Philadelphia Freedom


Yesterday, on Day One of the USCCB’s Fortnight 4 Freedom, Archbishop Charles Chaput pounded one more nail into the crucified Church in Philadelphia—which means, of course, that he pounded that nail into himself as well, and into the rest of us fingers and toes and noses and hangnails on the Body of Christ in Philadelphia and around the world.

In the light of a $17 million deficit that excludes “extraordinary” legal and restitution costs incurred to deal with Philadelphia’s clergy abuse dark night of the soul, Archbishop Chaput announced painful cuts that include laying off 45 chancery employees, closing or consolidating key mission offices, and halting publication of the archdiocesan Catholic newspaper and its recently launched magazine. Deacon Greg Kandra says the news of the cuts generated “a seismic jolt” as word got around the Catholic Press Association/Catholic Media meeting in Indianapolis.

It’s one more body blow to a Church that is already suffering, in this week’s hellish heat, through word that a nearly-deadlocked jury has reached at least one verdict in the trial of a priest accused of abuse and an archdiocesan administrator accused of conspiracy to cover up the scandal that has been eating at Philly for more than a decade. (Update: Jurors have returned one guilty verdict and two not guilty verdicts for Msgr Lynn, and have deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial, on charges against Fr Brennan.) In another courtroom this week, more accounts of the slaughter of the innocent that is abuse, this time in the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. (Update II: Late Friday night, jurors returned guilty verdicts on 45 of 48 child sexual abuse charges against Sandusky.) Though Sandusky is not a priest, the implications of institutional denial (at best) or coverup (at worst) ring painfully familiar in Catholic Philadelphia, where Penn State football is a religion and the late head coach Joe Paterno its patron saint.

The response to all of this, from the press and from beleaguered Philly Catholics, is as we might expect. Jeering on the one hand, a deep sense of one more betrayal on the other. It’s Archbishop Chaput who will take the heat—as he’s known he would since Rome tapped him with the “honor” of batting cleanup. He knows how it sounds, and how tough love never looks like love. In his weekly column announcing the cuts, he said:

I know that few things in the Church seem less fertile than talk about money. What finally matters to all of us is the welfare — including the spiritual welfare — of the people we love. Yet as every adult knows, no family can survive for long without using its resources wisely.

The zeal to do good things is a natural part of the Christian vocation. But it needs to be anchored in reality and guided by prudence. If we act otherwise, we ignore sound stewardship and create bigger and more painful difficulties for the future, because we can’t quick-fix our way out of problems that we behave ourselves into.

“Problems that we behave ourselves into”—I can’t think of a better definition of what it is like to live in a world broken by sin, a world where we make (all of us, though the degree differs) terrible, sinful, deliberate choices (not “mistakes”) to hurt others or to hide own sins and those of others. I can’t think of a better lesson than the one being lived in Philadelphia this week that actions have consequences, and that we all, by nature of our shared humanity, share in both the actions and the consequences. In short, I can’t think of a better reflection on what freedom really means.

So much of our world tries to tell us the Oldest Lie, that freedom consists in doing what I and I alone want, without forethought or consequence. Non serviam—“You’re not the boss of me”—is a toddler’s notion of independence that so many of us never outgrow. But both our Church and our country know differently.

In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, the Cradle of American Independence, our founders forged a new model of governance that relied on the deepest possible recognition of our inseparable interrelatedness, rooted not in the “divine right” of one crowned individual but in the divinely ordained rights of all individuals united for the common good. It’s a model not opposed to Catholic doctrine, as many would have it, but harmonious with it. And in Philadelphia today, the Church is living the consequences of failing to witness to its beliefs, of exercising its freedom in ways that did lasting damage—to people, first of all, but also to the Church’s moral credibility. It’s no wonder that so many of our fellow Americans (even our fellow Catholics) read the Fortnight 4 Freedom activities as a sad distraction, a ceding of the high ground by descending into the smoke-filled rooms of partisan politics.

My prayer would be that we could use this time to lead our Church and our country in a humble, prayerful, reflective exploration of the nature of real freedom. Instead of stirring up the defensive rhetoric of a Church militant battling persecution by the evil Federal empire, I would pray that we engage our fellow citizens in conversation about why we are so concerned about First Amendment issues. Instead of pointing foam fingers, I would pray that we extend open hands. In working so hard to bring to the world’s attention the evils that occur when freedom is understood as license, I would pray that we begin by acknowledging—in a Philadelphia courtroom, on a world stage—where we ourselves have gotten that so terribly wrong.

I don’t imagine anyone’s going to listen to these prayers of mine, because offended grievance is so much more comfortable a stance than repentance in sackcloth and ashes. But God can and does bring Easter out of the longest of Good Fridays, and perhaps He is doing that even now in Philadelphia. It will not do the Church eternal harm to live for a time in the catacombs of society, to feel for a time what the victims of clergy abuse have felt: shamed, silenced, abandoned. The real Philadelphia freedom will shine its light, the light no darkness can put out, whether or not we have F4F yard signs on display.

My chosen participation in the Fortnight 4 Freedom will be spending time with the Crucified One during the nightly Holy Hour my parish has scheduled. However you participate, or don’t, please join your prayers to mine for the people of Philadelphia. May the words of the Revelation to John ring true again today:

To the angel of the church in Philadelphia, write this: The holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open, says this: “I know your works (behold, I have left an open door before you, which no one can close). You have limited strength, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. . . .

“Because you have kept my message of endurance, I will keep you safe in the time of trial that is going to come to the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming quickly. Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may take your crown.” (Revelation 3:7-8,10-11)


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