Jim Kenney’s Long War with the Archdiocese

The mayoral nominee is a disaffected Catholic disgusted by local church leadership.


Charles Chaput and Jim Kenney. | Photos by Jeff Fusco.

Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney is a proud graduate of St. Joe’s Prep and La Salle. He was born and raised in a Irish Catholic family. He is the single most devoted fan of the Neuman-Goretti women’s basketball team in the world.

And yet, Kenney’s relationship with the Catholic Church is fraught. Actually, the more accurate adjective is probably just “hostile.” Kenney showed vividly just how little regard he has for local church leaders on Thursday, when he waded into the debate over the abrupt firing of a beloved, gay faculty member at Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion. In an Inquirer story, Kenney accused “cowardly men” in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of orchestrating the firing. “If you’re a church official and you feel that strongly that this woman and her partner are such a threat to society, stand up and say so,” Kenney told the paper.

That might seem like extraordinarily blunt language coming from the likely next mayor of the city and aimed not-so-subtly at Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. But it’s actually not all that different from Kenney’s past public statements about the archdiocese. Like the time he urged Pope Francis to “kick some ass” in the archdiocese.

Kenney began feuding with the archdioceses as far back as 1998, when Catholic leaders mobilized to block a City Council bill granting benefits to partners of gay city employees that Kenney co-sponsored. More recently, he’s sparred with archdiocesan leadership over the closing of parochial schools, publicly criticized their decision to ban an 11-year-old girl from playing CYO football and wished out-loud that Pope Francis will straighten out Chaput and company when he comes to town in September.

In a lot of respects, of course, Kenney’s fight with the archdiocese is just a microcosm of the broader debate playing out in the Catholic community. Church conservatives, like Chaput, are digging in, even as the broader culture embraces marriage equality. Liberal catholics, like Kenney (and a lot of other Philadelphia catholics), desperately want the church to change with the times, not just on gay marriage, but on the role of women and a host of other issues. The ascension of liberal Pope Francis has raised the stakes of the debate. And now the liberal Francis is coming to Philadelphia, where he’ll be hosted by the very-conservative Chaput, all while Kenney (who can summon dozens of news cameras and microphones whenever he likes) looks on….

The World Meeting of Families doesn’t look like it’ll be boring. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Does this latest episode hurt Kenney at all? Might he have alienated true-blue city Catholics with his criticism? It’s certainly possible that it will, but it’s also likely to further enhance Kenney’s standing in progressive circles and among gay voters.

The harder question is this: should a mayor speak so bluntly on such charged issues? Or is it unbecoming of the office to weigh in so strongly so quickly? This is a controversy about a school outside city limits, after all. Mayor Nutter hasn’t issued any press releases.

There’s no simple answer to that one. Mayors do need to exercise more discretion than Council members. Mayors are emissaries for the whole city, and Philadelphia is a complicated place that’s home to people with a lot of different beliefs.

But for Kenney, justice is justice, and a wrong is a wrong. He doesn’t take a black-and-white approach to everything. But on certain matters — like gay equality, like gender equality — Kenney is a moral absolutist, and he’s not going mince words or avoid fights, even if he does become mayor. Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s communications director, told me a while back in a conversation about a completely different topic that he “has an annoyingly strong moral compass.” Right now, Kenney’s moral compass is the pointing in the polar opposite direction of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. And in recent years, Kenney has been his most convincing — and his popular appeal has been strongest — when he has framed his policy preferences in stark moral terms.

We just put in a request with Kenney’s campaign to talk to him about his faith and his relationship with the Catholic church, and if he’s got time for an interview we’ll bring you his answers in depth.

But Kenney being Kenney, a lot of his feelings are already out there on Twitter. See below.

Follow @pkerkstra and @CitifiedPHL on Twitter.