‘Conservative’ Vatican ‘hardliner’ or ‘Evangelical’ Catholic?

I’m not Catholic, but I am from Colorado. I have to admit I was surprised to learn that Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput had been named the new archbishop of Philadelphia. Tmatt had a great overview of the stories in the Catholic press. And he revisited the dustup between Chaput and the New York Times. I thoroughly enjoyed John Allen’s piece in the National Catholic Reporter so I will reiterate Terry’s suggestion that you read it.

So what about the other coverage? Well, I was so excited to see the Denver Post‘s Eric Gorski with an exclusive interview of Chaput. It was trademark Gorski — balanced approach but informative and with interesting quotes. So, for instance:

Chaput also made clear he intends to continue speaking out on politics and the role of Catholics in the public square — one of his major themes and an emphasis that has made him a lightning rod in the U.S. church.

“It’s part of the responsibility of church leadership to remind membership of our common responsibility for the public good,” he said. “I want to encourage Catholics here of all political persuasions to be actively involved in the life of our community — which is politics.”

He also bristled at being characterized as outspoken — a term often applied to him.

“I would never identify myself as outspoken,” Chaput said. “But I’d call myself responsive to the issues. I try to be outspoken about what is asked of me, not be evasive. Sometimes, it seems people deliberately distort what I’m like because of their agenda. I just hope everyone gives me the opportunity to be myself and not define me.”

Most other media outlets, though, went longer on the prejudicial definitions and shorter on the substance or quotes. Here’s the Associated Press‘ Maryclaire Dale:

A conservative American Indian archbishop named Tuesday to lead the troubled Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia vowed to work to heal the wounds of sex-abuse victims, clergy and lay members alike. …

Chaput is known as an outspoken bishop who criticizes Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, speaks out against government playing too large of a role in health care and opposes gay marriage and stem-cell research. Last year, he defended a Catholic school’s decision not to re-enroll a lesbian couple’s children.

Critics of his tenure in Colorado complain that he fought hard to block efforts to extend the time that child sex-abuse victims have to file suit. Chaput said he did so because he didn’t want the church treated differently under the law than anyone else.

Well! Conservative, outspoken, criticizes, speaks out against, opposes, critics, etc. You get the idea. Does anyone like this guy? Oh, a ton of people do? Shhh. Don’t tell the Associated Press. And don’t tell them that they love him not so much for what he’s against, but what he’s for.

I get that this doesn’t fall under the chief journalistic doctrines obsessed with politics, but Chaput’s known for being fearless not just in opposing heterodoxy but in talking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And both of those things are somewhat rare among American bishops. It’s a sad reality that the media are almost unable to even discern what I mean by the latter category and that’s probably why they don’t include it in their stories.

In any case, the excerpt above also just has some errors. For one, unless there’s something new here, Chaput doesn’t oppose “stem-cell research.” In fact, he’s probably a big proponent of it and the amazing advances that have been seen recently in that area. However, I’m sure he opposes that subset of stem-cell research that destroys embryos, a.k.a. embryonic stem-cell research.

Hey AP, it’s 2011. You probably should have cleared up that distinction like 10 years ago. Good work there.

And commenters on tmatt’s post point out that the characterization of the law regarding sex-abuse victims is misleading. I mean, it’s true that Chaput fought the law (on multiple grounds) but, if I recall correctly, it was a law that covered only the Catholic Church and not, say, public schools or other institutions where kids are abused. He opposed the church being singled out in the legislation.

I’ve rather enjoyed the coverage from David O’Reilly and the Philly Inquirer. I was a bit worried when the first story quoted the Rev. Thomas Reese, but it was fine. The quote was something about how Chaput would be a pain for Democrats. And the follow-ups have been really good, too. Here’s one on outgoing Cardinal Rigali’s comments. And this one on Chaput pledging to renew hearts in Philadelphia, was really interesting, too.

Religion News Service had a piece by David Gibson that was heavy on analysis. In the Washington Post it ran as news, I think, but was written more like a column. I would have preferred more substantiation for some of the claims. For instance, this is how it began:

The most obvious reason that Pope Benedict XVI sent Archbishop Charles Chaput from Denver to take over the prestigious Archdiocese of Philadelphia was the same one that has shaped almost every major development in American Catholicism over the past decade: the clergy sexual abuse scandal. …

In fact, Chaput’s appointment may portend a pivot away from the crisis-management era of the past 10 years toward the kind of assertive and even combative stance that was Chaput’s signature style in his 14 years in Denver.

Lots of assertions here. Also, my favorite new game is to take the adjectives that media types use on religious believers and then use the “find” function to see if they were used in that New York Times piece praising Dan Savage. And I am in no way exaggerating that I have a perfect 100% rate here. I decided to test it out on the above excerpt, though. I was nervous. I thought that my streak might end. Surely Dan Savage was considered “combative” right? Nope! Chaput is combative, but Dan Savage is not. Neither is he assertive.

Gibson is a really enjoyable writer to read, perhaps because of all that analysis but at least partly because of his jaunty style. Take this, for instance:

Not that Chaput is a blunderbuss. He is savvy with a lifelong passion for politics, though he started out as a Democrat. As a seminarian he worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign; as a priest he volunteered for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980.

Like many leading Catholic conservatives today, Chaput felt mugged by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. He is unapologetically conservative (though he embraces many of the “liberal” policy stances of the hierarchy, such as immigration reform). Yet he maintains close friendships with Democrats, including old friends from the campaigns and new ones like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

I love that he got blunderbuss into the piece. But I’m confused as to how we know Chaput is no longer a Democrat? Also, it occurs to me that in a passage explaining someone is pro-life and for immigration reform, trying to nail them down as “conservative” or “liberal” is really less useful than just explaining their views or public statements.

For example, here’s CNN’s piece on the “conservative Vatican hardliner.” Not just conservative or a Vatican hardliner but a conservative Vatican hardliner! It almost makes me wish for one more adjective there.

And if you’re looking for more media analysis from another conservative Vatican hardliner, you might enjoy this piece from George Weigel. I think it really gets at the thing that the media tend to miss and it argues that we’re seeing the “Rise of the Evangelical Catholic Bishops“:

Just about every story on the Chaput appointment identified the archbishop as a “conservative” (because he believes and teaches as true what the Catholic Church believes and teaches to be true); just about every story claimed that Chaput was a tough guy when it came to holding Catholic politicians accountable for their votes on abortion and the nature of marriage (while completely missing the fact that Chaput had consistently made genuinely public arguments, not uniquely Catholic theological claims, about the inalienable right to life and marriage rightly understood); and of course every story emphasized abuse, abuse, abuse (as if this were the only reality of Catholic life in America).

All of this is tiresome, if wholly predictable; both its tediousness and its predictability help explain why it’s the rare discerning reader who turns to the mainstream media for serious reportage about and analysis of the Catholic Church. In this case, however, the same-old-same-old also obscured what is truly important about the Chaput appointment – which is not the archbishop’s Potawatomi ancestry (interesting as that is) but his place as one of the most vigorous exponents of what might be called Evangelical Catholicism.

Archbishop Chaput put it best himself in an exclusive interview with Catholic News Agency: “The biggest challenge, not just in Philadelphia but everywhere, is to preach the Gospel. . . . We need to have confidence in the Gospel, we have to live it faithfully, and to live it without compromise and with great joy.”

That formulation – the Gospel without compromise, joyfully lived – captures the essence of the Evangelical Catholicism that is slowly but steadily replacing Counter-Reformation Catholicism in the United States. The usual suspects are living in an old Catholic paradigm: They’re stuck in the Counter-Reformation Church of institutional maintenance; they simply want an institution they can run with looser rules, closely aligned with the Democratic party on the political left – which is precisely why they’re of interest to their media megaphones. Archbishop Chaput, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and other rising leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States are operating out of a very different paradigm – and in doing so, they’re the true heirs of both the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II.

I don’t know if I agree with all of the analysis but it’s certainly true that the media’s obsession with politics is limiting their ability to understand much of what’s happening in this church and others. In this case, it’s the doctrine that matters the most. Period.

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  • Harold

    Is mentionng Dan Savage now a requirement in every Mollie post?

    Turning to the Cahput coverage, the assumption is that the press is all about politicwhile the Chaput fan society is all about theology. But you dig deeper in that conservative adoration, and you will invariably find Chaput’s political acts on abortion and gays. To suggest that a his theologial pronouncements on political issues isnt political or controlverial is naive.

    Those outside the Denver-based press who aren’t able to get an interview are forced to do big picture stories and part of that story is that Chaput has courted the US Catholic right with its incumbent political goals.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    What, you ignoring the actual content of her points?

    Also, what evidence do you have that Chaput only deals with the Denver-based press?

    You might want to read the Pew Forum transcript. And the NCR transcript. And …..

  • Harold

    I deal directly with the content of her post by suggesting that when George Weigel in the National Review is slathering praise for Chaput being evangelical, he’s talking politics.

    And who did Chaput grant interviews to after his new position? Gorski and Allen, both who have long lived in Denver.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I’m suggesting that the politics-alone view is myopic. Not that politics is an inappropriate discussion for the man who wrote the book “Render Unto Caesar.”

    It’s very difficult for people who are obsessed with the kingdom of politics to understand the kingdom of the church. There is some overlap, of course, but we need to be able to see where they are distinct.

  • Elijah

    “The biggest challenge, not just in Philadelphia but everywhere, is to preach the Gospel…” Hallelujah!

    ALL Christians in the tri-state area should be rejoicing in that statement. And I have no doubt he will indeed be a pain to the Philly Democratic machine that’s full of cultural or birth-right Catholics (not too many “sweat the details” types, in other words).

    And don’t miss that interview on NRO TV with Peter Robinson!

  • Harold

    You would agree, however, that Weigel is obsessed with the kingdom of politics more than the average person and that his praise is very politics based. That’s the cognitive dissonance I’m wrestling with

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Please list the political points in the Weigel piece, as opposed to points of church polity or doctrine.


  • Jerry

    So “Evangelical Catholic” is no longer considered an oxymoron in the halls of GR? :-)

  • Bill

    Archbishop Chaput is a Capuchin Franciscan. I had a close uncle who was a priest in the same order until his death at 92. He admired Archbishop Chaput for his faithfulness to the rules of the Church and his order.

    Addressing political issues, my uncle explained that he voted according to what he believed was true and eternal. He was happy to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but not what was God’s. As Mollie wrote, this is idiocy to anyone who thinks Caesar is the ultimate authority.

    Jerry, you’re right again. Evangelical Catholic in my uncle’s eyes should be redundant rather than oxymoronic. As the founder of Franciscans, St Francis put it: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

  • Martha

    “Not just conservative or a Vatican hardliner but a conservative Vatican hardliner! It almost makes me wish for one more adjective there.”

    Um, let’s see: “fundamentalist”? That seems to be a favourite in headlines of this nature, even if it’s not strictly accurate in how it is applied :-)

  • Girolamo Sanchi


    euangelion is a word to be preached, not a life to be lived. Only Christ lived the Gospel by full obedience to the law. St Francis didn’t understand the Gospel if he thought it could be separated from words. What confusion of the Law and the Gospel.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Remember to keep comments focused on journalism but it’s worth noting that St. Francis didn’t actually say what he’s accused of/credited with.


  • Jon in the Nati

    So “Evangelical Catholic” is no longer considered an oxymoron [...]?

    The (or at least one) issue with ‘evangelical catholic’ is not that it is an oxymoron, or even that it is redundant (an assessment I’d agree with, by the way) but that it had established meaning in the world of religious typology before it was applied to this alleged new generation of Catholic bishops. As Mollie likely knows, it is an important term in Lutheran history and theology. See, e.g., Wikipedia’s summary.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jon in the Nati ….

    Shhhh. I was trying to lull the Roman Catholics into becoming Lutheran.

    Just kidding, but you’re right. “Lutheran” was the term of disparagement applied to the “Evangelical Catholics.”

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    the phrase “Living the gospel without compromise” may have come from the writings of Catherine DeHuek Doherty, of Friendship house and Madonna House fame. Doherty was quite “liberal” since she worked for racial equality in the 1940′s…

    And I am bemused that the papers didn’t notice Chaput’s support of immigration reform

  • http://twitter.com/kevinjjones Kevin J Jones

    If these kinds of stories must devolve into political analysis, I’d like further examination of Fr. Reese’s “bad for Democrats” quote.

    Pennsylvania is the home of the Caseycrats, followers of Gov. Bob Casey, Sr. who defended an anti-abortion law before the Supreme Court.

    While some pro-lifers don’t think his son has lived up to his father’s image, and it’s possible their numbers have dwindled, the pro-life Democrat presence could much larger in Pennsylvania than it was in Colorado.

    That would certainly complicate the narrative. It sounds like something Mark Stricherz could write.

  • Patrick

    I sort of don’t like the idea of bishops giving interviews. I definitely don’t like the idea of an “outspoken” bishop. But does anyone seriously expect different treatment from the press?

    @ Greg: Ho, hum. In paragraph two, the Catholic Church is too doctrinaire (birth control, women’s ordination, homosexuality). In paragraph four, it isn’t doctrinaire enough (annulment). In paragraph three, the clergy are Pharisees. In paragraph four, how dare they eat with sinners!

  • Dan Crawford

    Chaput has yet to be pressed on his stance regarding Catholic social justice teaching of the past 60 years. His embrace of “conservative” Republicans who by the actions show little concern or sympathy for the working poor suggests that the good Archbishop is somewhat selective in what he chooses to endorse in Catholic social teaching. I wish the reporters had pressed him on the problem faced by many Catholics who are told to vote for candidates calling themselves “pro-life” but whose social policies make them “pro-life” social darwinists.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Mollie, I agree with your analysis: the media’s obsession with politics is limiting their ability to understand much of what’s happening in this church and others.

    Part of this is due, I think, to how many in the media really, really want to keep religion “a private matter” when it comes to issues like abortion and marriage. (Not so, of course, with issues such as social welfare funding, the ecology, etc.)

    But “faith being a private matter” runs counter to Christianity’s very essence. The Word of God became flesh not so he could stay in transfigured glory on Mt. Tabor, but so that he could descend to the streets of Jerusalem and preach and heal and comfort and very often challenge, and accept the consequences thereof. Thus did his apostles and his disciples until this very day.

    Enter Archbishop Chaput, who is able to look back on 2,000 years of the Church’s role in history and, per St. Bonaventure, see a theology of history that is at its core sacramental. To be Christian, we dialogue with the world, its people and its politics.
    I suppose as time goes on we’ll see growing displeasure by many in the media towards evangelical elements and voices within churches that don’t keep things to themselves—especially when such voices run counter to the hopes and dreams of modern “progressive” ideology.

    (As an aside, I do feel sorry for my modern progressives. They will someday have to recon that so much of their worldview is rooted in the Christian baptism of the Western world, and that without what Christianity authentically offers, there is no happy ending. This is why, I think, so many wish to keep Christianity quiet.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Well, Weigel means a Catholic evangel.

    I still think this combination of words is disaster in public media, without TONS of explanation. Reporters do not have room for that, unless someone uses it in an essential quote (think the pope or something like that) and then all the bets are off.

  • Peggy R

    First a note on Harold #3.

    I’m pretty sure John Allen has a few things in his favor as a reporter beyond having once lived in Denver.

    That said, the media seem to see the Church (many faiths) through a political lens, trying to fit bishops into one of the 2 major parties. Sigh. They also seem to think that a bishop’s positions on abortion, gay “marriage,” etc., are political ideas bishops make up on their own. While not all bishops are very vocal on the major moral points of the Church, has the media ever found a bishop who favors abortion, gay “marriage,” or euthanasia? Why are they surprised or announce it as news that “Chaput opposes abortion and gay marriage”? Gee, really?

    Bishops may differ in their views in areas of “prudential judgment” or on how to deal with publicly sinful Catholics. And that’s fine. I guess the media are not astute to understand such distinctions.

  • Paul Moses

    “I was a bit worried when the first story quoted the Rev. Thomas Reese, but it was fine.”

    This site usually is better than that.

    Father Reese wrote a well-received book on the U.S. Catholic bishops. It’s obviously appropriate to quote him in a story about the appointment of a new bishop. Many journalists, myself included, have quoted Father Reese because he’s knowledgeable, candid and not ideologically predictable.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I should have fleshed that out more. I just meant it was predictable. Journalists ALWAYS go to Reese and Weigel for the quotes — and I think that was no exception.

    But I would do the same, I’m sure. He’s good for a quick quote and valuable perspective. They both are.

  • Julia

    Fr Reese is not ideologically predictable? He’s never surprised me.

    John Allen actually lives in Denver these days. He is no longer based in Rome although he frequently travels and keeps in touch with all the sources he developed.

  • Julia

    I’m thinking that people are using the word “political” in very different ways and are speaking past each other. Is something political when there is partisan maneuvering going on? Or is something political if the issue deals with the public arena and the government may be involved somehow?

    Did the subject of abortion become political after Roe v. Wade? Was it not a political subject before Roe v. Wade?
    The Church has had things to say about abortion since soon after the Apostolic age – was it political then?

    When reporters or analysts are discussing bishops and their public statements or writing, many seem to assume that a bishop is either a Democrat or a Republican and then follows & pushes that party’s platform. Instead I think bishops establish their positions on issues first; their stances usually align sometimes with one party and sometimes with the other party. Many reporters have it backwards. It’s the issues that are determinative; not the party.

  • Bill

    Exactly right, Julia. (#25)

  • Bern

    @ Bill, Julia: Weigel never surprises ME.

  • Bill Kurtz

    I found it interesting that Weigel praised Phoenix, with its obscurantist bishop. I also seem to recall that Chaput, to his credit, was one of the few bishops to publicly criticize the Iraq war. I wonder what Weigel would think of that.
    I think the best thing Chaput could do when he gets to Philadelphia would be to take an outspoken liberal stand that is consistent with his views (on such issues as peace, immigration or guns), to show he is not a knee-jerk reactionary. We have more than enough of them already.

  • http://eclecticmeanderings.blogspot.com/ Hank

    An item I have seldom seen mentioned in the comments on his appointment to Philidelphia.

    Archbishop Chaput’s first appointment as a bishop was Rapid City SD. The Catholic popultion aout half and half reservation native Americans and non-reservation whites at a time when the American Indian Movement was still very active on the Dakota reservations.

    His church did not Get ripped apart in controversy and he actuAlly improved the chruch on normal issues of Chruch.

    Sounds like a person for a hot seat appointment to me.

  • Chris SB

    In the coverage of the Chaput appointment we hear about his stance on denying (or potentially denying) communion to those in the political and public life with respect to the issues of life and marriage. However, when are those in the Church hierarchy (Chaput included) going to issue the same condemnation and refusal of the sacraments to those in the political and public life that do harm to lowly in life (i.e. the poor and infirmed, the sick, homeless and lame)? When will Chaput or Dolan deny communion to those in the business and political world that prey on the “lowliest of my brothers and sisters”?