Is Chaput too Catholic for the Inky?

First things first. Let me state right up front, for GetReligion readers who do not already know, that I have known Archbishop Charles Chaput ever since he was an urban pastor and college campus minister long ago in Denver. The young Franciscan I knew then is still the man who makes headlines from time to time today, especially now that he has moved from Denver to the historic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

I was a bit surprised to meet a friar who was so intensely interested in mass media — film in particular — and technology, especially the impact of modern media on college students and the young. He was much more interested in trends in media, family life, education and related topics than he was — let’s say — in politics. However, we do live in an age in which it is impossible to discuss the moral theology of the Catholic faith in the public square without getting involved in political debates.

My point is that it is impossible to write about who Chaput actually is without discussing the topics that drive him as a priest and as a bishop. This is easy to do, since he talks about these issues all of the time. Alas, it is also possible to only pay attention to Chaput’s statements that make headlines — which tend to be about issues of moral theology. These statements are viewed as being political statements, pure and simple.

This is clearly what happened in the thin, shallow, all politics, all the time profile that ran recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Note, especially, that this is a lengthy news feature that includes one voice — on the left or the right — that is not completely predictable and partisan. Sure enough, the most interesting material in the story is drawn from that one voice who is not one of the “usual suspects” for a story of this kind. More on that in a minute.

I mean, this is the kind of story that features — read to the end of this passage — the following ID for one outspoken Catholic partisan:

Writing in last Sunday’s Inquirer, he described as “dangerous and insulting” the Obama administration’s mandate that religious-affiliated hospitals, schools, and charities provide employees with free contraception coverage. President Obama’s plan was the most “aggressive attack on religious freedom in our country … in recent memory,” Chaput wrote, lambasting it as “the embodiment of a culture war.”

Taking their cues from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, many other prelates condemned the policy. But Chaput’s attack stood out, eliciting praise from conservative Catholic groups and dismay from church liberals.

“Incendiary and divisive,” said a spokesman for Catholic Democrats, a liberal advocacy group for the poor.

This Catholic Democrats group is a crucial voice in a story of this kind and represents the Catholic left very well — the bookend on the left that, oh, Priests For Life would form on the right. However, as the name implies, it is a honest and openly partisan group. This makes it an “advocacy group for the poor”? This assumes that only doctrinally liberal Catholics care about the poor — which would come as a great shock to, well, the Franciscans or the Missionaries of Charity.

Oh, and “many other prelates” oppose the new regulations from the Obama White House? At this point, it is very hard to find a Catholic bishop — left, right or center — who has not opposed them.

It would be very easy to pick away at the slanted and, at times, inaccurate language in much of this report. Most of the time, however, readers are dealing with sins of omission rather than commission. For example, on one highly controversial issue:

In 2006, Chaput drew national attention for his denunciation of legislation to expand the right of Colorado sex-abuse victims to sue their abusers, denouncing its advocates as “anti-Catholic.”

“It was about as ugly a political fight as I’ve been involved with at the Capitol,” one lobbyist said.

And why did the archbishop call this bill “anti-Catholic”?

Now, this is complex and controversial terrain, but it really would have helped for readers to know that — at the center of the fight — was debate about whether the legislation would, in effect, merely lengthen the statute of limitations for case involving THE CHURCH, as opposed to cases involving public institutions with unique legal advantages — such as accusations against public-school districts (which were fiercely protected under Colorado law by immunity from truly damaging civil law suits).

And so forth and so on.

I also found it interesting that the Inky didn’t follow up — zip, zero, nada — on this rather revealing quote from a previous Chaput interview. The archbishop declined to be interviewed by the Inquirer, which says quite a bit in and of itself.

Though a hero to many conservatives, Chaput has taken shots from all sides. “The left mail I get will use terrible words but be less vitriolic. They use the F-word and things like that,” he told Catholic News Service in 2009. “The right is meaner, but they’re not as foul.”

That’s interesting. On what issues has Chaput taken heat from the political and cultural right? I would assume his stances on immigration, the death penalty, health care for the poor, etc., etc. How would Inquirer readers know that? It appears that those details would have muddied the picture in this article.

Meanwhile, what about that one interesting, insightful and non-partisan voice? Remember this guy?

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, took a more temperate view.

“He’s distinctive among the American bishops in his ability to make certain kinds of arguments,” said Schneck, who called Chaput “an extremely talented prelate.”

“But there’s a twist,” Schneck said. Chaput “sometimes speaks so clearly and with such force that it’s more a conversation-stopper than an invitation to discourse, and that might work against his ultimate effectiveness.”

That’s interesting. Might Schneck have an example or two to discuss and dissect? Apparently not.

Maybe some other time. The folks driving the bus on this story already knew where they were going.

VIDEO: A rather typical mini-sermon from the archbishop, drawn from the funeral Mass for Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will

    Inky? I thought it was the Inkwire.

  • Brian Doherty

    Archbishop is a Capuchin Franciscan FRIAR not a MONK!

  • Mollie

    Fixed the typo, thanks!

  • Martha

    “many other prelates condemned the policy”

    For “many other prelates”, try “almost every one”, or “at least one bishop for every single diocese in the United States”, according to Thomas Peters:

    “*181* Bishops (100% of Dioceses) Have Spoken Out Against Obama/HHS Mandate. Items in bold mean the statement was read at all diocesan Masses or included in all parish bulletins on Sunday.”

    So it’s not like “an official announcement was made by the body representing Catholic bishops in the United States and a few right-wingers and political conservatives followed suit with their own statements”.

  • Bill

    Tmatt wrote:

    However, we do live in an age in which it is impossible to discuss the moral theology of the Catholic faith in the public square without getting involved in political debates.

    Could one infer that the political sphere is intruding into areas of religious observance? (And not just for Catholics.) More and more we hear that the 1st Amendment protects freedom of worship, nothing more.

    As for sins of omission in this story, the Inquirer failed to mention Galileo and the Inquisition.

  • jh

    Bill , I think you are talking in Jest here as to that comment.

    It’s hard to imagine after Citizen United, the discussion on Super Pacs, the traveling Phelps Funeral show, and Occupy issues that we are not hearing a ton about the other other part of the First amendment

  • Thinkling

    I may have more to say on this post, a generally fine one, later. But I want to take exception to one thing.

    ” ‘ a liberal advocacy group for the poor ‘ ”

    “This makes it an “advocacy group for the poor”? This assumes that only doctrinally liberal Catholics care about the poor”

    I do not see this problem with this phrase. It is just two modifiers, which could logically be changed independently of each other, i.e., “a conservative advocacy group for the poor” or “a liberal advocacy group for disabled children”. I do not see the implication made here that one has to be one to be the other.

    Whether or not both modifiers are accurate is another story. But while the coverage has serious imperfections (as the rest of the post does well to point out), this does not seem like one of them.

  • Julia

    My problem with calling Catholic Democrats an advocacy group for the poor is that that description implies that is what the group is all about and it isn’t. It’s only one of the things for which they advocate.

    Check out their website.

    BTW there is a short piece near the top of the homepage about the Inky piece on Chaput.

    The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Archbishop Charles Chaput, who relishes his public pulpit when criticizing President Obama but repeatedly states that he is speaking “only as a private citizen.” But Chaput has positioned himself as a political partisan who makes little attempt to disguise Republican leanings, says Steve Krueger of Catholic Democrats.

  • Bain Wellington

    “But there’s a twist,” Schneck said. Chaput “sometimes speaks so clearly and with such force that it’s more a conversation-stopper than an invitation to discourse, and that might work against his ultimate effectiveness.”

    Much of the discourse of Christ in Mark’s Gospel is a conversation-stopper; the people are astounded, the scribes and Pharisees are dumb-founded (see especially in chapter 12). It is only where He encounters individuals that the deep dialogue method is employed (the Syro-Phoenician woman in chapter 7, and the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel, for example); and even there, the dialogue can end with the other party utterly at a loss, unable to respond by taking the decisive step that Jesus asks of him (the rich young man, for example – Mk.10:22).

    Discipleship is simply that: a personal challenge to which there is only a “yes” or a “no”. As for the crowd, a different approach is required.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Even the linked to article on the Colorado debate is suspect. I distrust any law that has Marci Hamilton’s support. She believes in the right of people to stop a synagogue moving into what used to be a Church property, a case of clear bias against Jews.

    The fact that the article buried the very reasonable point that it is unfair to make the Catholic Church liable while exempting school districts is well taken. If six-month windows work in abuse in school districts, than why are there different rules for other groups. The public records claim is also hogwash. Unions often make deals that destroy any trace of past abuse.

  • Frank

    As a journalistic point, I’d hesitate to use the term “too Catholic.” After all, as a journalist, does one define what it means to be Catholic according to the politics of the Catholic leadership or according to what the majority of Catholics think, how they vote, and how they behave?

  • tmatt


    Last time I checked, the Catholic Church was not a democracy.

    If journalists want to be accurate — according to history and doctrine of the church in question — it is the pope and bishops who decide what it means to be Catholic.

    Journalists who decided that people on sidewalks define what it means to be a practicing Catholic are actually take a side in an advocacy battle against history and tradition. There are facts at play in this debate.

  • Julia

    After all, as a journalist, does one define what it means to be Catholic according to the politics of the Catholic leadership

    It’s not the “politics” of the leadership. I think tmatt meant that Chaput is very vocal about the teachings of the universal church; not all bishops do that consistently. Also, some church teachings trend toward what we in the US call “liberal” and some trend toward what we call “conservative”.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I would like to have seen an in-depth look at who these Catholic Democrats are and where their funding comes from. There is talk in the Catholic blogosphere that George Soros is funding a lot of front “Catholic” groups that are really anti-Catholic. A number of years ago it was found that “Catholics For A Free Choice,” the group the media treated as a genuinely Catholic group to regularly get quotes from to attack the Church and Church leaders was the creation of a group of notoriously anti-Catholic organizations–like the Playboy Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

  • Jeff

    Deacon John makes a good point. I think you have to ask of any “liberal” or “progressive” group whether or not it takes Soros money and if so how much. Just as you have to ask of any MSM journalist or pundit whether he or she was on JournoList.

  • tmatt

    Deacon, etc.

    That’s a completely different story — which is always easy to request.

    There are wordings to describe groups on the Catholic left and right that are accurate, but not total spin. That was my point.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Admittedly, this story is not the place for an “in-depth” look at Catholic Democrats. But I’m sure the reporter has some idea of who is behind this group and I think it should be mentioned as in (if true) “George Soros funded Catholic Democrats.” or ( Catholic Democrats organized by the Democratic Party). I just wonder how much obfuscation is going on today as it was a few years ago with “Catholics For A Free Choice.” To use your words, I think the media should make sure that in its reporting there is no “total spin” hiding.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Abp Chaput proclaims himself a Democrat, as he has been since childhood. The problem is not that he has moved away from that party; that party has moved away from him. As it has with many of its historical and “natural” constituents.