of Denver?

CC: Well, we’ve been blessed here. You know, the Holy Father came here for World Youth Day 15 years ago, and that really regenerated the spirit of the Church here. The Diocese has about 525,000 Catholics at the northern part of Colorado. We have about 300 priests working here. Just nine years ago, we began a new seminary. Actually, we have two seminaries here. And I think in the last eleven years, we probably ordained 60 or so priests from that seminary for our own Diocese and for other Diocese. So we’ve been blessed with vocations for the priesthood. We have a seminary, I think, that starts next week, and I think we expect it to be more than a full house. There’s a lot of new movements here among the laity, a lot of lay leadership. We have a new group called Endow, which is about promoting the thought of Pope John Paul II regarding the dignity of women, so it’s kind of a women’s support group that does wonderful work. We have Focus Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which is the Catholic version of Campus Crusade. We have a new graduate school of theology for the laity called the Yusen Augustine Institute, and we have our two new seminaries. So those are just some of the more obvious activities that are going on here. So we have a lot of enthusiasm for the faith.

HH: Now against that backdrop of a lot of light and a lot of energy in Denver, as we read through Render Unto Caesar, your book, we come across these amazing stats that just a few decades ago, 49,000 men were studying to be priest in the United States. That number is now 5,600. One out of three basically Catholics attend Mass on a weekly basis. How’s the Church in America doing with stats like that?

CC: Well, it’s something to worry about. You know, when I was a young man, I think approximately 75% of the people who said they were Catholics said they went to Church on Sunday, and now it’s down into the 30s nationally, three percentage points or so. We did a demographic study here last December, a very serious one, it was one we spent quite a bit of money on, and we find that our attendance here among those who identified themselves as Catholics is a little above 40%. So I think in a community like ours, where the Catholic population isn’t as old or as big, sometimes there’s more energy and enthusiasm, because we don’t take our Catholic identity for granted. Only 16% or 17% of the people living in Northern Colorado are Catholics. But 40%, or 42%, wherever we are, is nothing to brag about.

HH: Right.

CC: You know, we should hope that everyone would be enthusiastic about gathering in the name of the Lord on Sunday and pray together. So we have a long way to go here, too.

HH: I’m talking, if you’re just joining us, and will be this our and next, with Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Denver Diocese, Archdiocese in Colorado. All right, taking up to 30,000 feet, Archbishop, Church worldwide as we begin this conversation, how is it doing?

CC: Well, there’s tremendous amount of energy in the Church. I just came back a couple of weeks ago from Australia, and World Youth Day. And to see all those young people gathered together because they were called together by Pope Benedict was a heartening experience. And so even though the practice is small in some ways, the people who are faithful Catholics seem to be reenergized and really committed. So perhaps we’re at the point of a new Pentacost, as Pope John Paul II sometimes talked about our time. I certainly hope so, and you know, the Church was much smaller then. And in the course of a couple hundred years, converted the whole Roman empire. So I hope we can reconvert ourselves by cooperating with the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives these days.

HH: Were you surprised by the response that Benedict met when he came to the United States?

CC: You know, I was surprised that everybody expected not to like him. And you know, anytime anybody has met the Pope personally, they come away knowing that this man is a good man who has a loving heart and has a kind and gentle spirit. So the surprise that we really like this guy, he’s not such a bad man, in some sense, surprised me, because to presume that he was a harsh or difficult…was a stupid kind of presumption on our part of people. But I was pleased that the Holy Father was received so well. I just hope people listen to what he said, because it’s not enough just to like the man. Those of us who are Catholics, if we’re good Catholics, we pay attention to what he says.

HH: Now Archbishop, let’s dive into the book. Again, for the benefit of people tuning in, it’s Render Unto Caesar: Serving The Nation By Living Our Catholic Beliefs In Public Life. And I want to emphasize, it’s not just for Catholics, though that’s obviously the intent of this. I was trying to figure out your motive, and then I came across a quote from a Vietnamese bishop, later made a cardinal, which was, “The greatest failure in leadership is for the leader to be afraid to speak and act as leader.” Is that part of the motive, Archbishop?

CC: Well, I have a responsibility as a bishop to clearly proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when people don’t want me to do that, and even when it’s difficult. So I wouldn’t claim to be particularly courageous, but I feel responsible. And if I don’t speak on the issues that I think the Lord calls me to speak, I feel guilty about that. So for me to be quiet on these issues would have been a harder burden for me to carry, perhaps, than speaking about it. Actually, I mentioned two reasons why I wrote the book. One is some Catholic political folks asked me to, people who ran for office, and were having struggles because of that. But more importantly, I’ve grown tired of so many people in our culture saying to believers that they ought to be quiet, that there’s no place in the public square for the voice of faith. I wanted to make a distinction between separation of Church and state, and separating our faith from our politics. You can embrace the concept of separation of Church and state, but that’s not at all the same thing as separating our faith from our actions, from our political actions.

HH: Was it times to appear prior to the presidential election consciously?

CC: Well, people have asked me that. You know, I finished the book a year ago this month, and gave it to Doubleday, and it takes a long time for it to get through the process of being published. I personally had hoped that it would come out in the early spring so it wouldn’t be seen as something that was aimed particularly at this election. But the publisher is the one who controls that. And some people have told me they think it’s a blessing both in terms of the message of the book, and for the people of our time, for the people of this moment, that it’s coming out this close to the election.

HH: You know, I think it’s going to discomfort not just liberals, but a lot of conservatives as well. I don’t think you could pigeonhole this as a conservative or liberal book, and I’ve been through it in quite detail. I hope that’s what your assessment is.

CC: Well, you know, people sometimes pigeonhole me as a conservative, and I hope what I am is a Catholic. And I preach the Gospel honestly without compromise, and that cuts to the right and to the left, because the Truth is supposed to set all of us free from our parties and from our prejudices or whatever. So I think people who want to follow the Gospel will offend people on all sides of the political spectrum.

– – – –

HH: Archbishop, in Chapter 10, you write this, and I think maybe it’s one of the core messages. “The Catholic Church exists to make Jesus known, the bring the will of men and women into alignment with God’s will through a relationship with Jesus Christ, the son of God, the Church has a vital role in building peace and reconciliation, promoting justice and defending Creation, but she does that first by proclaiming the whole council of God.” Again and again throughout Render Unto Casear, you’re very careful to say you know, the Church has got a key mission here, which is to get the Gospel out there.

CC: That’s right, and you know, in terms of our engagement in the world around us, whether it be political in that broad sense, or in a more narrow sense political, is about loving our neighbor. That’s why it’s foolish for Catholics to think they can enter into the political world without bringing their faith with them, because we’re required by our faith to engage the world so that human dignity will be supported, and the common good will be served. It’s a more complicated way of just saying we have to love our neighbors as ourselves. And God commands us to do that, so we just can’t work towards our personal salvation, or you know, just wait for God to save us. God also throws us back into relationship with our neighbors if we truly love Him.

HH: And you also at the very beginning of the book, though, having understood that Christ is at the center of your mission and the Church’s mission, you write, “People who take God seriously will not remain silent about their faith. They will often disagree about doctrine or policy, but they won’t be quiet. For Catholics, the common good can never mean muting themselves in public debate on foundational issues of faith or human dignity. Christian faith is always personal, but never private” That’s going to raise a lot of eyebrows. You’re asking the faithful to be explicit in what they believe and why.

CC: I think it’s important. You know, one of the examples I used to underline what I’m trying to say there is to tell a believer that he must be silent in public is like telling a married man he must pretend to be single when he’s at work. And if he does that, he won’t be married very long, because he’ll find somebody else, or his wife will be very disappointed in the fact that he doesn’t love her publicly. And I think our relationship with God is a relationship as a spousal love. You know, He loves the Church as a bridegroom loves his bride, and that it’s important for us to let people know that, not in a way that’s in their face or offensive, but then also to live out the consequences of that, which is to love our neighbor. We can’t say we love God who we can’t see if we don’t love our neighbor who we do see. And that’s political life. Political life is about loving our neighbor.

HH: Now you also write, “No one in mainstream American politics wants a theocracy. No one in mainstream public life wants to force uniquely Catholic doctrines into federal law.” I think we should underscore that. That is to me the common opinion of Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormon, all sorts of people who are in politics from a position of faith. But no one I know, I have never actually met anyone who wants a theocracy, but yet that is attributed to people of faith in the public square all the time.

CC: Well, I think people deliberately misrepresent where we stand in order to scare other people about us. I know that Catholics are even cowered by that kind of talk, you know, that we hear the phrase separation of Church and state, and that attracts us, because we know that our country has been strong because it hasn’t had an established religion, or an established church. And so we ourselves hesitate when people accuse us of mingling Church and state. But again, I want to make that distinction – faith and politics is not the same as Church and state. I wholeheartedly embrace separation of Church and state. I don’t want the state to tell the Church what to do, and the Church isn’t about the business of telling the state what to do. But the Church is busy about telling our members to be good citizens, and to work in the public square to create an atmosphere that serves the common good, and protects human dignity.

HH: Is it part of the duty of a good Catholic to vote if they’re allowed to vote?

CC: Oh, I think it’s a duty of a good Catholic not only to vote, but to know the issues. It’s more than just voting. You know, voting is kind of a minimal thing, but a vote is foolish if it’s not based on knowledge. So we have to know candidates, we have to be aware of party platforms, we have to be really engaged on the issues or our votes will be wasted, and maybe even turned in the wrong direction. So voting is what all good citizens do. And another point I’d like to mention is patriotism is considered a virtue not only by Catholics, but by Christians, and to love our country, which is a broader sense of loving our neighbor. And when I grew up and studied the Catechism, it was always associated with what they called filial piety, which is love of our parents, love of our family. And we’re required to see the broader community as an extension of our family. And so it’s…patriotism is a virtue, it’s something we should be proud of. And those who are good citizens are good Christians.

HH: I’m talking with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the Archdiocese of Denver. His new book, Render Unto Caesar, is linked at All right, Bishop, you write on Page 4, right up front, and this will perhaps surprise some of my conservative listeners, “Neither party fully represents a Catholic way of thinking about social issues. The sooner Catholics feel at home in any political party, the sooner the party begins to take them for granted, and then to ignore their concerns. Party loyalty is a dead end.” Now I’m a partisan. I’m a party guy. And I’ve never made any bones about that. But you’re saying the Church can’t be.

CC: Well, I’m saying even for each of us as individual Christians, our loyalties to the party that we prefer should be underneath, or judged by, our loyalty to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And so it can never be the final loyalty. So I think that, I don’t know how we can accomplish things unless we gather together in groups which we call political parties. It’s easier to accomplish goals by working together. But any time that the group we associate with steps outside the parameters of what we really believe to be good or true, it’s important for us to take a second look at that party, and sometimes vote against the party. You know, we can be a member of a party, and encourage it to change, and then vote for somebody who’s not a member of our party because we think that person better embodies what’s good for the common good.

HH: Now you’ve been studying this a long time, and obviously, bishops have to know politics, the world in which they live, and on the bishop’s council, et cetera. Are you flabbergasted, amazed, or resigned to sort of the direction of American politics over the last thirty years?

CC: Well, I’m never resigned, because I don’t want to give up hope. I’m often frustrated by it, and even by our own Church’s lack of engagement on some of the issues. It seems that we stand by and watch rather than become actively involved in some issues. And pretty soon, the issue has passed by, and we could have done something, but it’s too late to do something now, or at least to do what we could have done. And an example of that is, you know, the Democrat Party has attracted Catholics for generations upon generations. The vast majority of Catholics were Democrats twenty, thirty years ago. But it was precisely at that time when the Democrat Party embraced, began to embrace a platform that favored abortion. If Catholics had stood up and said we’re not going to do this, this is not right, we could have kept the Democrat Party from doing that.

– – – –

HH: Before I go further, though, Archbishop, the e-mails will have already begun to arrive asking me to ask you about the abuse scandal, and how does the Church presume to come out and talk about politics and issues of life with such a horrific series of events and scandals in its recent past. Your response?

CC: Well, you know, the Church is rightly accused of not acting earlier, not speaking out clearly, and not acting clearly on the issue of the abuse of children. And I think we have to accept the criticism when it’s true. But why would that then be a reason for us not to act, or to be slow to act, or not to be vocal about damaging things that are going on today? You know, it’s a common technique used by those who don’t like what we say, to shove our sins in our face, and we should repent from those sins and be sorry for them. But the fact that we’ve been sinful shouldn’t give up permission to neglect our responsibilities, and therefore be sinful again today. So the Church should repent, and it’s always the place to begin, to be sorry for what we’ve done wrong. But if that paralyzes us, we’ll just repeat another wrong in another context and another time.

HH: All right, now moving to the specifics of the book, first of all, it’s dedicated to the memory of Bishop McHugh. Who is he? Why did you do that?

CC: Well, Bishop James McHugh was a bishop when I became a bishop. He became a bishop about the same year. But before that, he was very active in pro-life activities in the Church nationally. In fact, he headed up the bishop’s committee on pro-life for the bishop’s conference. And he was a scrappy kind of guy, a fighter who always immediately spoke very clearly on all the issues that even divided the bishops at our bishops meetings. I remember some of the executive sessions, which are not open to the press, where he just always spoke the challenging truth with charity. And I became his friend, because I admired his courage very, very much and his clarity. He died, he was transferred from Camden, he was the bishop of Newark, went to Camden, went from Camden to Rockville Centre, and died after being there just a couple of years. He died the same year as Cardinal O’Connor, and they were two of my heroes, two great pro-life folks that I’ve tried to imitate in my own life, and who I admire very much. And so I dedicated the book to him.

HH: Now you bring up the pro-life issue, and we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about it, so here’s my first foray into it. We are talking on August the 19th, and I expect to rebroadcast this interview in the future, so it will be on August 19th, but it’s going to be rebroadcast again. But this is three days after a big gathering in Saddleback Valley Community Church auditorium with my friend, Rick Warren, who you may very well know as well, talked to the presidential candidates. Were you satisfied that that was a serious conversation about the life issue, Archbishop?

CC: Well you know, I didn’t hear it when it was on. I heard some of the tapes afterwards, some of the session, and I didn’t hear all of it, so my comments will be in that context. I certainly thought that Senator McCain gave a very clear answer, and I’m always grateful when people give me what they think in a direct kind of way. You know, for Senator Obama to say that it’s above his pay grade to know when we should begin to respect the human dignity of an unborn person I think is evading the question. We all have to make that decision. Every time we vote, whether to vote in favor or against pro-choice, or pro-abortion legislation, is making a decision. So I think that he’s made decisions, each one of us has to make decisions all the time in our voting. So to say it’s above our pay grade just isn’t dealing with the issue appropriately. So I hope that both sides of the issue will speak clearly and directly so that we can make decisions based on the facts.

HH: Now I think probably the most controversial paragraph in the book, and by the way, my hat’s off to you for organizing this. You make people work to get to the controversy, because it’s in a context that has to be developed out of American history and Roman Catholic theology. But it’s on Page 229. “My friends often ask me if Catholics in genuinely good conscience can vote for a pro-choice candidate. The answer is I couldn’t. Supporting a right to choose abortion simply masks and evades what abortion really is, the deliberate killing of innocent life. I know of nothing that can morally offset that kind of evil.” Thank you for the clarity. Is that opinion widely held among the bishops, Archbishop?

CC: Well, I would suspect that’s where most of us stand. I don’t know that they always say it in the same way I said it, but I think most of us stand there. You know, many of us are hesitant to speak very publicly on this issue, because we’re accused of partisanship or whatever. And I think bishops have to be very careful. I haven’t registered in a party, because I don’t want the people to use that as an excuse to say that I’m partisan. So I think bishops really stand in the same place, but may not articulate it the same way I did.

– – – –

HH: Archbishop, I want to go back to the abortion discussion. Quoting again from one of the later chapters in your book, “One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this – don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false right to abortion. We sin if we support pro-choice candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so, that is a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would a proportionate reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions as we someday will.” Are you aware of any such proportionate actions out there, proportionate reasons right now, Archbishop?

CC: Well, let me give you two answers to that. You know, as I say, it’s hard for me to come to the conclusion there are proportionate reasons. But here’s a case where I’m certain there would be. If you have two candidates running for the same office, they’re the only choices, both of them are pro-choice, but one is much better on the other issues than the other. I think that you can choose the lesser of two evils with a clear conscience. You don’t have to. You can decide not to vote, or you can vote for a third person who couldn’t be elected. But in those circumstances, you would be voting for a pro-choice candidate, but not because the person is pro-choice, but because the alternative is a worse situation. I also know that, and this is the second point, I know many good Catholics who have given a lot of serious thought to the abortion issue, and will still vote for a candidate who is pro-choice. They’ll try to discourage that person from holding that position, they’ll work really hard within their party to get the party to change its platform if it’s pro-abortion. But they’ve kind of examined all the issues, and weighed them together, and still feel that in a particular situation, that the candidate that they are going to vote for who is pro-choice is a better of the two. And the Church, you know, says you can do that if you have a truly proportionate reason. And I hope they work hard at it, and I don’t always understand how they arrive at their conclusion. It’s hard to imagine in my mind anything worse than the destruction of more than a million unborn children in our country every year through abortion. But I think that sincere people really do arrive at those conclusions sometimes.

HH: Has the issue faded in the public’s mind? Does the routineness of abortion now basically diffuse the issue of significance, especially theological significance?

CC: Well, I think so. I think there’s a presumption in some sense, even in Catholic circles where things aren’t going to change, so we might as well just accept it and get busy about other things, we’ve lost being horrified by this. And I think part of my responsibility and the responsibility of people who understand what abortion really does, to try to raise people’s awareness of how horrible it is for a nation to allow the killing of its unborn children. I mean, it’s a fundamental undermining of our understanding of human dignity. Abortion was never allowed, and when I was a child, you wouldn’t have imagined it being allowed in the United States of America, where we respect the dignity of every individual. But now, you know, young people growing up since Roe V. Wade consider it a given, and just part of our culture.

HH: You began the book with an extended sort of meditation on what has happened in Europe. And I thought that was an excellent way to lay out an argument about what happens to societies that abandon a concern for life, and a spirit of religious liberty. Would you expand on what you see has happened in Europe?

CC: Well, you know, I think many people have written about the diminishing numbers of children in Europe, and in some sense, it’s kind of an unspoken death wish. If people don’t have children, they have no future. And there are very few countries in Europe, if any, where there’s a replacement rate in terms of birth. I mean, there’s some countries who are growing because of immigration from other countries. But you know, our being open to abortion is in some sense, a death wish, because we’re destroying the future that God would give us through children, and that we don’t want to repeat what’s going on in Europe. And there’s many things in Europe to be admired and imitated, but not having children shouldn’t be one of those.

HH: Now Archbishop, you wrote candidly as well in Chapter 2 about the rise of Islam in Europe. And you noted that the Christian belief in God differs from Islamic belief in serious ways, so do Christian and Islamic ideas about the nature of human person. These differences have far reaching practical consequences, including political consequences. But you continued. “Islam is merely filling a hole in the chest of an ailing civilization. Europe has an illness of its own choosing, a hollowing out of its spirit through pride, greed, self-absorption, the rejection of children, the exclusion of God and contempt for its own past, including its Christian soul.” I think you’re accurate. Can that be remedied?

CC: Well, I don’t know if it’s past the point of no return or not in Europe. I hope it’s not past that point, because so much of the richness of the Western world has its origin there, all of it has its origin there. So I hope there’s a remedy, but I think there is if people decide there’s something wrong going on here, and we have to do something about it.

HH: You also wrote that American Catholics are indistinguishable from their non-Catholic neighbors in terms of divorce, abortion rates and contraception. So how do you, you know, you’re a bishop. You have a practical problem here. You’ve got to turn that around. How do you do that?

CC: Well, the way you turn anything around, at the personal conversion in your own life, so that you’re not preaching what you don’t practice yourself. Then, of course, it’s making sure that the full Gospel is preached without hesitation, that we’re not afraid…those of us who are celibates, for example, that we’re not afraid to speak about contraception. You know, people sometimes say what do you know? You’re not married. And that kind of shuts the clergy down sometimes, that we’re not afraid to offend people by raising the question of abortion in our preaching. You know, many people in our congregations have been part of abortion in some ways, some tragically, and because of that, there’s sometimes a fear of saying things that’ll hurt people’s feelings. We just have to be courageous and loving at the same time. You never accomplish anything by just speaking loudly or harshly. Never harshly. You have to do it with the deepest kind of charity.

– – – –

HH: Archbishop, you write at the beginning of the book, “No one addresses these problems,” and you’ve listed them – homelessness, poverty, immigration, abortion, about a dozen other issues. “No one addresses these problems more directly or effectively than the Catholic Church and other religious communities. Over the past decade, I’ve grown increasingly tired of the Church and her people being told to keep quiet on public issues that urgently concern us.” Well, as someone who’s been going to Mass a lot since 1956, I can’t remember it when I’ve heard priests actually preach on these issues, with the occasional exception of abortion. Is that a fault of the Church?

CC: Well, if they’re not preaching about these issues, it is a fault of the Church. You know, the judgment scene in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the end of time presents Jesus the King, judging us on how we care for our neighbor more than anything else about whether we feed the hungry, whether we clothe the naked, visit prisoners and the like.

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