'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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