In 2003, Charles Chaput gave a lecture on the life of St. Francis to undergraduates at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I was among those undergraduates, and twelve years later, the experience is still fresh in my mind.
I don’t much remember the lecture. I do remember that after an hour of talking, the archbishop gamely agreed to take a few minutes of questions. He was deluged. For more than 90 minutes, students asked him about faith, politics, obscure and controversial apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and about their personal lives. Some of the questions were absurd. But the archbishop answered each one with respect and candor. When the questions ended, hundreds of students lined up to shake Chaput’s hand. I later learned that he stood for more than two hours, until each student had been greeted. His patience — and most especially his availability — left an impression.
Some years later, Chaput became my boss. Shortly after he hired me, he explained to me his job. An archbishop’s most important task, he said, is to help people to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in their own lives, and to help remove obstacles as they follow God’s call.
It wasn’t lip service. Chaput is among the most supportive bishops to laity in the Church’s modern history. He’s helped laity found movements dedicated to Latino leadership, to campus and youth ministry, and to the development of the “feminine genius” among young women. He’s made it a point not to direct any of those projects. He offers guidance and he helps cut through ecclesiastical red tape. In Philadelphia, the archbishop has bolstered the lay-led pastoral council, and put qualified laywomen and laymen in nearly every possible leadership position.
For years, he’s celebrated a weekly Mass at which he waits to greet every single person who’d like to see him. He is a regular at shelters, schools, and religious houses. And of course, he e-mails. With unparalleled zeal.
I am on the lowest professional rung of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. But when I e-mail Chaput, even for a banality, he writes back within hours. When I worked for him, he’d often send me e-mails long after I went to bed, and again in the morning well before I got to the office.
He corresponds with the media, with faith-seekers, and with those who disagree with him.
But his availability is often rewarded with vitriol. He’s probably called a “faggot,” an “a**hole,” or a “pervert” more often than any other churchman. He’s probably told to go to hell twice a week. He remains undeterred.
The media often criticize bishops for being aloof — out of touch, distant. Chaput is the opposite. You might expect that he’d be rewarded for that. But this week, Philadelphia magazine wrote a hit piece on the archbishop, criticizing him for his e-mail habits. The “issue” was that a bishop who personally responds to each e-mail he receives sometimes speaks frankly to his critics and detractors.
The real agenda is to paint a picture of a “hardliner,” Chaput, in stark contrast to the open, tolerant, grandfatherly Pope Francis.
To a woman who’d written him for years about the same issue, he wrote that she was “blinded to reality” and “unreasonable.” To a man criticizing a Church closing, he wrote that dialogue was “impossible,” because “you already have your mind made up.”
When leaders engage in real dialogue, instead of hiding behind flacks or sanitized legalese, the truth sometimes hurts. But shouldn’t the media be glad for unvarnished candor from powerful people? Do frank responses to criticism really merit feature stories?
Of course, the real agenda isn’t to expose Chaput’s e-mail habits. The real agenda is to paint a picture of a “hardliner,” Chaput, in stark contrast to the open, tolerant, grandfatherly Pope Francis. When the Holy Father speaks frankly on an airplane, the media fawn. When Chaput does it in an e-mail, he’s excoriated.
As the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia approaches, some members of the media seem hell-bent on depicting Chaput as disloyal to the pontiff and disdainful of his flock. A populist pope, painted by the media as a sexual progressive, will be held up as a model, and a foil to “culture warriors” like Chaput.
The “archconservative” Chaput, by the way, has railed against the death penalty for years, and partnered with liberal legislators to talk about immigration reform. The “liberal” Pope Francis, by the way, made opposition to abortion a central argument in his encyclical on the environment. Catholic social teaching hardly fits in the narrow strictures of partisan political platforms.
But the real story is less satisfying to the media. The real story is that Chaput and Francis have much in common. That they’re allies, and that they’re both working, in partnership with laity, for Christian renewal. The real story is that Francis is committed to the Church’s moral teaching, and that Chaput is committed to the Church’s social outreach. But that story isn’t good clickbait.
Beating up on a generous leader, for the sins of being transparent, candid, and human, is a stretch by journalistic standards. But it does build a straw man, and it works to advance a social agenda. Even if it’s “blinded to reality.”