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Benedict’s Choice for New Philly Archbishop Signals Increased Church vs. State Battles Ahead

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

This past week, Pope Benedict XVI named Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to succeed Cardinal Justin Rigali as head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. While this is an in-house decision of the Roman Catholic church, it will have major implications far beyond Philly, and reaches deeply into the broader political discussions in the US and beyond.

Chaput is a hardcore theological conservative, and one of the American hierarchy pushing RC politicians to hew the church line more strictly, especially on abortion. In a speech in Houston in March of last year, Chaput took on JFK’s speech on religion and politics and said in no uncertain terms that JFK was wrong:

Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  He had one purpose.  He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive.  Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected.  And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics.  It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.  Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life.  And he wasn’t merely “wrong.”  His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation.  Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.

Chaput is emerging as Benedict’s theological enforcer. He led a recent investigation of an Australian bishop accused of perhaps suggesting that the church possibly might want to entertain the discussion of eventually ordaining married women. Australian conservatives fired off angry emails to Rome, Benedict sent Chaput to investigate things, Chaput filed a report with Benedict, and voila: the bishop’s resignation is demanded, delivered, and accepted. Even afterwards, the bishop has said he has not seen a copy of the report, which made trying to answer its charges somewhat difficult.

Which brings us to Philadelphia.

This is very, very important archdiocese in the US church, and Rigali is one of the biggest backroom powers among the US Cardinals. He’s got more contacts in Rome and more people who owe him favors than anyone around. He’s part of the Vatican panel that makes recommendations on who should be named to be a bishop. Rigali knows his archdiocese well, and likely had a very strong hand in who his successor would be.

Philly is also a ticking time bomb in the child abuse scandal, with the pending trial of the now-dismissed assistant to the previous cardinal who handled allegations of abuse, and other church leaders, for hiding allegations of abuse and shuttling around the abusers from parish to parish. Rigali’s predecessor, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, escaped being hauled before a grand jury only because his doctor says he is near death and has bad memory issues. In their report, the grand jury basically said “we took mercy on him and didn’t name him in the indictment, but boy did he screw up here.” Either he knew what his assistant was doing and is culpable for the later abuse, or he didn’t know and should have. The grand jury report [pdf] is devastating, and the trial will be as well. This “state vs. the church” battle is the mess that Chaput is stepping into.

And if this wasn’t enough, had news on another front yesterday: “The top financial officer of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been fired while authorities investigate how hundreds of thousands of dollars in church funds went missing.”

Welcome to town, Archbishop.

At his “welcome to Philly” press conference, Chaput denied having any idea why Benedict would have named him to succeed Rigali. At the press conference, those comments made him appear quite humble. Just the day before, however, Chaput put forward a number of ideas as to why he was chosen in an interview with John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter. The contrast between the interview and press conference makes that humility a bit suspect.

Meanwhile, over in Ireland, the RCs are coming under increasing fire for what appears to be Vatican efforts to get around or head off Irish child abuse reporting laws. The political authorities issued a scathing report slamming the church, they hauled in the papal nuncio for a dressing down, and demanded that the Vatican answer the questions they’ve put forward. The prime minister then went before the Irish parliament and went even further:

I am making absolutely clear, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this state, the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic.

Not purely, or simply or otherwise. CHILDREN … FIRST.

It was brutalreally brutal — and really really well deserved.

The Irish government is ahead of the Philly district attorney chronologically, but they are fighting the same church vs state battle.

Looking beyond Chaput and Philadelphia, the hardliners in the Catholic church are flexing their political muscles more and more in the US. (From last night: “Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair said this month that Catholic schools and parishes in his diocese could not raise funds for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.”) Naming Chaput to head up the Philadelphia Archdiocese put one of Benedict’s most articulate and powerful voices front and center in those debates.

It also changes the secular political calculus for 2012 in Pennsylvania and beyond.


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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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