Archbishop Chaput 'thunders' away, on doctrine

Well, there goes that Archbishop Charles Chaput guy again, "thundering" away at his flock on a matter of Catholic doctrine. You know all about that "thundering" tone, right? That's when religious leaders state what they believe in clear English that can be understood in newsrooms as well as pews.

In this case, the "thundering" sounded like this:

Even when a defendant is well defended, properly tried and justly found guilty, experience shows that capital punishment simply doesn't work as a deterrent. Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that. It does succeed though in answering violence with violence -- a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.

Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims. They bear a terrible burden of grief, and they rightly demand justice. Real murderers deserve punishment; but even properly tried and justly convicted murderers -- men and women who are found guilty of heinous crimes -- retain their God-given dignity as human beings. When we take a murderer's life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture, and we demean our own dignity in the process.

Both Scripture and Catholic tradition support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited conditions. But the Church has repeatedly called us to a higher road over the past five decades. We don't need to kill people to protect society or punish the guilty. And we should never be eager to take anyone's life. As a result, except in the most extreme circumstances, capital punishment cannot be justified. In developed countries like our own, it should have no place in our public life.

Anyone who has followed the career of this particular Franciscan (frequent GetReligion readers know that I have known Chaput for nearly three decades) will not be surprised that his beliefs on the sanctity of every human life have also touched his views on this hot-button topic.

Nevertheless, there are people who are stuck in a journalistic rut that equates doctrinal, orthodox Catholicism with political conservatism. You can see this in subtle ways. Take, for example this dig in a Philadelphia Daily News editorial about the Williams case:

Terrance Williams was barely 18 when he killed Amos Norwood in 1984. Williams' attorney has argued that Norwood had been sexually abusing Williams since the boy was 13. This information was kept from the jury, and many on the jury now say that if they had known, they would not have imposed the death penalty.

The list of those lining up to plead for clemency for Williams is long: It includes Norwood's widow, as well as 18 retired prosecutors and eight retired judges. Even Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput has argued against putting him to death.

It's hard to miss the knife in that use of the word "even."

Meanwhile, The Inquirer recently ran a pretty good, if at times predictable, piece marking the end of Chaput's first year in Philadelphia, a roller-coaster 12 months in which he faced crisis after crisis, stark headline after stark headline, inherited from the previous hierarchy. Name a painful issue in Catholic life -- some linked to the stark divide between the large masses of cultural Catholics and the small flocks of practicing, sacramental Catholics -- and that proud Philly Catholic establishment faced it this year.

The Main Line is a long, long way from the atmosphere in the Rocky Mountains. Thus, the profile began like this:

A year after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia passed into his hands, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is arguably within his rights when he avows, "It's hard to say I love it here."

Since his installation on Sept. 8, 2011, the drama has been unremitting. He has: closed nine parishes and 27 schools; laid off 18 percent of the archdiocesan administrative staff and shut down the 117-year-old newspaper to shrink a $17.5 million operating deficit; turned over management of the high schools to a private foundation; sold the cardinal's mansion and put the retired priests' Shore villa up for sale; led a fervid religious-freedom crusade against President Obama's health-care law; seen his chief financial officer convicted of embezzling nearly $1 million; weathered the child-endangerment trial and conviction of the former head of the clergy office; removed seven sexually abusive priests from ministry -- and in his words, "It's still not finished."

The problems have been so grave that any one of them "would be enough for one year, without being all in one year," Chaput said recently.

First, "fervid" is a lively and interesting word and it probably applies, in the current First Amendment context of debates in American life about free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. However, it is inaccurate to say that Chaput has "led" that particular "crusade." Anyone who has studied that issue would say that fight is being led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori. Chaput is a key voice, but that line went beyond the facts. Also, the "crusade" is not against health-care reform in its totality, but to specific mandates linked to its implementation. Right?

The key to the Inquirer story is that Chaput consented to what appears to have been a pretty long and detailed interview. I hope that officials on both sides recorded it and that the public gets to dig into other pieces of that text, in the future. The story, when dealing with the church challenges, even talks to some interesting voices that are one step off the beaten track. Good work, there.

But all of that changes when the story turns to "politics," as opposed to debates about doctrine. The Inquirer team, of course, gets to decide when an archbishop is being motivated by political biases, as opposed to centuries of Catholic teachings. That's where that "thundering" template comes into play. Thus, readers are told, after hearing a variety of religious and educational voices praise the archbishop:

The hosanna choir, however, apparently does not sing in union about his politics. Galling to blue-hued Catholics is the fierceness with which Chaput has denounced the Obama administration's health-care mandate, requiring virtually all employer insurance plans to cover contraceptives and some sterilization procedures.

The mandate is "the most aggressive attack on religious freedom in our country ... in recent memory," Chaput thundered in an Inquirer opinion piece in February.

Since then, the archdiocesan website has presented at least 28 documents criticizing the contraceptive mandate on religious-freedom grounds. Parish bulletins have denounced the plan. And Chaput has blasted it in speeches in other cities.

"He's probably the most powerful of all the [American] bishops because he's got more brains than any of them," said Betty Clermont, author of the 2009 book NeoCatholics, on the rise of political conservatism among American Catholics. "He gives them their talking points."

Like Clermont, Steven Krueger, executive director of the Boston-based group Catholic Democrats, accuses Chaput and his brother bishops of using the religious-freedom issue to derail Obama's reelection bid.

"While there's nothing wrong with a Catholic bishop being a Republican or a Democrat," Krueger said, "there's something eerily unsettling when the archbishop's political affiliation and the teaching authority he rightfully claims conflate, so that he becomes more of a partisan political figure than a shepherd."

Told of Krueger's criticism, Chaput became visibly annoyed and leaned forward in his chair. "Can a group that calls itself 'Catholic Democrats' talk about politicizing things? That's absolutely ridiculous."

Now, there is some interesting content in that passage and it's totally valid to seek out the usual suspects on the Catholic left to do that thing that they do. However, it is interesting to note that the article's attempts to find new voices, and a variety of viewpoints, vanishes in this section on "politics." It also, of course, assumes that Chaput, as a Franciscan, is a perfect fit for the partisan GOP mold.

The bottom line: There is an assumption that doctrine ceases to be doctrine the second it impacts public life. That's when it turns into "politics."

Well, that isn't true with the death penalty. It's also not true when talking about abortion, contraceptives and religious liberty.

The result was rather predictable.

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