As M.Z. noted, Archbishop Chaput visited Toronto this past Monday and offered some post-election reflections for a decent-sized turnout (certainly not an “overflow” crowd, as some reports stated) at St. Basil’s Church on the campus of the University of St. Michael’s College.
I don’t have time for a full critique of Chaput’s lecture but I will note a few points.
First, the things I appreciated. Chaput began by insisting on his “non-partisan” take on the election and on american politics in general. This is certainly easy to say, and I’m certainly glad he said it. In reality, though, the rest of his lecture speaks for itself (more on this in a sec). Indeed, he spent a few minutes challenging the tendency Catholics have toward unquestioning party loyalty, which was also appreciated. Another good point he made was that Catholics not only need to vote in keeping with their Catholic consciences, but that they need to own up to the consequences of how they vote (there is also more to be said on this point – more later). Lastly, he criticized the often-invoked argument that abortion should not be considered a “litmus test” for whether one is a good Catholic or not. He argued that it should be, as honoring the sacredness of life is a core mark of Christians. So far, so good.
The problems I see in Chaput’s approach are these: Chaput is an unflinching believer in the american project, linking too closely Christian discipleship and “good citizenship.” This is not Chaput’s problem alone. It permeates the documents of the american bishops as well as the thinking of most american theologians and commentators. But in Chaput’s version, the americanist assumptions are amplified. Not once did he question the legitimacy of the american political system, assuming that it simply works as-is. And since he takes the act of voting oh so seriously, I am surprised that he did not mention, as his brother bishops did in their latest round of the Faithful Citizenship document, the option of abstaining.
Despite his claim of non-partisanship, and his critique of Catholic party loyalty, he wasn’t fooling anyone in that church. He began his lecture with a crack about how his “partisan roots” were in the democratic party, working directly on democratic presidential campaigns. “That was a long time ago,” he joked, implying not that he now feels politically “homeless,” but that he had simply switched loyalties. Despite his insistence that Catholics must own up to the “consequences” of our votes, and his self-congratulatory narration of how he “made people mad” by speaking the truth so forcefully during the campaign, such statements clearly upheld the american partisan boundary. I have seen no evidence that Archbishop Chaput had angered any republicans for insisting that they own up to the consequences of voting for the “pro-life” (former) president Bush and his anti-Christian, anti-human, and anti-life policies. No where have I seen Chaput warn about the possible consequences of a vote for John McCain.Finally, Chaput’s partisanship came through in his insulting treatment of Catholics who voted for Barack Obama. According to Chaput, those Catholics who voted for Obama are 1) secretly pro-choice and they should stop lying to themselves and to God about it, 2) bad/”non-participating” Catholics, or 3) stupid for falling for his “hope” rhetoric and for placing their hopes in a political candidate. (Chaput also said at the start of his lecture that it is dangerous to forget history. Perhaps Chaput could recall the countless anti-life activities dreamed up and supported by “good, practicing,” Mass-going Catholics over the last two thousand years.) Not once did Chaput seriously consider the real crisis of conscience that american elections present to the Catholic voter, nor did he deal at all with the possibility that quite a few pro-life, practicing, intelligent, GOOD Catholics voted for Obama for some very good reasons. No where did he attempt to represent these views with any charity or sympathy. These Catholics were no where to be seen. No, for Chaput, the choice should have been easy. All it took was a little “courage.”
Two more positive, yet ambiguous, points regarding Chaput’s fielding of questions. One person asked Chaput what he thinks of liberation theology, that movement that has “brought so much division to the Church.” (LT shines a light on division that already exists, pal. It does not create it.) Chaput started his answer by insisting that the fellow need not be afraid of liberation theology because the fullness of liberation is indeed the heart of the Christian gospel. Good. He finished his answer by promising that Cardinal Ratzinger “dealt with” liberation theology’s dangerous elements and observed that liberation theology “isn’t much of an issue anymore in North America” and “might be” an issue in Latin America. (The latter observation shows a bit of ignorance on the seismic shift caused by liberation theologies as well as its continuing influence throughout the Americas both in the Church and in the theological academy.)
In another question a member of the faithful asked if excommunication of pro-choice Catholics was the answer. Chaput shut him down, and quite clearly, essentially saying that the Church no longer resorts to such authoritarian line-drawing tactics. Yet, as I pointed out, his lecture was riddled with comments about “bad Catholics” and how he “just can’t believe” that pro-choice Catholics present themselves for communion in his archdiocese, but adding no further comment or reflection. Such people, he suggests, are simply not Catholic. Perhaps the authoritarian tactics are not going anywhere, but taking other, more polite forms.
In short, this pro-life, practicing, educated Catholic found very little insight in Chaput’s lecture, no useful reflections on the election in retrospect, and no authentic challenge to ever-deepening partisan Catholicism. In short, I merely found a reinforcement of americanist Catholic terms and assumptions and a word of encouragement for the handful of Canadian Catholics who admire such terms and assumptions.