Archbishop Chaput’s War on Obama Is Bad for Philadelphia

The head of the Catholic Church should spend less time pandering to the Republicans and more time dealing with local problems.

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-bookA 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.

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  • aacunningham1

    Liberty for thee but not for me, Mr. Mathis? Chaput’s ability to multitask obviously comes as quite a shock to people like Joel Mathis. Perhaps that is due to the behavior of the Archbishop’s two immediate predecessors or maybe Mathis, who admits to not being a Catholic, simply has never had any experience with a Catholic Priest, let alone a Bishop, who actually takes his vocation seriously.

    Archbishop Chaput has a big mess on his hands and he will get that mess cleaned up but it will take time. (I missed Mathis’ complaint about the lethargic pace of the justice system in Philadlelphia, maybe he’ll voice his concerns over that in the future.) However, as busy as he is, that workload in no way alleviates him from his responsibility, nor his Constitutional right, in speaking out against the Obama administration and its collective disregard for religious liberty. Perhaps Mathis could find the time to learn what “the free exercise thereof” as spelled out in the First Amendment actually means. Instead of criticizing that which he knows little of he should engage in some edification.

    As we approach the Easter Triduum, Mathis might just be shocked to learn what Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin learned nearly twenty centuires ago: Truth is not determined by popular vote.

  • Joel Mathis

    That’s actually a really eloquent defense of the archbishop, aacunningham1, but let me correct you on one point.

    The issue here isn’t “Liberty for thee but not for me.” This comment, and a response yesterday to this column by the Catholic League–Archbishop Chaput Will Not Be Silenced!–seem to suggest that I’m attempting to deny him his right to speak. Emphatically not. In fact, I noted in the column above that Chaput is well within his rights to criticize the president. And I’m free to criticize Chaput. We’re all winners!

    The First Amendment isn’t a zero sum thing: Chaput’s exercise of it doesn’t mean that I have to refrain, nor vice versa. My criticism isn’t an effort to deny the archbishop his rights; rather it’s a suggestion that there are other matters that require the same vigor of his attention. I don’t have to deny the archbishop his rights to believe he could be using them better.

  • mikemc1

    With you, me, the Bishop, Bill and the unpaid intern that wrote that, that makes five confirmed people that read that CL rubbish. My best to the Bishop cleaning up the cesspool at “222” for past glory and his new satellite RNC franchise efforts at “222” – a conundrum?
    Bill Donahue is usually Dolan’s lapdog but welcome to Philly Bill, try the pretzels, much better than the stale cardboard ones they sell to the tourists up there in NYC.

  • williampenn

    But Obama’s war on religion is perfectly fine, right? Keep worshipping at the altar of Karl Marx, like your boy, Barry.