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Archbishop Chaput ‘s Culture War Style Challenged in Philly

September 8, 2011, 11:19 am | Posted by John Gehring

Nicholas Carfardi, the dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, has an important op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News today that is sure to catch the attention of incoming Archbishop Charles Chaput and political leaders in this 2012 battleground state. Archbishop Chaput formally begins his tenure in Philadelphia this afternoon with an installation Mass that will include nearly 700 cardinals, bishops and priests.

A pro-life Catholic who was one of the most prominent Catholics to publicly support Barack Obama for president, Cafardi challenges Chaput and other bishops who make abortion the defining political issue for Catholics. Cafardi sensibly urges the archbishop to focus on healing the wounds of Philadelphia’s clergy sex abuse crisis and to tone down his combative political rhetoric, which includes accusing Catholics of “cooperating in evil” if they ever vote for politicians who don’t support criminalizing abortion. Cafardi writes:

A disproportionate focus on criticizing politicians who do not accept that criminalizing abortion is the only way to solve this terrible problem gives the false impression that the Catholic Church is a religious wing of the Republican Party. Elected officials who support the death penalty, demonize immigrants and slash life-saving programs that protect the poor and most vulnerable – all in contradiction to Church teaching – rarely receive the sort of public rebukes Archbishop Chaput and other conservative Catholic bishops direct at those who deviate from the Church’s position on abortion.

I believe in the sanctity of human life and support policies and laws that care for pregnant women and prevent abortions. But Catholicism is not a single-issue faith. Catholic social teaching and the moral principles of diverse religious traditions challenge the agendas of both political parties by insisting that the poor, the unborn, the undocumented immigrant and even the prisoner are children of God. Religious leaders must preserve this essential voice as a prophetic witness to truths that transcend the partisan fray.

As I’ve noted before, unlike episcopal leaders such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington, who rejects turning the Communion rail into a political arena, Bishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, NM, who has urged his fellow bishops not to “isolate ourselves from the rest of America”, or retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, who warns that the Church is in danger of being perceived as choosing the Republican side in political fights, Chaput represents a wing of the U.S. Catholic Church that relishes publicly lambasting Democrats for deviating from church orthodoxy while taking a far gentler tone when it comes to conservative politicians’ contradiction of church teachings.

Cafardi’s compelling argument has recently been echoed by a growing number of Catholic theologians, social justice leaders, priests and women religious who believe abortion is a moral tragedy, but refuse to accept that it’s the only “life issue” that elected officials or candidates should be judged on. Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, certainly heard that message loud and clear when his draconian federal budget proposals were challenged as being “anti-life” before his commencement address at The Catholic University in America this spring.

During the 2008 presidential election, it was the rare bishop who stood up to fellow Catholic leaders and Catholic culture warriors who reduce centuries of Catholic social teaching to an abortion litmus test. The exception was Bishop Gabino Zavala, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles who is bishop president of Pax Christi USA, a respected Catholic peace group. In an interview with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne just weeks before the election, he noted: “We’re not a one-issue church…But that’s not always what comes out. What I believe, and what the church teaches, is that one abortion is too many. That’s why I believe abortion is so important. But in light of this, there are many other issues we need to bring up, other issues we should consider, other issues that touch the reality of our lives.”

In an interview with the Associated Press yesterday, Archbishop Chaput criticized “cafeteria Catholics” and blithely dismissed those who love the Catholic Church but sometimes find themselves grappling with how broad moral principles best find prudent expression in the public square. “If they don’t believe what the church teaches, they’re not really Catholic,” Chaput said, mirroring the same defiant tone that George W. Bush’s former Catholic outreach director Deal Hudson adopted when he branded many progressives in the Church “fake Catholics.” At its worst, this love-it-or-leave-it Catholicism is deeply anti-intellectual and offensive to many thinking Catholics, frequently educated at Catholic universities, who understand that the Church tradition is most alive when it engages with culture and is led by bishops who are pastors not pugilists. As Michael Sean Winters writes at National Catholic Reporter today:

Of course, in a sense, Chaput is right. We are, as Catholics, bound to believe what the Church teaches…But, in Chaput’s smug articulation of the matter, he and his pals are the saved, the already converted, and everybody else is not just wrong, they are not really Catholic. I hope Archbishop Chaput will find a way to engage people that is not so dismissive of them and of their struggles. His “my way or the highway” approach does speak to the normative quality of our Catholic beliefs, but I doubt it will be pastorally helpful. I do not see how alienating people will help convert them.

We need more authentic voices like Nick Cafardi and Bishop Zavala speaking from the heart of the Catholic tradition. A global faith with a proud history of social justice witness and intellectual vigor can’t be tucked into suffocating ideological boxes to serve a narrow partisan agenda.

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