Chaput Plays The Game

Archbishop Chaput, no doubt, makes for an impressive figure. Like a few other bishops, he does a good bit of travelling, giving conferences at invitation, writing books, and putting himself, his name, and his ideas out there. It reminds me a little bit of the days in the last papacy when Cardinal Arinze was everywhere, it seemed. Running for pope? That would be my inner cynic channeling there.

As I read a summary of his remarks at a Detroit seminary, I feel for the guy. I really do. He’s tapped into the frustration of many pastors and lay ministers in parishes: how do you motivate a laity with issues other than your own passions? The world is heading into a depression and people are naturally concerned about issues in a selfish sort of way. Many of us are also concerned in a more selfless way for spouses and children who depend on us, not to mention people a lot more needy than us.

Many priests and colleagues question their own effectiveness at one time or another. I know I have done so. While I and others may occasionally grumble at apathy in the pews, the healthy among us don’t point the finger for long. Why not? There are a few reasons.

Foremost, I distrust the blame game. It’s a cheap way of unshouldering one’s own faults and failings. It’s exactly the way modern culture works. Archbishop Chaput is adopting one of the prime values he so eagerly (and rightly!) criticizes.

November showed us that 40 years of American Catholic complacency and poor formation are bearing exactly the fruit we should have expected. Or to put it more discreetly, the November elections confirmed a trend, rather than created a new moment, in American culture.

Complacency? I uncovered a stack of 1973 bulletins and worship aids from my new parish. From the very outset of Roe v Wade, Catholic parishioners, residents and students both, were aware and reaching out as a result of that SCOTUS decision.

I wouldn’t mind meeting Archbishop Chaput. He seems so sure he is on the right track. How does he know. How does he really know?

Looking back over the past decade or two, I see bishops bickering openly over differing approaches to the pro-life effort. The bickering wasn’t mutual; it was mostly one-sided, really. It would have been better for Cardinal Law and his cronies to just shut up and let the Common Ground initiative take its course. By not shushing, they reveal that their agenda isn’t necessarily an end to abortion, but to convince others and insist that the right way is their way.

Over and over again the more outspoken American bishops get press and appear to non-believers and many believers as petty egoists. They rescind invitations. They fire who they can. They suggest others lose livelihoods. They focus on what they’ve picked up from Republican politics: put the other person out of a job. The political pro-life movement has gone so far off the rails, it’s no wonder nobody on the Left takes it seriously. Instead of touting the genius of Catholic outreach, especially to women and infants in need, the public face of the Church is bishops stamping their feet, throwing a tantrum, and occasionally getting serious egg on their face by clergy mismanagement.

Some Catholics in both political parties are deeply troubled by these (life) issues. But too many Catholics just don’t really care. That’s the truth of it. If they cared, our political environment would be different. If 65 million Catholics really cared about their faith and cared about what it teaches, neither political party could ignore what we believe about justice for the poor, or the homeless, or immigrants, or the unborn child. If 65 million American Catholics really understood their faith, we wouldn’t need to waste each other’s time arguing about whether the legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow ‘balanced out’ or excused by three other good social policies.

Funny, but that’s what a lot of lay people say about the bishops. And there’s less than three-hundred of them. Is it easier to budge such a smaller number on the life issue of sex abuse and clergy management?

I disagree with Archbishop Chaput. 65 million Catholics don’t care about the same things many American bishops care about. Some of us care about frivolous things, like entertainment or sports or socializing with friends. Some of us care deeply about selfless issues that don’t touch on our own lives. Some of us are also passionately and deeply pro-life, but we differ with others in the movement. What do we get for that? Branding as heretics. Oh, and we lose our jobs if the detractors can get to us.

Some of those issues of life, management, leisure, and such are more important that others, but we all make choices. Personally, I think the two major political parties in America don’t really speak to the needs of the nation any longer and should be retired. But I know I can make more of a difference in liturgy and spiritual growth at a university parish than I would in politics. What logic escapes the archbishop’s keen mind is that real life average human beings don’t go on speaking tours and write books and get their names in the Catholic press. We make a difference where we can and where we are. We aren’t complacent because we’re not jostling with the Denver archbishop for speaking gigs.

Catholics in America, at least the many good Catholics who yearn to live their faith honestly and deeply, can easily feel tempted to hopelessness. It becomes very burdensome to watch so many persons who call themselves Catholic compromise their faith and submit their hearts and consciences to the Caesars of our day.

More blame. Catholics in America don’t need to align to any one bishop’s notion of what’s important. The hopelessness I would be far more concerned about is coming from the conservative pro-lifers. After getting politically crushed in the last election cycle, they adopt a criticism-at-all-costs approach. The leadership lies to maximize the money-gathering effort: we’ve already seen pro-life champion Sam Brownback used by a Republican club to generate cash flow. Two months and we’ve yet to see the new president deliver on what the political pro-lifers were telling us was priority number one.

Personally, I’d like to see and hear from other bishops. I’m getting tired of the Chaput, Rigali, Burke club. They lack political and public relations savvy. They insist theirs is the only way, the only hope. They are blind to their own faults and are all too willing to pin the blame on the poor, dumb, apathetic Catholic laity. They were convinced it was a good move to hitch their wagon to the Republican party. Thanks to incompetence, they circled the drain last November. But clearly, the speaking circuit is not lacking for giving out little jobs.

The hubris makes it impossible for these guys to receive new and potentially more effective ideas. The same True Believers offer the same plane tickets, honoraria, and book sales. It looks like the past few decades to me–and they haven’t been very effective, have they?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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14 Responses to Chaput Plays The Game

  1. FranIam says:

    I don’t have the time to give a thoughtful reply to a most thoughtful and well put post so I simply say – thank you for this.

  2. Liam says:

    I will do something I rarely do here: defend Cardinal Law a bit.

    After the John Salvi murderous assault on a local PP clinic 15 years ago, he called for a moratorium on protests outside abortion clinics and gave his blessing to an important multi-year dialogue among six Massachusetts women who were leaders on both sides of the issue (3 from each side). He did not insert himself into their dialogue (a welcome respite from the self-importance that dogs many prelates).

    And, if I may add to your post, Todd: the shibboleth issue rears its ugly head again, of course. When people use their pro-life, pro-choice and even pro-common-ground positions as conceptual signifiers of their superior virtue, we’re in shibboleth territory. Shibboleths satisfy, but they are not fruitful.

  3. Mark says:

    Is a full text copy of the Archbishop’s speech available? If so, where?

  4. Todd:

    I was at the conference (which by the way was not about abortion or politics as such but the New Evangelization which I noticed that the CNA article did not indicate. Chaput’s speech was unique in its focus.) at which the Archbishop spoke and in the front row (cause I was speaking next).

    Mark – no text of his talk was handed out to the audience so either the CNA reporter was taking fast notes or managed to get a copy later.

    One thing that did not get reported by CNA was the Q & A time, which I think was significant.

    As wrote yesterday on Intentional Disciples:

    “Chaput also gave an interesting answer to questioners who asked that the US Bishops respond to the Notre Dame invitation with a single voice. First of all, he noted that he did not expect the US Bishops to do anything as a body. He then pointed out that taking prophetic political stands is not really the center of a bishop’s job. A bishop’s primary job is uniting the Catholic community.

    Chaput then turned to the lay men and women in his audience (the vast majority) and issued a challenge. He said that it was the Church’s teaching that, ultimately, protecting human life at all levels really is a lay responsibility and he encouraged us to take up politics as a career.

    But his response seemed to deflate his questioners a bit. It was as though they desperately wanted to believe that if all the US bishops spoke with a single voice, the 65 million Catholics of the US would just snap to and abandon their divisions on this topic and that ND and the new administration would crumble in the face of an irresistibly united Catholic community. There would be no need for the long, bloody slog and inevitable partial-victories of grass roots and national politics; for the long obedience of personal evangelization, formation, and social entrepreneurship around the life issues. ”

    Nothing says that you have to like Chaput but the press coverage of Chaput’s talk and the resulting blogosphere debate is seriously distorting the atmosphere and entire conference at which he spoke.

    I did not at all get the impression while he spoke that he was blaming the “poor, dumb, apathetic Catholic laity” as such. Quite the opposite. He was pointing out that the real power in this area is in lay hands – not in the hands of bishops – as indeed it is. It was bracing but hardly bashing.

    As you may know, I have written several times in great detail at Intentional Disciples about my chance to talk on election day, 2004, to two Australian Catholic leaders known for their careful orthodoxy who are world class, Vatican-class, experts on the subject of the Church’s teaching on life issues. They were both very clear that there was no definitive Church teaching – at that point – on the issue of voting and formal cooperation with evil. When I asked one – a bishop – why increasing numbers of Americans had the impression that the Church’s teaching was clear on the topic, he replied that public pronouncements by a few bishops was not the development of doctrine, I’ve wished several times that I could talk to them both again this year as the all or nothing pitch of the Catholic pro-life movement in the US has risen higher and higher!

    Chaput has the right as a Catholic and as a citizen to make his best public case for the response that he believes the Church should take. But I have noticed that he is always very careful to distinguish between his personal prudential judgment and that which actually obligates a faithful Catholic. He is actually quite a bit more nuanced in this area than Archbishop Burke but these fine distinctions get lost in all the shouting.

  5. Todd says:

    Thanks, Sherry; your input is marvelously helpful.

    I’m not surprised that CNA distorted the whole thing. A conference on the New Evangelization is indeed news, but it’s hard to boil down into sound bites, it’s also old news going back to Vatican II, and its not as sexy to the True Believers.

    However, the pope and bishops have to start realizing that their comments in these settings will be used by those with their own agendas. Rarely do those agendas align with the ministry of unity. And clearly, the conservative press is as liable to go bonkers as the liberals, the church press as the secular.

    I confess I don’t see much of the point for Archbishop Chaput (or any other bishop) to make a habit of travelling outside their own dioceses to speak. Even if it’s not their intent, they often horn in on the role of the laity and make it seem like it’s All About Me.

  6. Bill Kurtz says:

    Todd is correct that Chaput is somewhat more nuanced than Archbishop Limbaugh, er Burke, and the rest of the James Dobson wannabes. They envy the sheeplike obedience of Dobson’s followers, and basically wish Catholics were Southern Baptists.

  7. jh says:

    I must admit I am a tad baffled by this post. In many ways Chaout if right about Catholics that don’t fully engage their faith in the public square

    Let me add to Bill Kurtz comment as a former Southern Baptist I have no idea what he is talking about

    I guess what I find this slighly offensive about this post is a caricuture of pro-life republicans of which I am one. I took a a lot of arrows over for instance immigration regorm not once but twice. SOmething I see as pro-life also

    Archbishop Chaput took a heck a lot more arrows in his own Diocese as he went from Parish to Parish to ask people to try to calm down and view the issue through a Catholic lens. By the way that was the issue Obama killed in quite an effective fashion through a poision pill and thus killed any hopes of getting it to the Senate. Chaput was talking about that also in the whole scheme of things.

    But I suppose it is so easy to make a caroon of someone

    I hope if Chapout goes on a “speaking tour” when immigration reform comes up again you might be more chariatable

  8. Todd says:

    jh, thanks for posting. I trust Sherry’s point that the reporting on the archbishop’s comments were a little skewed in the telling.

    I also agree with the archbishop on immigration, but he’s not the spokesperson for it. It should be the laity, given the resources and backing of the bishops, as needed.

    As for the post, my point is that blaming others just goes so far. I don’t mind conceding that many Catholics are lukewarm in the application of their faith to life, but telling the truth, as it were, on that one point, isn’t helpful. What is helpful is to give good example, to teach, to encourage young people to be different from their parents.

    What I object to is a cheerleading session for political purposes. But Sherry says it wasn’t, and that perspective is good enough for me.

  9. Bill Kurtz says:

    To JH, my comment on Southern Baptists is based on polling data from the last few presidential elections showing a much higher percentage of them (75-80%) voting Republican, as their leaders clearly desired, compared to a much lower percentage among Catholics. I have seen numerous laments among Catholic Republicans and pro-lifers about this gap, in fact the George W. Bush administration’s political operatives set a goal of raising their percentage among Catholics to the level of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.
    For all readers, if you want to know more about the political importance of the Southern Baptists, read Kevin Phillips’ superb 2006 book, “American Theocracy.”

  10. Joseph Jaglowicz says:

    You mentioned that hierarchs like Chaput, Burke, etc. “are blind to their own faults and are all too willing to pin the blame on the poor, dumb, apathetic Catholic laity.”

    Yet, these same guys no doubt depend on these ignorant and apathetic laity to remain silent as the bishops and B16 try to restore Tridentine culture — passive liturgy, clerical pedestals, ad nauseum — in the Church of Rome.

    It would appear these bishops want to have their cake and eat it, too!

  11. Clayton says:

    I’m getting tired of the Chaput, Rigali, Burke club. They lack political and public relations savvy.

    So did the apostles.

  12. Clayton says:

    If you want a fuller picture of Chaput’s point-of-view, which is a lot more nuanced, thoughtful and moderate than you have made it out to be, I recommend his book, Render Unto Caesar.

  13. ed gleason says:

    He uses the ‘last 40 years the laity have ill formed’ both here and in Toronto.. Theses are code words for Vatican II was wrong… heresy?

  14. Pingback: dotCommonweal » Blog Archive » Everyone who disagrees with me is stupid or morally obtuse.

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