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.