The public image of the American Catholic hierarchy has taken quite a beating in recent years. The general public holds them responsible for mishandling the sexual abuse crisis, and more progressive lay Catholics resent what they see as the hierarchy’s selective intrusion into elective politics. A small few of their number have used the Eucharist and shunning as a political weapons to threaten and punish Democrats for not accepting the American bishops’ position that all abortions must be outlawed.
Other Catholics feel that the bishops’ public concentration on mainly two issues—abortion and gay marriage—has weakened their moral authority when other issues at the heart of the church’s social doctrine are crying for attention.
With this in mind, it is remarkable that two leading conservative churchmen—Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal George—have presented themselves for interviews in liberal publications with two top Catholic journalists: John Allen of the NCR and David Gibson in Commonweal.
In NCR the breaking news of Chaput’s appointment to Philadelphia triggered a long web dialogue which, in summary, depicts Chaput as the worst man for the job, faithful to the teachings of the church, whom Denver will sadly miss; a chess piece in Benedict’s high-handed rule, a misogynist of compassion and sensitivity, a warm, funny, and down-to-earth pit bull; a Jimmy Carter Democrat who tells folks to vote the Republican agenda, with loving and peaceful eyes. In an additional shorter interview with the Catholic News Agency he uses the expression “without compromise” nine times.
John Allen, who knows a great deal about ecclesiastical politics, puts Chaput at ease and gives him an opportunity to present himself as reasonable and generous, to say nice things about everyone including Cardinal Bernardin, Cardinal Rigali, everyone he knows in Philadelphia and Denver, the Phillies, Eagles, Steelers and Broncos. He is devoted to his Capuchin spirituality, doesn’t see himself as a conservative, not a “hard-liner” but a “kind and gentle person.” If we don’t love the poor, he says, we will all go to hell. And he is humbly nervous that at 66 years he may lack the energy to take on a big city like Philly. He doesn’t know enough about the Philadelphia situation to say what he will do when he gets there, but he says he’ll listen. He admits that bishops should be held accountable, even punished for covering up abuses, and “we ought to study this question and reflect on it very seriously.”
In short, Chaput didn’t make any hot news with the interview, but may have charmed some readers. Allen must have guessed that nothing would be gained by pushing him more on why he thought Bishop William Morris of Australia, as a result of Chaput's investigation, had to be removed from his post for having agreed that women should be ordained if the church changed its mind and proposed it. Or, if we will go the hell for neglecting the poor, why it is just and moral for a tiny percent of the American population to control nearly all the wealth? Or how he can remain silent on gun control, capital punishment, and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan—presuming that all these lives lost are as precious as those lost in abortion?
If publicly banning politicians from communion is a good idea, why do so few bishops do it? And does he think that all the nine bishops on the committee that condemned Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God should have personally read the book? And what would he say to the moral theologians who have objected to the treatment of Sister Margaret McBride by the bishop of Phoenix? Finally, which would he prefer: a bill which would prohibit all abortions but would never pass or would be unenforceable or a bill which would diminish the number of abortions through additional health care for poor women?
And, having cashiered the Australian bishop, what would he have to say about Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo of Lisbon who recently told John Allen that there is “no fundamental theological obstacle” to the ordination of women as priests in the church?
I hope John Allen will go see him again before Christmas. Next week, Cardinal George.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.