It can’t be a fun time to be Catholic in Philadelphia.
On Friday, defrocked priest Edward Avery pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a Northeast Philadelphia altar boy in 1999. This week—assuming all goes as planned—Monsignor William Lynn goes on trial, accused of covering up many more allegations against many more priests while he served during Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s reign in the city. And there are the non-rape problems: The diocese has struggled with massively declining enrollment in the city’s parochial schools. They ain’t exactly packing them in at the parishes, either.
So what’s Archbishop Charles Chaput’s plan to fix a diocese in crisis? Apparently, it’s to turn the church into the Republican Party at Mass.
Suddenly Philadelphia Catholics under Chaput are rallying against President Obama. This week they’ll be fasting and praying in protest against the president. And Chaput himself is now releasing an 99-cent e-book—A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America—that plainly takes aim at the president and his policy that employers provide contraceptive coverage as part of health insurance plans. Under Chaput, the local church has been busy, busy, busy reminding everybody that Obama is coming to take your religious freedom away.
One wishes the church would show the same vigor, the same concern for righteousness and right, in helping heal the many local victims of sexual assault. A day of prayer and fasting during Lynn’s trial, maybe. Or to put this in terms that Chaput would surely understand: It would be a wonderful witness if the Philadelphia church could pull the beam out of its own eye before screaming about the splinter in Obama’s.
Full disclosure time: I’m not a Catholic. Frankly, it feels a little unseemly to gripe about the goings-on in a religion that is not my own. However, I do live in Philadelphia. By one count, there are more than 1.4 million Catholics in and around the city. So what happens in the parish doesn’t stay in the parish—it ripples out into the community. That can be and has been a blessing to the community. It also means that Chaput’s priorities are a matter of public concern—even if the laity isn’t always on board—and maybe even deserving of a little public criticism.
So let’s back up a second. The problems of the church in Philadelphia aren’t of Chaput’s making—we have Bevilacqua and his successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, to thank for all of that. Chaput’s job is to clean up the mess.
And Chaput’s track record in Denver was pretty clear before he got here. He did, after all, preside over a diocese that refused parochial school admission to a student with two mommies. And he led criticism of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak at the university’s commencement. Chaput is what he is: A conservative man, produced by a conservative church hierarchy.
What’s more, let’s admit that Obama made a big mistake with the initial rule that church-affiliated non-profit organizations had to provide contraception coverage. Even prominent liberals felt like that crossed a line into impinging on religious freedom.
So Obama changed course, withdrawing the mandate on religious employers–but ordering insurers to offer the contraceptive coverage to employees of those institutions. That let the Catholic Church off the hook, if it wanted to be. Apparently it didn’t. The bishops, Chaput vocally among them, are still protesting. Since they’re not getting stuck with the bill, though, the continued complaints sure carry the whiff of being irritated that somebody, somewhere, might still be using birth control.
The result is that Chaput’s laments about the death of “religious freedom” sound less like an actual cause, and more like a political slogan—a way of trying to drive a wedge between Obama and the Pennsylvania voters who helped put him in office in 2008.
Which is Chaput’s right. Maybe there’s a little bit of a disconnect, however.
Last Friday’s protest against Obama drew 600 demonstrators. Again, that’s out of more than a million Philadelphia Catholics—the vast majority of whom probably use birth control. (More than a few of them probably voted for the president in 2008, as well.) Listen to the city’s Catholics, and you’ll probably hear, again, more concerns about the schools, anguish about the sex scandals, than you will about contraception.
That can’t be how Chaput wants it, of course. But if he wants to fix the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, maybe he should concentrate on fixing the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. His anti-Obama crusade is a distraction—and that’s bad for both the church and the city.