When Pope Benedict XVI appointed the archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., as the new archbishop of Philadelphia on July 19, the usual suspects were trotted out to say the usual things that the usual suspects say.
Thus David Clohessy of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, continued his nine-year rant against the Catholic Church by pronouncing Chaput’s record on abuse (which virtually everyone else finds admirable) “dismal.” But then David Clohessy would likely have found St. John Chrysostom, St. Charles Borromeo, or Chaput’s 19th-century predecessor in Philadelphia, St. John Neumann, “dismal,” because if you’re the New York Times’s go-to guy for anti-Catholic-hierarchy sexual-abuse soundbites, that’s what you say. As for Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., the former editor of America magazine made his own priorities rather clear in fretting to the Philadelphia Inquirer that Chaput would “be a real pain in the neck for the Democratic Party.” (Bob Casey the Less, you have been warned!)
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.